Honoring Nations: David Gipp: Sovereignty, Education and United Tribes Technical College

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

United Tribes Technical College President David Gipp discusses the impetus behind the establishment of United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) and the emergence of the tribal college movement, the growth of UTTC over the past four decades, and the critical roles tribal colleges and universities play in Native nations' efforts to rebuild their nations. 

Resource Type

Gipp, David. "Sovereignty, Education and United Tribes Technical College." Honoring Nations symposium. Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 18, 2009. Presentation.

"Thank you, Megan. It's great to be here. I don't often miss these sessions as a member of the Board [of Governors], and I apologize for not being here the last two days. Unfortunately, my schedule was such that it was difficult to get here, but I finally made it. I'm always late but I usually get there, as they say. So it's great to be here and I look forward to the presentations yet that are to come for this morning. I want to thank you for the prayer this morning and especially, the prayer where we talk about those who are in our communities -- and we use the word [Lakota Language] ones -- the ones that are kind of out there and we don't always see, the ones that are what we call pitiful and are in need sometimes, and don't get the privileges we have of being at this table here today at especially such a prestigious place. Those are the people that I serve, and I'm sure that many of you serve back in your home communities, especially if you're either in an elected position or have been in one. You know those people and who they are, and you know that these are the people that we really stand for back in our communities. Many of them are traditional people, many of them hang onto their culture in very closed and close ways, and some of them suffer because of the issues of poverty. In fact, many of them do -- at least in my part of the country in North and South Dakota and Montana and in other parts as well. So I think of these people when we're here and when I'm having a good breakfast, or whatever it is, and I appreciate that. And I've had my share of life from those days as well, having come up in that respect. So I appreciate that prayer and we think of these people. I want to extend my condolences to the Hill family -- and to all of you for your losses in your family as well -- and our prayers and good wishes for you and all of those who are dear to you. We have those kinds of things that happen to us, in all of our families again, because we're human beings and we come from the good earth here. So I think of those kinds of things.

I listen to Chief [Oren] Lyons and his speech about what happened back at Wounded Knee and I think of December 15, 1890 when Sitting Bull was killed. And two weeks later, the first Wounded Knee happened and quite a number of our people were killed -- Lakota people who were, Minneconjou who were, Hunkpapa, some Oglalas, Blackfeet Sioux and many others that were within that band -- that were on their way in, by the way, to give up, if you will, coming off the prairie. And [they were] some of the very last to be brought into what was to become reservation life, to the kind of confinement that we have lived with for many, many now centuries. And we were giving up a way of life, our freedom, if you will, giving up our constitution, if you will -- our constitution as we knew it and understood it. And many of our tribal nations have historically gone through that from the time that Columbus landed -- mistakenly landed -- on the shores of North America and stole the first Indian, kidnapped and took him back before Queen Isabella, and those kinds of things. Today, those would be considered crimes against humanity and inhumane acts. Although sometimes our own government continues to justify those things, as Chief Lyons pointed out, at the highest levels of government.

And so we need to be sure that what we do -- and this is one of the things that I think Honoring Nations does -- is brings the very best of Indian Country forward of what we're doing, that we're human beings, that we're not 'savages,' that we're not 'uncivilized,' that in fact we have our own civilizations and we have our own way of doing things and we have our own methodologies, all of these things that you know better than I do. And those are the presentations that we give to America -- and we have given freely and openly -- but we need to share them among ourselves so that those people that I talked about, the [Lakota language] ones, can benefit and can learn and talk about that. I talked to one of my students the other day, who has dreams of coming to Harvard. I don't know if he'll ever get here, hopefully he will, if that's what his dream is -- there are other places I told him he can go to school too, but we'll deal with that one later. Those are the kinds of things we look at when we talk about opportunity, because it's opportunity that -- as an educator --that we want to make. We want to be sure that our people are on a level playing ground and that they have that adequate and highly capable opportunity to bring themselves forward to be a part of life; and mostly, to do some good things for themselves and for their families and again for their community, as they so choose. And that's what United Tribes [Technical College] was about. We did officially, on September 6th, celebrate our 40th anniversary as an institution, as a school, as a training place that began in September of 1969. But the beginning of that goes back some years, back into the '60s, when a lot of us were ensconced with doing some fundamentals -- by us, I meant tribal leadership and tribal councils and other people.

