I have lived in New Mexico for almost twenty years. I moved here when I left Antioch College in Yellow Springs and accepted the position of Dean of Faculty/Chief Academic Officer at the Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development, a federally chartered college, known as the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). IAIA is an accredited higher education institution dedicated to empowering Native American and Alaskan Native contemporary arts and cultures. It also provides education for tribal cultural leaders who oversee the preservation and protection of arts and cultural traditions for over 500 Native American tribes. As a Euro-descent white woman, the opportunity to work alongside tribal educators and students proved to be life-changing, as it should.

My experience of the American West, especially the Southwest, is that it is the center of an international movement to re-empower, re-invigorate, and restore Native Nations and their citizens to their rightful place as culture-makers and culture-bearers. As survivors of mass genocide, they are determined to pass on to their descendants a powerful sense of purpose, identity, revitalization, and regeneration despite centuries of on-going oppression. One of the ways they are doing this is through the Tribal College Movement, of which IAIA is a significant part.

I wasn’t altogether new to “Indian Country” when I accepted the position at IAIA. In fact, one of the reasons they offered me this academic leadership role was that I began my community presentation (part of my day-long interview) introducing myself in Anishinaabemowin, the traditional language of the Three Fires: the Potawatomi, Chippewa/Ojibwe and Odawa/Ottawa peoples. The Anishinaabeg faculty and students noticed. By no means fluent, I have studied Anishinaabemowin as part of my commitment to protect and perpetuate the original languages of the Upper Great Lakes, the territory I have called home for many decades.

In the early 1970s, I attended an alternative boarding school, JFK Prep, in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. At this time, the Menominee Nation was fighting the state to win back its status as a sovereign nation. The Menominee People had been persuaded to give up their reservation status and become a county by the state. The reason the state sought this change in their status was to declare eminent domain and push a highway through the ancient forest to build a quicker route from Green Bay to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

The Menominee quickly organized to prevent the cutting of their forest and to fight to regain their lost status as a sovereign Indian nation (internal colony or reservation) within the U.S. national territory. This status gave them a certain amount of autonomy and freedom from the state’s encroachment. They fought in the courts and on their land. Ultimately, a federal judge ruled in their favor. But before the ruling occurred, the conflict became militarized. The national guard on one side; the Menominee people on the other. I was raised Quaker, and because of their commitment to pacifism, Quaker medical personnel were allowed to run food and medicine across the militarized boundary to the Menominee people who were cut off from these supplies. As a typical U.S. citizen my ignorance of the actual history and current reality of Native Nations was enormous. I was startled awake by this conflict. This awakening changed the course of my life.

One of my good friends in high school was a Menominee tribal member, Ingrid White, later Ingrid Washinawatok. Ingrid and I proposed to team teach a course on Native American literature, the first to be offered. A faculty member agreed to sponsor us. So began my learning journey as the descendent of settlers into the realities of Native people from their own perspectives in their own voices.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that Ingrid became a human rights activist working on behalf of the world’s indigenous peoples. She served as Chair of the NGO Committee on the United Nations International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. In 1999 she was invited by the U’wa peoples of Columbia to help them establish a school to protect their culture and language and help them defend their lands against oil exploration by Occidental Petroleum. On this trip, she and two other activists were assassinated. She is remembered with honor.

I will never forget her incredibly generous spirit as one of the few Native American students in my high school. Her willingness to partner with me to co-teach the Native American literature class in 1973 was a foundational building block in my lifelong commitment to serve as an ally and advocate for Native peoples. She was so patient with my lack of knowledge, context, and understanding. We were both so excited with the learning that we shared with our classmates.

In 1979 I met the late Keewaydinoquay Peschel, an Anishinaabe mashkikikwe (Ojibwe herbal medicine woman). I began serving as her helper or oshkibewis. She was hired to teach in the Native American Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She asked me to work alongside her there, and I became her Graduate Teaching & Research Assistant. I learned so much in my twenty years working with Keewaydinoquay, but that is another story.

