United Tribes News Speech Archives

By Gerald E. Gipp
Keynote Address – Commencement Ceremony
United Tribes Technical College
May 2, 2008

President Gipp, Governing Board of Tribal Leaders, Special Guests, Friends and Relatives, Administrators, Faculty and Staff and 2008 Graduating Class, I am honored to be with you on this very special day – a day that you graduates will remember throughout your lifetime. Congratulations to each of you! Enjoy it to the fullest! Your class motto: Leading the Way, Sustaining: Unity, Diversity and Traditions through Education, is most appropriate in this day of challenge.

I bring you greetings from the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and the other 35 AIHEC member colleges located in 14 states across the country where some 1,500 Tribal College students will be celebrating their commencement exercises during the coming weeks.

2008 Graduates, today is a special celebration for you, to honor your accomplishments and all that you have achieved at the United Tribes Technical College. It is also a special day for the many people here and those back home that supported you.

IT is also a DAY OF CELEBRATION: The parents, grandparents, friends and relatives as they celebrate your new independence…and your ability to obtain employment and equally importantly for them – your ability to pay your own bills!

It is also a day to Give Thanks – to thank to all those family members and friends that supported you in your endeavor to reach a new level of academic achievement.

For the UTTC Family, President Gipp, the UTTC administration, faculty and staff, because they have been operating on the basis of deferred gratification; this event marks a time for their payback for all the hard work in providing quality programs so you might pursue your dreams and future goals in life.

And it is a time to stop and give thanks to the UTTC faculty and staff who have provided support during your time at UTTC. It's a time to give thanks to the many that have committed their lives to providing a culturally relevant education in preparing you for the challenges of the 21st Century.

Finally it is a special day of Celebration for the people of your communities and your Tribes as they witness a new cadre of personnel trained ready to enter the world of work in their communities; ready to take on the new challenges.

Again, my congratulations to each of you and my best wishes.

Changing Environment
As I contemplated what to share with you today, I thought about what has occurred since the time that I was raised on the Standing Rock Reservation.

Much has changed over the years since I graduated from the Standing Rock Community School and went off to college and taking on my first teaching job some 46 years ago, so if you will indulge me, I would like to share a few thoughts about that journey.

As a young boy my playground during my early years was along the banks of the Missouri river. It was a time before there were any dams and reservoirs on the river. It was a world full of wildlife with the river serving as a migratory waterway for birds, pelicans, ducks and geese. It was a place of tall cottonwoods, red willow and diamond willow along the river bottom. In the winter it was a place to explore new territory as we walked across the frozen river into foreign land on the eastern banks. It was a time when pheasants, prairie chickens and deer were plentiful. As a young lad, I never aspired to leave this place of wonder or seek a new way of life away from Standing Rock.

I never envisioned going off to college because I had little understanding of what it would take to enter various professions. At the time, we didn't have the luxury of a tribal college like Sitting Bull College or UTTC. And when I finished high school I still had no idea what the future held for me because we had few Indian professional role models to guide us. But there were a few and they are etched in my memory as those that boldly lead the way for many of us. But we also had had other role models, our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. And of course our brothers and sisters; I never had a sister, but I had an older brother, Bob; who in effect was a role model for me because as first-generation college students, he broke the trail by going off to college and his commitment made it easier for me to follow.

Today, I thank my brother Bob for leading the way for Dave and me. Of course our parents, my mother and father were an important part of a support system, but I also special inspiration to my late Grandfathers Louie Halsey, and Jesse Pleets. My grandfather Jesse was sent off to Hampton Institute during the early 1900s and understood the importance of education, he always encouraged me and I have thought of him often as my career evolved and I always pause to thank him and I often wish I could visit with him.

When I went off to college there were few of us that traveled that road in those days, so it was unusual. What wasn't unusual was the fact that I was poorly prepared to enter college like many students over the years; but a problem that continues to frustrate our educators today. I was given a standardized test when I entered college and later the Dean of Students counseled me. I will always remember his simple message. He said: "Jerry, if you want to stay in college you are really going to have to study." I knew I was poorly prepared, but in my heart I also believed that I was capable and intelligent enough to make it in college.

