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Reflections about the First AIHEC Conference
By Dr. Phil Baird (Sicangu Lakota), UTTC Vice President of Academic, Career and Technical Education
22 February 2008

      As we prepare for the annual meeting of the nation's Tribal colleges and universities, more than just a few memories come to mind about the very first conference held by tribal college educators.

      The inaugural Tribal college gathering was convened in Rapid City, South Dakota on April 4-7, 1982, as the "first annual American Indian/Alaska Native higher education conference." It was hosted by Oglala Sioux Community College (Elgin Bad Wound, president) Kyle, S.D. and Sinte Gleska College (Lionel Bordeaux, president) Rosebud, S.D. Both institutions felt good about starting this first effort at the "He Sapa," the sacred Black Hills.

Dr. Phil Baird
Dr. Phil Baird

      The conference theme was: "A Vision Quest for Indian Self-determination through Higher Education."

      Conference coordinators were Cheryl Crazy Bull, SGC and Elaine Beaudreau, OSCC. Cheryl is now president of Northwest Indian College at Bellingham, Washington and the current AIHEC board president. Elaine served for almost 10 years as the co-founding AIHEC Student Congress advisor. She presently works for the University of Minnesota higher education system.

      The first AIHEC conference coincided with the national Tribal college basketball tournament, also held in Rapid City. Started several years earlier, the tourney featured rosters that combined Tribal college students and staff members. Helping coordinate the 1982 AIHEC athletic event were Kenny Billingsley, SGC, Tally Plume, OSCC, and myself, then SGC vice president and basketball coach. Others involved with planning, including Tuffy Lunderman and "Beef" Randall of OSCC.

      The 1982 AIHEC conference and tournament events were literally hot. I remember the spring weather topped 80 degrees. This contributed to a well-known story about Jim Shanley joining his friend, Lakota artist Art Amiotte, somewhere near Hill City for "sun worship." Let's just say when it was over and Jim returned to the conference, evidence of his only protection from the sun was the imprint of his sunglasses on his face. He claimed he "napped" too long.

      The conference opened with a Sunday evening reception hosted by the South Dakota Indian Education Association, followed by a "Cultural Night in Concert." The lineup was typical of Indian conferences of the time, including Oneida comedian Charlie Hill, local musician Buddy Red Bow, Rosebud's Butch Felix and his Country Skins band, and national Indian rights activist and music recording artist Floyd Westerman.

      At the first general assembly, Oglala Lakota chief Frank Fools Crow offered the invocation followed with flag and honoring songs by the Porcupine Singers. The local welcome came from Rapid City Mayor Art LaCroix, who was one of the few American Indians in the country to serve in that capacity. Russell Davis and Tom Atcitty were guest speakers. AIHEC's then-Executive Director Leroy Clifford provided an overview of the conference.

      Seventy panel and workshop presentations over three days covered a myriad of topics that are still touchstones today in American Indian higher education: accreditation, student transfers, workforce development, curricula development and teaching methodologies, adult education, student services, financial aid, cultural education, research, and most importantly, federal legislation. Most of the country's distinguished Indian educators presented from notes that had been banged out on typewriters.

      Those from tribal government leadership attending were: Oglala Sioux Tribal Chairman Joe American Horse; Rosebud Sioux Tribal Chairman Carl Waln and Vice Chairman Ben Black Bear, Jr.; Standing Rock Tribal Chairman Frank Lawrence; and Blackfeet Tribal President Earl Old Person, Browning, Montana.

      Federal government representatives included Bud Blakey, Michael Doss, Chuck Emery, Alice Ford, Jo Jo Hunt, Alan Lovesee, Helen Red Bird, Paul Tone, Esther Whalen, and John Wu. There were also Tribal college advocates like former U.S. Congressman Mike Blouin, Bill Burgress, and John Forkenbrock.

      It is interesting to note the AIHEC leadership at the 1982 conference who are still involved today: Lionel Bordeaux, Cheryl Crazy Bull, Jim Davis, Dave and Gerry Gipp, Bob Martin, Joe McDonald and Jim Shanley.

      Some members of the AIHEC family took other paths after 1982: Tom Allen, Mac Arthur, Wayne Claymore, Colleen Cutchall, John Emhoolah, Dennis Gaspar, John Gritts, Francine Hall, Perry Horse, Skyler Houser, Phyllis Howard, Walter Jensen, Carol Juneau, Marcy Kahl, Jean Katus, Pat Lee, Gerry Mohatt, Carty Monette, Jan Murray, Richard Nichols, Leland Pond, Lemoine Pulliam, Darius Rowland, Jeane Smith, Wayne Stein, Gertrude Swain, Jon Wade and John Weatherly, to name a few.

      What's especially nostalgic is looking over the 1982 conference agenda and noting some of the higher education leaders and others who have since joined their relatives in the spirit world: Dr. Jack Barden, Oglala Lakota spiritual leaders Frank Fools Crow and Matthew King, Jo Jo Hunt, former Navajo Community College president Dean Jackson, Frank Lawrence, Bob Penn, John Rouillard, Harley Sazue, Gerry Slater, Robert Sullivan, and of course, the late Floyd Westerman.

      A few years, and some great leaders, have gone by since the first AIHEC conference in Rapid City. With the establishment of the AIHEC Student Congress in 1986, the conference now focuses more on student activities. The AIHEC board at some point also established a rotation of conference sites so the Tribal college movement could be shared in different parts of Indian country.

      Today, the commitment to Indian higher education and the rebuilding of Tribal Nations remains strong, as evidenced by the growth of Tribal colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad. The annual AIHEC conference is an event that strengthens the cause and revitalizes those who are committed to it, and creates an opportunity for memories that last a lifetime.


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