Once a year, students from 37 tribal colleges get together. There's serious business here...and not-so serious business.
Unofficially, the annual student conference of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium student conference offers a crash course in the latest youth trends in Indian Country.
The hand games contests continued to draw students this year who tried to outdo each other in distracting moves and elaborate masks.
I noted a lot more ‘bling’ in the jewelry overall and a whole lot more height in the women’s shoes. There were also competitions featuring the computer gaming system Wii as well as a film festival.
AIHEC represents 37 tribal colleges in the U.S. and one in Canada, and once a year they get together. Last month, they gathered in Bismarck, North Dakota, for their annual competition that tests their levels of accomplishment against their peers.
The competitions for general knowledge, science and critical inquiry were serious business in which two teams of three to four students competed against each other. In a game show style, they used buzzers to indicate they would like to answer the presenter’s questions. The presenter kept a close eye on the audience to ensure no signs or information was passed along to contestants.
The tension was palpable as I made my way through the hallways of the Civic Center, which was full of small, fervent knots of Indian students, their heads bent together as they devised last minute strategies. About 900 students attended this year’s event. Past years have seen much larger attendance but organizers speculated that the slow economy might have kept people away this year.
But no matter, the students were excited and proud. This annual event offers a priceless opportunity for tribal college students to showcase their knowledge and accomplishments outside of their schools. Many sat for long hours traveling to Bismarck in their colleges’ older model buses to get here.
Tribal colleges have been offering educational opportunities to Indians since the early ’70s. There are a number of reasons for tribal colleges. Tribes were isolated and students had limited access to mainstream schools. And students did better when education was offered locally and in a setting that didn’t have the cultural disparities found at non-Indian schools.
Originally these schools served as bridge institutions to mainstream schools and the tribal colleges offered only associate degrees with curriculum focused mainly on basic education and the vocational arts. That is quickly changing as more colleges offer 4-year degrees and greater focus on training in science, technology, engineering and math.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Strengthening Our Culture Through Agri-Culture” and was represented by a logo designed by Harriet Black Hoop from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Harriet attends Sitting Bull College, where she majors in Environmental Science.
Harriet described her inspiration for the logo:
“Native Americans are agricultural…growing their own food, helping share the process throughout the ages, and still continuing on today. The sunflower and corn represent the major crops grown in the Dakotas. The buffalo is a sacred animal…it provided most of the basic needs and without it Native Americans would not have been able to survive. The eagle is sacred to most of our cultures and a sign of good luck.”
Land Grant status for designated tribal colleges and universities was included in 1994 by Congress in the U.S. Agricultural legislation which allowed for equity funding, access to research and extension programs, and other infrastructure grants and loans offered by rural development agencies.
The funding story for tribal colleges is a wonder of creativity, hard work and faith. Although schools have received federal funding since the 1978 signing of the congressional tribal college act, TCUs currently receive over $2,000 less per student than what was originally promised. USDA is one of many sources of support for construction, according to Laurel Vermillion, president of Sitting Bull College in North Dakota.
The gathering also included two days of professional development workshops and student research presentations, such the effects of radiation on the pinon tree conducted at Navajo Technical College in Crownpoint, New Mexico.
Malanie Begay and Patrick Kinlicheene, both of the Navajo tribe, and students at Navajo Tech, described the history of uranium mining on their home, the Navajo reservation. They told of birth defects, lung and other cancers as well as other health problems associated with uranium mining.
In their research, they used the science of dendrology, tree ring research, to see if radiation from uranium mining has caused mutations in the pinon tree. The nuts of the pinon tree are sacred food for the Navajo who also use the sap of the tree as medicine. According to Malanie, most research about the effects of radiation focuses on people; this is the first research that is looking at how it affects plant life.
According to mainstream research protocols, the results have so far proved inconclusive. But Malanie and Patrick believe that the research indicates that the trees are indeed mutating and may pass on radiation through their nuts and sap.
“Doing this research made me feel like a real warrior, fighting the monster of leetso (Navajo word for uranium),” she said. “We are fighting by giving knowledge to our people.”