In those early days, we had few support systems, few role models, even fewer Indian professionals to guide us, no scholarships, and many of us had poor academic backgrounds.

While I could have blamed my earlier schooling; the responsibility was mine to correct. The Challenge was to catch-up, to take remedial coursework in English, mathematics and other fundamental courses. In those days, we lovingly called them "bone-head" classes. But we persevered.

Whenever, I would return home to the reservation during a break, one of my older cousins would tease me about going to college. He would say: "Hey cousin, did you learn any new big words in college this week? You know ---- words like elephant, hippopotamus, or giraffe??" He was teasing of course, he wasn't ridiculing me, in fact it was his way of acknowledging my efforts to go off to college and get a higher degree. I never mentioned the bone-head classes.

But another experience that helped me in college was participating in athletics; I was a walk-on because in my time, Indian athletes were rarely if ever recruited because we were considered high risk with tendencies to dropout or flunk out. Standing Rock, like many other tribal communities, had outstanding athletes over the years. While I would never lay claim to being among them, I was fortune to end up playing and lettering in three sports in college: football, basketball and baseball. I believe that continual year-round training and the discipline and organization of team sports helped me in many ways throughout my life and career.

I have to share a little story about that experience that relates to how people perceive us and often misunderstand and promote stereotypes about Indian people. When my good friend the late Frankie Lawrence (former Standing Rock Tribal chairman) enrolled in college, we became roommates and teammates because he also played all the sports. One fall while traveling back to football camp we were discussing the fact that we didn't have a lot of money and we couldn't take on jobs because of our athletic training and travel requirements; yet our teammates, many of whom were "bench warmers" were privileged to receive athletic scholarships and jobs to earn extra money. We hadn't thought much about it because we just loved to compete. We decided this wasn't fair and we made a pact to ask for some support or we weren't going to play anymore.

We confronted the Athletic Director with this concern and told him we would appreciate some financial support because of the time we were spending participating in athletics. The AD sat back and after some pause, said: "Why I thought the Federal Government paid for everything for you Indian boys." We proceed to tell him that wasn't the case because we had tribal educational loans and required collateral, a co-signer. Frank's father and my grandfather had not put their land up as collateral on our tribal educational loans. And because of the financial stress we weren't going to play anymore unless we were given some assistance. I guess we were threatening a boycott, even though we never heard of it. I guess we learned a new word. He eventually gave us a scholarship. But it taught us a lesson that we needed to stand up for ourselves and that people hold stereotypes and make judgments without really knowing who you are, what you value and where you come from.

After graduating and obtaining a teaching certificate; despite my interest in returning to Standing Rock, I realized that I would have to seek employment away from home because there were no teaching positions available. So I moved on, first to a public school in Verona, North Dakota and later on the Northern Cheyenne Reservations in Montana and the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota. It was during this time period, that I came to full realization of the poor quality of education that was being provided to Indian students. I also better understood the challenges Indian people face in this country because of the poverty issues and of the level of racism, discrimination and prejudice across our society, especially in and around communities on the reservation.

As you know, we live in an ever-changing world, a world that is filled with challenges and conflicts. We live in a world of conflict that is witnessing the development of new nations almost yearly. We live in a time where the economic stability and leadership of our Nation is being questioned. We are in the midst of an election year, a time when many believe that we need a new way of thinking, better leadership in government that listens to the average American and the people living in and on the margins of poverty. If any of you were at the opening session of the recent AIHEC conference, you heard from a young woman from Cheyenne River talk about the importance of voting, that you can make a difference, especially in this time of crisis, I encourage you to register and vote this year.

While I never envisioned taking on leadership roles and I have always considered myself to be a common person, one who didn't seek the limelight; yet, I have had the privilege to hold a number of challenging high level leadership positions throughout my career; from the Director of Indian Education in US Department of Education to the president of a tribal college and one that was especially enlightening was working at the National Science Foundation. I had the opportunity to work with scientists, researchers, mathematicians and professionals that were interested in Educational systemic reform, so that was a great learning process for me.

