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Cangleska Wakan: The ecology of the sacred circle and the role of tribal colleges and universities


Indigenous education and philosophy are rooted in the concept of relationality – the relatedness of all things – within the framework of place-based experiences and knowledge. This article focuses on tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) in the United States – in particular, on their dedication to land use and preservation, sustainability and tribal ecological knowledge within their missions of cultural preservation, academic and career development, and community engagement. TCUs are post-secondary institutions chartered by their respective tribal governments to serve as the higher education institutions of the Tribe. In the TCU environment, tribal identities emerge from an understanding of how all things are related. Evidence includes creation stories, tribal languages and place-based knowledge. The circular relationship among place, engagement and identity is often manifested in how land and its resources are preserved, managed and expanded through education, outreach and research. In 1994, the Equity in Educational Land-Grant Status Act was passed, granting TCUs endowments for facilities and institutional capacity building in place of land. This article explores the time periods of 1968–1993 and 1994 to today in the context of the development of TCUs, first as place-based institutions preserving tribal identity and later as land-grant institutions preserving tribal environmental and ecological knowledge and resources. The authors provide a number of examples which demonstrate that TCUs exercise the inherent sovereignty of Tribes to provide quality education to their people by incorporating their language and Indigenous knowledge and values.


Cangleska Wakan : Écologie du cercle sacré et rôle des universités et collèges tribaux – L’éducation et la philosophie autochtones sont enracinées dans le concept de relationnalité – l’interconnexion de toutes choses – dans le cadre d’expériences et de connaissances spécifiques au milieu. Le présent article examine les universités et collèges tribaux (UCT) aux États-Unis, en particulier leur engagement pour l’exploitation et la protection des sols, la pérennité et le savoir écologique tribal, au sein de leur mission portant sur la préservation culturelle, la promotion universitaire et le développement de carrière, ainsi que sur la participation communautaire. Établissements postsecondaires agréés par le gouvernement tribal respectif, les UCT font office d’institutions d’enseignement supérieur de la tribu. Dans leur contexte, les identités tribales résultent d’une appréhension de la manière dont toutes les choses sont reliées, comme le prouvent entre autres les récits de la création, les langues tribales et le savoir spécifique au milieu. Le lien circulaire qui existe entre milieu, engagement et identité se manifeste souvent dans la manière dont la terre et ses ressources sont préservées, gérées et enrichies à travers l’éducation, la sensibilisation et la recherche. En 1994 a été adoptée la loi portant sur l’équité pour le statut éducatif des universités tribales (Equity in Educational Land-Grant Status Act), qui accorde aux UCT des dotations non plus seulement en terrains mais en équipements et en renforcement des capacités institutionnelles. Les auteures analysent le développement des UCT au cours des périodes 1968–1993 et 1994 à aujourd’hui, tout d’abord institutions locales préservant l’identité tribale, plus tard universités agricoles préservant les connaissances et les ressources environnementales et écologiques de la tribu. Elles fournissent plusieurs exemples qui illustrent que les UCT exercent la souveraineté inhérente aux tribus et dispensent à leur peuple une formation de qualité intégrant langage ainsi que savoirs et valeurs autochtones.

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  1. Lakota people are Plains Indians and are one linguistic group among three (the others are Nakota and Dakota) who currently reside in the northern tier of the United States (US) and the southern tier of Canada. Broken into bands (small, kin-based groups) and council fires (larger groups comprised of bands), the three groups comprise peoples living on 16 reservations in the US and 8 reserves in Canada as well as citizens who live off the reservations and reserves. For more information, see and [both accessed 13 November 2018].

  2. The term place-based (e.g. in place-based education) refers to knowledge, teachings and practices that are related to the geographic location of people and/or institutions.

  3. According to AIHEC’s own website, the consortium came into being in 1973, when “the first six American Indian tribally controlled colleges established AIHEC to provide a support network as they worked to influence federal policies on American Indian higher education.” ( [accessed 19 Nov 2018]). Today, AIHEC has grown to 37 TCUs in the United States.

  4. What we mean by a place-based institution is that its curriculum includes local flora and fauna, Native husbandry and ecological wisdom, Indigenous culture and community issues, etc.

  5. A land-grant institution, in a nutshell, is a higher education institution in the United States which is legally entitled to a grant of federally controlled land for the purpose of using it to raise funds and establish/run a college or university with a curriculum including applied sciences such as agriculture. This legal entitlement was not extended to TCUs until 1994. The implications are explained in more detail later in this article.

  6. The reason we chose 1968 as the starting point of the first period is that the first tribal college, Navajo Community College (now Diné College) was founded in 1968 in Arizona, thus marking the beginning of the tribal college movement.

  7. The Crow or Absaalooke Nation is a Plains Indian tribe currently located in the southeastern part of central Montana in the United States. Like the Lakota, they were historically a nomadic tribe who quickly adapted to a horse culture in the 1600s. For more information, see [accessed 16 August 2017].

  8. The Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, which primarily houses the Sicangu Band of the Brule of the Lakota, is located in south central South Dakota.