Because of these experiences, I had some preparation to join the Tribal College Movement, but I was a newcomer and had much to learn. I started by educating myself about the history of this movement. It begins with the first tribally-controlled college founded in 1968. Initially called Navajo Community College (1968-1997) based in Tsaile, Arizona, it served the 27,000 square mile Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the U.S. Navajo Community College is now Diné College, and offers six Certificate programs, 16 Associate Degrees, 18 Baccalaureate Degrees and one Master’s Degree. It operates at seven locations in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. At Diné College the commitment to learning is guided by their educational philosophy of Sa’ah Naaghai Bik’eh Hozhoo, which provides and supports life-long learning. Complementing the educational philosophy and contributing to a well-balanced learning environment are the four Diné cultural principles of Nitsáhákees (Thinking), Nahatá (Planning), Iiná (Living), and Siihasin (Assuring).

In 2010, I was part of an accreditation team sent to review Oglala Lakota College (OLC) for their ongoing accreditation. Founded in 1974 on the Pine Ridge Reservation, OLC offers eleven educational pathways including degrees in Nursing, Social Work, Vocational Education, and the Master of Arts in Lakota Educational Leadership & Management. Upon arriving at the campus amidst acres of prairie we were greeted with a Cannupa (Sacred Pipe) Ceremony. Prayers were spoken aloud for the success of the team visit. From the first moment we arrived on campus until we left, Lakota values and ways of being, knowing, and doing were evident. Their vision is right to the point, “to rebuild the Lakota Nation through education.” Their mission is focused, “Oglala Lakota College will graduate well-rounded students grounded in Wolakolkiclyapi, learning Lakota ways of life in the community by teaching Lakota culture and language as part of preparing students to participate in a multicultural world.”

Rooting a higher education institution in traditional language and values helps to repair the rupture perpetrated through the Boarding School era when Native children were seized by U.S. government officials and forced into boarding schools at great distances from their families. Their hair was forcibly cut, clothing replaced, language forbidden, Christianity imposed. Many children did not survive the trauma. Recent excavations have revealed that on the abandoned properties of these boarding schools remain countless unmarked burials of Native American and First Nations children who were never returned home. The disappearing of a generation of Native children was not an accident. As spokesman for the U.S. Boarding School project, Captain Richard H. Pratt, infamously stated, the goal is to “kill the Indian and save the man.”

The Boarding Schools failed. They failed miserably. The consequences of this failure contributed to intergenerational trauma, alcoholism, suicide, homelessness, and generations of poverty for countless Native peoples. The Tribal College Movement seeks to reverse this impact – and moves beyond reversal to empowerment.

The initial success of Navajo Community College spawned the Tribal College Movement. Today 37 member institutions are listed on the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) website. Of these, 30 are located West of the Mississippi River, including one in Alaska. These colleges utilize “Indian Preference” in hiring, which means they place a priority on hiring and training their own community members to fill positions for faculty, staff, and administrators. Many of these newly hired tribal members receive on-the-job training for new roles and responsibilities of service building on long-standing cultural values that identify every tribal member as a valued participant in culture creation and sustenance. They employ elders alongside degree-holding professionals to educate their tribe’s youth and adults in their own language, history, and culture, as well as in computer science, communications, biology, chemistry, political science, geology, literature, fine art, film, etc.

When I joined IAIA, I joined the Tribal College Movement. I witnessed firsthand the dedication, skill, and unique leadership model rooted in values of gratitude, right relationship, interconnection, and interdependence. For example, when the Kellogg Foundation offered a grant to tribal colleges, and then selected only a handful of tribal colleges to receive funds, the President of one of the colleges slated to receive grant support held up a stick and snapped it in half. Then he held up a handful of sticks. Despite effort, they could not be broken in half when held together. He asked Kellogg to divide the funds among all of the tribal colleges and not set them up to compete against one another, which would obviously result in strengthening some at the expense of others. The Kellogg Foundation agreed.

