Why I Attended Tribal College

Illustration by Sam Kalda for The Chronicle

September 17, 2017

I have been fortunate to have had some exciting opportunities as a college student. I was invited to the White House and held internships at the National Science Foundation and at a university in New Zealand. I was even featured in a public-television show called "The Code Trip" (part of Roadtrip Nation), in which two other computer-science students and I drove an RV across the United States, visiting top professionals in our field. My secret to landing these opportunities? It was my decision, as a Native American, to attend a tribal college — first Diné College, a Navajo institution where I earned my associate degree, and then Salish Kootenai College, in Montana, where I recently graduated.

The nation’s 37 tribally controlled colleges and universities are rooted in a unique mix of Native tradition and innovation, providing students with cultural knowledge and opportunities for academic and personal exploration. Many of them are located in rural communities often overlooked by mainstream institutions. Students can earn degrees or take general-education requirements without having to move far away from home or pay huge tuition, room, and board fees — which are out of reach financially for many Native students. Tribal colleges also collaborate with other universities in the region to create an easy transfer process. And students represent various tribes, ages, and cultural backgrounds, helping ease worries about being the odd man out.

Despite all these benefits, there is often still a stigma associated with attending a tribal college. After I earned an associate degree from Diné, I did an internship in Washington, where I was lucky enough to meet students from all over the country. When I discussed my plans to continue my education, some people would ask me: "Are you going to transfer to a real university now?" My answer was, I don’t think any institution could be more real than a tribal college. These colleges don’t have fancy advertising campaigns, strategic recruitment policies, or lucrative football franchises. They were created by and for Native communities not only to provide students with an education, but also to promote their cultures, languages, and histories.

I am often asked, "Why did you attend a tribal college?" I can’t offer a quick response, because I have to sift through many positive reasons. Growing up, I often felt either too Native or not Native enough. I was born outside Houston, but raised in a household where we proudly observed our Stockbridge-Munsee culture, as part of a Native community whose reservation is in Wisconsin. Often, as the only Native student in my classes at school, I would find myself having to balance these seemingly contradictory aspects of my identity. I had two choices: I could defend my culture while still trying to understand what it meant to me, or I could serve as the resident spectacle for students who had never met a Native person and felt no qualms about touching my hair or pulling at my beadwork.

When I tested into a magnet program at a high school on the other side of town, I was suddenly surrounded by wealth and privilege, as well as offensive caricatures of my culture. The "Redskins" were the school mascot, and I found myself trying to reconcile words like "Scalp ’em, Indians" with who I was. I became discouraged thinking about pursuing a higher education. After working random jobs for a few years, I found myself still longing to continue my education but I didn’t know where to go. How do you attend college when no one else in your immediate family has had that experience?

In 2012 I enrolled at Diné, after selling my car to pay for my first semester. The college walked me through the financial-aid process and explained the differences between degree programs. My course catalog, which stressed the importance of culture and education, became my bible. I found myself not having to take on any unwanted roles at a tribal college: I was not the school’s resident "Native expert," or "that Native girl over there." I was able to be me.

Some reasons for attending a tribal college are practical, such as affordability. The location is ideal — near family and friends — and small class sizes allow for close relationships with instructors.

Other reasons are cultural. What other college would allow its student body to attempt to set the Guinness world record for fry bread? A’he’hee, Diné College. (That means "thank you" in Navajo.) What other school would ensure that no student goes hungry by offering free snacks? (Thanks, Salish Kootenai.) Where else could I rock my mocs, practice speaking Navajo, drum in the Student Union, and compare beadwork with classmates on an average Wednesday?

My main reasons for attending a tribal college, though, were more personal. It was the first time I was surrounded by peers with a similar background in an educational setting. No one asked me if Indians still hunt buffalo or live in tipis, or felt the need to talk slowly to me. It was the first time I heard an instructor discuss my community without relegating it to a myth or classifying it as a historical relic.

Native culture lives, breathes, and thrives at tribal colleges.

Attending a tribal college has also given me membership in a unique club, made up of Native students from across the country. I became part of a supportive national network. I feel empowered by attending a tribal college, which was established not only to educate American Indians, but to continue fighting for our rights to higher education. I am invigorated by how tribal colleges serve and support their communities. One example: Sitting Bull College, in North Dakota, has become a rallying point at which people around the world speak out against the Dakota Access Pipeline project.

These colleges reinforce pride not only in our Native communities but also in ourselves. I am surrounded by ambitious Native students every day — students who might look like me or have similar dreams. My friends at tribal colleges run the gamut: 18-year-olds venturing off their reservation for the first time; elders attending school after raising two generations of children; non-Native students and international-exchange students; and urban Natives setting foot on a reservation for the first time.

There is something so powerful about seeing a fellow tribal-college graduate. It makes a college degree look possible, and just that much closer. I have been told, "But you won’t go anywhere with your degree," the implication being that my tribal-college degree isn’t as good as one from a mainstream institution.

I could have gone to a major university but chose to attend tribal colleges instead. I think I am going to be fine. But perhaps the people who questioned my choice are right: I won’t go just anywhere; instead, thanks to the tribal colleges I attended, I can now go everywhere.

Robin Máxkii recently graduated from Salish Kootenai College with a degree in psychology.