Monday, December 17, 2007

Language and Culture Empower Our Youth

I want to thank a reader of Money magazine who wrote that he was shocked by our ad campaign, "If I Stay on the Rez." He noted "This ad does such a disservice it's impossible for me to comprehend why you would encourage Indian youth to learn in their native language, whatever that may be. English is the language of this country, whether you like it or not. Business is conducted in English. And so is biology." He went on to note that Indian youth should be taught their native tongues while they are growing up, but should study English while in college, and should be encouraged to leave the reservation.

Letters like this that help us understand the misconceptions people have about tribal colleges and the important work we have yet to do to educate the populace. Tribal colleges are institutions where students learn English, math, and computer science alongside their traditional languages, much like students study Russian, French, Spanish, or German in college. The difference, of course, is that native languages are not foreign languages, they are our own. When we study our languages we are not doing so as the children of immigrants searching for our roots or desiring to communicate with outsiders—we are celebrating our identities as indigenous people, and re-learning or studying in depth what was forbidden, suppressed, or taken from us.

Regardless of the reason one studies another language, studies show that people who grow up bilingual—no matter what the language—perform better on standardized academic tests, such as the ACT, SAT, LSAT, and GMAT. These same studies show that people who speak their own culture's language perform better overall in academics.

Language has been a political issue worldwide. Since the beginning of humankind, language has been a tool of power. Language is a reflection of a dominant culture’s mores and beliefs, and law codifies it. But when people speak their own language along with a dominant language, monoglots sometimes feel threatened. This is why, of course, the U.S. government forbade Indian children from speaking their languages when they were shipped to boarding schools. It is also why many languages disappeared or went underground in Africa and South and Central America when European nations colonized those continents.

If language is power, imagine what studying one’s own language does for our Indian students. It empowers students, gives them pride in their culture, gives them a sense of past, present, and future. Our languages are the language of this country just as much as English is. Indian people negotiated treaties and forms of government that our country’s Constitution used as a model. Our language is stamped on the country, indelibly, in the names of states, rivers, and mountains: Connecticut, Mississippi, Niobrara. Our land is a living entity, and it whispers our language and breathes our spirit. This is what tribal colleges teach: how to proudly navigate the worlds around us and the languages of those worlds. We belong in the world of our ancestors every bit as much as we belong in the world of the present. Tribal colleges graduate doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, and scientists, who stay or return home to the reservation to make a better life for their people, and passing on the tradition of success. Yes, we are Americans, we are the first Americans, and we are proud of that and of our country. But this does not mean we are not proud of being citizens of other nations, too. Just like any American can hold dual citizenship with a country in Europe and speak more than one language, we can, and do, as well.

Our country is founded on the principles of diversity as espoused in the Confederacy of the Iroquois, as the French called the six nations of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas, and Tuscaroras. This diversity is enshrined in our Constitution. Our tribal colleges, like the Constitution, celebrate that diversity, our cultural strengths, and our accomplishments. Like language, diversity brings power and strength. It is our country’s foundation, and it is its future.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Time to Give

The holidays are a traditional time of giving: to family members, friends, and philanthropic causes. American Indians have a long history of philanthropy. Generosity in the Native community was demonstrated by holding a giveaway or a potlatch. And a person's value was measured not by what they owned, but what they gave away.

I would like to take this time to thank all of our donors for their gifts of money, time, and the gift of caring. Your efforts make a difference in our students' lives, and that difference changes lives and communities.

If you haven't already given this year, I would like to ask you to consider a gift to the American Indian College Fund. The impact we make is large, and is causing a transformation in Indian country as more people see education as a way to make a better life for themselves, their family, and their communities. But as more students are eager to go to school, there is more unmet need.

We look forward to welcoming you into the American Indian College Fund family!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


The author at age 18.

I received a letter from Ann Marie Donoghue from the Buffalo Bill Historical Center about this painting, A Young Oglala Sioux, painted by the artist James Bama. I was the subject in the painting, which is currently on view in the Coe Auditorium Gallery. Prior to that, it was displated in the Kriendler Gallery of Contemporary Art, a gallery inside the Whitney Gallery of Western Art at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center.

