Aaniiih Nakoda College: Where Native American Culture and Technology Meet
September 30, 2016
In the 33 years since it was chartered, what is now Aaniiih Nakoda College, the small tribal college on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation has come a long way.
"These folks, when they started here they had no buildings, no anything, they just survived," Aaniiih Nakoda College President Carole Falcon Chandler said about the college faculty. "We say we are survivors."
In just over three decades, the two-year college has undergone a name change, expanded its facilities on the small campus and is now ranked the number one community college in Montana and 27th in the U.S., according to a recent survey.
The survey of 821 community colleges throughout the nation was conducted by the research firm Wallethub.com, which used 12 metrics under the three broader categories of cost and finance, education outcomes and career outcomes.
Chandler said the college was first chartered in 1983. Because they were not yet accredited, the college partnered with Salish Kootenai Community College, another tribal college, to offer students classes.
The college became Fort Belknap College in 1988 and received its initial accreditation in 1993, Chandler said.
The college was renamed in 2011 to recognize both tribes of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation: the Gros Ventres or Aaniiih in their native language, and Assiniboine, Nakoda in the native language, Chandler said.
Michele Brockie, now Chandler's assistant, was a student in the 1980s. She said the campus' only building consisted of two lecture rooms, a classroom for typing and a small computer lab.
"So it was very small, our classes were very small," Brockie said.
Brockie said that in 1988 the college had 88 students.
Chandler said that this semester 150 are enrolled.
When she first came to the college as its dean of students in 1992, Chandler said, the college had only one building, Nakoda Hall. Chandler and then-Fort Belknap College President Margaret Campbell had their offices in a trailer.
But 24 years after her arrival, Chandler said, the small campus now has seven buildings including a library and technology center; a carpentry building; a cultural center; and Returning Buffalo, a building that houses the college's welding program, career program and the newly formed nursing program.
All building were paid for through grants from the U.S. Department of Education's, U.S. Housing and Urban Development, Chandler said.
The type of student the college attracts has changed, too, over the years.
Chandler said the student population used to be composed of more non-traditional students, people in their 20s, students with families, or elders who took computer classes.
Though the average student is still in their 20s, Chandler said, more 18-year-olds are enrolling straight out of high school.
Students come not only from the reservation and nearby Harlem but also from Chinook, Havre and elsewhere, she said.
Chandler said the Wallet Hub survey gave the college high marks in a handful of areas including student retention.
Unlike sprawling universities, a college such as Aaniiih Nakoda can sometimes be easier for students, she said.
Harold Heppner, now the information services officer at the college, is a 1989 alumnus. He attended Montana State University-Billings for a year before enrolling at the college. An enrolled Nakoda from Fort Belknap, he said the environment of Aaniiih Nakoda is a lot more like that of a close-knit family.
"When I was going down in Billings, nobody really cared what you did as long as you showed up, and it was hard to find what you needed, especially when it came to getting your financial aid and stuff, that was like a nightmare," Heppner said.
Chandler said she and other staff reach out to those who may think of dropping out or have dropped out. She sometimes sees students in the grocery store who have not completed college and urges them to return to school, she said.
"And then, pretty soon, one day, they will show up," she said.
Chandler said staff at the Student Success Center in Nakoda Hall offer students academic support, as do interns in the school's science department.
But, at the same time, Chandler wants to strike the right balance between helping the students and making things too easy for them.
"I have really emphasized to every faculty here that we do not want you to water down your classes because you are just setting them up for failure in the long run," she said.
But retaining students goes beyond personal appeals and academics, she said.
The college has a student senate and various campus organizations including archery and American Indian Business Leaders.
"So you you have to make things, even though we are a community college there has to be other things besides academia to keep you interested," Chandler said.
As one of 32 federally recognized tribal colleges and universities in the U.S., Aaniiih Nakoda incorporates the cultural practices, traditions and language into all its subjects.
Chandler said this is another aspect that retains students.
Chandler said regardless of major or whether they are Native or non-Native, all two-year students must take at least six credits in American Indian studies, an intro to American Indian Studies course and a course in either the Aaniiih or Nakoda language, while those in one-year or certificate programs are required to just take a language course.
This is a requirement to graduate.
Sean Bell, the welding instructor at the college said that the requirements provide students and staff alike with some context on the reservation.
Chandler remembers a non-Native student from Chinook who was recognized with an award in his graduating class for his fluency in speaking Nakoda. She said he liked the experience of the college so much that he did not want to leave.
"He said, 'I am treated better here than I am in Chinook,'" she said.
One of the central reasons why the college is able to retain so many students is because of a dedicated staff, Chandler said.
She said she encourages staff to be active in the reservation community.
Chandler estimates the campus has 12 instructors, some of them part-time and adjunct faculty in the fields of psychology, human resources and early childhood education.
Most of the staff are not Native, coming from places such as Georgia, Chicago and even one from Nepal.
Chandler said instructors and faculty are driven to remain at this small college by their love for the students.
All faculty are required to know enough of either the Aaniiih or Nakoda language to introduce themselves by name at orientation.
"And it makes me feel good because it makes me figure they want to be here and the students see that, and they feel, 'they really do care about us,'" she said.
Students become staff
Many who attend Aaniiih Nakoda College end up having to leave the reservation to find employment, though many former students, after going off to a four-year college or graduate school, return to Aaniiih Nakoda to teach or take another position with the school.
Chandler said they recruited many former students, both tribal and non-tribal members.
The college has professional development funding which helps cover the cost of an employee who goes for their master's degree, as long as they agree to work for the college for at least two years.
Brockie, who first applied for a job with the college in 1986, said that she has stayed at the college because as an employee she is "a part of something very positive."
"It's good to be a part of someone's life, and they don't even know that you are helping them," she said.
This year, Aaniiih Nakoda College is launching a new nursing program. It is beginning with a cohort of five students.
Billie Jo Brown had taught math and allied health courses at the college before leaving 20 years ago. She said she returned because of the excitement surrounding the new nursing program.
"We get to be a part of teaching really cool, really good high-quality safe, efficient nurses who are going to take care of our Native population," she said.
Brown said the nursing program at the moment is just meant to serve Fort Belknap and the college.
Though it is less than a month since the semester began, Brown said, once the program was approved by the state board of nursing and received grant funding in August, other tribal colleges have already contacted Aaniiih Nakoda to see how they can partner with them in the nursing program.
She said the desire to partner with Aaniiih Nakoda College is because the college has a reputation of "running programs well, getting things put together and doing things the right way."