By Jerome Tharaud
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION - For Steve Galbavy, Stone Child College is a work in progress. Galbavy, who has been president of the college for seven years, can look out his new office window at an impressive prospect.
Like most tribal colleges, he said, Stone Child's origins were humble.
"You held classes where you could - in vacant buildings, garages, wherever. That's where we started," Galbavy said. The contrast to the college's new home, complete with vaulting entryway fringed by two curving staircases and supported with natural wood columns, is marked.
For a while Stone Child held classes at Rocky Boy High School, and in about 1990 moved into the old high school building at Rocky Boy Agency. In 1993 the college was granted initial accreditation, and in 1998 that was reaffirmed. Since then Stone Child has worked to tailor its curriculum to make itself more more compatible to four-year institutions.
"Through the years we've just constantly advanced ourselves, proved ourselves," Galbavy said.
The improved person wants improved clothes, of course, and Stone Child was outgrowing its old suit.
"We were pretty tight," Galbavy said, pointing out that the new campus has 16 classrooms - more than double the number of the old campus - six computer labs, and two science labs instead of one. "Now we have enough room to grow and expand."
It's not just a matter of size, but style.
"There are just a whole lot of people that walk in and say, 'Wow, I want to come and take classes here,'" said Galbavy.
Part of his goal, he said, is to draw more students from surrounding communities.
Location, location, education
The college received the 50-acre site after working with the Chippewa Cree tribal council in 2001.
Nestled as it is in the middle of fields above Box Elder, about five miles from the agency, Galbavy balked at first: The site was windy and isolated.
Looking out over the endless hazy fields of alfalfa, one is reminded of Kevin Costner's Iowa ball field, and the whispered conviction that "If you build it, they will come."
So far they are coming. This summer, the first term the new campus has been open, there are about 100 more students registered for classes than there were last summer, Stone Child registrar Shelley Viall said earlier this month. Galbavy said he would like enrollment this fall to get above 300 from its average of about 265 per semester.
The location ended up being fortuitous, with a nearby gas well, opportunities to develop wind power eventually, and a fiber optic line running through the property that can be tapped into for high-speed Internet access.
The site also boasts a less tangible resource that will perhaps turn turbines of the inner sort.
"On top of that it's just aesthetically pleasing," Galbavy said. "I can look out one set of windows and see the Bear Paws, and look out the other side and see 150 miles." Thus the more ethereal aspect of education is amply provided for.
Todd Hanson, a teacher in the Department of Teacher Education and Social Sciences at Stone Child, said the aesthetic attractiveness of the building itself will improve learning.
"Our enrollment numbers suggest a new sense of optimism," said Hanson, adding that he has heard positive feedback from his students on the new facility. "There has to be a positive aesthetic if you want learning to take place." Hanson presents a lecture on the aesthetic of the classroom to his teaching students.
For other teachers, the building will mean the opportunity to have their own classroom for the first time.
"I have a whole room!" said Ann Johnstone, who teaches human services at the college. Johnstone said the extra space will allow the faculty to offer more weekend and night classes.
"I think we should think about becoming a true community college and have weekend and night classes," Johnstone said. "Everyone will have their own space to run workshops and that kind of thing."
Dawn Blatt, who just graduated with an associate degree in business from Stone Child and is taking a computer class and a math class this summer, said the extra space will make it easier on students as well.
"You don't have to keep switching out of classrooms," said Blatt. At the old campus, she said, teachers had to share rooms, and rooms were often overscheduled, so sometimes students would have to change rooms in the middle of class.
Dawn's younger sister Priscilla Blatt said the only drawback is that now she has to drive to class.
"The college up there was closer to my house than what it is now," said Priscilla Blatt. But she doesn't regret the change.
"I wouldn't want to be back in the old building," she said.
Melissa Bradley, who is taking a computer science class this summer, agreed.
"It's better than the old one," she said. "It looks nicer. It (has) cleaner floors and stuff like that."
Mary Top Sky, an assistant at the Career Ladder bilingual teaching program, said she used to just walk across the street to go to her job but now drives 10 to 15 minutes.
"I think it's worth it," she said. "I just like everything about (the campus)."
Melody Henry, dean of student services, said her commute is actually less now.
"Some people think this location is not as good because it's not centrally located, but I like the location," said Henry, who lives in Box Elder.
Spirituality of the space
There is a dimension to the building that is particularly appropriate for its role as a tribal college.
Galbavy pointed out the large wooden pillar in the center of the entryway of the administration building, which he said resembles the center pole of a traditional sun dance lodge.
That symbolism was no accident, said Bozeman-based architect Doug Morley, who said he designed the buildings with a great deal of input from faculty and community members.
For his master's thesis in architecture at Montana State University-Bozeman a few years ago, Morley spent time in Browning studying how to establish a traditional aesthetic in modern buildings.