Seeing this painting again after so many years reminds me that from adolescence to young adulthood, a person is coming into his own. He is learning about who he is, how he fits into the world, what talents the creator has gifted him with, and how he can contribute those gifts to the world.

Chrysalis is a word derived from Latin for the gold-colored pupa of butterflies, denoted as the “sheltered stage of being or growth.” When I look back on this painting, I think of the golden years of youth.

Sadly, for many of our young Indian people, there is no sheltered golden time to learn, grow, or determine what their gifts might be. They are often responsible for young children or family members, and the grinding demand of providing food and shelter for their families and themselves engulf their days. Young Indian people live in some of the poorest areas of the country, and the opportunity to go to college for higher intellectual and spiritual growth is a luxury that few can afford.

As we enter the season of giving, my fervent wish is that all of our young Indian people can fulfill the purpose that the creator intended.

All young people should have the luxury of holding dear and nurturing a dream, giving birth to that dream as it emerges from the chrysalis to fly, spreading beauty and hope. I hope that you will help spread the gift of hope this holiday season.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Lot to Be Thankful For...

We at the Fund have a lot to be thankful for this year. Our individual, corporate, and foundation supporters are stepping up to the plate to help American Indian students achieve their goals and dreams. We are seeing our graduates go on to successful and fulfilling careers. And we are seeing tribal colleges expand their offerings and increasing their support to their communities in many capacities as educators and community centers.

As we enter this period of reflection and thanks across the nation, I would like to take this opportunity to thank those of you who care enough to make a difference in your communities and with the American Indian community.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Flame of Hope Gala A Success

Thanks to all of you, our supporters, the Fund raised $400,000 to support student scholarships at the Flame of Hope Gala in New York last Thursday.

This event doesn't happen overnight. Many of our supporters donated funds for the event itself, including the venue, the meal, and the entertainment. And many of you also donated your beautiful artwork for the silent auction. Others volunteered your time to work on the planning committee to choose the venue, the meal, to solicit sponsorships, to generate media support, and more. Others volunteered on site at the registration desk and at the auction.

I'd like to take this time to thank everyone who helped the Fund further its goal to assist American Indian students in achieving their dream of an education.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month

Tomorrow marks the beginning of American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month. We celebrate the contributions that American Indians and Alaska and Hawaii Natives have made in American culture in the past, but especially in the present.

Unfortunately, due to lack of contact with Natives or inaccurate views about Natives based on reflections of the past, many Americans do not have an accurate picture of Native peoples today. Many buy into negative stereotypes about Natives, such as imagery about alcohol and drug abuse, or base their ideas of Natives on historical sepia-toned imagery. As Native leaders, we need to work hard not just this month, but every month, to share the good news about Natives and their modern-day successes and leaders in our community. We have pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen and women, and more that are leading our communities and rebuilding them, for Natives and non-Natives alike.

Tribal colleges are ground zero for the renaissance of Native peoples. Tribal colleges serve both Indian and non-Indian communties as centers for learning for children, college students, and adults; gathering places for the community; health centers, pharmacies, libraries, art galleries, computer centers, Native language centers, and much, much more.

This renaissance didn't happen overnight. The tribal college movement has been ongoing since 1969, with the founding of Diné College, which paved the way.

Perhaps changing the image of Natives with Americans won't happen overnight, either. But as we proudly claim our Native birthright while celebrating our past and present successes we will change that. We must keep our eyes on the task at hand: educate our minds and our spirits and lead our communities to succeed. Not only do we exist, but we excel. Spread the good word!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Flame of Hope Gala

The 12th Annual Flame of Hope Gala is a little more than a week away. I hope to see you all there. We have top-flight entertainment planned, beautiful items to auction, and best of all, our talented and bright students will be joining us as we celebrate the future of Indian education.

See you in New York!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Native American Heritage Day

The American Indian College Fund supports Senate Bill S. 1852, “the Native American Heritage Day Act of 2007,” which would designate the Friday after Thanksgiving to honor our Indian nations across the country and help highlight the contributions they have made to American history.

