Improving the world with Indigenous knowledge

Denver-based American Indian College fund strives to provide opportunity for Native students


It has been a couple of generations since Tori McConnell’s native language of Yurok has been spoken fluently among family.

“It was not passed down because often, it was seen as a burden, not a benefit,” McConnell said.

One reason Indigenous languages were not passed down can be attributed to the Indian boarding school era. During this time — which began around the mid-1800s and lasted until 1978 with the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act — Native American children were forced to go to an Indian boarding school to assimilate to American culture. These schools were government- or church-operated boarding schools and were often run as military organizations. Children were expected to convert to Christianity, wear uniforms and were punished for speaking a tribal or native language.

McConnell, 22, of Eureka, California, graduated from University of California-Davis with a Bachelor of Arts in Native American studies. She is an artist currently working on learning the craft of traditional weaving and a Káruk language apprentice under Master Speaker Julian Lang and she’s active with the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival organization.

McConnell’s goal is to speak her native language fluently, teach it to her family and pass it down to future generations.

Prior to attending college, McConnell felt a disconnect to her heritage, she said.

“Native American studies provided a life path of not being afraid to embrace what is most important to me,” McConnell said. “It helped me discover my passion for my heritage — and healing — through cultural revitalization, leadership and potential.”

McConnell was able to attend college thanks to a scholarship she was awarded from the American Indian College Fund. Headquartered in Denver, the AICF is a national nonprofit that serves Native American and Alaska Native students and helps them obtain a college education.

There is a “huge disparity” in college attainment among Native American and Alaska Native students, said Dina Horwedel, director of public education for AICF. The 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data reveals that only 15% of Native American and Alaska Native people age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher. This is compared to 32.1% for the overall population.

There are many reasons for this, Horwedel said, including the inability to afford tuition in addition to living in remote areas.

“Our goal is to eliminate this disparity,” Horwedel said. “We’re committed to ensuring that students can financially attend (college) and ensuring their success because that benefits an entire community.”

To do this, along with the scholarships, the AICF offers numerous programs ranging from college tours for high schoolers, mentoring and career search assistance for college graduates.

On June 15, AICF hosted a culinary event on the University of Denver campus during which attendees had an opportunity to taste high-end Indigenous cuisine prepared by acclaimed Native chefs — with assistance from culinary students studying at Navajo Technical University, a public tribal land-grant university in Crownpoint, New Mexico.

“Many people have never heard of Indigenous cuisine,” Horwedel said. But “Denver is a hot, emerging foodie scene, and people in Denver are interested in learning and experiencing Native cuisines.”

Along with the dining portion of the evening, the event’s purpose was to introduce people to the culture and traditions of the food, raise awareness of tribal colleges and the work the students are doing and highlight the work being done to revitalize Native American cultures and traditions.

“We’re making steps toward having Indigenous knowledge being valued just as much as Western knowledge,” McConnell said. “The world is being improved, thanks to Indigenous knowledge.”

But concerning education, McConnell said there is still a lot of trauma from the Indian boarding schools and a lot of work to be done concerning education for Indigenous people.

“Education today can better a person, rather than traumatize them like in the past,” McConnell said. “When we pursue an education, we’re making a choice to change the narrative.”

For McConnell, attending college taught her to realize the true history of “why things are the way they are,” but also provided the space for healing, and the opportunity to see things with a new perspective and learn who she is.

McConnell sees herself as a “vessel of ancestral and traditional revitalization and healing.”

“We can move forward into the future with hope and love,” she said.

American Indian College Fund, Denver, higher education


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