[The Montana Professor 16.2, Spring 2006 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Montana Tribal Colleges: History, Mission, and Promise

James Shanley
Fort Peck Community College

Higher Education in Montana is an important proposition. It is directly connected to the type of life that we hope our children and grandchildren will have in this "Last Best Place." There is common agreement that education of the diverse populations within the State is an important part of that proposition. In Montana, American Indians are the major minority group, making up some 6.2% (62,662 people) of the state's population. American Indians live primarily on seven reservations around the state and represent nine Montana-based tribes. The seven reservations consist of some 8,365,995 acres of land. If natural resources and agriculture are considered, the reservation economies generate around a billion dollars a year, which flow into the general economy of Montana.

Thirty years ago, Montana Indians did not have much success within the state higher education system (or within the K-12 system either). Indian students who attended college found themselves surrounded by strangers who did not understand them, and they often confronted racism, both of the subtle institutional kind and the more overt "in your face" kind. Montana was not unusual in this regard. This situation for American Indian students was common across the United States. As a result, very few American Indians completed college.

In 1968, as a response to this crisis, the tribal college movement started with the development of Navajo Community College. The Navajo (or Diné) Tribe was able to convince the U.S. Congress to pass the Navajo Community College Act. Other Indian tribes became interested in this model and decided to start their own colleges. In 1972, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium was formed. It was made up of five fledging tribal colleges. This central organization allowed the tribal colleges to grow and develop.

In 1978, the Tribal College Assistance Act was passed by the U.S. Congress, and in 1994 the tribal colleges were made Land Grant Institutions.

During those early years, the tribal colleges had very little except for the idea and a lot of enthusiasm. Many of the colleges formed extension relationships with nearby mainstream institutions, primarily community colleges. As the colleges developed, they sought accreditation on their own and eventually became self-standing. Now there are 35 tribal colleges and universities across the United States serving over 30,000 students. There are also several new colleges in the early stages of development.

The development of tribal colleges was often greeted with skepticism from mainstream higher education professionals despite the fact that American Indians were not succeeding in the mainstream colleges and universities. Many people did not understand why American Indians needed their own institutions. There was also a standing belief that colleges needed to be large in order to offer a quality higher education experience. And many people did not understand the American Indian desire to teach and preserve the history, language and culture of their particular tribal peoples. As the colleges became more successful, these misunderstandings began to disappear and many people became aware of some of the remarkable achievements taking place at tribal institutions.

In Montana, the tribal colleges have been particularly successful. Each of the seven reservations has established and chartered a tribal college and all of these colleges are accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities at the Associate level. Salish Kootenai College is accredited at the four-year level.

It is interesting actually to examine the contributions that Montana Tribal Colleges are making to higher education in the state. During the school year 2003 and 2004, the following is an unduplicated twelve-month head count of Indian students in the state for the 2003-2004 academic year.

Indian students in the Montana University System
  MT Univ. System Tribal Colleges Private Colleges Total


1,298 4,972 143 6,413

This means that in 2003-2004, out of the total of 6,413 American Indian university or college students in the state, 77.5% were attending Tribal Colleges. However, this might be slightly misleading, because it is based on head-count rather than FTE and most students in the university system are probably full-time. If the FTE numbers for Tribal Colleges (estimated at 2,119) are used instead of head count, it would still mean that at least 59.5% of all American Indians in the state attended tribal colleges. Although transfers have not been reported by ethnicity, some estimate that up to 50% of all Indians attending Montana private colleges and the MUS institutions have transferred from a tribal college.

In short, the tribal colleges have a tremendous impact on the state in terms of the education of American Indians. In addition, the colleges are not closed institutions. Many non-Indian students who live on or near the reservations attend Montana Tribal Colleges. In 2003-2004, 609 non-Indian students attended tribal colleges in Montana.

Above and beyond enrollment statistics, tribal colleges are inviting, pleasant, and productive places to learn and work. Across Montana, the tribal colleges have succeeded in constructing bright new campus buildings. The colleges have developed innovative student services programs, language programs, distance education programs, and community service programs. The colleges are connected to and represent both their unique tribal communities and the region of Montana in which they are located.

