As only the fourth sitting president to visit a Native American reservation, President Barack Obama has made improving education in tribal communities one of his administration’s top priorities. It’s an issue that will also be taken up when tribal leaders gather in Washington on December 3 for an annual White House conference.
As one of the first master's degree students in environmental science at Sitting Bull College, Louis Walking Elk eventually wants to use his degree to help those on the reservation. He is one of the first in his family to go to college.
“My dad and mom both encouraged me all throughout my life, my dad especially. He didn’t finish high school and he was always like, 'you have to do something,'” said Walking Elk.
Situated in the remote hills of North Dakota on Standing Rock Indian Reservation, Sitting Bull College is one of more than 30 tribal colleges in the United States.
Some 300 students, including student body president Dakota Kidder, are completing their higher education at this federally-funded school in hopes of defying statistics that show only about 10 percent of Native Americans have a college degree, roughly half the national average.
“We do have a lot of problems on the reservation. And Sitting Bull College does all that it can to make sure students are getting to class, whether it be transportation, child care,” said Kidder.
The mission of getting more Native Americans to college and making sure they leave with a degree is crucial to the school's president, Laurel Vermillion.
“A huge majority are first generation students, college students, who don’t have a lot of experience. They don’t have parents who can tell them or talk about college. And so when they leave the reservation and go onto these big, mainstream campuses, they are lost,” said Vermillion.
Vermillion said many young Native Americans, particularly men, are looking for direction and a sense of purpose.
In part through its technical program offering classes in welding and oil drilling, the college is focused on attracting more men to campus. Right now, the male to female ratio is 30 to 70 percent.
Scott Davis, the executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, is also working to close the gap, helping tribal colleges get millions of dollars to start workforce development programs.
“There are plenty of jobs. We are talking right now [in] North Dakota, anywhere from 22,000 to 25,000 jobs right now, and they are not a lot of people to fill them in small, rural North Dakota. But on the flip side of that coin, you have still some of our tribes really struggling with the unemployment rate,” said Davis.
Davis called tribal colleges a shining beacon on reservations, giving hope to young Native Americans of a life of possibility, not poverty.