Chatting with a neighbor across the fence on a rural reservation doesn’t usually lead to a stellar career. In at least one case, however, it did.
As a graduate of the University of South Dakota in 1979, Cheryl Crazy Bull, Sicangu Lakota, recently named president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund (AICF), found her path just that way, when a neighbor on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation told her about a job teaching at nearby Sinte Gleska University.
“I wanted to work in the economic development field,” she told Indian Country Today Media Network. “But jobs, as you know, were as scarce then as they are now.” She soon knew realized teaching “would be rewarding.” After several positions at Sinte Gleska, she became superintendent of St. Francis Indian School, also on the Rosebud Reservation, and then president of Northwest Indian College, on the Lummi Nation in Washington State.
“With the guidance of other people, [and] if we listen, the Creator guides us about what we should be,” she said, adding that education is “so important to the future of tribal people.”
Although Crazy Bull left the Rosebud Reservation when she became president of Northwest Indian College, she really didn’t leave reservation life altogether because she spent time on the Lummi Reservation. “Sometimes it’s difficult moving off the reservation, because there are different life experiences than those of tribal people living on their homeland,” she said, explaining that it’s about kinship, culture and “a lack of the social structure of tribal communities.”
She seems friendly, gentle and unassuming—to a point. One area where she doesn’t give an inch is for “tribal college students having full access and adequate financial resources, including federal aid and scholarships under treaty and trust responsibilities that retained the sovereign status of tribes.”
Financial aid is critical because average tribal college students come from families with incomes of $2,000 to $6,000 yearly, according to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, while the AICF scholarship recipient study placed average household income at about $17,000, she said. “Either way, they’re poor.”
Tribal cultures have changed in terms of their students’ characteristics, she said, although they continue a trend toward having more women students—a number she estimates at up to 80 percent—because “in tribal college areas, a lot of job openings are often in historically women’s professions like teaching, human resources, office work, the medical field. Tribal colleges, like all colleges, are challenged to find a match between education and career opportunities.”
“We’re seeing a trend toward younger students,” she said, and that’s regarded as a “sign that tribal colleges are viewed as an institution of first choice and opportunity.” There are also a number of non-Native students from surrounding rural areas, she pointed out.
The restoration of Native languages at tribal colleges and elsewhere is critical, she said, because “from our language comes the Creator’s direction of how to be as individual tribal people and also how to be with each other and other Native people and plants, animals, other life. You learn everything you need to know about how to be a person.”
One of AICF’s older themes was “Think Indian,” and Crazy Bull was asked what the U.S. would be like if everyone thought that way.
“Indian people think about their decisions as they affect the future” she said, explaining that traditionally that way of life required sacrifice and discipline as opposed to short-term gain. “You learn, ‘I am going to manage myself so that the impacts of my decisions are thought through.’”
Sixteen-year AICF president and CEO Richard B. Williams, who will continue as an AICF senior advisor, said Native people’s hope for the future will continue through the leadership of Crazy Bull, Wacinyanpi Win (They Depend on Her.) She said she wants to maintain the principle that “tribal colleges have rewritten the history of Indian education,” as Williams said.
Crazy Bull laughed when asked if she is celebrating Native American Heritage Month. “At tribal colleges, we celebrate that all the time through relationships to tribal cultures and in film festivals, cultural gatherings, and speakers.”