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The Tribal College Approach to Spirituality

November 18-19, 2005
at Huston-Tillotson University, Austin, Texas

Following are excerpts from the conference's opening keynote address.

Speaker: David Gipp, President, United Tribes Technical College

Hau Kola – Hello Friends. Mitakuye Oyasin – We are all related.

Good Morning. Thank you for allowing me to be in your company and to speak today. There is a saying we have when we are asked to speak, and that is to issue an apology to all gathered, particularly if one should overlook something or be offensive. We offer such an apology to our elders for being so bold as to speak before them, and so we ask for forgiveness.

Mitakuye Oyasin is a saying we have when we greet and even say farewell to others. It really connotes that we are all relatives, no matter our walk of life or our background, or our race or other differences. Indeed, we are from the same kind — the human race. More important, we are the same from all living creatures and things and all things are living and have Wakan.

It is a belief among our Lakota and Dakota that all things are alive, whether it is us as human beings, all the four-legged as we say, and all other life, but we also believe that the pebble on the road or the beach are alive. We believe in life among the flora and fauna, but also that life is a permanent part of our environment. So it is.

I am Dave Gipp, a Hunkpapa Lakota, originally from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota and South Dakota. I am currently the president of the United Tribes Technical College located in Bismarck, North Dakota. I've been there for 28 ? years, and my background has been in the development of what we refer to as tribal colleges and universities that directly serve tribal nation populations.

Before this time, I was the first permanent director of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) from 1973 – 1977. I worked with our first six founding tribal colleges in 1973 at AIHEC, and during this time worked extensively on the development of federal legislation known as the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978. It was signed into law in December 1978 by President Jimmy Carter. It was and remains today the first piece of landmark legislation that provides operating support for 27 of the 35 tribal colleges today.

Despite the purpose of this legislation, the colleges still remain drastically under funded. In the case of United Tribes, we have not been treated fairly by the current Administration. We have been left out of the budget four times, and each time Congress has restored our operating funds. Nevertheless, it remains a challenge to assure that we have the resources to serve some 1,000 students and nearly 400 children on our 110-acre campus. In our case at United Tribes, we are in the midst of continuing to expand to meet a growing enrollment that will be at 2,000 adults within the next six to eight years.

Overall the 36 tribal colleges and universities serve close to 35,000 students nationally. We are in 11 states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Washington, California, Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma. We have schools upcoming in Wyoming, Alaska, among other states, and in New England.

Our oldest college was founded in 1968 and is known as the Dine College on the Navajo Nation Reservation. Two of our institutions have university status, the Sinte Gleska University, on the Rosebud Sioux Nation Reservation in South Dakota, and the Haskell All Nations University, in Lawrence, Kansas. Several others offer four-year or upper division programs. At United Tribes we have partnerships with two universities to offer four-year degrees in teacher preparation at the bachelor's and master's levels.

Most certainly, we are concerned about providing a curriculum that prepares American Indians or tribal nations people to serve and build their communities and nations.

But the other central reason for our being goes back to the late 1960s and early 1970s when enough Indian people made commitments to build a system of education that directly served and corresponded to our own needs and our own goals.

In effect this became the tribally controlled education movement, broken into the portions that include pre-kindergarten through the college level. So, we refer to our post-secondary effort as the Tribal College Movement.

It is no small undertaking, since we receive no state aid for our students nor for our operations, except for one school in Minnesota. The federal assistance to tribal colleges is inadequate, despite the standing legislation since 1978.

While I need to let you know more about the makeup of the various colleges, including the different models, it is important to note some of the key reasons why such schools came to be.

The first is that the TCUs were founded to help preserve, protect, maintain and build upon the strengths of our tribes relative to our history, language, culture and spiritual beliefs. Indeed, they exist to tell the truth and correct the oft-misguided federal policies, practices and versions about Indian people themselves.

They work hard at providing a course of study that is empowering students with Western knowledge and technical skills, as well. This is critical to our survival and to our growth and well being.

In effect, our people must live in two worlds—the non-native and the people whom we are and represent.

The ability to cope, survive and be successful in both worlds depends on how we continue to rebuild our tribal communities and societies. We have, on the Northern and Southern Plains, lived for over seven generations in a period where we have lost our world. For other tribal nations along both coasts of the United States, it has been longer.

Today, there are 556 tribal nations that are referred to as semi- or quasi- sovereign, domestic dependent nations. These are recognized either by treaty or other federal executive recognition. We also have nations that have treaties with England and which predate the Americans or the U. S. Government. We have a number of tribes that are also recognized only by states such as North Carolina or Virginia.