Tribal colleges are not funded in the same way that state or private colleges are funded. The majority of land on an Indian Reservation is held in trust by the federal government. This means that a property tax cannot be applied to the trust property. Tribal governments do not have a property tax to use as a revenue base to support government or education projects. Likewise, the tribal governments have never applied an income tax on tribal citizens. The primary reason has been that much of the income for tribal members in the past was generated from trust property and therefore not taxable. The tribal colleges receive the major parts of their general operating budgets from tuition and fees and the Tribal Controlled Colleges and Universities Act (TCCU) which is section IX of the U.S. Higher Education Act. Funding is routed through the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs which distributes the money by formula which provides approximately $4200 for each full-time Indian student. The colleges charge relatively low tuition and fees compared to the Montana University System. Tuition for the seven tribal colleges averages $2410 per year per student with 87% of all tribal college students receiving financial aid.

The tribal colleges also receive funds on a continuous basis from other areas of the federal government, such as the Department of Agriculture through the 1994 Land Grant Colleges Act. In some instances, the colleges have also received financial support from their tribal governments. During the last legislature, the State of Montana provided $1500 a year for each non-Indian student attending tribal colleges.

Tribal college students are fairly representative of the communities that the colleges serve. As with other community colleges, the students tend to be older (their average is somewhere in the late 20's). There are more female than male students and many students are married parents or single parents. The tribal colleges have open enrollment policies and try to help anyone who comes through their doors. This means that many students enter with low basic skill levels, particularly in math and writing. The colleges focus on these problems with learning centers and pre-college curricula. Most of the colleges also serve the reservations as Adult Basic Education and GED Centers as well.

The tribal colleges collectively have no direct relationship to the Montana State University System, although all of the tribal colleges have coordinated arrangements and articulation agreements with MUS (and private) institutions. Montana State University-Bozeman, for example, as the Land Grant University for Montana, has coordinated efforts with all of the tribal colleges. Other colleges have other distinct arrangements. For example, Salish Kootenai College collaborates with Western Montana College in an Elementary Education program; Fort Peck Community College has education and business degree programs with Rocky Mountain College and Montana State University-Northern. The University of Montana works with the colleges in the areas of Pharmacy and Psychology.

The tribal colleges are governed by Boards of Directors, which are selected in different manners as specified in the establishment charters of each college. Some of the Boards are elected; some are appointed by tribal governments. The Boards have typical institutional governance roles. The staff and faculty are hired by the Boards and selected to meet the mission defined for the college. In general, the missions are very similar to mainstream community colleges and offer a blend of general education courses and a variety of vocational/technical courses of study. Qualifications for staff are also similar to mainstream schools with the Master's degree viewed as the minimum requirement for teaching in most courses of study. Vocational courses vary in terms of qualifications required. There have not been any comparative studies done looking at staff qualifications between mainstream community colleges and tribal colleges, but it appears that tribal colleges have a proportionate number of Ph.D.'s to public institutions (particularly community colleges). Although pay levels tend to be a little lower in some instances, there are some distinct advantages to teaching at tribal colleges. Classes are smaller. There is a lot of individual contact with students. The cost of living in rural areas is lower and reservation areas are multicultural. The reservations also have the beautiful outside environment of rural Montana.

Faculty at other institutions often question "academic standards" at tribal colleges in comparison to mainstream colleges. Although comprehensive studies have never been conducted, anecdotal evidence indicates that standards are equivalent between tribal colleges and mainstream institutions. Fort Peck Community College, for example, has maintained a distance education relationship with Rocky Mountain College in Billings for over fifteen years. Between 1998 and 2004, 43 students transferred and graduated in Applied Business Management; 40 students graduated in Economics and two in Psychology. Between 2002 and 2005, 13 students graduated from MSU-Northern in Elementary Education: one in Biology and two students in Business Technology. Transfer students from Fort Peck Community College generally compete well with upper division students from those institutions, as evidenced by their typical grade point averages which are over a three point.

The tribal colleges all have a mission to maintain the language, history, culture, and world view of their individual tribes. In today's changing world this is perhaps the most challenging part of the mission of tribal colleges. And the colleges have to develop and maintain community involvement in order to be successful in these areas. Tribal colleges therefore work more closely with their governments and their communities than typical mainstream institutions. The tribal colleges often become the focal point for activity for the entire reservation.

In summary, tribal colleges began as unique experiments and have developed into stable, productive institutions that greatly increase the capacity of Montana to provide higher education opportunities for its tribal citizens. The colleges struggle with budgets, staffing, and rural locations but are producing students who are empowering their communities. This in turn strengthens the entire state.

