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Building Sustained Collaborations with Tribal Colleges and Universities


The Tribal College Movement

The nation’s 37 American Indian tribally- and federally-chartered institutions of higher education comprise the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC). Established in 1973, AIHEC includes Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) located in 15 states -- covering about 80 percent of Indian Country -- and one institution in Canada. TCUs were established to strengthen sovereign tribal nations by helping to preserve and revitalize Native languages and cultures and bring the hope and opportunity of higher education to American Indians who were otherwise excluded from the nation’s higher education systems. TCUs provide culturally-centered curricula, extended family support systems, community-based education, research and outreach opportunities, economic development strategies, and access to new technologies to many thousands of American Indians, many of whom live in some of the poorest and most geographically isolated areas of the country. Tribal Colleges and Universities perform a critical role in promoting and providing quality postsecondary education in an environment sensitive to the cultural, economic, and technical needs of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) was created by the TCU presidents to support the work of the TCUs and the national movement for Tribal self-determination. AIHEC’s mission statement identifies four objectives: provide leadership and influence public policy on American Indian higher education issues through advocacy, research, and program initiatives; promote and strengthen Indigenous languages, cultures, communities and Tribal nations; and through its unique position, serve its member institutions and support emerging Tribal Colleges and Universities.

TCUs offer numerous academic and vocational programs leading to a degree, certificate, or diploma to meet the needs of American Indian students and their communities. All 37 TCUs offer associate’s degree programs; 30 offer certificate programs; eight offer bachelor’s degrees; five have diploma programs; two offer apprenticeships; and two offer master’s degree programs. Most TCUs also provide community education programs in health, cultural heritage, Indigenous language, continuing education, parenting classes, personal financial management, career enhancement (e.g., medical billing coding and firefighting), and GED preparation. Many TCUs provide local school districts with assistance with teacher professional development and student after-school programs. TCUs also host summer enrichment programs which bring pre K-12 students to the campuses. Adult education is also an important focus of TCUs.

Tribal Colleges and Universities are dynamically evolving institutions that are continually maintaining a balance between that part of their mission requiring that they address the unique social and cultural needs of their chartering tribe (or tribes) and the expectation that they provide a connection to national educational and career opportunities and workforce needs. TCUs are called upon to both help their students retain a strong cultural identity while preparing them to participate successfully in an increasingly globalized professional workforce.

Benefits of Working with TCUs

As is true for partnerships generally, partnering with a TCU provides a range of benefits, including important capacity-building opportunities, for an individual researcher and her home institution. The following are just a few of the more important benefits.

Research expansion. Most Tribal Colleges are to some extent engaged in community-based research. Priority areas of research at TCUs include the health sciences, environmental science, linguistics, education, biology, ecology, and sustainable communities. Because most TCUs are fairly resource-challenged, their research programs are often limited to the interests and experience of a few faculty members. The opportunities to collaborate with TCU faculty to grow and expand an existing research program, or to initiate a new program, are abundant, limited only by the interests and motivation of potential collaborators.

Securing Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) funding jointly with a TCU is a good way to initiate a collaboration around an existing NSF-funded project. An REU is an excellent vehicle for engaging students in a discipline, facilitating transfer to your college or university, and eventually enrolling in a graduate program at your institution. Also, research projects that involve students from multiple institutions provide students (and faculty) with a cultural diversity experience that may be much richer than can be provided by either campus individually.

Diversity outreach. American Indian college students can be an important source of cultural and intellectual diversity to a program. Most students at Tribal Colleges are either enrolled members of a federally recognized American Indian tribe, or children of tribal members. A requirement for the designation of Tribal College/University is an enrollment of at least 51% tribal members or children of tribal members.

Engage a community, not just a college. As touched upon above, TCUs are community-based institutions in a way that most other colleges, including community colleges, are not. They are involved with their communities as a primary employer, a provider of community services, a workforce training center, a resource for cultural education, and an initial rung in the post-secondary education career ladder for many tribal members. Working collaboratively in a mutually beneficial way that builds programmatic capacity at the TCU will significantly impact the entire community served by the TCU.

Broaden your community of discourse. Perhaps most important for your institution, collaborating with a TCU will inevitably expand the range of discourse throughout your campus. That is to say, bringing TCU faculty and students into your programs will introduce a wealth of new perspectives, experiences, and understandings that will enrich, directly or indirectly, the knowledge base accessible to your programs, creating new possibilities for education and research strategies that would be otherwise unavailable. It might help to think of every distinct culture as comprising a dense fabric of interconnected ideas or memes. Whenever distinct groups interact, memes are shared and recombined to engender entirely new ideas. The results can be transformative!

Relevance of Geography to TCUs and Tribal Communities

The land continues to be an extremely important component of American Indian cultural and economic life. For those American Indians who reside on a reservation located within their ancestral territory, the land provides a constant connection to individual and tribal identity. Traditional place-names are often short-hand for complex narratives that have been passed down over many generations linking a geographical feature to events critical to a tribe’s history. Reservations also support a wide range of economic activities – agriculture, mineral extraction, and tourism being three important sources of individual and tribal revenue. The land is a richly multidimensional resource for American Indians, and courses of study that integrate Western methods of data collection and analysis with traditional knowledge and understandings can have strong relevance to TCUs and the tribes they serve. The following suggest some examples.


The use of geographic information systems (GIS) to support tribal agency functions is growing rapidly, as has the demand for personnel with strong GIS skills. For the last several years, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has had a cooperative agreement with ESRI through which GIS software, training and technical support are provided to the nation’s tribal governments at no cost to the tribes. Several TCUs have GIS programs, although the trend seems to be to move away from stand-alone GIS programs to interdisciplinary programs in which GIS supplements programs such as environmental science and forestry.

