As Native Forward Scholars Fund begins to celebrate its 50th anniversary, it is important to look back at the history of the organization and the people whose foresight and vision led to the creation of Native Forward Scholars Fund.

Early Origins of American Indian Graduate Center

One of the co-founders of what today is known as Native Forward Scholars Fund was Robert L. Bennett (Oneida).

Charles “Chuck” Trimble, one of the first Board Members, remembered Bennett as, “a very deep gentlemen and a gentle soul. I saw him always looking for opportunities for Indian people.” His role as a co-founder is one of the many times Bennett saw an opportunity for Indian people which ultimately created opportunities for thousands of Native students over the last 50 years.

Bennett was born on the Oneida Indian Reservation near Green Bay, Wisconsin, in 1912. He attended Haskell Institute in Kansas before he studied law at Southwestern University Law School in Washington D.C., where he earned his law degree in 1941. Much of his legal work supported Native land claims. For this work, he was awarded the Indian Achievement Award in 1962 and the Outstanding American Indian Citizen Award in 1966. His commitment and work representing American Indians caught the attention of many including President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Robert L. Bennett (Oneida)

In 1966, Bennett was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to serve as the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. This appointment was historic as Bennet was only the second Native American to serve in this role. In this capacity, he often visited area offices where he was disappointed to find none of the offices were headed by Native Americans. The seeds of this observation had likely been sown earlier at meetings with John C. Rainer (Taos Pueblo). Rainer and Bennett met often during their time in Washington, D.C., and could not help but notice the lack of American Indian/Alaska Native professionals in all fields. They were aware that much of this was due to a lack of funding for students seeking graduate degrees. In fact, in 1967 a report on Indian Education for the American Indian Policy Review Commission noted there were only 13 Native students enrolled in graduate studies. This was further proof of the need for more funding and opportunities to fund Native students in graduate studies.

John C. Rainer (Taos Pueblo)

In 1967 only 13 Native Students were enrolled in graduate programs.

Scholarship Fund for Native Graduate Students Established​

In 1969, Bennett left the Bureau of Indian Affairs and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he became the director of the American Indian Law Center. That same year, Rainer was selected to direct the New Mexico Commission of Indian Affairs. As their paths crossed again in New Mexico they set out to find a solution to the issues they had identified during their time in Washington, D.C. One of the solutions was to create a scholarship program focused on funding Native students in graduate and professional programs.

To this end, the newly established National Indian Scholarship Program was founded at the University of New Mexico in August of 1969. One of the first steps was to establish a board to help set priorities and help get the word out about the new program. The first Board of Directors was made up of some of the most well-known Native scholars and professionals.

Robert L. Bennett (Oneida)

Trimble remarked it was, “a virtual Who’s Who of Indian scholars and leaders. They were all doers.” The Board included Joe Sando (Jemez Pueblo), Dave Warren (Santa Clara Pueblo), Lucy Covington (Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation), Ada Deer (Menominee), Overton James (Chickasaw), Leah Manning (Shoshone-Paiute), Chuck Trimble (Oglala Sioux Tribe), Rainer and Bennett. The members voted to set up an independent office, apply for tax-exempt status, and named Bennett the General Director. On November 14, 1970, Rainer announced a $15,000 transfer from the Donner Foundation to provide direct scholarship assistance. This grant led to the development of a contract with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The following year Bennett, Warren, and Sando signed the Articles of Incorporation and the name of the program was changed to American Indian Scholarship, Inc. That year, one of the first scholarships awarded was to Donald A. McCabe, who was awarded $1,200 to support his studies in Business Administration. McCabe would go on to serve as President of the Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institution and would be one of the first of thousands of success stories and alumni.

