Chasing the Dream: Tribal College Role in Lifting Native People from Poverty

Jun 24, 2016

Cankdeska Cikana Community College is located on the Spirit Lake Nation Reservation in Fort Totten, North Dakota, south of the city of Devils Lake. As part of our Chasing the Dream series, Prairie Public's Danielle Webster spoke with college president Dr. Cynthia Lindquist about the tribal college's role in lifting Native Americans out of poverty.

Funding for Chasing the Dream comes from the JPB Foundation and the Ford Foundation, with additional funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Danielle:

Dr. Cynthia Lindquist grew up on the Spirit Lake Reservation. She has been president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College for the past thirteen years and says she understands the struggles of the reservation all too well.

Cynthia:

It's difficult and challenging to talk about and to address student success, student outcomes if you don't know what's going on. This community - there is endemic poverty. I think eighty-five or ninety percent of my students are eligible for Pell, federal financial aid. We know what's going on with our students specific to economics, money, not having money, lifestyle, and it plays into them able to be a good student, or not be a good student because it's a stressor.

Daniele:

Lindquist says in order to understand the Dakota peoples' difficulties with education, there must be a deepened understanding of their cultural history, which includes a lot of trauma standing several generations much of which is widely misunderstood. Native Americans were colonized, forced onto reservations, and families were broken up as their children were sent to boarding schools. Lindquist says her mothers and grandmothers generations are fearful and suspicious of education because it had been used as a coercive tool to punish native people for not conforming. She says native people think communally and are very family focused, and the fragmentation of those core values was damaging.

Cynthia:

They want the native men to become farmers, the Indian women to become housemaids - just clones of white society and that - so the remnants of all of that it really rooted in breaking up a family which is the center, the core of indigenous peoples across this world. We survive that, even in as dysfunctional as we might be because of everything in that, but we know and we understand. We get it and I can ... The resiliency and the survivability of our people is rooted in that knowledge. The family, the extended family, the heart and soul of everything that our relationship with each other, and our relationship with mother earth. That's still very much there, very much alive.

Daniele:

Lindquist says because of those core values native people struggle to connect with the capitalist society that is based on money. She says teaching Native Americans to embrace education and step out on their on when their culture is rooted in the collective is a large gap to close. That's where tribal colleges come in.

Cynthia:

There are thirty-six tribal colleges in the United States. Where in sixteen states we have seventy-eight campus sites. We estimate we cover eighty percent of Indian country. We were formed to address the issue of college completion. Then completing it from a cultural perspective. There are five institutions with masters degrees. There are fifteen right now that offer bachelors degrees and all of us do certificates and associate degrees. We are accredited just like mainstream institutions.

Daniele:

Lindquist says native people can begin to embrace education when they understand how to hone and refine their individual gifts and learn how those talents can be used to serve their community. She says Cankdeska Cikana Community College offers a variety of associate degrees and certificates and even serves as a stepping stone for continuing education, but Lindquist says endemic poverty on reservations can create barriers to education, even at institutions right in their own communities.

Cynthia:

I mean I think it ties into everything. You know, if I've got a student that can't come to class because they don't have a babysitter or they don't have food, or pampers for baby, through the college we've set up an angel fund, so it's emergency funding to help. All they have to do is ask, or tell us they have an issue or problem, bring in a bill or a receipt or something and we'll try to help cover that. But it's even bigger and broader than just a simple little thing as having food. That's not simple. That's peoples lives, you know, and they are trying to be a college student.

Daniele:

Another issue on reservations is lack of opportunity. Lindquist says there are basically two businesses in Fort Totten that provides significant employment opportunity, the Spirit Lake Casino and Sioux Manufacturing. Lindquist says the college began a partnership last year with Sioux Manufacturing, focused on teaching students a technology to apply in order to manufacture their own products. She says it's a start and she's hopeful. Lindquist says despite the Dakota's historical suspicion of education, she believes attitudes are shifting.

Cynthia:

People are seeing that education's a good thing. It's not a bad thing. It's mine. I control it, I own it and it does not in any way negate my identity in being Dakota. And again, I think the tribal colleges do this very very well. Part of why we were formed and established was because our people were failing at mainstream institutions because mainstream institutions did not - do not - have that cultural understanding... the dynamic of family and culture, and who we are. We see it differently, and we don't want that to be taken away from us. We want to thrive within that knowledge of what we are, what we know, and what we understand.

Daniele:

Lindquist says because of their traumatic history Dakota people were taught to be dependent even though that's a sentiment she calls "anti-Indian." But she says students at tribal colleges are learning differently and are becoming shining examples within their communities. She says now the conversation must be, how do we do more?

Cynthia:

How do we do this together? Can we even create a think tank just to talk about it, figure it out? I know it's happening across this country in different ways. So where are those models of excellence, those models of examples that it is working, it is succeeding? Again, from a cultural perspective. Don't come and tell me you have to do it this way or I want it done that way. Just say, here we got some resources, kind of been thinking about it. Here's some framework, ideas.

Daniele:

For Prairie Public, I'm Danielle Webster.

 

 

    

Funding for Chasing the Dream is provided by the JPB Foundation and the Ford Foundation.