I spent over a decade in a small liberal arts college in the Midwest and never witnessed that sense of collaboration, connection, and community among the liberal arts colleges despite their many similarities, shared aims, and overlapping values. I never experienced that level of care among different departments on the same campus!

Tribal College and University (TCU) leaders approached the federal government for support based on treaty agreements with the federal government that promised to educate tribal members. These agreements were in exchange for land seized by the U.S. government. TCU leaders were originally told that a few dollars could be spared to teach Indians how to be better farmers. When tribal leaders responded with their desire to educate future teachers, doctors, professors, artists, writers, museum professionals, political leaders, lawyers, negotiators, psychologists, policy-makers, engineers, etc., they were met with extreme skepticism. However, they proceeded to create a lobby in Washington, D.C., the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), that unifies tribal colleges in annual requests to the U.S. Congress.

One of the politicians who had opposed them went to visit some of the tribal colleges in North Dakota, South Dakota, and New Mexico. After witnessing the extraordinary student success, he became an advocate for federal funding of tribal colleges. Instead of seeing him as a perpetual enemy, this change of heart was recognized in an honoring ceremony by TCU leaders who wrapped him in a Pendleton blanket and thanked him.

Tribal peoples are based in specific territories and carry long histories of relationship with the land. In recognition that tribal higher education institutions are also land-based institutions, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides land grants to many TCUs to help sustain land-based knowledge systems and initiatives that include seed saving, gardening, growing, harvesting, and preparing traditional foods and medicines.

Through this USDA financial support as Dean at IAIA, I hired traditional food growers, herbalists, and ethnobotanists to share their knowledge. I hired elders to teach traditional skills, such as the making of shoes from cacti, making drums and flutes, along with other traditional technologies to the next generation. The reinstatement of Traditional Knowledge Systems as valuable and worthy of school resources as well as worthy of student time, attention, and dedication ensures their perpetuation for future generations.

The Tribal College Movement arising from the American Southwest has extended globally. As part of my duties at IAIA, I attended the World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education and the World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium. These international organizations include the Maori, Australian aboriginal peoples, Canadian First Nations, the Såmi of northern Scandinavian and other Indigenous peoples. They provide mutual support and share strategies to successfully educate their own peoples. As we know, education is a political process of determining what is valued, what should be taught, who can teach, whose voices matter and why. Eurocentric education was a bludgeon of colonialism, a weapon that continues to be deployed to control the minds and hearts of the next generation. To take education back and use it to build a new future is a radical act of imagination.

In addition to tribal schools establishing oversight of the contents of education, pedagogical processes are also examined for their colonialism. Decolonizing methods include circle sharing, hands-on direct experiential learning, opportunities for quiet personal reflection, outdoor education, and more. Attention to inner states of being matter as much as acts of doing. In other words, both being and doing are valued. Idle hands are not considered the devil’s plaything. Pausing and reflecting before pushing ahead is a valued practice.

TCUs also provide meaningful employment to tribal individuals who serve in various roles at these schools, colleges, and universities from maintenance and cafeteria workers to student support staff, faculty, and academic leaders, including school principals and college presidents. A study on retention in tribal colleges found that the janitor, the cook, the maintenance workers, all matter as much as the teachers and administrators in contributing to the retention of tribal college students.

Located in Denver, the American Indian College Fund (AICF) provides scholarships to Native American tribal members attending tribal colleges and universities. AICF ensures that financial hardship does not prevent any tribal member from attending a tribal higher education institution. Founded in 1989, AICF is the nation’s largest Native-led and Native-serving charity supporting Native student access to higher education. AICF also provides funds directly to TCU campus programs. AICF provides an honorarium for each campus to annually recognize one of their teachers as “Faculty of the Year,” honoring excellence in teaching.

