Native American Woman Leading Tribal College Forward

Courtesy Caroline Antoinette /Photography/Ronan, MT Sandra Boham, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, is president of Salish Kootenai College. She is one Native American woman among many who serve as a president of a tribal college or university.

Salish Kootenai College is helmed by a Native American woman

In honor of International Women’s Day, ICMN is profiling Native American woman educators prominent in the tribal college movement, where almost half of the college presidents are women and nearly two-thirds of the student population is female.

Sandra Boham, an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation, was named president of Salish Kootenai College in 2016, but she has been with the college since the beginning, taking courses there in 1977 while she was still in high school and teaching adult education and GED preparation during her first year at the University of Montana.

“The college didn’t even have a campus yet, so classes were offered in tribal office buildings or the job corps center, in churches, in the basement of an office building. We taught classes everywhere, wherever we could,” she remembered.

Joe McDonald, the college’s first president, is one of several people Boham credits as early mentors—others include Jerry Slater, Joey Silverthorn, Bob van Gunten and Bob Peregoy. McDonald told her, “If you really want to be the greatest benefit to this college you need to go and learn how people in other parts of the U.S. implement education so you can gain the best of whatever you’re exposed to and bring it back here and make us better.”

“So that’s what I did,” Boham said. She met her husband, a member of the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe, in grad school at Montana State University in Bozeman and together they moved to Eureka, where “I was exposed to a lot of northern California Native American cultures.” Back in Montana she worked at SKC in financial aid and with Upward Bound, then served as director of American Indian Education for the Great Falls Public Schools.

“I learned a lot that helped me formulate my ideas about the role that culture and a strong sense of identity play in developing students’ resilience and persistence and success in education,” she said. It was difficult to convince administrators that “drumming and singing and traditional games and beading would raise math and reading scores, improve attendance and reduce discipline. It’s not a straight line, but we showed that it worked.”

That became a basis for the approach she took back to SKC when she was named academic vice president under the leadership of President Robert DePoe III. When DePoe was diagnosed with cancer a few months later, the whole community came together to support him, and his death at the end of 2015 devastated the campus. “We were trying to come together as a community and find our sense of balance. We did that and then discussed what the future would look like.”

One thing they did was to create a “founders wall to capture our history. That way people will remember the work and dedication that’s gone on to get them where they are now and hopefully encourage people to pick up the mantle and carry it forward. We’re always looking at who’s going to be next president, the next faculty. We’re still a predominantly non-Native faculty, but we want students to begin to come back and pick up those responsibilities. It takes time to grow your own,” she said.

The school has a strong nursing program that’s been around for 25 years and an education program that offers licensure for preschool through elementary teaching and for secondary math and science. It also has two unique 4-year undergraduate programs—Tribal Historic Preservation and Tribal Governance and Administration. SKC has just expanded its STEM offerings, adding programs in hydrology, fishery and wildlife, forestry and life science.

“We’ve made some very deliberate attempts to get women into those fields and to make sure we provide the supports they need to be successful. We’ve been looking at our teaching methodologies and how we provide science education to students so that it is grounded in our cultural beliefs. Women are feeling more that science is for them—it’s not just what other people do. And we’re seeing more women becoming science educators,” Boham said.

Of the students attending tribal colleges and universities, 62 percent are women, according to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium. “I think we have a lot of women in the colleges because we have a lot of women who are single heads of households,” said Boham, “and this is how they see they are going to make a better future for their children. For women, in order to be in professions that will allow them to support their families, education is critical. Absolutely critical.”

As she looks to the future of SKC, Boham has some concerns about the current political environment. “I hope that we continue the funding and support for higher education,” she said. “I’ve been concerned about some of the discussions around student loans and reductions in Pell grants and about the philosophy that students need to have a personal financial investment in their education.

“There are only two tribal colleges that participate in student loans. We’re one of them. We work very hard to keep our default rates down and we’re doing a pretty good job of it. But we also work very hard to generate scholarships so students don’t have to take out loans. The idea that our students should come up with some of the funding themselves, when you’re dealing with a student body that is 80 percent or more Pell-eligible, they just don’t have those resources. I’m concerned about what that will do to access,” she said.

“There’s a lot of unknowns as we move forward. But when you look at our demographics and who our students are I know that women are going to continue to take leadership roles in TCUs and I think that speaks volumes to the opportunities and accessibility provided through our schools. That’s why you see so many women as deans of students and academic vice presidents and presidents and on our boards of directors. Women have traditionally played a very strong role in helping to govern our communities and I think the colleges represent a continuation of that,” said Boham.

Boham earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at the University of Montana in 1982, an M.Ed. in adult and higher education at Montana State University-Bozeman in 1991 and a Ed.D in educational leadership from the University of Montana in 2014.

She has taught adult basic education at a women’s correctional facility, Kicking Horse Job Corp Center and Salish Kootenai College, as well as holding teaching positions at College of the Redwoods and Humboldt State University, serving as American Indian Education in the Great Falls Public Schools and filling several other administrative posts at Salish Kootenai College. She currently serves on the American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s Board of Directors and recently testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs regarding several Indian education bills.

She is married and has four children and 14 grandchildren.