I was just coming out of high school back in the mid-60s, but I remember listening to the TV at the boarding school that I was in South Dakota and watching TV. And the people of South Dakota had voted that day -- in I believe it was '65 or so -- and they voted that the tribes of South Dakota would continue to have their own civil and criminal jurisdiction. In North Dakota, something similar was happening. The tribes of North Dakota came together and they became United Tribes of North Dakota. In South Dakota, it was United Sioux Tribes of South Dakota and they were the remnants of the great Sioux Nation, by the way. But my point being is the tribes in many states, in many communities, were fighting for the fundamentals of civil and criminal jurisdiction. Jurisdictions that, yes, we continue to fight about even today -- in the courts and with all kinds of people and with the states and cities and counties and those kinds of governments versus our tribes and tribal governments, so that fight certainly isn't over -- but they laid the groundwork for those that were successful in retaining that civil and criminal jurisdiction in the mid-60s by having rejected Public Law 280 as a methodology for having the state to assume those jurisdictions; and that's what happened in North and South Dakota. And obviously, I capsulized this in a few brief statements because this was something that went on for years and years, and you know the origins of Public Law 280. My point being is they were at least successful in saving that fundamental of jurisdiction of the tribes, otherwise we would not have this -- and many of our tribes that went under 280 know the difficulties of being a 280 tribe -- because that was not our choice. It was put upon us by the U.S. government and then by the states themselves -- states that certainly didn't exist when we were long, long around, let's put it that way. We know that we predate all of these governments, including the U.S. Constitution.

So those were the formative years for places like United Tribes of North Dakota, but one of the lessons learned out of that success was, if we come together -- and in our region we have Arikara, we have Mandan, we have Hidatsa, we have Lakota and Dakota, and we have Chippewa, Ojibwe or Prairie Chippewa -- as sometimes they're referred to on the Northern Plains -- and all of those tribes had historic differences at various times, but you know all of those tribes also got along, long before the non-Native ever came around. And those are the stories that are not told. Those are the stories that are not told. And that's also an element of Honoring Nations: ways in which we come together in good ways, ways that we share and that we trade, and that's what Honoring Nations is about.

Sitting Bull is often portrayed as a great hostile -- a guy who hated everyone. That's not true. I'm a Hunkpapa, and our family and all of our people knew him as a humble, as a generous, and as an open man. One of the children he adopted, in fact, and raised was an Arikara -- a supposed enemy, by the way, archenemy of the Lakota or Sioux. So we knew and we knew how to get along in our own good ways when we needed to and when we wanted to. And so we didn't need the lessons of the non-Native, even today. And the lessons of Honoring Nations, I think, is an excellent way in which we begin to share effectively, effective ways in which we continue in rebuilding the renaissance of rebuilding tribal nations.

And that's in effect what United Tribes [Technical College] was about, because when they came together in those mid 60s -- saved, if you will, or preserved that civil and criminal jurisdiction -- one of the things they said, our tribal leaders said is, ‘We can produce other kinds of success by coming together in unity and in spirit.' And one of those results was United Tribe's educational technical center. They spotted an old fort in Bismarck, North Dakota called Fort Abraham Lincoln -- the second Fort Abraham Lincoln, by the way. The first Abraham Lincoln is to the west of us, just across the Missouri River in Bismarck, North Dakota. And that first Abraham Lincoln is in ruins and that's where Custer left for his final ride, I'll put it politely. So I'm over at the second Abraham Lincoln that was built between 1900 and 1910. And you'll see the parade grounds, the circular parade grounds, and the brick buildings and that sort of thing. For some people, it reminds them of old boarding schools, but it was a military fort. And they're what I call the cookie-cutter forts of the turn of the century, built from 1900-1910 or so, and that's when this one was built. And it produced soldiers for World War I. It went on and was used by the North Dakota Army Guard, by the way, up until 1939-1940, when INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] took it over and housed Japanese and German aliens there for five years. And then it was returned again to the North Dakota government. And in 1965, it was decommissioned completely and by 1968, we took it over. And that was again that lesson learned by United Tribes, by the United Tribes leaders and they said, ‘If we come together on issues, then why not do training?' We predate most of the tribal colleges, with the exception of Navajo Community College in 1968, but we actually were chartered in 1968, officially. And they said, ‘Let's get that fort,' one of our tribal leaders said and they did. And again, I simplify the story, but the point being is it was a good example of the Indians taking over the fort, but this time for peaceful and educational purposes and for our own wellbeing and on our own terms and conditions. So those are things that we keep in mind as we build and rebuild and we put things back together -- that our critical purpose is not only to preserve and protect, but to build. And again, I go back to what Honoring Nations stands for and what the kinds of lessons are that you provide for all of us throughout Indian Country, for those people back there at home.