John C. Rainer (Taos Pueblo)

The work of the Center became even more critical in 1981 when the Reagan Administration reduced funding for all levels of Native higher education from $282 million to $169 million. Around this time the program also received results of a survey they had sent to past recipients to evaluate the effectiveness and provide information for future proposals. They found they were providing financial assistance to less than one-fifth of all Native students attending graduate school and half of the recipients were women. The reduction in federal funding and survey results highlighted the need to support their work. The National Indian Lutheran Board donated $10,000 as seed money to generate more funds. Exxon, Texaco, Arco, and Syntex also contributed.

By 1988, American Indian Graduate Center was well established. That year 152 women and 140 men received funding. These students represented 81 Tribes from 22 states. The students were studying in the disciplines of law, health, religious studies, natural resources, and fine art.

American Indian Graduate Center

Another milestone was reached in 1989 as the organization celebrated its 20th anniversary. The program underwent another name change to become American Indian Graduate Center. The name was changed to be more reflective of the organization’s expansion to become a national center with expanded services and activities. As American Indian Graduate Center entered the 1990s, it expanded its work and footprint with a $65,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for a tracking project to develop a national database of all Native college students to be used as a way to identify potential graduate students for internship and employment opportunities. The database would also assist in identifying and documenting the needs of Native students. Five years later, American Indian Graduate Center sent a survey to all federally recognized Tribes to identify their future employment needs. The top ten professions reported (in order of need) were: business manager, lawyer, accountant, natural resource manager, doctor, teacher, counselor, financial analyst, engineer, and computer technician. The survey also found less than 3% of Tribal members had a college degree. American Indian Graduate Center used this data to inform its work and as reminders of the importance of its mission.

Gates Millennium Scholarship Program

The Center continued to grow and reached another major milestone in 2001. American Indian Graduate Center was selected as one of the four partner organizations to help administer the Gates Millennium Scholarship Program. This selection required American Indian Graduate Center to create American Indian Graduate Center Scholars, Inc to manage the scholarship. This addition doubled the staff and office space required to administer the Gates Millennium Scholarship. The scholarship was funded by a generous grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal of the Gates Millennium Scholarship Program was to fund 20,000 outstanding, low-income American Indian/Alaska Native, African American, Asian Pacific Islander American, and Hispanic students with the opportunity to complete their undergraduate studies in the degree of their choice.

The early 2000s were marked by huge growth, but American Indian Graduate Center also saw huge losses. Rainer passed away on September 22, 2001, with Bennett passing away that next year. Fortunately, they were able to witness over 30 years of growth from the scholarship program they started in 1969.

Native Forward Scholars Fund

In 2022, the name of the organization was changed to Native Forward Scholars Fund. Today, the organization continues to build and add partners to its work. Through the support of endowed gifts, federal resources, corporate support, foundations, alumni and individual private donations Native Forward Scholars Fund continues to grow. Last fiscal year Native Forward Scholars Fund awarded nearly $15 million in scholarships and academic support services to 1,340 Native scholars. These scholars represent 202 tribes from 49 states. The impact of Native Forward Scholars Fund can be seen throughout Indian Country. As Chuck Trimble looked back on the history of the organization he remarked on the vision of Bennett, “A lot of times things like this turned into a one-time offering. Instead, they built an organization with the capacity to grow and acquire more funding to provide more opportunities. I really think Bennett had a lot to do with that.” It’s hard not to hear the smile in Trimble’s voice as he recalls the beginnings of Native Forward Scholars Fund.

What started as the idea of two men has grown to become the premier national resource in funding and continues to empower the next generation of Native leaders across all sectors. It is hard to find a Native professional that does not have a connection to the Center as an alumnus or friend of the organization. Those that receive support from Native Forward Scholars Fund often have similar feedback and recognize the organization is not just a scholarship granting organization, it is family. The dream of Bennet and Rainer is being realized by so many.

Bennet would be happy to know that if he were to walk into a BIA field office today, he would be met by another Native person running the office, surrounded by Native staff. His dream of creating Native professionals extends past regional bureau offices to doctor’s offices, classrooms, courts, laboratories, agencies, Tribal offices, and beyond.