Nearly a quarter of a century ago, members of Congress crafted legislation that allowed us to reach an important milestone in our nation’s effort to achieve equity in research, education, and extension.
On Oct. 20, 1994, 29 tribal colleges received land-grant institution status, giving them access to federal government resources, improving the lives of Native students through higher education, and helping propel American Indians toward self-sufficiency.
Tribal colleges have a history that predates the legislation that created them; when the 1994s formed, their faculties met and decided it was proper that their college timelines should reach back to the beginnings of their tribal history. This was a hint that something different and special was underway. This new land-grant system would teach in a cultural context that empowers students by drawing on the strength of their peoples’ history, indigenous knowledge, and traditions.
Agriculture in America began more than 7,000 years ago. With that in mind, American Indians have practiced observational science, its application, and its conservation long before our agency, USDA’s National institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), began funding research, education, and extension projects to the current family of 34 tribal land-grants in Indian Country.
NIFA supports the tribal land-grants primarily through four programs: The Tribal Colleges Education Equity Program enhances educational opportunities for American Indians in the food and agricultural sciences; the Tribal Colleges Extension Services Program helps tribal colleges and universities develop and strengthen their extension programs so they may address specific individual, family, or community needs; the Tribal Colleges Research Grants Program funds applied projects that address student educational needs and community, reservation, or regional challenges; and the 1994 Land-Grant Institutions Endowment Fund, from which interest income provides for the advancement of agriculture and the mechanic arts at tribal colleges. Tribal land-grant colleges are also eligible to apply for NIFA competitive grant programs, such as the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI).
One example of NIFA-funded projects that help tribal colleges blend current science with tribal traditions is a multi-institutional research project studying buffalo. Sitting Bull College in North Dakota, Little Big Horn College in Montana, and Sinte Gleska College in South Dakota met to discuss imminent issues facing their tribal buffalo herds. The problem facing the tribes was that modern agricultural research largely by-passed bison to focus on mainstream livestock species. That trend ignored the unique biology of bison and did not value or incorporate indigenous knowledge about buffalo.
Led by researchers at Sitting Bull College, the group is using a $300,000 AFRI grant to study buffalo genetics. Without that data, the tribes cannot improve upon the likely inbred nature of their herds and develop alternative sustainable practices. In addition, there is little nutritional data on the herds, which are experiencing low weights and low births compared to nearby herds. This research is critical to the tribal land-grant community because, as one Lakota Nation elder said, “When the buffalo are done here, we are also done.”
NIFA wishes our 1994 partners a happy anniversary and continued success in the future.
NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education, and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges.