Field Notes: Native Science Report Blog

Tribal college students feel nurtured and empowered, but also need more support, report finds

Students who attend tribally controlled colleges praise the quality of their education and the support they receive from faculty and staff, according to a new report released by the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.

At the same time, the report, “Preserving Culture and Planning for the Future: An Exploration of Student Experiences at Tribal Colleges,” highlighted the challenge of serving students in impoverished communities, where Internet access is limited and 33 percent of students worried about having enough food in the past twelve months.

Based on surveys of over 2,400 students enrolled at 22 of the nation’s tribally controlled colleges, the report found high levels of student satisfaction. Most agreed that their college provides a positive learning environment, engaged faculty, and a climate that reflects and promotes positive cultural values.

The report noted that 73 percent of entering tribal college students agreed that their college’s focus on language and culture “improves their self-image/confidence.” A similar percentage reported that their instructors knew their names, and 88 percent agreed that they feel a sense of belonging.

These levels of satisfaction and engagement exceed that of Native American students enrolled in non-tribal colleges and universities–sometimes by wide margins.

However, the report also noted that tribal colleges enroll students who are less academically prepared and require significantly more support. Sixty-seven percent of students are placed in developmental math courses, and nearly as many are enrolled in developmental reading and writing classes.

Poverty and geographic isolation also make the path to graduation more difficult. Nearly half of respondents have limited access to a computer or other electronic device at home and an equal number indicated that a “lack of reliable transportation could be a cause for withdrawal from class or the college.”

Widespread food insecurity was another worrisome finding. A quarter of students reported that they “ran out of food within the past 12 months and didn’t have money to get more.”

Tribal colleges respond by providing a wide range of support services, such as tutoring, counseling, child care, and transportation. But the colleges, which operate with less money per student than most mainstream institutions, need more support to fulfill their mandates, according Cheryl Crazy Bull, president of the American Indian College Fund.

Writing in the report’s forward, she argued that “in order to increase the number of Native students who complete college, more students need support. With continued investments from tribal colleges and additional investments from outside the colleges, this gap can be narrowed and more students can succeed.”

Partial shutdown of the federal government is producing a complete shutdown of many tribal offices; tribal leaders struggle to sustain essential services

The partial shutdown of the federal government is—for the moment–only indirectly felt by many Americans. But on the nation’s Indian reservations, where federal funding is vital for the day-to-day operation of many programs and services, the impact is sweeping.

In many communities, offices responsible for the health, welfare, and safety of tribal members are closed, facing closure, or working without funds, according our informal survey of tribal college administrators and tribal policy experts.

On the Fort Belknap Reservation of eastern Montana, Scott Friskics, director of sponsored programs at Aaniiih Nakoda College, said that many tribal offices are completely shut down. “That includes the Environmental Protection Department, Water Quality and Water Resources,” he said.

“The more I talk with folks here, the worse it sounds,” he said.

On the Lake Traverse Reservation of South Dakota, Scott Morgan, director of institutional research and programs at Sisseton Wahpeton College, also reported the imminent closure of tribal programs that depend on federal funds. “If it continues much longer, more of the tribal agencies are going to have serious funding issues and will start shutting down,” he said.

The need to maintain infrastructure and essential services means that many tribal employees are working without pay. “On the Turtle Mountain Reservation of North Dakota, “many BIA and other federal employees are still working because in the winter it does not take long for pipes to freeze, roads to close, vehicles to break down,” reported Carty Monette, retired president of Turtle Mountain Community College and a senior associate at the Tribal Nations Research Group.

Medical care is a growing concern. Tribal clinics operating under contract with the Indian Health Service depend on federal funds to keep doors open and staff paid. However, in a letter to tribal leaders, the IHS stated that, without an appropriation, it cannot pay tribes or tribal organizations contracting under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

“We acknowledge that this circumstance may result in insufficient funds to carry out the terms of the agreement and that the program may cease to operate,” the letter continued.

On the Turtle Mountain Reservation, Monette reported that ambulance and emergency services are still provided by IHS staff, who are working without paychecks. “But who knows how long that will last,” he said.  “It costs money beyond salaries to keep the IHS operating.”

The 183 schools run or funded by the Bureau of Indian Education are among the least affected, largely because they are forward funded. To keep other programs operating, tribes are making use of carryover or unspent funds, when available. “But like the federal agencies, this too will soon run out,” Monette said.

“The banks may make interim loans to some entities but bank cooperation is also uncertain.  The loans that may be made will for sure be at a huge interest rate,” Monette said.

Here, at last, is something that tribal leaders and President have in common: unpaid bills and empty offices. According the New York Times, the White House has stopped paying its water bill much of its staff are gone.

Peer reviewed research remains inaccessible to many scholars, argues former CEO of Creative Commons

Working is some of the nation’s most rural regions, faculty at tribal and many Native-serving colleges often feel isolated from colleagues and far from the nation’s research centers.

In theory, the internet can help erase geographic barriers by making information accessible to all. That was part of Thomas Friedman’s argument when he famously effused in 2005 that the World Wide Web was making the world “flat.”

However, the Internet is actually widening the gap between the information rich and information poor, argues Joi Ito, former CEO of Creative Commons. Many of the nation’s most important and prestigious academic journals are now kept behind increasingly expensive paywalls, making information inaccessible to all but a few.

In a recently published essay in Wired, Ito argues that “some publishers charge so much for subscriptions to their academic journals that even the libraries of the world’s wealthiest universities such as Harvard are no longer able to afford the prices.” Although much of the research is federally funded, findings remain out of reach for the public and many scholars, especially those working in non-elite institutions.

Ito looks at various efforts to break down or climb over these paywalls. Initiatives range from the Kazakhstan-based Sci-Hub, which “provides free access to millions of otherwise inaccessible academic papers” (by skirting copyright laws), to the larger Open Access movement. OA publishers include the Public Library of Science, or PLOS, which makes papers available without a paywall by imposing article processing charges (APC’s) on institutions or authors, Ito writes.

But more is needed. Ito describes his work with MIT to develop what he calls “a new open knowledge ecosystem” that allows for “greater institutional and public ownership of that infrastructure.”

The full essay can be read here.

Luce Foundation announces support for Native leaders

The Henry Luce Foundation has launched a new initiative to support the work of Native “knowledge makers and knowledge keepers” through a competitive fellowship program developed in collaboration with the First Nations Development Institute.

Funded by the foundation and administered by First Nations, the program will identify and provide $50,000 stipends to a cohort of Native leaders who “create new knowledge and share that knowledge publicly.”

The program has a broad definition of leadership. It includes “scientists and health professionals, academics, curators, artists and writers, and policy makers, among others,” according to the Luce Foundation’s press release. “The work of these leaders may take many forms, including journalism, visual art, film and video, speeches or sermons, educational curricula, music or theater, formal scholarship or research, public health strategies, legal arguments, fiction, policy analysis, etc.”

Applications for the first fellowship competition will be invited in the second half of 2019, with further details to be made available by First Nations. Additional information will be provided on the First Nations website,

As government shutdown continues, research stalls; NSF furloughs staff and curtails services

The partial shutdown of the federal government is having a disproportionate impact on science, curtailing the work of government scientists and darkening federal agencies that fund college and university-based research—including many programs within tribal and Native-serving institutions.

“Thousands of scientists are among the hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors who must stay at home without pay,” according to a January 3 story in the Washington Post.

Many agencies are now managed by a handful of employees. At the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which is part of the Agriculture Department, all but four of the program’s 399 employees are furloughed, the Post reported.

Shuttered agencies include the National Science Foundation. There, 1,400 employees are currently furloughed, including staff within the Tribal Colleges and Universities Program (TCUP).

According to an NSF statement, “Ongoing operational and administrative activities will be minimal unless the suspension of these activities will imminently threaten the safety of human life or the protection of property.”

During the shutdown, the NSF will continue to accept proposals, but “proposals will not be processed until normal operations resume,” according to the agency’s web site. Additionally, staff  “will not be available to respond to emails or phone calls.”

Some automated operations remain available, including processing of grantee-approved and NSF-approved no cost extensions through Fastlane. However, no payments will be made and the Award Cash Management Service is not available.

The NSF web site has additional information about programs and services during the shutdown.

NSF funds four tribal research centers

The National Science Foundation’s Tribal Colleges and Universities Program has awarded $14 million to tribally controlled colleges to establish four research centers.

These Tribal Enterprise Advancement (TEA) centers, called the “first of their kind,” are expected “to become research and development resources for their reservations and communities,” according the original NSF solicitation.

While the NSF has long supported the development of STEM programs within tribal colleges, the centers were created to “address a critical tribal or community need or focus on a realm of STEM research or design that is beyond the scope of individual research grants or that is of interest to multiple tribes.”

According to an NSF announcement, each of the four funded centers will address environmental, social, educational, and economic challenges within Native communities.

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Big ideas wanted

The National Science Foundation is asking researchers and the public to help identify the “pressing research questions that need to be answered in the coming decade.”

The project, called the NSF 2026 Idea Machine, is intended to identify creative “outside the box” ideas for basic research that can “enable new discoveries that drive the U.S. economy, enhance national security and advance knowledge to sustain the country’s global leadership in science and engineering,” according to the project’s web site.

Submissions to this competition are eligible for cash prizes and public recognition.

The deadline for submission is October 26, 2018.

The Idea Machines web page is keeping a running tally of entries, with 256 submissions as of September 24. Perhaps Indian Country has a few ideas that can be added to this list.

To enter:


Navajo Technical University receives ABET accreditation

Navajo Technical University, a four-year tribally controlled institution located in Crownpoint, New Mexico, learned this week that its electrical and industrial engineering programs have received ABET accreditation.

ABET accreditation is only awarded to institutions able to meet the rigorous requirements of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, which evaluates programs in the disciplines of applied and natural science, computing, engineering, and engineering technology.

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