Following are descriptions of the Montana tribal colleges that have been compiled by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

Blackfeet Community College

Blackfeet Community College is located in Browning, Montana, on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, where terrain flows from rugged mountaintops to rolling hills of grasslands, to farmland plains. The reservation occupies an area of 1,525,712 acres adjacent to Glacier National Park, Lewis and Clark National Forest, and the province of Alberta, Canada. Browning, the largest community on the reservation, is the trade/service center for the reservation. Smaller communities include Babb, St. Mary, Heart Butte, Blackfoot, Starr School, East Glacier Park, and Seville.

In October 1974, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council chartered the Blackfeet Community College to provide post-secondary and higher educational services to the residents of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and surrounding communities. The impetus for this action grew from early tribal efforts to provide educational opportunities to residents in a physically, climatically, and culturally isolated area. In December of 1976, extension courses were offered through Flathead Valley Community College. In 1979, BCC became an independent institution. In December 1985, BCC received full accreditation from the Northwest Commission on Schools and Colleges. The college's accreditation was reaffirmed most recently in 2000 after an extensive self-study review process.

Blackfeet Community College has developed objectives and purposes based on goals identified by the Blackfeet Tribe: promote educational opportunities, increase the educational level, advance the knowledge and pride in Blackfeet heritage; improve tribal management; provide community facilities for advancement in education and other tribal institutions; and provide cultural and recreational opportunities for the residents.

Blackfeet Community College enrolls an average of 650 students annually. Students range in age from 18 to 75 and come from Browning and surrounding communities on and off the reservation. Through the website, the college has the potential to reach many more individuals outside of their program area.

The Blackfeet Community College campus is located on the south end of Browning, just off Highway 2 & 89. Thirteen buildings house the administration, Student Services, Academic Affairs, and Vocational Education Departments, as well as the library, classrooms, and various programs.

The Blackfeet Community College staff and faculty employees are approximately 90% Blackfeet enrolled tribal members or descendants.

Degrees Offered

Chief Dull Knife College (CDKC)

Chartered in 1975 by the northern Cheyenne Tribal Council, Chief Dull Knife (CDKC) is located on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Southeastern Montana. CDKC enjoys full transfer agreements with the colleges and universities of the Montana University System, other Tribal Colleges within Montana, and colleges and universities in both North and South Dakota.

Formerly called Dull Knife Memorial College, CDKC was renamed in 2001 to honor one of the Northern Cheyenne's most respected historical leaders, Chief Dull Knife, also known as Chief Morning Star. Chief Dull Knife, fighting with great courage and against overwhelming odds, led his band of Northern Cheyenne back to their homeland to maintain the sovereignty of the N. Cheyenne tribe. Reflecting Chief Dull Knife's determination, the College's primary mission is to provide educational and cultural leadership to its constituents.

Accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, the original curriculum was designed to train students for mining jobs near the reservation. The college eventually expanded its vocational classes and in 1978, broadened its curriculum to include post-secondary academic offerings. In the future, the CDKC would like to expand its degree programs to include information technology, paralegal, and cultural studies. In academic year 2003-2004, CDKC awarded 30 associate's degrees and three certificates.

The campus's most interesting structure, the John Woodenlegs Memorial Library, is a state-of-the-art library named after the college's founder. In 2003, CDKC renovated their maintenance facility to expand the college's extension programs and classes. In addition, the college completed a straw bale house to accommodate their GED/Adult Literacy program.

Degrees Offered

Fort Belknap College

Located on the sparsely populated plains of north central Montana, Fort Belknap College (FBC) provides a center of excellence in higher education for the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre people. The college provides high quality, post-secondary education for community members who would otherwise have to travel long distances to pursue higher learning. In 1984, the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council chartered FBC as a long-term educational strategy to fight against generations of economic depression. The college received accreditation as an institution of higher education in 1993.

FBC's mission is to provide quality post-secondary education for residents of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and surrounding communities. The college offers learning opportunities to maintain the cultural integrity of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes as well as to succeed in today's technological society. Students can choose from 14 degree programs: two associate of science and 12 associate of arts. The academic programs are business, entrepreneurship, health administration, business technology, early childhood education, elementary education, human services, liberal arts, American Indian studies, computer information systems, pre-psychology, allied health, natural resources, and hazardous materials technology.

