If she wanted to, Lois Slater wouldn’t have to go any farther than a mirror to find a compelling story about how educational opportunities can turn a life around.
“I was a statistic,” she says, and this is what she means:
She dropped out of Ronan High School in 1968, at the age of 16, to get married and have a baby.
By the age of 22, she had four children.
By the age of 28, she had lots of categories covered: minority, divorced, high school dropout, single mom.
Today, Slater holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Montana, a master’s degree from Gonzaga University, and a job as director of development at the tribal college where she got the ball rolling to rebuild her life.
Salish Kootenai College, which began in 1977 with classes you could count on one hand, about four dozen students and a couple of classrooms in an abandoned school in Polson, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
It’s grown a tad since its humble beginnings.
Today, on a tree-covered 140-acre campus in Pablo, SKC is home to more than 1,100 students. It offers eight bachelor’s degrees in fields ranging from forestry to nursing, associate degrees in many more, and certificate programs in everything from highway construction to dental-assisting technology.
Two new buildings, a performing arts center and a special events center that includes a 2,700-seat gymnasium, are going up on the south end of campus. SKC is talking about offering graduate degrees on its own. The school has made noises about fielding intercollegiate athletic teams and applying to join the Frontier Conference.
It has become, says a former chairman of its board, Darry Dupuis, one of the most successful tribal colleges in the United States, offering opportunities to Indians and non-Indians alike.
Joe McDonald, who has been there since the college’s infancy when it was a satellite of Kalispell’s Flathead Valley Community College and who has served as SKC president for 28 of its 30 years, remembers when the school took up residence in Pablo.
“Originally, our campus was just a small building,” McDonald says. “It had a kitchen, cafeteria and classrooms, and looked more like it belonged on a Hutterite colony. We put the building in back of the tribal office so we could share their parking lot.”
Slater, a Browning native who has never lived off an Indian reservation, obtained her General Educational Development diploma, or GED, in 1980 10 years after she would have graduated from Ronan had she stayed in school.
She arrived at SKC in 1981, determined to better her children’s lives and her own.
Going to school while working full time, she took three years to earn her associate degree.
“There were only like two buildings when I graduated,” Slater says. “And I think there were only about 35 people in my graduating class.”
She commuted to Missoula for three more years again, while working to earn her bachelor’s degree from UM, in social work, in 1987.
Slater has been employed at SKC since, as placement director for 17 years and director of development for the last three. In 1997, she was one of 17 SKC students and employees who earned master’s degrees from Gonzaga via a “cohort” program that McDonald pushed for, and that allowed them to complete their work in Pablo.
“Gonzaga was very expensive,” Slater says, “and a lot of us didn’t qualify financially. Gonzaga wanted the money right now or they’d drop you. Joe found out the cost for employees and went before the board and asked if the college could loan us the money, and we’d pay it back at 5 percent interest. I couldn’t have afforded it without that.”
She may be just six or seven miles from the high school she dropped out of almost 40 years ago, but to Slater, it can seem like a million.
“It was pretty lonely,” she says about becoming a mother at the age of 16. “My oldest daughter asked me once, ‘Why did you have me so young?’ and I told her, ‘So I could chase your boyfriends.’ I’d never recommend it to anybody, but I did wind up with four wonderful kids. I kind of grew up with them.”
They, in turn, were influenced by their mother’s determination to better herself through education. All four attended Salish Kootenai College, three graduated with bachelor’s degrees and one went on to obtain a master’s.
“SKC has pretty much been our whole life,” says Slater, who married the college’s vice president, the late Jerry Slater, after starting her job. “It’s benefited the whole family in so many ways.”
That, in turn, has benefited others on the Flathead Indian Reservation. In addition to Slater’s role, as a fundraiser, in the rapid growth of SKC, her daughter Kim Barber works to retain students at the college, and another daughter, Nicole Krahn, teaches at Ronan Middle School.
The history of higher education aimed at Indians has ugly roots.
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded in 1879 in Pennsylvania by U.S. Army Capt. Richard Henry Pratt, was designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.”
Today Carlisle, which was closed in 1918, is most often remembered for producing perhaps the best athlete in the history of sport, Jim Thorpe, and for its powerful college football teams coached by “Pop” Warner.
But its goal was to forcibly assimilate young Native Americans into white society. Pratt originally convinced some tribes that they were losing their land to the white man because they couldn’t communicate with them, couldn’t speak or write the white man’s language. But once at Carlisle, students had their braids cut, their clothes replaced by uniforms and their names changed.
Later, students were forced to attend the school by the federal government.
