Community Dividend

Tribal colleges can be a key to Native entrepreneurship

For many American Indian tribes, tribal colleges are becoming a vital tool for promoting Native entrepreneurship.

Brad Bly | Community Affairs Senior Project Manager

Published March 1, 2005  | March 2005 issue

American Indian tribes choose various paths for promoting economic development in reservation communities. Some opt to focus tribal resources mainly on tribally owned enterprises, such as casinos. Others place a prominent focus on the development of small, privately owned businesses. Tribes that follow this strategy seek ways to promote entrepreneurship, defined here as the practice of developing, organizing, operating and assuming the risks of a business. For many, tribal colleges are becoming a vital tool for promoting Native entrepreneurship. Through their curricula, community services and business development initiatives, these tribally chartered academic institutions can play a key role in promoting entrepreneurial ideas and practices.

A dual mission

Over the past three decades, tribal colleges have developed into the main post-secondary educator of Native Americans. They were created to fulfill a dual mission, outlined by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, a tribal college network: to rebuild, reinforce and explore traditional tribal cultures, using uniquely designed curricula and institutional settings; and to address mainstream models of learning by providing traditional disciplinary courses that are transferable to four-year institutions. 1/ The Navajo Nation founded the first tribal college in 1968. Today, there are 31 tribal colleges in 12 different states, and three federally chartered American Indian colleges. Twenty-two are located in the Ninth Federal Reserve District (see the sidebar below for more information).

Course and degree offerings at tribal colleges are similar to those at any community college. In many other respects, tribal colleges are unique. They address the cultural and spiritual health of their students, fostering a familylike atmosphere and providing personalized attention. Instruction is delivered in culturally sensitive ways. Native languages might be used in the classroom, or the curriculum might highlight examples and case studies that are drawn from Native customs. On many reservations, tribal colleges double as cultural and community centers. They serve as gathering spots and offer services such as counseling, day care and high school equivalency preparation.

The right mix

Tribal colleges are also unique in having a mix of features that support entrepreneurship. In a 2003 study on Native American entrepreneurship, the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CED) identified several important elements that are necessary to ensure a climate that allows entrepreneurship to flourish in Native communities. They include an information infrastructure, community-driven supports, training, the existence of anchor institutions, and continuous learning.

In their position as academic, cultural and community centers, tribal colleges provide most or all of the elements the CED study identified. Although they are chartered by one or more tribes, tribal colleges try to maintain autonomy from tribal governments and are often among the most stable and politically independent institutions on reservations. They are truly anchors in their communities, providing education, services and access to information technology and other resources.

Building on their strengths as community centers and support institutions, tribal colleges actively promote entrepreneurship in a number of ways. On the academic front, every tribal college offers at least one program of study in business, business administration or business management, with offerings that range from classes to associate and four-year degree programs. The programs cover a range of business topics, from budgeting and accounting to marketing and online sales. Many tribal colleges match their business curricula to existing local economic needs. In doing so, they link entrepreneurship with housing, the environment, health and culture. 2/

Beyond education and training, tribal colleges promote entrepreneurship and small business growth in their communities through workshops and leadership development. They deliver technical assistance via small business centers and other outlets. Many of the tribal colleges in the Ninth District maintain community entrepreneurship initiatives that reach beyond their core education programs. A sampling of these initiatives reveals the breadth of entrepreneurship development approaches that tribal colleges pursue.

Ninth District initiatives

A number of Ninth District tribal colleges function as reservation-based business centers, offering students and tribal members access to a variety of resources and technical services that promote entrepreneurship. They also help sponsor the production of business information and technical assistance materials. Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana, houses a Tribal Business Information Center (TBIC). The TBIC provides technical assistance and training to enhance businesses and industries on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The center offers counseling and training in general management skills, accounting, marketing, and other areas.

Some TBICs offer support systems and detailed technical assistance to students, alumni and community members who are interested in starting their own businesses. The TBIC at Sitting Bull College in Fort Yates, North Dakota, offers all-inclusive small business support; consultation and mentorship with existing business owners; assistance with preparing business plans and finding appropriate financing, including non-traditional financing; resource manuals and "how-to" books; market research and opportunities to network with business resource providers.

Many tribal colleges sponsor business incubators or small business development centers (SBDC), which hold introductory seminars on starting a business. They also offer valuable small business resources and technical seminars to the surrounding community. Fort Belknap College in Harlem, Montana, hosts an SBDC that provides education, training and technical assistance to community members in order to encourage self-sufficient lifestyles on the Fort Belknap Reservation. Recent events sponsored at the center range from grant writing and strategic business planning workshops to information sessions on software applications and funding. Fort Peck Community College in Poplar, Montana, offers a community business assistance center that is open to the public and provides "one-stop shopping" for the small business in need of help.

On many reservations, the tribal college provides the readiest Internet access. Fort Belknap College's SBDC contains a computer resource library that offers Internet access to tribal members, who can use the technology while learning accounting programs that help their businesses run more efficiently. Similarly, Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, South Dakota, maintains a community library providing business materials, resources and Internet facilities.

