5 College Programs that Support Cultural Identity

(This article was originally published January 16, 2023)

Since 2013, my role has been to support Native American students towards college matriculation.  I entered the job a bit naively and believed that I could transfer my prior knowledge and extensive college counseling experience to this new position.  Instead, my students and their families taught me that cultural identity is a key factor to post high school attendance.

Native American Tribes and communities (both reservations and urban) adhere to specific cultural values, beliefs, and teachings.  These elements promote Native American youth cultural identities.  Consider the cultural concept of Purpose.

 Mourning Dove (Salish) famously quoted, “Everything on the earth has a purpose, every disease an herb to cure it, and every person a mission. This is the Indian theory of existence.”

For many of our Native American youth, their purpose and mission can directly sustain, build, and empower their communities.  This concept of interdependence is another value of importance for many Native American communities.

While guiding our Native American youth towards college, we need to keep their cultural identity on the forefront.  Consider these five college programs that support our Native American youths’ cultural identity.

American Indian Studies (AIS)

AIS college programs provide students an opportunity to learn more about American Indian history, culture, language, arts, Tribal law and policies, and social justice issues.  These courses permit students to be immersed in cultural themes to enhance their cultural identity development.  Many of these courses are taught by professors identifying as Native American.  US News and World Report recently published Becoming a Native American Studies Major: What to Know that provides more information on this major.

Did you know? The University of Minnesota, Twin Cities offers an American Indian Studies Language Track (Dakota and Ojibwe) major?

Indigenous Language

Indigenous language revitalization is a high priority among many American Indian Tribes and Nations.  The HoChunk Renaissance’s article “Ho-Chunk Tribe looks to revitalize language” cites that there are only 10 fluent Ho-Chunk speakers living on the Winnebago Reservation.  Many Indigenous languages are becoming endangered; however, college programs in Indigenous languages support Native American students to begin or advance their Tribal language skills.   Revitalization and Indigenous language college programs not only support language acquisition, but also culture, as the two are so closely tied together.

Did you know that Blackfeet Community College is one of the only colleges offering Piikani Language?

Native American Teaching Preparation Program

While most colleges offer teacher education programs, very few offer an actual Native American Teaching Preparation program.  The latter supports aspiring Native American teachers towards becoming educators through mentorships, cultural knowledge, Indigenous pedagogies, and more.  Additionally, these programs oromote culture as a strength in the educational setting.  According to the National School Boards Association, only 1 percent of public school teachers identify as American Indian/ Alaska Native.  Native American Teaching Preparation programs support aspiring Native American educators to return to their communities to teach and mentor the next generation through culture, language, and general education.

Did you know that the University of Arizona offers an Indigenous Teacher Education Program (ITEP)?

Tribal Government

Tribal Government programs, also known as Tribal Governance & Administration, Indigenous Leadership, Tribal Administration, or Tribal Management, support students to learn about Tribal constitutions, laws, and community programming and management. Examples can include social programs, law enforcement, education programs, and infrastructure systems.  Through the knowledge offered through this college program, students gain skills to return to their communities and utilize their gift of leadership and governance to advocate for the needs of their community.  Learn more about Tribal Governance via the National Congress of American Indians.

Did you know that Nicolet College in Wisconsin offers a ten credit program (less than 2 years) in Native American Tribal Management?

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service defines TEK as “…the evolving knowledge acquired by indigenous and local peoples over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment. This knowledge is specific to a location and includes the relationships between plants, animals, natural phenomena, landscapes and timing of events that are used for lifeways, including but not limited to hunting, fishing, trapping, agriculture, and forestry.”  Students who have the option to take TEK courses at college continue to learn about Indigenous interaction with nature, sustainability, and spirituality.  For example, ethnobotany supports students to learn how regional plants are used as food, medicine, and spiritual purposes.  These cultural concepts can be carried throughout one’s life.

Did you know that the College of Forestry at Oregon State University offers a Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) Lab?

Guiding Native American youth along their life’s journey is a privilege; however, one needs to ensure that cultural identity is always considered.  Additionally, utilizing relevant cultural resources, like CollegeBound Journey, can support educators and counselors to identify culturally supportive colleges and programs for youth to discover.

What other college programs support Native American students’ identity?  Share the names of college programs that you believe support cultural identity.