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The Origins of United Tribes - An Interview with Dr. David M. Gipp
27 August 2009

United Tribes Employment Training Center was dedicated 40 years ago on September 6, 1969. The training center, which later became United Tribes Technical College, was the outgrowth of inter-tribal activity among the tribes of North Dakota in the early and mid 1960s. United Tribes Technical College President David M. Gipp describes the origins of United Tribes in this interview with the editor of “United Tribes News.”

QUESTION: Let’s start by talking about the dedication program 40 years ago.

Tiny Bud Jamerson

GIPP: I wasn’t here but my mother was, Margaret Halsey Teachout, and quite a number of people from all of the four different reservations, because, at that time, Sisseton-Wahpeton was not yet an official member of United Tribes. So, really, it was four founding tribes and a lot of their delegations came in from each of the reservations. A lot of the city leadership was here, the mayor, E. V. Lahr. Governor William L. Guy was a very good and strong supporter of the concept of United Tribes and the employment center. Our Congressional Delegation: Senator Milton R. Young and Quentin Burdick.

      The Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Louie Bruce, was here, and a lot of bureau of people. And our tribal leaders were here led by Tiny Bud Jamerson. So there was a nice crowd and a good gathering of people from what I know.

QUESTION: You mentioned Tiny Bud Jamerson. Who were the other tribal leaders who were involved?

August Little Soldier

GIPP: Aljoe Agard was chairman and had a great deal of influence on Standing Rock during the organizing years of United Tribes. Another gentleman that sat on the board from Standing Rock was Melvin White Eagle, who was very instrumental in the development here, as was Douglas Skye. Tiny Bud sought out other tribes leaders like Vincent Malnouri Sr., from the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold. Ralph Wells was another. James Henry was from Turtle Mountain, was not an original signer but was one of the early board members and I worked with him as a tribal planner. Reginald Brien was a signer and was very active in politics at Turtle Mountain. Peter Marcellais was a principal signer of the first corporate papers and, of course, August Little Soldier from the Three Affiliated Tribes. And there was Lewis Goodhouse who was chair of Spirit Lake, or as it was known then, Devils Lake Sioux. These were some of the leaders that were very important to the beginning during that period of time.

QUESTION: There was political activism in Indian Country in the 1960s. OEO programs were underway. The tribal college movement was forming. How did the climate in the country affect how the training center was organized?

GIPP: Our official name at that time was United Tribes Employment Training Center, which was really a spin-off from the original name, which was United Tribes of North Dakota, because before we had the employment center or any kind of program, the tribes first came together really back in the mid 60s. And therein lies the story of how United Tribes came to be. There was a big rally going around the nation to see whether tribes could be absorbed under states and state governments, under a law passed in the 50s called Public Law 280. And our tribes came together to stop that, and say, “We want our own jurisdiction. We are tribes. We have a direct relationship with the United States government. We have a treaty relationship. And we have federal Indian law.” And so they were successful in getting the state legislature here in North Dakota to not assume that jurisdiction. And that was really lesson number one that tribes and tribal people and tribal leadership could come together. And if they came together and worked together, they could have some success.

      United Tribes predates all of the tribal colleges with perhaps the exception of one, Navajo Community College, now called Dine College. United Tribes came into existence in 1968 when the charter was put in place by these four tribes: the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold, or the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara; the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa; the Standing Rock Sioux, or Standing Rock Lakota, Dakota and Nakota; and the Spirit Lake Dakotah.

Austin G. Engel

      And, in 1968, they had the opportunity to assume possession of these grounds; it was open for use. And that’s when Tiny Bud Jamerson and the former executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, Austin Engel, got together and they plotted the way of how to use this for some training. We have to remember that in that period of time transportation was still a major issue on our reservations. We didn’t have paved roads. We were lucky to have graveled roads to a lot of our villages. And so, people getting access to training and education was a major factor. Just the idea that colleges and universities or even technical schools would pay attention to Native Americans, was almost like forbidden fruit for us. But the reality was that we needed people who were trained and educated. And that’s what the tribal leadership said; we have to have a place for training and education. And so this military fort was an opportune place to begin that effort and to do it jointly.

QUESTION: You knew Tiny Bud Jamerson.

GIPP: Yes, yes I did.

QUESTION: What motivated him to pursue this with such vigor in trying to secure this place? And how did he go about doing it?

GIPP: Well, you know, I’m sure there are several stories. Tiny Bud was one of those people who was very charismatic. He was an accomplished politician, knew a lot of people, Indian and non-Indian; was very well acquainted with state and Congressional leadership. He came to Bismarck with this concept of United Tribes and was one of the principal founders of that idea; but was one of those people who worked very hard to pull people together; and came to believe that by working together we can accomplish things.

      He would say to the tribal leaders, you know, ‘I’ve taken my bloodbath in tribal politics.’ And I’m quoting him when I say that. ‘And so I know the hardships; I know the difficulties; and I know the naysayers.’ And he said, ‘we need to stand together and we need to work together. And you can’t tell me that these things can’t be done.’ And that was his message to tribal leaders and even to students as far as that goes, because he was our first director on the Indian side of what became the training center.

QUESTION: And he knew then the need for jobs and training on all the reservations in North Dakota?

Quentin Burdick

GIPP: Well, when he realized that this property was up for grabs, he moved on it very rapidly. He called Austin Engel, and he said, ‘you know, I hear that this property is up for grabs.’ He actually said, ‘I want it today.’ And so, a week or two later, he called back to Austin Engel and said, ‘you got that property for me?’ I mean, he was the kind of guy, who when he wanted to do something he wanted to do it NOW. He didn’t want to wait around. And that was the mover and shaker in him.

