“Looking Back to Walk Forward in the Next 50 Years”

Char-Koosta News 

PABLO – The story of tribal colleges and universities (TCU) has been passed down for four decades, and its many tales are spun through Salish Kootenai College.

Last month 35 out of the 37 TCU’s attended the 28th annual SKC Tribal College University meeting from July 28 to August 1 with 135 registered attendees and nearly 150 total from walk-ins including SKC staff and faculty who were not officially registered. 

The weeklong conference was a working meeting for the colleges to review Title IV regulations, discuss accreditation standards, and share best practices and new concepts in higher education. 

Not only did attendees absorb the updates, but networked their ideas to one another on how to better serve tribal college student success.

John Gritts who served for a number of years as U.S. Department of Education Director of Financial Aid, said he admires TCU staff and faculty for what they do for students. Gritts has attended the SKC TCU meeting every year for nearly three decades. 

According to the U.S. Department of Education White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, there are presently 32 fully accredited TCU’s in the United States. These TCUs offer 358 total programs, including apprenticeships, diplomas, certificates, and degrees. The programs include 181 associate degree programs at 23 TCU’s, 40 bachelor’s degree programs at 11 TCU’s, and five master’s degree programs at two TCU’s.

It was 41 years ago when President Jimmy Carter was pushed by Indian Country educators to sign the Tribally Controlled Community Colleges Act of 1978, an expansion of federal Indian trust responsibility.

SKC co-founder and former President Joe McDonald recalls the challenges of trying to get the Act passed that year. President Carter said he was not signing any more bills that would cost the government more money. 

Dr. Lionel Bordeaux, Sinte Gleska University president who had connections to President Jimmy Carter and his administration, kept pushing to see the bill signed. Bordeaux took the extra step that year to bring elders from his tribe to talk on the importance of tribal college funding. On Thanksgiving eve of 1978 President Carter signed the bill.

The next thing on the agenda was to get the tribal colleges eligible to receive funds. “So we had to work toward that. First was accreditation,” said McDonald. “We (SKC) were the first to be (accredited).”

The next step was getting up to speed with financial aid procedures and guidelines. In the early years, SKC requested Gritts, Black Hills College Financial Aid officer at the time, to come do an audit for them. It was at these early meetings where McDonald said the idea to hold trainings at the SKC campus and invite all Montana tribal colleges. It was a few years later and the conference opened up to all tribal colleges and universities across the nation. “Having Native experts from the (Financial Aid) offices really helped,” said McDonald.

The meetings never stopped and it grew from Montana tribal colleges to nation-wide tribal colleges and universities.

Gritts has seen tribal colleges’ and universities’ recordkeeping go from being documented with pen and paper to the ubiquitous use of computers. “Every year I see how colleges are changing and growing,” said Gritts. 

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