Throughout American history, Native Americans have made important contributions to the nation, society, and culture, including the modeling of the separation of powers amongst the branches of government in the U.S. Constitution after the structure of the Iroquois Nation; the role Sacajawea played as a guide and ambassador of peace to Lewis and Clark on their western expedition across the west to the Pacific coast; and the use of American Indian language by Native soldiers as weapons in both World War I and World War II to defeat American enemies. Hopi, Choctaw, Comanche, Kiowa, Winnebago, Seminole, Navajo and Cherokee Americans used their languages as a secret code, and in World War II, the Marines relied on Navajos to create and memorize a code based on the Navajo language.

Today Native Americans continue to live according to their own traditions and cultures, and are making greater contributions than ever before. More than 30 tribal colleges across the country are educating future accountants, doctors, lawyers, health care workers, educators, policymakers, and political leaders.

To recognize the past and present contributions of Native Americans would honor not only our ancestors, but those who are striving to make a better life for themselves and their people. It would also benefit the American people, who would learn more about Native people as a result.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Fund Serves as Consultants for Eddie Murphy movie

The Fund was asked to serve as a cultural consultant for the filmmaker Eddie Murphy's comedy, "Nowhereland," which was filmed in Denver this week. As part of our duties, Fund staffers reviewed the script to ensure that the humor was not offensive to Natives, and made sure cultural references were accurate. In addition, three Fund staffers served as extras in the movie. They are Patti Archambault, Ruben Hernandez, and Ashley Sarracino. We also armed several Native extras with t-shirts emblazoned with tribal college logos to wear on the set.

I traveled down to the set on Tuesday and met with the producer, Lorenzo Di Bonaventura of Di Bonaventura Pictures. I was able to watch the filming take place, and was shepherded behind the cameras to see what the picture looked like on the monitors. I was then taken into the lobby of the Brown Palace Hotel, the site of much of the shooting, where I was interviewed on camera for the DVD. I discussed my heritage, the mission of the Fund, and our role with the film, as well as whether Hollywood is doing a better job portraying Natives in film.

Watch for the film to be released next year!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Fall Frenzy

Fall is harvest time, and here at the Fund, we have been busy working to bring in funding for scholarships, build corporate support for our programs, and build awareness about the importance of education in Indian country. In a way, we are harvesting our relationships... and to take the analogy of harvest and growth a bit further, planting bulbs that will blossom in the spring when it comes to creating new relationships.

I have spent much of my time these past six weeks visiting tribal colleges across the country to learn about their needs. As I travel, I have the opportunity to meet our students, from the young to the old. As I hear these students' stories of struggle and determination for an education to build a better life, I always come away from my travels humbled with the task that I have been given, and awed at how the American Indian College Fund creates hope for all ages in our community.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Hope on the Rez

It's been almost nine months in the making, and like a birth after a nine-month wait, we are ready to release the American Indian College Fund documentary video into the world। It was a joyful, expectant, and sometimes difficult nine months। We had to convince several students to share their stories of struggle with us and the rest of the world, as well as the camera. It's hard enough struggling to get an education against sometimes great odds, harder still to have the courage to share your struggles with others. The students featured in this short film have opened themselves to audiences to share their hopes, dreams, sorrows, disappointments--and their desire to continue their educations despite the odds. Our community leaders have also weighed in about the important role our tribal colleges serve, not just for the student, but for entire communities. I hope you will watch the video and continue to support the hopes and dreams of our deserving American Indian students.

Check out our video at

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

New Beginnings

I sat down this morning with three of my grandchildren before they left for their first day of school. I asked them to be good and treat other people in a good way. I said they may be meeting new friends that might be with them for a lifetime. And I reminded them of the first law of Indian people: respect. My ten-year-old grandson, knowing our ways, quietly added that the second law was responsibility. It was good way to begin a good day.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

In A Good Way

It seems that wherever I go, I meet people who are interested in what we are

doing here at the College Fund, our mission, and our students.

I speak with people around the country about the underfunded miracles that are the tribal colleges, and how they impact our students' lives. And I speak about the everyday people that I meet and how they are overcoming huge obstacles.

Because I cannot be everywhere at once, and because these stories are too powerful not to share, I decided to create this blog as a forum for sharing what is happening in and around Indian country.

I promise to write often, and answer your comments.

Thank you for this opportunity to share with you all of the little and big miracles we encounter in our work.

In A Good Way,

Rick Williams