"I was trying to find a way to incorporate their world view into their architecture," Morley said. "What I had to do was go back and analyze my intellectual prejudice about how I understood three-dimensional space."
Part of the challenge, Morley said, was that traditional Native American culture has a unique understanding of space, particularly vertical space. Conceptualizing a vertical axis - or "z axis" - in terms of mathematics and engineering, skyscrapers and moon missions, is a peculiarly modern abstraction, Morley said.
In contrast, he said, traditional Indian culture focused on the four directions. Humans moved in that horizontal plane, which remained separate from the more mystical realm existing above. The objects that pushed up into the sky - mountains, trees, the poles of lodges, and even birds and smoke - were vital to the culture because they connected the human plane spiritually to a more sacred space.
"We access the z axis through mathematics and engineering. They access the z axis through a spiritual means," Morley said, adding that architecture combines both. "They're two different ways of explaining the same thing, and if you can combine them you can address both cultures."
The pillar in the center of the new academic building was designed to evoke the "axis mundi," the pole in the center of a traditional sun dance lodge that becomes what Morley described as a "temporary center of the universe they create so they can have a ceremony."
"That's kind of like their antenna into the spiritual realm," he said, adding that the pole is a sacred object, and that he asked for permission to incorporate it into his design to make sure it was appropriate.
The second conception he had to move beyond, Morley said, was a rectilinear model.
"We live in a rectilinear society," he said. "Those oral cultures live in a round society because sound emanates in a round shape."
On the outside, the campus buildings are rectilinear and must function as a school, he said. But inside, he said, he wanted it to be different.
"You go into a rectilinear building and in the rotunda, it transforms into a circular building," Morley said. The rotunda was designed to evoke a sun dance lodge, both with its shape, its center pole, and the windows that let a flood of light in from both sides.
"It has a very naturalistic appeal with it," Hanson said of the rotunda.
"It's kind of in balance with a lot of native teaching about the sacred circle," he said.
"The circle is so near and dear to Native American culture," he said. "It's life to them."
He pointed out that the walls are covered by paintings, blankets and other wall hangings, all made by local artists.
"We've never had the wall space before," he said.
"It turned out beautiful," he added. "Geez, you can't beat it."
Morley refuses to take all the credit.
"The biggest thing I did was, I was open to their suggestions," he said. "The most important thing that happened was the connection these people have to this building because they built it."
A local firm, Arrow Construction, did the work, and most of the employees were local, Galbavy said.
Frank Henry, who was the construction manager on the project, agreed.
"For me as a community member it was just nice to drive by it in the evening. It really makes the community stand out," Henry said, adding that a building committee of faculty and community members met numerous times over about a year to plan it. "We're actually pretty proud of that."
Nuts and bolts
Before the new campus, Stone Child College had been located in the Rocky Boy Agency since about 1990.
Even then the college was looking for ways to fund a new campus. The process was not fast or easy.
Usually, Galbavy said, tribal colleges have to rely on what federal money is available for construction on the reservation, which is often scarce unless the timing is right.
"For years we went after construction dollars because, by and large, the tribal colleges are pretty meager," Galbavy said.
The American Indian Higher Education Consortium and the American Indian College Fund advocated to get those federal dollars for colleges every year when the federal budget came out.
Then in 2000, the AICF secured a grant for $30 million from the Lilly Foundation for construction, amounting to about $1.1 million per eligible tribal college. The Kellogg Foundation kicked in another $200,000 per institution.
Stone Child successfully applied to the AICF for its share of the money with the help of RJS & Associates, a Rocky Boy firm.
Soon after, the federal sources finally came through.
Stone Child got $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Education for construction. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also got on board with $400,000. The U.S. Department of Agriculture chipped in another $200,000. The college was able to secure an additional $800,000 from the Indian Community Development Block Grant program run by the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
"Couple all that together and that's what you see here," said Galbavy, sitting beside his office window - which boasts a view of the Bear Paw Mountains - as a breeze rustled the papers on his desk.
Construction on the $3.8 million campus started about two years ago, before the money was in hand. The college had discussed a loan with the bank just in case, but the backup plan wasn't necessary. "We got every dollar that we asked for," Galbavy said.
Construction on the campus cultural center, a log building, began in the summer of 2001 for about $275,000, and so did construction on the $1.25 million library building. That building was completed in the summer of 2002, and the final building, the $2.3 million academic building, began that summer.
Employees moved into the cultural center and the library building last August, while the academic classes and the president's office stayed at the old site until the academic building was completed late this spring.
Now there are still Internet lines to be put in and some new equipment to be installed, but classes are up and running.
The reaction, Galbavy said, has been "outstanding," especially from the community.
"A lot of it has to do with the fact that it's theirs," Galbavy said, adding that there is a great deal of pride that, unlike many other tribal colleges, construction was local. "That doesn't happen very often," he said.