Tribal colleges are truly the brightest stars of our reservation communities. Tribal colleges have changed education in America," Rick Williams, Oglala Lakota and Northern Cheyenne, told nearly 40 attendees at a recent American Indian College Fund luncheon in New York City.
Williams, the former president and chief executive officer of the College Fund since 1997, handed the baton to his successor Cheryl Crazy Bull, Sicangu Lakota from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, in September 2012. While Williams left his post, he simply "shape-shifted" his involvement—"an old Indian trick," he says.
A year after the transition, the pair traveled from Denver, Colorado, where the Fund is headquartered, to Manhattan to attend a special October 2 luncheon, held at a stunning loft space in Manhattan's West Village and co-hosted by Gail Bruce, a founding board member of the Fund, which formed 24 years ago, and Fund trustee Kim Blanchard. During their week-long visit to New York City, Crazy Bull and her College Fund colleagues met with numerous potential corporate sponsors and private investors, seeking support for the country's 37 tribal colleges and universities and Native students through scholarships.
The mission of the Fund is to transform Indian higher education by funding and creating awareness of the unique, community-based tribal colleges and universities across Indian country. Only one in 20 American Indian College Fund scholarship applicants can afford to go to college without financial assistance. The Fund and its contributors make a college education possible for Native students eager to pursue a higher education—steeped in their rich tribal identity.
"Tribal colleges educate about 20,000 American Indian students; they are the largest provider of education for American Indians in this country," Crazy Bull explained to th luncheon guests, a diverse crowd including longtime American Indian College Fund supporters, as well as philanthropists recently introduced to the work of the Fund. Many of them learned of the Fund through Bruce, who, in addition to being a tireless American Indian education activist, is an esteemed artist, serves on the Multicultural Audience Development Initiative of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and is cofounder of Unreserved, a not-for-profit devoted to celebrating and leveraging American Indian fashion and art.
Crazy Bull continued, "They [tribal colleges and universities] provide an education, as Gail [Bruce] mentioned earlier, on a shoe-string budget. Their faculty are dedicated to the work that they do despite the fact they're seriously underpaid.
"They're all rural institutions for the most part; they cover a significant part of Indian country. But they're so much more than academic institutions. They provide programs and services that bring food sovereignty to our communities; they help people access traditional food knowledge, build gardens. They help bring financial literacy services to our communities so people can understand how to navigate the financial environment that they live in. They do a lot of work with health and wellness; they operate sometimes the only fitness centers in their communities. They provide an incredible amount of access to the cultural knowledge of our people, which is just so valuable to who we are."
Prior to a sit-down meal of salmon, roasted chicken, field greens and pasta salad, Bruce asked all guests to watch an American Indian College Fund video, a compilation of the TV advertisements produced by pro-bono advertising partner Wieden+Kennedy. One of the firm's public service advertisement campaigns Help A Student Help A Tribe features real students at tribal colleges. The videos reveal how tribal colleges help preserve American Indian culture and values, such as reverence for the land, in ways that help solve modern-day problems.
Watch one clip for the Fund by Wieden+Kennedy here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iO6L8xfOgg.
Since the College Fund's inception 24 years ago, it has given over 85,000 scholarships to Native students. Annually, the Fund provides $5.5 million to $6 million a year in scholarships and raises more than that to support fellowships and tribal college university programs, Crazy Bull told Indian Country Today Media Network with pride. But, the ambitious education advocate and fundraiser added, "We should be raising $50 million [a year]."
Crazy Bull, who has 30 years of experience working with tribal colleges and universities, can attest to how tribal colleges empower American Indians and their communities. Prior to joining the American Indian College Fund, she served as the president of Northwest Indian College on the Lummi Nation in Washington for 10 years. And before that, Crazy Bull was superintendent of St. Francis Indian School and worked in several teaching and administrative roles at Sinte Gleska University, both on her home reservation of Rosebud in South Dakota. She also served for four years as the Chair of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) Board and four years as member-at-large of the AIHEC Executive Committee.
Crazy Bull's extensive experience has made her keenly aware of the tremendous economic and personal obstacles most American Indian students must prevail against to get a college education. She sees first-hand how the Fund and its contributors help make Indian students' dreams of a higher education a reality. And she can testify to the positive impact these graduates have on their communities.
Her favorite part of her job as president and CEO of the Fund, she tells students, is: "I get to tell your story. All of the things that you've overcome, the poverty that you've overcome, the historical trauma that occurs in your community—I get to tell your story, so that you get to walk across that stage."
For Crazy Bull, witnessing these American Indians prosper and in turn enhance the lives of their communities is an emotional experience. They are her family, her relatives, she explained to the luncheon guests. "Indian people are about one degree separated from each other," she said. "We all know each other, and we have a relationship with each other."
At the conclusion of the luncheon, Crazy Bull asked everyone to visualize Indian country devoid of tribal colleges and universities, all 37 institutions that have educated thousands of Indian students, while restoring the cultural knowledge of their communities:
"Imagine what it would be like on these reservations if the tribal colleges were not there," Crazy Bull said. "Imagine what it would be like if people did not get an education, so they could be teachers in the school systems, so that they could be nurses in the hospitals, so that they could open their own businesses and run tribal programs. So the thousands of students that we've educated—whether they got their degree or not—would not have had any access at all to education. Because the reality is, for the most part, these students are not able to access or have a successful experience in another education environment."