Environmental Resource Management

Most tribal colleges have environmental science and/or natural resource management programs, most of which are 2-year Associate in Science programs. These programs provide an excellent opportunity for a college or university with a Bachelor’s and advanced degree programs in these and related disciplines to recruit students, and to enhance an existing program through partnership.


Hydrology is becoming increasingly important, particularly in what are becoming chronically drought-stressed areas of the country such as the Southwest. Diné College in Tsaile, AZ for example has established a strong working relationship with the EPA to provide water quality monitoring services for much of the Navajo Nation. Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, ND operates a water quality lab that serves the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Landscape ecology

While not currently a specific research focus among TCUs, the rural and remote locations of most American Indian nations and the relatively limited range of human activities affecting landscape processes make American Indian lands a promising focus of research. The strong relationship to the land among American Indian tribes could motivate research partnerships in landscape ecology that involve both TCUs and tribal governments.


Traditional American Indian understandings and practices involving plant and animal species endemic to an area provide a wealth of information for biogeographers. However, research involving traditional knowledge is extremely sensitive and must only be carried out with elders and other cultural specialists who have been fully informed about the nature of the research.

Building Partnerships with TCUs

TCUs have historically been seen to provide a means for mainstream institutions to make their proposals more competitive by expanding the diversity of the population that their proposed project is to serve. Too often TCUs have been included in proposals without being consulted, for essentially token amounts of funding, and with a minimal role in the implementation of the project. TCUs are therefore understandably wary of mainstream faculty approaching them with project ideas. Establishing an authentic relationship with a TCU will take time, but is well worth the time and effort required.

The participatory action research model is an excellent approach to adopt as you explore a partnership with a TCU. TCU faculty and administrators are generally very willing to talk about their academic and infrastructure needs that could be addressed through a partnering activity. You should think long-term, involving realistic and sustainable capacity-building activities. A campus visit is an essential first step. Face-to-face meetings are irreplaceable components of any relationship-building process.

Recommendations for initiating and building relationships with TCUs

While there is no single formula for building a collaboration, here are some guidelines that can help. As a general rule of thumb, if you enter into the partnership-building process with an open attitude and the clear intention of developing a mutually beneficial relationship, things will progress in a fairly straightforward manner, and the entire experience will prove to be extremely rewarding.

1. Identify a TCU or several TCUs with whom you would find some common ground

Examine the list of TCUs on the AIHEC website,  to find those close to you. The institutional websites provide a wealth of information about programs and individuals you can approach. Currently there are 37 TCUs with over 70 campus locations in the Midwest, the Great Plains, Western States, and the Southwest. If you do not find a TCU close to you or you want to explore or work with the TCU community more broadly, you may email a cover letter and your concept paper to, and your inquiry will be forwarded to the appropriate staff person who will help begin a conversation.

2. Ensure shared values and goals

An initial conversation with an individual faculty member, department, or the institutional leadership should focus on determining whether a set of shared values and goals exist upon which a collaboration can be established. These shared goals might be to increase the number of American Indian students successfully pursuing a geography-related profession, or expanding the role of a geography-related profession in tribal programs and activities. Tribal Colleges are often closely involved in activities that support their tribal governmental agencies, such as providing research resources that serve tribal environmental, health, and resource management programs and agencies. A collaboration with a TCU will also create opportunities for working with the college’s chartering tribe. Therefore it’s a good idea when looking for common ground with a TCU to include the programmatic priorities of the tribe or tribes served by the college in the discussion. It’s important to appreciate that there will be significant differences between your institutions that are not just based on size and resources, but also on organizational culture. These differences may simply make shared values and goals a little more difficult to identify, but must be understood and respected if a meaningful partnership is to develop.

3. Establish a commitment with clear expectations

Having established a set of values and goals the focus can move toward specific commitments that are associated with expectations that can be articulated clearly. These commitments should be concrete, involving deliverables that move the partnership forward. They may involve resources, personnel, participation in the development of a project.

4. Develop clear roles and responsibilities

Once you have identified your goals commitments, it’s time to establish some guidelines that will govern decision making processes and clarify the roles and responsibilities of personnel from both institutions involved with the partnership. These should be incorporated into a jointly-developed concept paper that may eventually evolve into a Memorandum of Agreement. It should be noted that many TCUs have small research or sponsored programs offices with limited experience in administering multi-institutional grant projects. It is important to make sure that everyone involved with grant administration from both institutions is communicating and aware of all grant management and compliance requirements.

5. Formalize the relationship

A draft concept paper that lays out discussion outcomes to date should be circulated and refined by all parties. This should eventually become a relatively informal Memorandum of Understanding, which amounts to a statement of intent to collaborate. This may be a sufficiently formal acknowledgement of the partnership building process, requiring that the signatories represent the leadership of both institutions. It can also be used as supportive documentation in proposals.

6. Do the work!

Of course, not every collaborative enterprise will require that you go through each of these steps. However, the broader the collaboration, and therefore the more sustainable, the more each of these steps will be relevant to the success of your project. But if you’ve made it this far, you simply need to go ahead with the work you and your partners have made a commitment to carry out. It is a solid guarantee that although you may not meet your near-term objectives right away (such as funding of a proposal), a sincere commitment to the partnership will reap both anticipated and unanticipated benefits to you and your institution for years to come.

Good luck!


Credit and thanks to Al Kuslikis, AIHEC