Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College incorporates traditional cultural values with higher education

Truth. Wisdom. Bravery. Humility. Respect. Love. Honesty.

These seven words encapsulate The Seven Grandfather Teachings of Anishinaabe Tribal culture and values. The concepts are also a key part of the mission of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College located in Mt. Pleasant.

“Offering education with the Seven Grandfather Values is really important so that our students feel welcome,” says Dr. Mary Pelcher, dean of academics. “They feel like they're learning something about themselves. We're doing it all in the same context as Western education, but we're doing it with our own Tribal importance.”

In fact, Pelcher says the college’s faculty incorporate the Seven Grandfather teachings into every aspect of students’ classes.

“Our math teacher—he does a contract with the students on the Seven Grandfathers and says, ‘Honesty: What does it mean to be honest?’ And the students will say, ‘It means I can talk to you freely.’ Or Bravery: ‘I'm not going to be afraid to raise my hand to ask a question even though I am afraid,’” she explains.

Winona LaDuke speaks to students, faculty, and families during the SCTC graduation ceremony. (Photo courtesy of Miss Lily Photography)These values tie in with another key component for the students: identity.

“The part that I love about the Tribal College is when we see the logo out in the community,” Pelcher says. “People are really proud of wearing that turtle logo on their back, and we know that we're helping students have an identity in education. So, they're saying, education is important to me and my family.”

“Education for Native people has been tumultuous over the years, beginning with first contact and then boarding schools and day schools,” Pelcher continues. “Over the years, the Tribal College movement has really changed the focus of education from being a process that doesn't identify with Native culture to one that does identify with Native culture so that we can turn that around and have education be an inviting and important opportunity in the lives of our Native people.”

But Pelcher says she also often finds the need to clarify a common misconception about the Tribal College.

“I don't think a lot of people know that it's public because we get that question all the time: ‘Is your college just Tribal college? Is it just for Tribal people?’” she explains. “It does focus on Tribal Anishinaabe history, language, and culture. And that's really important as the identity of the college and to serve our population—our main population. But it is open for anybody. We have all kinds of students.“

In fact, Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College is a public community college. Founded in 1998, the college became an accredited higher education organization through the Higher Learning Commission in 2007. 

Enrolled students are able to complete 30 credits of basic General Education courses before moving on toward four different degree paths: Science, Native Studies, Business, or Liberal Arts. 

“Once you do the ‘Gen Eds,’ then you can work on the courses specific to the degree,” Pelcher explains. “In our Native Studies, we have three concentrations. They are language— Anishinaabemowin—Arts (and Humanities), History, and Law.”

“Liberal Arts just added this year a concentration on Elementary Education so that we can do our Associate Degree here and have it transferred to CMU right into their Elementary Ed program,” Pelcher continues. “And then they can finish out two years at CMU and have a Bachelor's in Elementary Education. And that is huge for the next generation of not only teachers, but the students that they'll teach as well.”

Monica Gonzalez celebrates with family after receiving an Associate of Arts in Business degree at Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Mary Pelcher) Pelcher says she feels a great deal of pride in her role as dean of academics at the college.

“It means a lot because I feel like I'm a leader in my family and in my community to let everybody know the importance of education,” she concludes. “That's really what it's all about: When somebody moves on in education, really what they want to do is 1) be a model for their own family, and 2) help their community. And we see that a lot with our students. They have little ones, and they say, ‘Education has to be important to them, too. So, I better do it, and I can get a job and help my community as well.’ So, those are the two main things I think, regarding the importance of education and the importance of everybody moving towards a step at a time. A step at a time.” 

“That's what I keep telling my family, my kids, and my community: just a step at a time. It might not happen overnight, and it might not happen in a straight line, but keep going; keep pushing forward. Just keep going. Just keep going.”

To learn more about the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College, visit Information on community-wide events, such as the annual Pow Wow coming up July 28-30, can be found by visiting the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe’s website.
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Read more articles by Sarah R. Adams-Slominski.

Sarah R. Adams-Slominski is an award-winning multimedia producer and writer with over 20 years of experience. She has also designed and taught multimedia and communication courses for university students, as well as media relations and marketing seminars for clients she coaches across the United States. In 2020, she began work on a doctorate and is now concentrating on dissertation research in educational technology and new literacies while working as a freelance writer, editor, and adjunct college instructor. When she has some downtime, Sarah loves reading, cooking, and swimming—as well as hanging out with friends, family, and her fiancé at home with two giant cats.