      He enlisted the help of the state, through Governor William Guy. He went to Senator Quentin Burdick; went to Senator Young, Milton Young. Those two Senators were very instrumental in acquiring, helping acquire this property, because they had the congressional insight and the congressional and the federal connections to make sure that this property was going to be turned over to the tribes. And they certainly worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as our Congressman and, most importantly, the city and its leadership, E. V. Lahr, who was mayor at that time, and businessmen like the Peterson brothers who owned, at that time the GP, or Grand Pacific Hotel.`

QUESTION: What would have been the competing interests that he would have been working against at that time?

GIPP: Well, the Job Corps had been here for close to two years. And then Peace Corps was officially here for about six months, mainly to do some training but they didn’t have any real long term plans. It was evident though, that Job Corps was not welcome here for a variety of reasons. And it just didn’t work out. The city and the population was not yet ready to accept the black population, because a lot of the trainees that came in were from other parts of the country and they were African American.

      And the government was looking for a way to use this further. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of Labor were part of the federal actors, if you will, that provided the initial, up-front money. And they did a contract with United Tribes, what they call a “Buy Indian” contract. That was a period of time before there was a law that was passed in the mid ‘70s called the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act.

      But the point being, this was a first of its kind. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was interested then in doing these training things, because unemployment was so high. They decided to do two others: one in Roswell, New Mexico and the other in Riverside, California, at about the time that United Tribes got started in ’69. And they used private corporations to get these going. Bendix Field Engineering Corporation was the one who became the contractor with United Tribes. RCA was another.

      Long story short, those other two failed, very quickly. By 1970-71 they were out of business. This one continued on. And the tribes here in ’71 said, ‘we can do the training ourselves. We don’t need Bendix to do this for us.’ The Bureau of Indian Affairs said, ‘OK, we’ll let you do that then.’ And they re-awarded the contract. The tribes said, ‘we can do that ourselves and we know what our people want. We think that we can give them a better view in terms of the quality and the types of training that will work best.’ So, Bendix left. And ever since then we’ve done a hundred percent of the work ourselves.

Color Guard - Dedication Program

QUESTION: The question of coming together and being united and doing it as a group – could one reservation have done this on their own?

GIPP: I really don’t think that it could have been done by one single tribe. I don’t think that it really would have been in the end feasible, both politically, economically, and funding wise, and community wise, because, you know, for a place like United Tribes to continue on it does need the support of the tribal people and of the tribal political leadership. You know I mentioned that the Bureau of Indian Affairs experimented with these other two places at Riverside and Roswell. My view was the reason why they didn’t last was because they did not involve tribal people, they simply provided the training. They didn’t have a United Tribes corporation. So, in the end they didn’t have the tribal and community support from either the communities they supposedly served, much less from the tribal political leadership. This one did. And so, this was the formula.

      And had those tribal people not been in place and supportive and willing to take on these responsibilities, I don’t think United Tribes would have lasted much more than, you know maybe, the early or mid ‘70s and then it would have been gone. It would have been just another federal program that came and left, and probably came and left in failure, and would have reflected typical federal Indian policy of failures. The difference here again is that you had tribal people actively involved with the destiny of what needed to be done. Its community based is what it boils down to.

QUESTION: It’s also a case study in investment, having people invested in their own future. Do you think officials get that, the people who look at government Indian programs?

GIPP: I’m not sure that they do. Many government agencies don’t even know what we’re talking about here. And many outside people don’t necessarily understand it or know it. Let’s put it that way.

      When you look at it, this was very historical, that a group of Indian people could actually begin to say, ‘Hey, let’s do our own training. Let’s set it up and let’s do it.’ And they wanted it on their own terms. Many of the founding leaders were fortunate to have had a high school diploma. Some had gone on to places like Haskell, which was not yet really a college. So, the extent to which our tribal leaders had formal education as we know it today was minimal. A lot of our students that come in today are probably better educated than our tribal leaders were at that time. But our tribal leaders had a couple things, one, the experience they had encountered in their own lifetime. The hardships and the difficulties of trying to acquire training, education, jobs and to be successful, was something that they had been through, as part of their trials, and to even get to the leadership of where they were at, at that time. And the other was that these men and women had a lot of good sense about what life was about. And they had a good vision and a good dream of what they wanted for their children and grandchildren. They wanted them to be successful. They wanted them to have a good life. They wanted them to be independent. And they wanted them to be able to fair well for themselves and their families in the future. And they still want that today, even more so.

      And that, in one sense is what United Tribes is also about. We have begun to develop our own terms and conditions, not just for the school and operating it and maintaining it and keeping it in place, allowing it to grow, but terms and conditions for each and every individual that attends here as a student. We call it independence, the road to independence.

QUESTION: Only one more question. Do you suppose that Tiny Bud Jamerson envisioned what has resulted after 40 years from uniting and getting this college started?

GIPP: You know, I think he would think well of it. Tiny Bud was the kind of man who had a lot of vision. And I don’t think he would be terribly surprised with what we’re doing. And I think he would EXPECT that we’re doing what we’re doing. And he would say either, ‘Why not. Or why aren’t you doing it. And get with it. And why not more of whatever it is.’ He was that kind a guy. And, that was the way he spoke to tribal leaders and to students. So I don’t think we’re too far off the mark. And maybe we just have a lot more to do. You know. And I think that’s what he’d also think.