This experience reminds of several things: first, given the fact that we live in a politically correct world; as I have met people around the country, I am often asked what you want to be called, "Native American or American Indian?" My response has always been, that while "Native American" is more in vogue, its not that important for most Native people; rather what is important if you want to honor the person you are asking, they would probably prefer to be identified by their tribal affiliation; whether it's Lakota, Ojibwa, or Mandan Hidatsa, Arikara or Comanche or the hundreds of other tribal names in our Nation. So I have always advised that you would honor the person by learning their tribal affiliation.

Living on the east coast people will often ask me where I'm from and when I tell them North Dakota and I usually get a response like;"you must be used to the cold" and I ways think, you never get used too it, you just learn to live with it and I remind them that we do have four seasons of the year. Not two!

As you know we do enjoy those "INDIAN SUMMER" days in the late fall – early winter when the warm weather returns for a day or two. But speaking of being politically correct and using big words, when I worked at the National Science Foundation, I reminded my colleagues that if they wanted to talk about Indian summer and be politically correct, they need to use these scientific terms: "NATIVE AMERICAN POST-EQUINOX PHENOMENA." So next time someone mentions Indian summer, you can tell them, No, no it's Native American Post-Equinox Phenomena.

As I contemplate retirement, living on the East Coast for many years with the potential threat of terrorism and considering moving to some paradise like California with their fires, floods, wind storms and earthquakes; I think the prairies of the Northern Plains look pretty good to me. So I am planning to return to North Dakota in the very near future. That is where my future lies!

Where Are We Today as Tribal People in This Society?
The challenges continue; while there is no longer war and genocide OR the removal of children to far off boarding schools; NEVERTHELESS, the battles continue in different ways, they are in the courtrooms, the classrooms and in our communities where the battle rages against all the symptoms of poverty.

As we look to improve our situation, we must bring an understanding of the historical context of Indian affairs and how it relates to the contemporary issues facing our communities. It is important because we must continue to remind the policy makers, the decision makers of why Native people are in the contemporary struggles of the day. This is not meant to be mean-spirited, to blame or create guilt, but rather to bring a better understanding of the depth and complexities of the problems. Without that framework, it is too easy for mainstream society to simply say: "why don't you just move to the city and get a job?" We all know that has been tried though BIA relocation programs of the past and for most it was a failure

Native people have in fact paid an extreme price in the development of this Nation in terms of loss of land and natural resources; not to speak of the human devastation though the destruction of cultures, languages and breakdown of families and community infrastructures. The stories may differ from tribe to tribe, but they share a common theme - the devastation of a way of life. Tribal cultures stopped in their tracks and not allowed to take their natural course of evolution. One of the most important has been the significant loss of language and culture.

Equally important, we have also witnessed the destruction of a traditional extended family learning process, over the past century there has been an erosion and absence of informal or formal structures to facilitate and allow tribal languages to grow and flourish.

As we seek to improve the lives of our children, I believe that the key to our future lies with education to help them grow to their fullest potential so that they have choices for their future.

I also believe that we must prepare our students to support and protect the sovereignty of our tribal governments. So our governments can more effectively address the needs and issues confronting tribal communities and protect our language and traditions. In order to be successful we must begin by continually assessing our progress from our perspective and it must start with understanding our history with formal education.

Metaphorically, the glass was nearly empty back in the 1950s and 60s; today the glass may be half-full, because I am convinced that we are experiencing a renaissance, a rebuilding our tribes and communities. I believe that we have come a million miles since those days of termination in the 1950s.

Today we have great hopes for a new beginning as we continue to gain control over our educational institutions. Today our tribal leaders have greater access to new resources through gaming and other economic development endeavors which allow for new opportunities for jobs and training.

Today, in an era of Self-determination with the federal government, it has been a time for Indian people to assume greater control over programs affecting their people.

