PowHERful Brands: American Indian College Fund

By Meredith Vaughan, Chief Executive Officer

Wrapping up a true powHER-packed month of features on women-founded and women-led brands, we have the American Indian College Fund, one of our clients since 2014.


The College Fund’s direct support to American Indians and Alaska Natives and a network of tribal colleges and universities quite tangibly lifts up and sustains positive forward momentum for individuals and communities. As a board member since 2015, I have seen firsthand the extraordinary impact the organization is making. I also know from the story of my father, who was part Cherokee, that regardless of your past, there is a path to your future (that sometimes only becomes clear when support comes from those who are willing to lend it selflessly).


Although she didn’t realize how unusual it was at the time, Emeritus Trustee Anne Sward Hansen’s early childhood experiences with a Native American wilderness guide gave her a great sense of appreciation for and intrigue in the knowledge and strength of Native American tribes and peoples across our country. 

American Indian College Fund Anne and David

Many years later, this awareness became a passion. In the 1980s, while acting as a beloved character of “As the World Turns” in New York City, she learned of and joined an effort to donate blankets and coats to people on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Yet, after organizing and collecting what became several semi-trailers of blankets, coats, books, food, she and other volunteers were stymied with the logistics of how to transport the materials several states away. 


Eventually, they succeeded, and Anne traveled to South Dakota for the delivery. She also became more intimately aware of the community’s needs. Lakota language teacher Albert White Hat gave her a tour of Sinte Gleska University. While there, Anne recognized that the solution to poor living conditions and hopelessness on the reservation was not blankets or donated clothing. It was education.


Some years, many different connections, and a few tense conversations later, tribal leaders of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) chose Anne to frame, build and lead the American Indian College Fund. With AIHEC as the “mother,” the College Fund would consistently support an ecosystem of culturally grounded higher education for Native American students and surrounding communities. 

American Indian College Fund David, Janine, Anne, Gail

The College Fund started out small, as so many pivotal organizations do, with just $6,000. Anne and other early organizers, including other long-serving board members Dr. David Gipp, Wicahpi Isnala (Lone Star), and Gail Bruce, saw their outsize passion quickly produce results. They amplified Native Americans’ voices, making more people aware of the opportunity to advance individuals and whole communities through education. Soon, the College Fund was distributing $1,000 a year to each school in a growing network of tribal colleges and universities.


Today, there are 35 tribal colleges and universities in 13 states. And, since 1989, the College Fund has provided more than 140,000 scholarships and $237 million to support higher education in Native communities. Many strong women and men continue to lead the organization. Tribal college presidents occupy half of the positions on its board of directors, and the majority of board members are Native Americans. Native educator and former tribal college president Cheryl Crazy Bull, Wacinyanpi Win (They Depend on Her), of the Sicangu Lakota, has served as president and CEO since 2012. 


Even considering these strengths, there’s still great work to be done here. Native communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. And although a recent swell in cultural consciousness around social justice for minority communities is welcome, this awareness has yet to substantially address disparities between Native American students and others in the general population. During normal circumstances, Native American students are much more likely to experience food and housing insecurity, to be the primary wage earner in their households (yes, while also going to school full time), and to lack access to the technology and infrastructure that would make remote learning functional and productive.


We love the College Fund brand because it deftly celebrates a vast and rich cultural history of persistence and resilience while educating audiences about the adversity that Native American students and communities face yet today. We firmly believe in the organization’s mission to boost Native communities, and by extension all communities, through increasing the number of Natives pursuing college degrees and graduating. Our exploration of this issue continues with our #tapculture focus on Native American Heritage Month. 


Now in our 50th year of business, Vladimir Jones is Colorado’s original independent, integrated advertising agency, with offices in Denver and Colorado Springs. We believe in brilliant brands and love making the world love them as much as we do.

Vladimir Jones is Colorado’s original independent, integrated advertising agency, with offices in Denver and Colorado Springs. We believe in brilliant brands and love making the world love them as much as we do.