Fort Belknap College offers a wide range of community programs and services. The college operates a public radio station (KGVA) that serves an audience of approximately 25,000 people spread out over thousands of square miles of north-central Montana. Listeners represent four American Indian tribes, five Hutterite colonies, local ranchers and farmers, and small town residents.

FBC is the home of the White Clay (Gros Ventre) Immersion School, located in the college's new Sitting High Cultural Center. Second- and third-grade students at the immersion school receive instruction in the Gros Ventre language while learning a full range of academic subjects.

FBC's Extension Program works to reduce the incidence of diet-related illnesses such as diabetes, obesity, and other chronic health problems through healthy lifestyle education. In 2003, more than 225 adults and children participated in tours of the college's community greenhouse and demonstration garden. Participants taste-tested fresh garden produce and learned how to grow and cook vegetables for their own household meals.

The college engages in scientific research that addresses identified community needs. Current faculty-student research projects are studying questions related to (1) the impacts of mining activities on soil microbes, (2) the incidence of West Nile virus in the area's mosquito population, and (3) the development of cropping systems to improve forage crop yields and increase farm/ranch income.

Fort Peck Community College

Fort Peck Community College (FPCC) is located in the northeast corner of Montana on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, which encompasses over two million acres. Chartered by the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes in 1978, its mission, in part, is to serve the people of the Fort Peck Indian reservation through educational opportunities and community service. The philosophy of FPCC is based on the belief that the opportunity for higher education must be provided locally on the reservation. Many of the tribal members choose not to leave their home communities; thus, it is essential post-secondary education opportunities are made readily accessible to them. One of the primary roles of FPCC is to preserve the Assiniboine and Sioux cultures, languages, histories, and beliefs and to perpetuate them among its students and community members.

FPCC provides a variety of programs to meet the career goals of its students and the training needs of the reservation. As a two-year degree granting community college, it offers associate degrees and certificates in 38 fields of study such as automotive technology, building trades, hazardous materials waste technology, business administration, teacher education, Native American studies, surveying, and science-biomedical. In collaboration with A&S Industries, a new degree program in machine technology was established. Moreover, FPCC has several memorandums of agreement with four-year degree granting institutions that allow students to earn bachelor degrees in elementary education, business education, and applied management.

FPCC recently built a campus in Wolf Point to address the higher education needs of the western part of the reservation. The College's student services department operates a student daycare center near the Poplar campus. Student services include financial aid, assessment and placement testing, orientation, retention services, admission/placement, student organizations and activities, alumni relations, and athletics.

FPCC has a strong and innovative community focus that has identified the institution as an economic and social community development center for the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and northeastern Montana. Within the Department of Community Services there are five divisions: Agriculture, Health and Wellness, K-12 Outreach, Youth Leadership, and Economic and Social Development. The agriculture division is a leader in Global Agriculture: it has made strong international connections with India through international staff exchanges; participates in regional pulse crop farming; oversees an 800 cow/calf operation and 47,000 acre Tribal Ranch. FPCC's wellness division has two community wellness centers, in Wolf Point and on the main campus in Poplar. Community Health issues such as diabetes, obesity, and prevention are major concerns for the college. FPCC has as one of its goals the strengthening of local public schools through the development of K-12 programming. K-12 outreach programs include Gear Up, Rural Systemic Initiative, Diabetes Education in Tribal Schools, college preparation for high school juniors and seniors, Even Start Family Literacy. Youth Leadership has been an area of emphasis through the development of 4-H groups, violence prevention, and community beautification. Economic and Social development is strengthened through grant writing seminars, economic development summits, a Community Business Assistance Center, a micro-loan, Americorp, and the administration of an Enterprise Community.

FPCC is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Schools and Colleges and has an average enrollment of 430 students.

Little Big Horn College

Little Big Horn College is a public two-year community college chartered by the Crow Tribe of Indians in 1980. The college is located in the town of Crow Agency, Montana, the heart of the Crow Indian Reservation in south central Montana. Little Big Horn College was granted accreditation status in 1990 by The Northwest Association of Schools and of Colleges and Universities. Accreditation was reaffirmed in 2001 by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. In 1994, Little Big Horn College was granted Land-Grant College status.