And I look at my own Standing Rock area -- in North and South Dakota, which is where I'm from -- and I look at the issues of poverty, I look at the issues of the high suicide rate, some of the highest suicide rates in the nation, by the way. And I think of the story, of what Chief Lyons talked about at Wounded Knee in 1973 and going into that area at that time, about that same period of time. And what we were committed to was building and rebuilding our own educational systems, and we're still doing that. In 1973, there were six tribal colleges; today there are 37. In 1973, we were serving about 1,500, maybe 1,700 students nationally among those six schools, today we serve close to 30,000 students. Today 51 percent of our population or better across Indian Country is under the age of 25. And in many communities that 51 percent or better is under the age of 18 where you come from; we have a growing population. And so the challenge for us is to provide that quality education. The challenge for us is to provide even more, because our young people are hungry for the knowledge of who they are and what they're about. Yes, they need the skills. Yes, they need to be able to participate and actively compete, if you will, in areas of science, math and technology. I was just at a congressional panel yesterday in which we are beginning to develop our own engineering degrees on our own terms and conditions. [President] Joe McDonald out at Salish Kootenai [College] produced the first four-year engineering graduate this past May and we will do more. It starts in small ways.

But I remember in 1973 when a lot of people in D.C. -- where the Chief was -- said, ‘Why are you guys doing this? You can send your kids over to the local university, or whatever.' Well, local for us is anywhere from 50 to 150 miles away in our area of the country. The second thing is that mainstreams, only about 4 percent yet -- and this is a 30-year old statistic, by the way, that still stands -- only about 4 percent of our kids, our children that go through mainstream institutions, make it through with a four-year degree. That's a dismal shame upon America and upon American higher education, ladies and gentlemen. That's a shame. That's immoral that we have so few coming through the system getting and accomplishing degrees. So when I see an American Indian graduate with a two-year or a four-year degree, I tell you, I give them high commendations, I give them high commendations. And yes, there are great issues that they have to face even at that, but the point is we need more of these people. We need all of our trained and educated people back in our communities. And we face the risk of losing them every day to mainstream America because there are so many opportunities out there for them. And that is what nation building is all about, assuring that we have ways for these people to come back into the system. Too often, I hear young people say, ‘There's not a place for me to go back to,' either because the job doesn't exist or because there are certain kinds of politics back home. We need to teach our own tribal leaders -- and as leaders yourselves -- ways in which we welcome these people back, and ways in which we can have them come back into our communities, or ways in which they can continue to contribute -- whether they're in a national post, a regional post at even a mainstream institution -- because we are together and that is the way we continue and rebuild tribal America as I look at it.

And that's part of what really United Tribes [Technical College] is all about, that's part of what the tribal colleges are all about. But I mentioned in 1973 going into Pine Ridge -- myself with a crew of my staff, to do training among faculty, with Gerald One Feather, who had just completed his chairmanship, and Dick Wilson, of course, was chairman of the Oglalas at that time -- but going through roadblocks. On one end were -- Dick Wilson says, they often described them -- the GOONs [Guardians of the Oglala Nation]. So we turned around and went clear down the other way and went back into Nebraska and came back to the east side of that particular reserve. And then we ran into the AIM-ers [American Indian Movement]. So then we had to go back, come back through this way, double track and then go back through another road to get to what was then, the college. And the Oglala Lakota College -- which is now pretty much centrally located out of Kyle, but also has the rest of its centers, satellites, and all of the various communities throughout the Oglala Lakota area up there -- was pretty much in just what I would call broken down trailers and that's where they were teaching classes. But we went in and we talked to some of the staff and faculty and the president and did some work there. And then Gerald invited us out to his place just northwest of Pine Ridge. We managed to get over there late that afternoon into the evening and we had dinner with him. And we sat there and he was talking to us about what they were doing with the college and how things were going to go with it. We looked out of his windows there, his front windows, and they were all, there was no windows. We said, ‘What happened to your windows?' He said, ‘Well, they got shot out last night.'

But I guess my point is, we've had our war and this has happened in other communities as well, disparities. But what we have learned is we go on -- I'm not saying we aren't afflicted by them in negative ways -- but nevertheless we go on, because we're a strong people. We're a very strong, resilient people. We're a people that can accept and take change and incorporate it and do it in proactive ways. Otherwise we wouldn't be here, our children wouldn't be here, our grandchildren wouldn't be here -- given the size and makeup and complexity of our population, given the different languages that we have, the different customs that we have, from one nation to the other. As small and tiny as we are in this huge nation of 270, or more, million of the United States of America, we're still here and we will continue to be here. But the important thing is that we continue to build, as best as we can, and on our own terms and conditions. That's what tribal colleges are about: our own terms and conditions. They are the fundamental rights that go even before and beyond treaties.

Sitting Bull never signed a treaty, from where I'm from. He was a Hunkpapa Lakota, but as he said when he picked up that piece of earth and dropped it back to the ground, he said, ‘I never gave up or sold an ounce,' to be interpreted, by the way, of the earth, ‘because I am part of it. I've never given it up. No matter what they say. No matter what kind of piece of paper they put in front of me.' And yes, we have to adhere to things like treaties. And yes, it's important to assure that they're enforced, if you will. But he never signed a treaty. He fought his whole life and he gave his life telling people, ‘If you sign that, you sign your life away.' For him, that was what destiny was about and that was the loss of freedom. We're in a different era now, and even he recognized, though, that we had to make changes that were significant among ourselves, because he had gone on the Wild West Show with Buffalo Bill Cody and went clear across to Europe and been in D.C. One of the things -- he came back and he visited in a little school on Standing Rock, when it was settled, after he had been brought in, brought back from Canada and had been held in prison at Fort Randall for two years, brought back to Standing Rock and some of my own people followed him back up. They brought him back by riverboat up the Missouri and the rest of the people that were with him walked; they didn't ride on that boat. One of them was my grandmother, who was a little infant and brought up from that area of the country -- Fort Randall back up to Standing Rock. But he later visited that school where my grandmother was at, and it was called the Kennel Industrial School. It's not there anymore. In fact that whole community was inundated, flooded by the great dams that were put upon the Missouri River Basin from Montana clear down into Nebraska. But he walked in that school and he said -- and he talked to the children and he looked at all of them -- and he said, ‘You need to learn, you need to learn what the wasicus are doing and you need to learn how they write and what they do.' He said, ‘I can't read or write.' He could write his name, but he said, ‘You need to do these things and learn what they are about, because that is the only way you're going to protect yourself, it's the only way you're going to keep who you are.' He said, ‘I've seen them,' he said. He said, ‘They're going to come in such great numbers.' He said, ‘When you see the ant pile,' he said, ‘there are even more than that coming. They're not here yet, but they're coming. You see them around us right now.' He meant wasicus, the white man. He said, ‘They're bringing things that you can't see or understand all the time, but you must learn about them and you must learn their way, because otherwise you won't be able to take care of yourself.' He said, ‘I've seen them,' and he said, ‘there's more than you can ever imagine or think that are coming.' And he said, ‘It's something we cannot stop.' So even he knew at the end, just before the end, that there was a complete change in life. And he had his own school that was established in his community, just shortly before he was shot. So he was making changes himself.

But for other reasons, I won't get into the whole story about his killing, and how he was murdered, unfortunately, by other Native people. And these are the things -- and that is one of the first lessons we must always remember -- that the United States government has used effectively the Roman rule of ‘divide and conquer' very effectively among us. And we must always be cautious that we, as Native people, don't become continued victims of that, and that we don't use those non-Indian ways to take advantage of each other or to harm or hurt each other. Those are the realities. That was one of the lessons we should have learned out of the last Wounded Knee that Oren Lyons talked about a little bit ago. Because when we create those kinds of conflicts among ourselves, it also creates very harsh, bad realities, for generations to come, among ourselves. And then I can go back to the good lessons I hear and I listen to about what you are doing out in those communities -- of dealing with issues of disparity, turning them around and creating whole new kinds of opportunities, whole new kinds of wonderful hope and giving hope to others -- so that that student I talked to the other day may indeed be here at Harvard, but will continue on in a good way, carrying with him some good kinds of new proactive, if you will, weapons, but also ways that we continue to create peace and humanity among ourselves. Because that's where our hearts are, that's where our hearts are. They are good hearts. [Lakota Language]. Thank you very much."

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