For the same reasons Indians opt for tribal colleges -- small classes, low-cost, quality education, and proximity to home -- more non-Indian students are doing so, and gaining some surprising life-lessons.
Chris Hilfer and Noel Stewart, both white, learned unexpected lessons during their first year at college. They found out what it’s like to be in a racial minority.
Both young people are non-Indian or non-beneficiary students who are enrolled in tribal colleges. Hilfer, 22, attends United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) in Bismarck, North Dakota; Stewart, also 22, attends Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet reservation.
The greatest numbers of non-beneficiary students are located on “checker board” reservations, in which Indian land is not contiguous, such as the Blackfeet and Salish Kootenai reservations in Montana. The Dawes Act of 1887 authorized the federal government to divide reservation land and allot tracts to individual tribal members. The head of each household received 160 acres with the remaining land available to non-Indians. Over time, many Indians sold their property or lost it through a variety of swindles. Today many non-Indians may live on land that is surrounded by reservation land.
Despite their close proximity, however, Indians and non-Indians living in reservation border towns or on checkerboard reservations often have little contact with each other.
Hilfer, who is majoring in Criminal Justice at UTTC, had a couple of Indian friends while going to school in Bismarck but knew very little about the cultures of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara on the neighboring Ft. Berthold reservation. Initially attracted by the low cost and small class size at UTTC, he did not expect to experience such a growth in his worldview.
“I’m learning things about Indian people that I never would have known if I weren’t attending Tribes, “ he says.
Graduation requirements at UTTC include taking classes in Indian culture, language and history.
Hilfer admits to feeling a bit nervous when he found himself in a racial minority for the first time in his life. The experience, however, has helped him appreciate the importance of taking time to learn about other cultures. It has also taught him about the importance of respect.
“I’ve learned that respect is a huge issue for American Indians, especially towards elders,” he reports.
Attending UTTC has opened his eyes to the other side of the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux mascot issue. “If Indians don’t feel respected by the mascot name, how can it be respectful?” he asks.
(UND had been prohibited from competing in NCAA competitions due to its use of the Indian mascot. In exchange for lifting the NCAA sanction, UND had agreed to retire the mascot by August 2011 but the university is again in dispute over the issue.)
Noel Stewart was also attracted by small class size, low cost and proximity to her home in Browning, Montana, when she chose Blackfeet Community College. She plans to pursue a career in hydrology.
Stewart, who grew up on the Blackfeet reservation, had never really felt like a minority until she began attending classes about Blackfeet tribal history. Embarrassed and ashamed over how whites have treated the Blackfeet, she found herself sitting in the back row. “I wanted to tell people, hey, I didn’t do anything,” she says.
The history class has brought home the differences between Indians and non-Indians according to Stewart. Unfortunately, she notes that she has lost many of her friends since attending the college. “Lines were definitely drawn by my white friends,” she says.
Since the 36 tribal colleges in the United States (one is in Canada) receive federal funding through the Tribally Controlled College and University Assistance Act, they are mandated to maintain an open door for all students regardless of race.
According to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, as many as 20 percent of today’s tribal college students are classified as non-beneficiary or non-Indian. More than 5,400 such students attend tribal colleges; the number appears to be growing at a rate of about 1 percent per year.
Tribal college administrators note that their institutions appeal to non-Indian students for the same reasons they appeal to Indians. TCUs offer low cost, quality education, and small class sizes and they are located close to home for rural students.
Although TCUs are mandated to accept non-Indian students, many non-beneficiaries receive reduced or no financial support from states. Unlike mainstream colleges and universities that may receive up to $4000.00 per each fulltime student from states, cash-strapped TCUs often do not.
Dr. Joseph McDonald of the Salish Kootenai tribe and the retired president of the Salish Kootenai College in Montana observes, “The understanding that takes place between the [Indian and non-Indian] students is good for both communities. The diversity in the classroom teaches the students that they don’t exist in a vacuum.”
Although the non-Indian students may have felt some initial wariness from their fellow students, Stewart and Hilfer, like most other non-beneficiaries, they have embraced the TCU experience.
“I’m now a ‘claim cousin,’” laughs Stewart as she hangs out with her Indian girl friends at the annual American Indian Higher Education Consortium conference in Bismarck.
Attending BFCC has provided Stewart with a different perspective on life. Going to a fast food restaurant with her Indian friends is a different experience for her. “I’ve definitely seen the face of racism. You get a whole different vibe (from the proprietors) when you’re with them, “ she notes.
“I’m learning that it’s important not to be one-minded about life.”