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Quanah Parker was a Comanche leader and fierce warrior who sought and obtained peace for his people at a crucial point in their history.
The chief’s photo hangs above John W. Tippeconnic III’s desk in the office of Arizona State University’s American Indian Studies Program, where he serves as a professor and director.
The 73-year-old educator, who is also a member of the Comanche tribe, is finding renewed inspiration in Parker’s life these days.
“Quanah Parker was one of the last great chiefs, and his rule coincided with the federal government’s colonization efforts by rounding up tribes, forcing Native Americans on reservations and moving them from their homelands,” Tippeconnic said. “He was a brilliant negotiator when it came to dealing with the federal government. This was not necessarily a good time for Comanches, but a difficult transitional time.”
Tippeconnic is experiencing a transitional moment of his own right now. The Phoenix Indian Center’s 2016 Leon Grant Spirit of the Community Award honoree is on the precipice of retirement, with 50 years of experience in teaching and educational leadership positions in organizations and programs serving American Indian populations.
“Professor Tippeconnic has profoundly impacted American Indian education at all levels and has supported countless Native scholars and educators over his decades in the field,” said K. Tsianina Lomawaima, a professor in ASU’s School of Social Transformation. “I personally have benefited, like many, many others, from his generous, astute, detailed and constructive peer review and mentorship. He exemplifies Native values of intellectual excellence, hard work and care for others.”
That excellence was molded at a young age by his parents, who both attended boarding schools. Tippeconnic said boarding schools back then were militaristic in their approach and highly structured, and they attempted to assimilate Natives into Western ways.
“The United States practiced the policy of, ‘Kill the Indian, save the man,’” he said. “In other words, eradicate who you are and make someone out of you that you aren’t. It was all a part of colonization by using education as a tool to assimilate, eradicate and force change. That definitely had an impact on them, so they pushed me towards education, but an education where I was valued as a Native person.”
His parents led by example. His father, John, was the first Comanche to ever receive a master’s degree and was a principal and teacher at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. His Cherokee mother, Juanita, was a cook at the school.
“My parents instilled in me the importance of education because they lived it, modeled it, so I was right there with them,” Tippeconnic said. “It was never a matter of if I was going to go to college, but where I was going to go.”
Tippeconnic chose Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, where he majored in secondary education. His first job was teaching math and social studies at Hayes Junior High in Albuquerque. It was 1966, and that particular public school system wasn’t what he had hoped.
“The principal valued discipline and bulletin boards in the classroom,” Tippeconnic said. “I wasn’t very good at bulletin boards.”
Tippeconnic spent two years there before taking a job on the Navajo reservation in Tuba City, Arizona, teaching Navajo fourth- and eighth-grade students. He said the experience was much more meaningful than Albuquerque.
“The kids I taught were grounded in who they were as Navajo people, and all knew and spoke the language,” Tippeconnic said. “They were respectful, and discipline was not an issue so you could really focus on teaching students.”
His good work was noticed by an administrator at Navajo Community College in Tsaile, Arizona, where he became an assistant to the president. The institution is known today as Diné College, the first tribally controlled community college in the United States, in which Tippeconnic played no small part.
“When I got there, the tribe had control of the college. The (college's) board of regents could hire and fire the president,” Tippeconnic said. “They could also institute and approve curriculum and hire faculty and staff.”
He still considers tribal colleges the best example of tribal control of education.
“A good leader is someone who puts others first and doesn’t say ‘I’ but rather, ‘we.’ ... Leadership, like education, is about people. It’s a people business.”
— retiring ASU professor John W. Tippeconnic III
After Navajo Community College, Tippeconnic got involved in educational policy.
“Policy is a key part of leadership because if you examine the history of the U.S. government and Indian tribes’ relations, it’s one that’s based on treaties, Congressional acts, court decisions and legal definitions,” Tippeconnic said. “Not only is it important to develop policy but also to see how policy is implemented. Good Indian policy, based on tribal sovereignty, is key to the success of Indian nation.”
After he received his master’s and doctoral degrees from Penn State University, his focus turned to Washington, D.C., where he eventually held director positions at the Office of Indian Education, U.S. Department of Education; and the Office of Indian Education Programs, Bureau of Indian Affairs. Both jobs required work with Congress, tribes, states, local schools, professional organizations and with various departments of the executive branch of the federal government that had an impact on education nationally.
And it would take an act of Congress to get Tippeconnic to take credit for his work. He still insists others should be lauded for his success.
“A good leader is someone who puts others first and doesn’t say ‘I’ but rather, ‘we.’ It’s someone who respects other people, earns their respect and listens to them and not only hears what they have to say but values their input,” Tippeconnic said. “Leadership, like education, is about people. It’s a people business.”
Tippeconnic directed ASU's Center for Indian Education for a number of years, beginning in 1976. He returned to ASU in 2010, serving as professor and director of the American Indian Studies (AIS) Program. The program develops future leaders in Indian country that are grounded in cultural integrity, sovereignty and indigenous knowledge.
“Our graduates know what colonization and decolonization mean. They know our history and the policies. They’re grounded in our AIS paradigm that is based on the experiences of American Indian nations, peoples, communities and organizations from American Indian perspectives,” Tippeconnic said. “One hundred percent of our faculty is Native American. That is a strength that you don’t see at major universities in this country. People look at us and value our AIS program. We’re just at the start of doing great things.”
Tippeconnic sees that after dedicating 50 years of his life to education. On May 11, Tippeconnic will officially say goodbye at ASU’s 26th American Indian Convocation at ASU Gammage in Tempe. There he will see a record-breaking 361 Native students receive their degrees who represent the future leadership of Indian country with the knowledge to sustain strong identity and sovereign status of Indian nations.
“That gives me hope because these young people have their head and hearts in the right place,” Tippeconnic said. “I’m so proud of what they have accomplished.”