  9. In 1492, leading a Spanish expedition to find a sea route to India, China, Japan and the Spice Islands, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) discovered a “new world”. This triggered colonisation of South and North America by the Spanish, and soon also by the Portuguese, the French and other European powers. Colonisation involved appropriating land, disowning and displacing its Native owners/inhabitants.

  10. The Dawes General Allotment Act provided for the distribution of Indian reservation land among individual Indians, expecting them to take on a role modelled on white farmers. However, the effect of this Act was that it weakened the social structure of the tribe; many nomadic Indians were unable to adjust to farming; others were cheated out of their property; and reservation life deteriorated, with many community members suffering from disease, poverty and despondency. The act also allowed white people, who by 1932 had acquired two-thirds of the 138,000,000 acres held by Native Americans in 1887, to buy any “surplus” land (Britannica 2018). A survey carried out in 1928 (Meriam 1928) revealed shocking conditions on the reservations and led to the passing of the Indian Reorganization Act, also known as the Wheeler-Howard Act, in 1934. It aimed to decrease federal control of American Indian affairs and increase Indian self-government and responsibility.

  11. A federal agency office is an office established by the federal government to carry out oversight and management. Local federal agency offices were created on reservations as they were established and referred to as “agency offices”.

  12. Initially assigned to the Department of War, Indian Affairs was transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1849 (Shelton 2001, p. 13).The Department of the Interior (DOI) is one of 15 government departments within the executive branch of the United States’ Federal Government (see [accessed 13 November 2018]). The DOI manages the United States' public lands and natural resources and the trust responsibilities to American Indians and Alaska Natives.

  13. In this article, we use the term religious to indicate the particular ways in which the referenced Indigenous people practise their spirituality. The term spirituality might also be used in reference to knowledge and practices.

  14. The Great Society programmes were a whole set of poverty reduction reforms initiated by US President Lyndon B. Johnson (in office 1963–69).

  15. The American civil rights movement started in the late 19th century and culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (GoUSA 1964) and the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 (GoUSA 1968).

  16. Founded in 1968, the American Indian Movement (AIM) has “transformed policy making into programs and organizations that have served Indian people in many communities. These policies have consistently been made in consultation with spiritual leaders and elders … The movement was founded to turn the attention of Indian people toward a renewal of spirituality which would impart the strength of resolve needed to reverse the ruinous policies of the United States, Canada, and other colonialist governments of Central and South America. At the heart of AIM is deep spirituality and a belief in the connectedness of all Indian people” (Wittstock and Salinas 2006).

  17. In particular, these laws were the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 (GoUSA 1968), the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969 (GoUSA 1970), and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 (GoUSA 1975).

  18. AIHEC has two categories of members, full members (accredited institutions), and associate (developing, not yet accredited) members. As of December 2018, there are 35 full members and 2 developing institutions.

  19. Earlier in his book, Cajete describes the ella of the Yupiaq as their awareness or consciousness, the way they make sense of the world. This concept and other epistemological frames among Yupiaq peoples must be notably credited to the work of Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley, whose educational research uplifted Indigenous science education for over two decades. The name of the Yupiac people is also variously spelled Yupiaq or Yup'ik or Yupiit or Yupiat. They are native to western, southwestern, and southcentral Alaska and the Russian Far East.

  20. The Mohawk people are native to what is now upstate New York and adjacent territories around Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River in Canada.

  21. The term Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) refers to higher education institutions established before the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (GoUSA 1964) to serve the educational needs of black Americans.

  22. In the Plains Indian wars, which lasted from the early 1850s to the late 1870s, Native Americans and the government of the United States fought over control of the Great Plains between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. In the Wounded Knee Massacre on 29 December 1890, 150–300 Native Americans were killed by US soldiers in the area of Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.

  23. The original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) came into force in 1965. It was reauthorised several times.

  24. An extension grant constitutes funding for extension education, a type of informal education offered by a college or university which extends an educational opportunity to people who are not enrolled as regular students. In the context of this article, it means that TCUs pass on knowledge, especially agricultural know-how to farmers. A related term is extension services, which refers to the provision of management of programmes and projects for change.

  25. With its four-petal clover logo, where each petal is marked with an H (referring to Head, Heart, Hands and Health), 4-H is the United States’ largest youth development organisation. For more information, see [accessed 16 November 2018].

  26. See TCJ (2000).

  27. The Coast Salish people are native to the Northwest coastal lands of the United States and Canada, ranging from what is currently the state of Oregon to the state of Alaska.

  28. The Ojibwe people, also known as the Anishinaabe or Chippewa, are native to the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada, but also range into the plains regions of Ontario and Manitoba (Canada) and the States of North Dakota and Minnesota.


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We want to thank the students and faculty of Tribal Colleges and Universities, the leaders of the tribal college movement, and the elders and knowledge holders who shared their teachings with us.

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Correspondence to Cheryl Crazy Bull.

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Crazy Bull, C., White Hat, E.R. Cangleska Wakan: The ecology of the sacred circle and the role of tribal colleges and universities. Int Rev Educ 65, 117–141 (2019).

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