In their role as community centers, some tribal colleges host youth activities related to financial education and entrepreneurship. The Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College in Hayward, Wisconsin, partners with the reservation's Boys and Girls Club to conduct various asset-building and cultural workshops. These meetings include topics related to entrepreneurship. United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, North Dakota, offers community financial education programs to both adults and youths to build a foundation of interest in entrepreneurship.

Some colleges have implemented a "hands-on learning" approach to entrepreneurship. Sitting Bull College operates construction and communications supply companies, providing students with hands-on business experience. Tribal colleges also work to build community awareness about entrepreneurship and instill a positive environment for entrepreneurial growth. Turtle Mountain Community College in Belcourt, North Dakota, hosts an annual small business expo to encourage tribal members to take pride in showcasing their small businesses.

In keeping with their mission of promoting Native American culture, Ninth District tribal colleges educate students on how free market economic principles can coexist with Native traditions and heritage. Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana, and Sinte Gleska University in Rosebud, South Dakota, jointly established the American Indian Entrepreneurs Case Studies and Curriculum, featuring materials structured around traditional tribal values. Leech Lake Tribal College in Cass Lake, Minnesota, offers an educational program that combines entrepreneurship with sustainable living. The classes blend traditional and modern activities with holistic ideals that focus on community, family and cooperation.

Banding together

Tribal colleges also recognize the importance of sharing resources and banding together with other tribal colleges and community organizations. In the Ninth District, the majority of tribal colleges are members of the national American Indian Business Leaders program, which provides role models and mentors for future entrepreneurs. One participating college, Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet, Minnesota, sponsors a student business group. Member students learn how to design their own businesses and have opportunities to network with successful American Indian business people and attend national conferences.

Leech Lake Tribal College sponsors an entrepreneurship program that has formed beneficial collaborations with the Minnesota Women's Business Center, Native American Business Development Center, and Leech Lake Economic Development. Eighteen current or potential business owners have received comprehensive training in business planning through this entrepreneurship project, and dozens more have participated in related educational seminars.

A natural fit

As examples from the Ninth District illustrate, tribal colleges use creative means to promote entrepreneurship. Many of their initiatives reach out to the whole reservation community, offering information and resources to all. The inclusiveness of their efforts results from the unique position that tribal colleges hold in many reservation communities. They are often the only local institutions with the independence and capacity to deliver entrepreneurship education and initiatives that meet the needs of a broad population of families, youths, college students, founders of start-up enterprises and owners of established businesses. For tribes that strive to create a community of entrepreneurs, the efforts of tribal colleges are often an essential and natural fit.

Brad Bly is an independent community development economist who works with Native Americans and other underserved communities. He can be reached at

1/ Tribal Colleges: An introduction, American Indian Higher Education Consortium, 1999, p. A-3.

2/ Tribal College Contributions to Local Economic Development, AIHEC, 2000, p. 20.

Funding limitations challenge tribal colleges

Tribal colleges are a vital part of many Native communities, but the education, programs and services they offer can only stretch as far as available funds will allow. Tribes are recognized as sovereign nations that fall under federal jurisdiction. As such, states have no obligation to fund tribal colleges that are located on federal trust territory, and the colleges therefore receive virtually no aid from state or institutional sources. These two sources account for 25 percent of aid provided to all U.S. college students. Tribal college students must rely on private and federal sources of aid, which also fund mainstream colleges and favor the institutions that have participated in aid programs the longest. That leaves tribal colleges with a disproportionately small share. Underfunding results in increased tuition costs, making the average tribal college tuition about 30 percent higher than the average tuition at other U.S. community colleges. Funding has been recognized in many recent studies as the biggest obstacle tribal colleges face in ensuring their success and future growth.


Ninth District tribal colleges

Bay Mills Community College
Brimley, Michigan

Blackfeet Community College
Browning, Montana

Cankdeska Cikana Community College
Fort Totten, North Dakota

Chief Dull Knife College
Lame Deer, Montana

Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College
Cloquet, Minnesota

Fort Belknap College
Harlem, Montana

Fort Berthold Community College
New Town, North Dakota

Fort Peck Community College
Poplar, Montana

Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College
Baraga, Michigan

Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College
Hayward, Wisconsin

Leech Lake Tribal College
Cass Lake, Minnesota

Little Big Horn College
Crow Agency, Montana

Oglala Lakota College
Kyle, South Dakota

Salish Kootenai College
Pablo, Montana

Si Tanka University
Eagle Butte, South Dakota

Sinte Gleska University
Mission, South Dakota

Sisseton Wahpeton College
Sisseton, South Dakota

Sitting Bull College
Fort Yates, North Dakota

Stone Child College
Box Elder, Montana

Turtle Mountain Community College
Belcourt, North Dakota

United Tribes Technical College
Bismarck, North Dakota

White Earth Tribal and Community College
Mahnomen, Minnesota