Though my personal experience was in the Tribal College Movement, in many tribal communities, the entire educational pathway from pre-K to doctoral degrees is being created and maintained across generations of tribal leaders. This is an extraordinary accomplishment. It means future generations of indigenous leaders will have had the opportunity to be educated in both their own language and culture as well as in the political and cultural norms of the U.S. and the world. They will have a grasp of colonial and colonizing forces as well as direct experience with decolonizing methods. This provides the means to resist the constant pressure to conform and assimilate as colonial subjects. They will have an analysis of the current situation of their peoples based on a critical examination of the past. They will have both the creativity and the courage to make a vital difference not just for their own nations but for all of us.

The power and sophistication emerging from the graduates of these institutions will change the face of the American West. I am grateful to have been educated by the leaders of this movement. I have been present to something that is happening on the ground, largely unnoticed and invisible to the dominant culture. Yet it is a tidal wave of change, potent and emergent, rising across the Western states.

One of the fruits of the Tribal College Movement is the revitalization of Native arts and artists.  For example, the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Art (MoCNA) has the largest collection of Native American contemporary art in the world. MoCNA is located in a former U.S. Post Office in downtown Santa Fe, a building that once housed a secret room for mail heading to the scientists working on the nuclear bomb project in Los Alamos on land seized from Santa Clara and San Ildefonso Pueblos. The building and courtyard now showcase cutting edge contemporary Native artwork. A recent exhibition and catalog, Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology (August 2021 through July 2022), focused on artists’ responses to the impact of nuclear weapons and the nuclear industry on indigenous peoples. The focus was global and included art from the Ainu in Japan, the Inuit in Greenland, Canadian First Nations, and Native American artists.  Visual arts are one of the most persistent languages of indigenous peoples. Their visual communication systems extend from pictographs and petroglyphs to digital media.

The Southwestern Association for Indian Arts organizes the annual Santa Fe Indian Art Market the third week of August each year and has been doing so for 100 years. Declared by Forbes to be “the world’s greatest art fair,” the event brings together thousands of Native American painters, photographers, sculptors, jewelers, carvers, mixed media artists, fashion designers, filmmakers, weavers, potters, graphic designers, poets, activists, lawyers, philanthropists, collectors, and more. Over 100,000 non-Native collectors of Native American art swarm the city arriving from Germany, Japan, France, Canada, and across the U.S.

During the week of Indian Art Market there are film screenings, fashion shows, exhibitions, lectures, readings, gala events. Everyone who is anyone in Indian country is there: the Native American Rights Fund (located in Boulder, CO), the National Museum of the American Indian (a Smithsonian institution located in Washington, DC), various philanthropic organizations, including Native Americans in Philanthropy, etc.

The power of Native American art is palpable. It can tell the stark truth about history, teach us about ourselves, illuminate the ongoing impact of colonialism, and/or reveal an indigenous future on the cusp of coming into view. In the emergent literature, scholarship, art, film, fashion, and curatorial leadership the incredible capacity of Native Americans to reclaim their place is revealed. And the Tribal College Movement is at the heart of this.

As former IAIA President, Kathryn Tijerina (Comanche), once said to me, “Imagine one of three people you knew and loved had recently died of war and starvation. This is what we survived in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the American West.”

The goal today is not just survival but survivance. Defined by Chippewa (Anishinaabe) wordsmith, author and scholar, Gerald Vizenor, “Survivance is an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of domination, tragedy, and victimry. . . . Simply, survivance is survival plus resistance.” In Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence, Vizenor and others illustrate this term.

Taking back cultural control of formal education is one of the strategies tribes in the American West have taken to accomplish survivance. TCUs are changing historic processes of erasure and insisting on survivance. Will the graduates of these tribal schools, colleges, and universities change water policy in the West, address ongoing environmental degradation effectively, mandate the teaching of their languages and histories in public schools, and/or shift our individualistic highly competitive culture into greater resource-sharing and community-based values of gratitude and reciprocity? Only time will tell.

