Native American Heritage Month: Building Back Better with the Tohono O’odham Nation

By Amy Loyd, Senior Advisor, Office of the Secretary

Native american heritage month: building back better with the Tohono O'odham nation

Lightning flashed above the mountains, brightening the rain-soaked desert as we drove into the Tohono O’odham Nation in Southwestern Arizona. The Nation’s 28,000 members live throughout a Tribal land base that comprises 4,460 square miles, roughly the size of Connecticut. The Nation invited Secretary Cardona to visit their Tribal college, Tohono O’odham Community College (TOCC), to learn about the essential role it plays in the community, and to get feedback on our Administration’s Build Back Better agenda. 

Secretary Cardona speaking with another panelist
The chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Ned Norris, Jr. with Secretary Miguel Cardona at a roundtable discussion.

Our roundtable discussion opened with a traditional blessing from Camillus Lopez, the senior cultural mentor at TOCC, sung in the O’odham language. The chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, Ned Norris, Jr., then welcomed our delegation from the U.S. Department of Education, followed by TOCC President Paul Robertson. As the representative for the Nation’s district and a committed advocate for Tribal colleges and equity in education, U.S. Congressman Raúl Grijalva accompanied us on our visit and facilitated our discussion.

Secretary Cardona’s opening remarks honored the Tohono O’odham ancestral lands, and the past, present, and future generations of the Tohono O’odham Nation. He shared how grateful we all were to visit the Nation, and he recognized the federal government’s unique responsibility to invest in Nation-to-Nation relationship-building and to respect Tribal sovereignty and self-determination. He then reflected on how the pandemic has laid bare and increased longstanding inequities and disparities in educational, workforce, economic, and wellness outcomes—with a disproportionate effect on Native Americans. In our discussion, Secretary Cardona shared how funding streams both from the American Rescue Plan and the Build Back Better agenda support Native Americans, and he voiced our collective commitment to come through the pandemic together, building a brighter future for our children. He sought to listen and learn from Tribal leaders and TOCC leadership, staff, and students about how our Administration can build back better in partnership with Tribal Nations. 

Across our country, Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) are integral to Native American communities. They fulfill a vital role in strengthening and preserving irreplaceable Native languages and cultural traditions; in promoting excellence in Native education from early childhood through K-12 and into postsecondary education; in offering a high-quality college education to Native students; in providing job training and other career-building programs to Native people seeking to launch a career or to develop new job skills; and in supporting Tribal economic development efforts by building a talent pipeline of skilled Native workers. Often, they are the only postsecondary institutions within some of our nation’s most economically disadvantaged and remote and rural areas. As a result, our nation’s Tribal colleges also provide crucial services in communities that continue to suffer high rates of unemployment and the resulting social and economic distress—which are all the more heightened now, due to COVID-19 and its disproportionate effect on Tribal communities. That’s why the Secretary prioritized this first visit to a Tribal Nation: he knew it is essential for the Department to learn directly from the Tribal college about their vision, hopes, and needs as we continue to contend with and emerge from the pandemic.

students speaking at the roundtable discussion

At TOCC, we saw firsthand how Himdag—the Tohono O’odham Nation’s culture, way of life, language, and values—is the foundation of all that TOCC is and does, from the names of the buildings to the posters on the walls. In the remarks from all roundtable participants, we saw, heard, and felt how TOCC is deeply rooted in Himdag. 

Chartered by the Tohono O’odham Nation in 1998, TOCC is charged with being the Nation’s center for higher education, research, culture, and tradition.  In addition to program requirements, TOCC has Himdag course requirements for graduation from any program of study offered at the college, ranging from workforce development certificates to associate degrees and transfer programs. TOCC also has a program in Tohono O’odham Studies, and the school reaches out to the Tohono O’odham Nation through community education courses and regular community engagement programs. This range of activities illustrates the College’s dedication to meeting the educational and cultural needs of its community. 

The summer monsoon rain prevented us from taking a walking tour of the TOCC campus, but it allowed us to have a more in-depth conversation about the unique challenges and strengths of the Tohono O’odham Nation’s educational landscape—many of which are shared by other Tribal Nations across our country. In the roundtable (pictured at left), we discussed the complexity of the P-12 educational jurisdictions that the Nation navigates: they have tribal schools, Bureau of Indian Education schools, traditional state public schools, and religious schools in a Nation that spans some 2.8 million acres with isolated and remote villages. We learned from Tribal members about the challenges their villages face in broadband access, infrastructure, transportation across vast distances, housing, and food security, all of which were exacerbated by the pandemic. We also learned from them about TOCC’s role in Nation-building, in creating connection through culturally responsive pedagogy, and in providing education that is the key to opening more doors to opportunities for Nation members, and to creating more opportunities for graduates to apply their skills in the Nation.

Frances Benavidez, the director of Tohono O’odham Studies at TOCC, shared how the college is reclaiming what was taken away from the Nation during our country’s history of forced assimilation of Native peoples: “TOCC is reclaiming our language and culture, and strengthening who our students are through these lessons in our classrooms,” he said. Using an assets-based approach to honoring the learning, growth, strengths, and resilience in their students and their Nation, TOCC exemplifies Tribal self-determination and sovereignty that advances their Nation’s education and economic outcomes.

“This college is so accepting, it feels like home,” said on TOCC student. “I’m here at TOCC because I want to learn. I want to create something that will last longer than I do through my art, and I want to bring some beauty into this world.” 

We at the Department see and appreciate the beauty and the strength that TOCC—and Tribal colleges and universities across the country—bring to our education sector, through the unique education they provide to their students. We are fully committed to advancing equity, excellence, and justice in our Nation’s education system for all Native students, from cradle through career. We want Native students to have a vibrant, engaging, culturally responsive education in which they can learn their Native languages and histories, and that prepares them for college, competitive careers in a global economy, and contributing to their communities—just as the students at TOCC receive. And we will continue to learn from and partner with TCUs and Tribal Nations so that we truly build back better together.