Despite the depredations against First Nation People and their original governments and being, the various nations continue and have survived. This includes the loss of lands, water and other resources, the loss of our economies, the killing of men, women and children, and the disposition of original leaders and governments, as well as the outlawing of our belief and spiritual systems.

Today, the tribal colleges and universities represent an extension of our tribal communities and tribal government beginning to exercise a "road to independence." They represent a counter to past federal policy and even religious Christian policy to "civilize and Christianize" the Indians.

It was only after the first quarter of the twentieth century that we were considered human beings. In 1924 the balance of Indian people—roughly one third—were made citizens of the United States by an act of Congress.

Among the tribal people, 19th and 20th century federal policy was to outlaw any religious or spiritual practices. On my own reservation, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, I calculate that our ceremonies were banned with the killing of Sitting Bull on December 15, 1890, until the first publicly sanctioned ceremony in 1949. Even after this, ceremonies had to be held out of the reaches of government and Christian officials. It was not until the 1970's that such ceremonies could be held openly. In many cases such ceremonies are held away from mainstream locations and with discretion. Some tribal nations only allow their own citizens or community members to attend.

What this implies is that our tribal nations have suffered the loss of language, our own traditional histories, decimation of the cultural knowledge, and erosion of our values and practices.

The colleges are key to a renaissance of all things that are a part of and connected to our being—our tribal systems that represent what and who and why we are. In fact, we are in a race to preserve, protect, and rebuild the languages, the history, the customs and practices and the spiritual knowledge and our values.

Many of our schools provide curricula that include all these things. Sinte Gleska University and Oglala Lakota College offer programs relative to teaching these issues, and have begun to develop the traditional practices among traditional teachers.

We have also begun a relationship with the Maori and the Australian Aborigines in recently founding a World Indigenous Higher Education Accrediting Association. It is founded to create relationships and recognition of the world's indigenous populations and their systems. It provides a means to mutual recognition that existing, non-indigenous accrediting and standard bearers overlook or refuse to consider. Dr. Lionel Bordeaux, president of Sinte Gleska University, is co-chair of this association.

But let me talk more specifically about how some of the practices of our tribal colleges relate to spirituality and the Tribal College movement. I did say that we moved to create our own efforts in large part to assume control of our own destinies, as a people and as sovereign tribal systems and governments. We still share a "government to government" relationship with the U. S. Government—although this relationship is always under attack and subject to question.

Long before we had to deal with the U. S. Government or, for that matter, other Western colonial powers such as the French, the Russians, the Dutch, the Spanish and so many others, our tribal nations had firm and complete practices.

For us, among the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Nations, we believed that all things were living — something I noted at the beginning of this talk. We have ceremonies for children, for women and men, for entering adulthood, for welcoming and celebrating, for seeking and finding one's self and a vision for life and well being.

The Hanbleca — a vision quest– involves fasting and going to a hill or high and isolated place where prayer and meditation and songs are made. It is similar to an adulthood ceremony, where a boy becomes a man. On the third or fourth day the individual comes down from his vision quest and is able to eat and drink, but also a meal and gifts are provided to the family or supporters of the individual who was on the hanbleca.

The Sun Dance seeks and finds a vision through dancing to the sun and sacrificing one's self through dance, ceremony, and the offering of one's own flesh. These dances and sacrifices are offered for many different things—for friends, family, or others. It includes abstinence from all things material and outside — for example all metal that represents the outside world is banned.

Among those who are foremost teachers who work with language among the Lakota is Albert White Hat, Rosebud Sioux, and department chair of the Lakota Studies at Sinte Gleska University. He is a teacher of the various Wakan – the Spirit – and how all these work with the well being of the individual and the role a person has within the community.

Another great leader who was celebrated at a service in Golden, Colorado, is Vine Deloria, Jr., who passed away November 13. He was a philosopher, an American Indian intellectual, as well as an author of many books and articles, and a past political leader of the National Congress of American Indians. He was from the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and laid the foundation for countering misguided Indian policy. He was a former teacher at the University of Arizona and the University of Colorado.

Another great leader is Onandaga Chief Oren Lyons who teaches at Syracuse University, and is a traditional chief of his nation which is part of the Iroquois Confederacy. He has engaged in work with the Indigenous Conference to the United Nations. He is a strong spiritual leader who understands the relevance of the earth and all living things and humankind's responsibility to all others.

Hau, Mitakuye Oyasin – We are all related.

Pilamayapelo, Thank you.