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A Steward of American Indian Education

by Mary Annette Pember

David Gipp has been involved in the tribal college movement from the beginning and continues to play a vital role.

It is not surprising that David Gipp, Hunkpapa Lakota and member of the Standing Rock Indian Tribe, is considered by many to be the unofficial historian of tribal colleges and the tribal college movement. He was present at the beginning and continues to play a vital role in the national tribal college milieu.

Gipp has been president of the United Tribes Technical College, one of the first tribal colleges, in Bismarck, N.D. since 1977 and led the college to its initial accreditation in 1978. Six years earlier, Gipp became the first full-time executive director of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying, advocacy and research organization for tribal colleges. He quickly learned the ways of Capitol Hill and is regarded today as one of the best advocates of tribal colleges in Congress, according to the Tribal College Journal. He was also instrumental in developing the first national legislation that assists “tribally controlled community colleges and universities,” the main source of federal funding for the colleges. Gipp’s interest in education began when he was a political science student at the University of North Dakota. He noticed that many of his fellow American Indian students left the university without graduating. To stem this flow, he helped organize tutoring and counseling for Indian students and helped found the University of North Dakota Indian Association. In doing so, he gained a lasting empathy and appreciation for the struggles faced by Indian students. These experiences galvanized his lasting commitment to self-determination for American Indians.

“We must do for ourselves what no one else will do, and that is to take control of our own destinies by making our own decisions and taking action to improve our lives,” Gipp says.

Born in Ft. Yates, N.D., on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, his Indian name is Wicahpi Isnala Lone Star. Gipp began as a tribal planner for the tribe in the 1960s when he helped establish elementary schools on the reservation as well as what is now Sitting Bull College.

Gipp’s successes at UTTC are well known in the tribal college world. He has seen the college grow from an educational training facility, serving less than 100 students, to an institution that offers 14 associate degree programs to more than 1,000 students annually, including five associate degree programs online, and one baccalaureate program in cooperation with Sinte Gleska University.

Beginning in a former military post with the oldest buildings of the main campus being more than 100 years old, UTTC has embarked on a $200 million expansion that will nearly double the size of the campus. Gipp has been an outspoken opponent to the use of American Indian mascots by sports teams. He was instrumental in convincing the NCAA to ban the University of North Dakota from using their Fighting Sioux logo when participating in NCAA events. In his now famous letter to the NCAA executive committee, he called the use of Indian mascots racist and demeaning.

A powerful orator in the American Indian tradition, Gipp was the only American Indian to address the Democratic National Convention in Denver. He spoke to the gathering in the Lakota language with the traditional words, “Mitakuye Oyasin,” which means we are all related. This was a reminder of his and the Oglala belief that despite racial or social differences, human beings are all related as common inhabitants of earth.

Regarding the country and its relationship with American Indians, he reminded convention- goers of the sovereign status of tribes and the treaty responsibilities that the United States has to them.

“We can only renew America’s promise when tribal citizens are legitimate participants in framing the future of America,” he said. In pursuit of this goal he urged the country to look to the 37 tribal colleges and universities to lead the way in renewing the promise for American Indians.

Gipp has a strong belief in the power of tribal colleges to provide students not only with job skills but also to instill them with pride in their culture, language and heritage.

“The tribal college experience is a renaissance for our students, a journey of self-discovery that raises their self-esteem as individuals and American Indians,” says Gipp, who also seeks to ensure that students have an appreciation and understanding of the world beyond the reservation.

Former United Tribes Technical College student Russell Swagger, St. Croix Chippewa, credits Gipp with making his dream a reality. Swagger is vice president of Student and Campus Services at UTTC and is finishing his doctorate at Capella College in human services.

“He challenged me to go outside of my comfort zone. Without his support and encouragement, I never would have dreamed that I would now be the vice president or working on my Ph.D.,” Swagger says. He recalls Gipp pitching in when students started a newspaper several years ago. Gipp stayed into the early morning hours, helping with cutting and pasting stories and headlines.

Despite his national fame, Gipp is a humble man who walks at ease among students and colleagues at the college, Swagger says.

“His example showed me that it is OK to be Indian; it is OK to take a risk and do the things you want to do,” says Swagger.

In an interview with the Bismarck Tribune, Jim Davis, Chippewa, president of the Turtle Mountain Community College in North Dakota, described Gipp as a visionary. This vision, according to Davis, has made UTTC a better institution.

Harkening back to his broader world vision, Gipp’s words to the DNC challenged America to look to the strengths of American Indian spirituality and connection to the earth in renewing America’s promise for all of its citizens. He ended his speech with a quote from Sitting Bull, “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.”

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