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Honoring a Berean and Native Trailblazer

Honoring a Berean and Native Trailblazer

Every year, on the second Monday in October, many Americans observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day. One way we mark this holiday is to celebrate and honor Native peoples by commemorating their histories, cultures and achievements. For this year’s observance, Berea College highlighted the remarkable life and legacy of Dr. Helen Maynor Scheirbeck, an alumna and political scientist whose life’s work was advocating for American Indian tribal recognition, civil rights, educational opportunity and equality at the highest levels of government. A Notable Berean banner bearing her name and contributions hangs on our campus.

Scheirbeck was born into the Lumbee Tribe in Lumberton, North Carolina, in 1935, at a time when educational opportunities for Native Americans were limited. When she was ready for college, she found her only in-state option was Pembroke State College for Indians. Instead, Scheirbeck enrolled at Berea College in 1953.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in Education in 1957, she enrolled in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs to study Arabic. A hitchhiking journey across the country to visit the Navajo and Hopi peoples in the Southwest inspired her to change her focus to helping her fellow Native peoples. Scheirbeck earned a doctorate in Educational Administration with an emphasis on public policy from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and moved to Washington, D.C. For the next 40 years, she worked tirelessly to create organizations and shape legislation that would have lasting impacts on educational opportunities for Native peoples.

In her first job, Dr. Scheirbeck served as the first Native American intern for the National Congress of American Indians, where she had an integral role in founding the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC). Its mission was and is to influence federal policy on issues related to American Indian higher education. AIHEC was established in 1972 with six tribally controlled colleges, institutions that are owned and operated by American Indian nations. Today, there are 37 TCUs (tribal colleges and universities) operating 75 campuses across 16 states. Following her internship, she became a staff member for Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina, and the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights. It was in that role that she did perhaps her most impactful work.

In the context of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, Dr. Scheirbeck helped to organize the Capitol Conference on Poverty in 1962 where young Native leaders learned how to effectively advocate for full participation in legislative activity. She worked with Sen. Ervin to push the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 through Congress, guaranteeing the Bill of Rights and other constitutional protections would be extended to Native Americans.

Realizing how important access to a quality college education had been for her, Dr. Scheirbeck devoted much of her attention to educational opportunities for Native Americans. In 1972, while working to establish the Coalition of Indian Controlled School Boards, she was appointed chairperson of the Indian Education Task Force by President Jimmy Carter to serve as. The task force studied the status of Native education in the U.S. and issued a report to Congress with recommendations for improving the quality of educational institutions attended by Native American and Alaska Native children. This work was central to the Indian-controlled schools movement. Knowing how critical funding is to policy implementation, Scheirbeck developed strategies to assist tribal colleges and universities in securing start-up funds as “developing institutions” through Title III of the Higher Education Act. In 1978, she assisted in developing the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act and helped move it through Congress to passage that same year. The legislation was the cornerstone of the tribal college movement in this country. Her tremendous legacy also includes leadership of the Indian Head Start Program for young American Indian and Alaska Native learners, serving as a trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian and becoming the museum’s director of public programs when her term as a trustee ended.

A 2001 article in Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education quoted Scheirbeck as being fond of saying, “I’m just a little old Indian woman who is working hard for Indian people.” Her record says so much more, and Berea College is VERY proud of her and her accomplishments. She passed away in 2010 but the significant impact of her work will continue into the future.