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American Indian College Fund Student of the Year James D. Gray

Son of former chief Jim Gray received the Student of the Year Award from the American Indian College Fund in Minneapolis on March 10, for his studies at College of the Muscogee Nation. The tribal school is making Gray feel “challenged, but guided; independent, but connected; and inspired by way of sincerity.”

After three-and-a-half years spent recording, editing and writing for television, James D. Gray has gone back to school and back to the drawing board. But it wasn’t the same version of school that he’d known, and it didn’t treat him the same way either.

Gray is enrolled at the College of the Muscogee Nation, a public tribal community college where he won the American Indian College Fund’s Student of the Year Award, an honor he attributes to the fact that the school’s values align with his own and the teachers have an empowering approach to helping students learn to give back.

“This is the first time in my life I’ve been able to call myself a Straight-A student,” he said. “And I sincerely owe a great deal of credit to the college for their support, encouragement, and guidance.”

The Adolph Coors Foundation sponsors both the tribal college and university Students of the Year. Each tribal college and university selects one student to represent their institution. Students receive a $1,200 scholarship.

CMN is located in Okmulgee, the capital of the Muscogee Nation and currently offers associate degrees. Classroom sizes are small, with the college reporting 205 total student enrollment for 2021.

CMN is located in Okmulgee, the capital of the Muscogee Nation and currently offers associate degrees. Classroom sizes are small, with the college reporting 205 total student enrollment for 2021.

For Gray, the difference between CMN and other non-tribal academic institutions is the way the school frames what education means. At CMN, Gray encountered education as a way to give back to his community, rather than as a mere tool for material success.

“That concept [of giving back], in particular, was something I could more deeply identify with,” he said. The school also functions as a safe haven for Native people who have encountered neglect, and even discouragement, from institutions that don’t value Native cultures or beliefs.

Gray when he worked in New York, writing, recording and editing for television. Courtesy Photo

When he was at his television job in New York, Gray worked long days and nights writing, recording and editing, until a conflict during a protest caused him to question what he’d thought was his lifelong career. He didn’t like the way the conflict was handled and it raised questions for him of who he wanted to work for, and what, exactly, he wanted to contribute to the world.

He returned home from New York with no plan, and his brother Logan Gore, who is Muscogee, told him about CMN. “He told me about all the things that the college was doing for him. He seemed so motivated and confident, and that’s what I was lacking in my life at that time.”

Gray started out slow, enrolling in only one core class, with the thought that if he devoted all of his time to it then maybe he would pass. He went on to ace that class, then three more in the summer, and four more in the winter. This spring, he is currently enrolled in four courses.

The College Fund’s Student of the Year award doesn’t have a personal focus for Gray, but rather, it testifies to the importance of tribal colleges and universities, and the role they play in Native communities, he said. In his future, he dreams of pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where the tribal-focused values match that of CMN, and Gray’s own. He is still open to new paths, as his academic career continues, he said.

According to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, there are 35 accredited tribal colleges and universities operating with more than 90 campuses and sites in 15 states —covering most of Indian Country — and serve students from more than 250 federally recognized tribes.

James D. Gray received the Student of the Year Award from the American Indian College Fund in Minneapolis on March 10, 2024. Courtesy Photo

Along with school pride, and his integrity and values, Gray’s family has helped him get to where he is. “I’m grateful to have come from artistic families who never stigmatized being an artist, and encouraged me to pursue whatever inspires me.”

“I look forward to being challenged, but guided; independent, but connected; and inspired by way of sincerity. These are the reasons why I plan to attend another tribal college after CMN,” said Gray.

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Chelsea T. Hicks
Chelsea T. Hickshttps://osagenews.org
Title: Staff Reporter
Email: chelsea.hicks@osagenation-nsn.gov
Languages spoken: English
Chelsea T. Hicks’ past reporting includes work for Indian Country Today, SF Weekly, the DCist, the Alexandria Gazette-Packet, Connection Newspapers, Aviation Today, Runway Girl Network, and elsewhere. She has also written for literary outlets such as the Paris Review, Poetry, and World Literature Today. She is Wahzhazhe, of Pawhuska District, belonging to the Tsizho Washtake, and is a descendant of Ogeese Captain, Cyprian Tayrien, Rosalie Captain Chouteau, Chief Pawhuska I, and her iko Betty Elsey Hicks. Her first book, A Calm & Normal Heart, won the 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation. She holds an MA from the University of California, Davis, and an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts.
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