Eight associate of arts degrees and two associate of science degrees are offered. The courses of study are directed to the economic and job opportunities in the Crow Indian Reservation area. The student body is comprised of Crow tribal members (95%), members of American Indian tribes from around the Intermountain west (3%), and residents of the Big Horn County area (2%). Little Big Horn College has an open admissions policy and as a public institution welcomes enrollment from any adult 18 years of age with a high school diploma or GED.

LBHC students commute to campus and are responsible to family, especially as parents. Three-fourths of the students speak the Crow Language as their first language. As a result, the college student services and business office functions are conducted in the Crow Language. College Board of Trustee meetings are also conducted in the Crow Language. The College campus is located in the town of Crow Agency on the banks of the Little Big Horn River, adjacent to the Crow Indian Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Crow Tribal Housing Authority headquarters. The college facility has 35,000 square feet of educational space situated on two acres of wooded river valley.

Little Big Horn College has recently built and moved into two new campus buildings. The first building to be completed was The Cultural Learning Lodge, which is utilized for academic and public activities. In 2004 Little Big Horn College also saw the completion of the Seven Stars Learning Center, which is a two-story classroom and office building with 22,870 square feet.

Salish Kootenai College

Salish Kootenai College (SKC) is tribally controlled, chartered in 1977 under the sovereign governmental authority of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. It is accredited as a four-year institution of higher education by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. Since its inception, under the leadership of founding President Dr. Joseph McDonald, the College has conferred 2,370 bachelor's and associate degrees and certificates of completion.

The College started in 1977 in an abandoned public school building in Pablo. The campus was moved several times prior to locating to its present site east of Pablo, 10 miles south of the magnificent Flathead Lake. Today, SKC is blessed with 22 major modern buildings occupying nearly 150,000 square feet, situated on 128 contiguous acres. The value of the property exceeds $17 million. The College is always proud to point out that its Building Trades students contributed substantially to the construction of many of these beautiful, environmentally harmonious buildings, earning course and certificate credit while gaining practical experience.

During Fall Quarter 2004, 1,150 students were enrolled at SKC, 60% of whom were female and 40% were male. Native American students comprised 76% of the student body, representing 68 tribes from 19 states. During 2004-05, the College employed 56 full-time and 28 part-time instructors, and graduated 192 students with the class of 2005.

Degrees Offered

Salish Kootenai College offers comprehensive student support services, including recruitment, financial aid, personal and career counseling and job placement, academic skills labs, tutoring, cafeteria, housing, and a new fitness center.

Job Placement and Beginning Wages: The College's annual placement rate (postsecondary transfers and job) averages 84%. The job placement rate alone averages 77%. During the five-year period 1999-2003:

Stone Child College

Stone Child College (SCC) is a tribally controlled community college of the Chippewa-Cree Tribe. Chartered in 1984 by the Chippewa Cree Business Committee, Stone Child College (SCC) was established to preserve and maintain Chippewa Cree culture and to better educate its tribal members.

Accredited by the Commission of the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, SCC offers programs of study that lead to Associate of Arts and Associate of Science Degrees and certificates of completion. These courses are listed in the Accredited Institutions of Higher Education, published by the American Council on Education for the Council on Post-secondary Accreditation.

SCC enrolls predominantly American Indian Students with the current enrollment reflecting 98% American Indian descent. Based upon the U.S. Department of Education's definitions of special population, 90% of the College's student population is considered low income, 81% are first generation College students, 77% are of limited English proficiency, and 2% are disabled.

The Chippewa-Cree families of the Rocky Boy Reservation in north-central Montana have had to learn to help themselves. With a high unemployment rate and low per capita annual income and accelerating student enrollment numbers and a tribal population expected to double by the year 2005, SCC completed a new campus consisting of three brand new buildings: the Cultural Archives Building; Sitting Old Woman Center (the community/library building), and Kennewash Hall (the academic building). The campus held its Grand Opening and Dedication on July 31, 2003. In addition, SCC offers community outreach programs, which include cooking for diabetes, food safety, community gardening, animal and range management, youth development, home based enterprises, and agricultural marketing./1/


  1. The statistical information in the article has been obtained from the American Indian Measures For Success (AIMS) Data Collection Project conducted by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and funded by the Lumina Foundation. Montana University System information was obtained from the 2005 Montana University System Diversity Reports.[Back]

[The Montana Professor 16.2, Spring 2006 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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