Hundreds of students died while at Carlisle, some from diseases foreign to the Indians’ immune systems, but many others from physical abuse. Speaking in their native tongues, failing to understand English and attempting to escape were all punishable by physical torture at Carlisle.
Today, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium counts 34 tribally controlled colleges in 13 states, stretching from Northwest Indian College in Bellingham, Wash., to Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College in Mount Pleasant, Mich.; and from Blackfeet Community College in Browning to Tohono O’odham Community College in Sells, Ariz.
All seven reservations in Montana have tribal colleges. In addition to SKC (the only one in the state accredited to offer bachelor’s degrees) and Blackfeet Community College, there are Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, Fort Belknap College in Harlem, Fort Peck Community College in Poplar, Stone Child College in Box Elder and Little Big Horn College at Crow Agency.
Seventy percent of SKC’s students are enrolled tribal members, according to McDonald, and the school must keep that number above 50 percent in order to be eligible for federal grants.
In stark contrast to Carlisle, by controlling their own institutions of higher education, tribes are able to make them places where their culture and languages are passed on, rather than passed over.
So at Salish Kootenai College, next door to the Three Woodcocks Building that houses, among other things, the school’s art classes, you’ll find the Hide Tanning Building.
Try finding one of those at Harvard.
In the basement of the D’arcy McNickle Building, in the college’s television studio, you may find Shirley Trahan taping her weekly “Salish Language” show, to be broadcast on the school’s public television station, KSKC-TV.
Upstairs in the library, you can check out books published by the Salish Kootenai College Press, such as “Zealous in All Virtues: Documents of Worship and Culture Change, St. Ignatius Mission, Montana, 1890-94” by Robert Bigart.
At the school’s Native American Language Teacher Training Institute, director Josh Brown is developing ways to train those fluent in Salish how to teach it.
“If you are a Salish speaker, you still may know nothing about teaching it to someone else,” McDonald explains.
In two years, SKC will graduate its first elementary school teachers trained exclusively at the college.
This fall, elementary education joins business entrepreneurship, computer engineering, environmental science, forestry, information technology, nursing and social work as SKC programs offering four-year bachelor’s degrees.
The goal is to put more Native Americans in reservation classrooms as teachers, and to put more teachers in reservation classrooms that have taken classes in Native American history, culture and language as well as science, math and English.
On a walking tour of campus, McDonald talks about how the college got to where it is, and where he envisions it going.
Students in SKC’s building trades program constructed many of the buildings on campus. Two-thirds of the college’s 60,000-volume library was built with books from the libraries at West Point, the U.S. Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy.
“As they updated their libraries, they would send the books they were discarding to the Library of Congress,” McDonald says. “After collectors had a chance to buy them, the Library of Congress made them available to tribal colleges. We figured a way to get in ahead of the collectors, and paid a lady back in D.C. $100 a month to go in and scope out what was available. Then they’d send them to us. I think we got about 40,000 books that way.”
Salish Kootenai College has fielded men’s and women’s basketball teams for 25 years that play an independent schedule against a mix of other tribal colleges, junior colleges and Frontier Conference junior varsity teams. There are no scholarships, the part-time coaches don’t recruit players, home games usually played at the Ronan Events Center are rare, and the Bison (yes, they have a nickname too) never even printed up a schedule or charged admission until last season.
But both teams have won national championships at the season-ending American Indian Higher Education Consortium tournament, and the completion of the events center and its 2,700-seat gymnasium will move SKC one large step closer to McDonald’s hope for an intercollegiate athletic program in Pablo.
“I believe athletics really adds to campus life,” says McDonald, who spent more than two decades as a Montana high school and college coach before helping to found SKC. “And I think students who are interested in participating deserve the opportunity.”
Applying to join the Frontier Conference in the future is a possibility. The NAIA Division I league sponsors four men’s and five women’s sports, and with the Silver Fox Golf Course already in place on campus, SKC will have the facilities for all but football once the events center is completed.
And it does have a football field, just not a stadium to go around it.
McDonald says the big push now is to land more undergraduate research grants, to help prepare students who go on to graduate school.
“More Indian people are getting into graduate programs,” he says, and while it has always accepted non-tribal members, SKC’s mission remains providing the post-secondary educational opportunities needed and wanted by Native Americans.
McDonald would also like to see the college offer its first master’s degree, in nursing.
Big plans for a small college? Very.
But when you consider that just 30 years ago, this college offered a grand total of three associate’s degrees and operated out of part of an abandoned school in Polson that has since been torn down, you understand.
Salish Kootenai College didn’t get where it is because anyone was thinking small. And the bigger it dreams, the more opportunities there are for people like Lois Slater to become a different sort of statistic a successful one.
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