What are some of the New and Continuing Challenges?
There are many, but let me share just a few:

Resource Parity
Despite the success of the TCU movement and United Tribes Technical College, the battle for funding continues on an annual basis. I commend the leadership of this college, the city of Bismarck and the Mayor for his support.

I salute the North Dakota Legislature and the Governor for passing special funding to support the non-beneficiary students attending ND TCUs. I applaud ND Congressional delegates: These men are our heroes; Senator Dorgan, Senator Conrad and Congress Pomeroy for stepping forward and fighting back to restore the UTTC budget that has been so callous and shamefully cut by the Bush Administration over the past seven years.

The ongoing challenge will be to convince the other decision makers at the federal and congressional levels to provide increased resources to provide quality educational programs for tribal colleges and schools and public schools that serve Native students with the added mandate of No Child Left Behind.

Language and Cultural Maintenance and Revitalization
As educators I believe we have two major challenges in trying to undo the cultural genocide of the past federal policies.

  1. One, is to help tribal communities to capture and document to the greatest extent possible their languages, culture, and traditions.
  2. Two and perhaps the greatest challenge and barrier that our communities face…. is how we use it. Tribal educators need to develop our own experts to build upon the traditional epistemology of their elders in translating native knowledge and its relationship to western thinking.

The incorporation of Native American culture and traditions into academic curriculum and education programming is essential for success in Indian education.

Lessons Learned from the TCU Movement: A Grassroots Movement
As our communities seek to grow and develop there are lessons learned from the TCU movement which is truly a "grassroots movement". Our mandate is to capture and institutionalize the lessons learned from their experience of developing institutions of higher learning to ensure the sustainability of their work and to share this new knowledge and wisdom to widen the circle of partnerships and create unity with other tribes, federal agencies and philanthropic groups.

Today with the federal government demanding greater accountability through K-12 initiatives like "No Child Left Behind," there is increasing pressure to provide empirical data for programs receiving federal funds. Internal federal program assessments within the Office of Management and Budget are demanding more data on the progress of federal programs to determine future budgets. We must be prepared and willing to measure our progress.

Diversity is a New Challenge in our Nation
The concept of diversity is interesting, challenging and, for the most part, difficult. We face it in our everyday lives as we decide how to act or react as the dominant society moves and dictates. It is intertwined in our informal interactions both on a friendly and sometimes challenging circumstance.

We know that diversity among the indigenous people of the Americas was always here. It brings new and special challenges for Native people, tribal colleges and schools and all educational institutions across the country.

While Native people are concerned with diversity and the ideal of equality, one major difference to be noted is the fact that the struggle for equality and equity in a diverse society; for Native people it is also based on treaties as sovereign Tribal Nations with the federal government and not based on race.

An equally important and key factor in the diversity discussion is that Native people hold differing worldviews and values than the dominant society. There is a common belief that the land is sacred and cannot be owned and must be respected and cared for to ensure a healthy environment for future generations. There is a belief that all things are related, animals, plants, and the earth must be respected and be in harmony to be honored for the good of all.

Such values were part of the traditional everyday life built upon the foundation of Native peoples respect and value of living in harmony with their environment – Mother Earth.

Understanding that we had a special relationship to the land where we lived meant not exploiting it and giving thanks for what it had to offer. We have always felt a special relationship with this country because it is our homeland even though the federal government has taken most of it away.

There is so much more to be addressed, but the future challenge for all of us will be to provide leadership by bringing greater understanding of these important differences to the dominant society. Hopefully each of you will have an opportunity to share your passions and you new knowledge by giving back to your communities; to bring a better understanding for social stability and enjoying the richness of all cultures while contributing to the concepts of freedom and equality of a great Nation.

The evolution of tribal economic development and the tribal college movement while still young in the history of Time have much to offer in our struggles for self-determination. These initiatives represent new hope and opportunities in Indian Country as they bring a new dawn to a vision that benefits the seventh generation.

My best wishes to each of you as you cross the threshold into a new way of life.

Thank you.