After nine years at IAIA, I accepted a new position at Southwestern College in Santa Fe. I hoped to bridge indigenous values, a commitment to ongoing decolonization, and support a white-majority institution to become a more effective ally and advocate for Native peoples. As President, I was able to develop an applied transdisciplinary doctoral pathway for dreamer-doers who seek to make a positive difference in the world. Each student applies with a written essay that reflects on the questions: What breaks your heart? And what do you want to do about it?  We call this the ‘vision seed.’ Students then develop their vision seeds through coursework, fieldwork, and a final dissertation that serves as a blueprint for the change they will bring.

We integrated decolonizing methodologies as a core tenet of the program and are committed to the uncomfortable and ongoing processes of asking ourselves what this means and how we do it. Since fall 2022, we have welcomed 30 doctoral students into the new program, fifteen in each fall cohort. Of these, eight identify as indigenous or 27%. These students express a range of specific identities, including Suquamish, Quechua, Nahuatl, Tlingit, Afro-Taino, Afro-Indigenous, Mestiza, and Cree First Nations. Two are graduates of IAIA. I am certain most white-majority institutions cannot claim that 27% of their incoming doctoral students identify as indigenous. This is no fluke; this is by design.

Our curriculum requires all students to grapple with the legacy of colonialism and engage with what decolonization means personally, professionally, and as it pertains to their doctoral work. Additionally, all students are required to take one course with Dr. Gregory Cajete, PhD (Santa Clara Pueblo), internationally known author of seminal work Look to the Mountain, and other texts on indigenizing education. He worked at IAIA for many years before becoming Director of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He teaches his course in Native American philosophy each winter. Non-Native students are grappling right now with the work of Dr. Viola Cordova, PhD (Jicarilla Apache), the first Native American woman to earn a PhD in Philosophy. Their Native American colleagues are also leaning in with questions, wondering how to apply indigenous value systems and worldviews to our current predicaments.

They also take a course with Dr. Molly Bigknife Antonio, PhD (Shawnee, Delaware, Cherokee) to develop their literature review. Other doctoral faculty in the PhD in Visionary Practice and Regenerative Leadership program include Dr. Jessie Ryker-Crawford, PhD (White Earth Chippewa) and Dr. Belin Tsinnajinnie, PhD (Diné). Native American doctoral students working with Native American faculty enjoy learning environments where they receive support from faculty as mentors, role models, guides, elders, and inspirations. Non-Native students gain new perspectives, opportunities for cultural humility, and engage with a wider field of knowledge-sharing.

When I was doing my doctoral fieldwork in the 1990s, I worked with the Zuni Conservation Project on the Zuni Nation in New Mexico. They were implementing a five-hundred-year strategic plan for sustainability. Most government entities, corporations, schools, and/or agencies, work with five- or ten-year plans. But this short-term lens does not serve people re-imagining and re-imagineering the lives of their descendants five hundred years from now. This is the long view. This is the project. This is why the future of the American West is indigenous.



Works Cited

Cajete, Gregory, Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education, Kivaki Press, 1994.

Cordova, Viola, How It Is: An American Indian Philosophy, University of Arizona Press, 2004.

Vizenor, Gerald, ed. Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence, University of Nebraska Press, 2008.


To learn more, visit these websites:

American Indian College Fund: https://collegefund.org/

American Indian Higher Education Consortium: https://www.aihec.org/

Diné College: https://www.dinecollege.edu/

IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts: https://iaia.edu/mocna/

Ingrid Washinawatok: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ingrid_Washinawatok

Institute of American Indian Arts: https://iaia.edu/

Menominee Indian Tribe: https://www.menominee-nsn.gov/

Santa Fe Indian Art Market: https://swaia.org/

Southwestern College: https://www.swc.edu/

World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education: https://wipce2022.net/

World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium: https://winhec.org/

Zuni Nation Pueblo of Zuni: https://www.ashiwi.org/