In Memoriam: Salish Kootenai College Founder and Former President Dr. Joe McDonald 

Dec 19, 2023 | Blog, Featured Post

The American Indian College Fund was saddened to hear of the passing of Joe McDonald, founder of Salish Kootenai College and a founder of the Tribal College Movement. Dr. McDonald passed away Thursday, December 14, 2023, at the age of 90.

Dr. McDonald was born in St. Ignatius, Montana, on the Flathead Indian Reservation. He was a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. He received an associate degree in education from Western Montana College in 1953 and a bachelor’s degree in education from the University of Montana in 1958. He later earned a master’s degree in science in 1965 and an Ed.D. in 1981 from the University of Montana. He was awarded the University of Montana Distinguished Alumni Award in 1989.

Dr. McDonald enjoyed a long career in education. He worked as a high school principal and assistant superintendent from 1968 through 1976 in Ronan, Montana. He also created the first Native American studies program in Montana Public Schools. He later laid the foundation for Salish Kootenai College and was named its president in 1978.

In addition to his career, Dr. McDonald was also involved in his community and civic and professional organizations. He served on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council from 1974 to 1982 and on the boards for the American Indian College Fund, the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, the American Indian Business Leaders, and other state, tribal, and national educational organizations. He was a liaison between AIHEC and the Carnegie Foundation and was instrumental in launching Tribal College: Journal of American Indian Higher Education. He served on the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and the College Board Commission on Minority Access and Retention.

Throughout his career Dr. McDonald was honored by many organizations for his work and leadership. In 2005 he received the University of Montana’s highest recognition–an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters in May of 2005, and The University of Montana Foundation named him as one of the “Fifty Greatest Grizzlies.” Senator Conrad Burns of the 2002 Montana State Legislation Assembly honored Dr. McDonald for his endless labor to promote Indian Education in the State of Montana. He is the 2001 recipient of the University of Montana Department of Educational Leadership Excellence Award, which is awarded to former distinguished students in recognition of their outstanding contributions to education through vision and leadership. He also received the Montana Ambassadors “Michael P. Malone” Educator of the Year Award in 2000 for his outstanding contributions to the economy and well-being of the State of Montana through entrepreneurial vision and courage.

Dr. McDonald delivered the Knapp Memorial Lecture, challenging the National USDA Cooperative Extension to build effective partnerships with American Indian communities through Land Grant colleges. Other awards and honors include the Montana Governor’s Humanity Award (1996), recognition by the U.S. Department of the Interior honored him “in recognition and appreciation of his unfailing dedication and superior leadership in support of the creation and implementation of President’s Executive Order 13021 of Tribal Colleges and Universities” (1998), and recognition by the Lee Newspapers as one of Montana’s 100 most influential people of the 1900s (1999). Dr. McDonald also received honorary doctorate degrees from Gonzaga University in Washington State and Montana State University and was named a distinguished alum of the University of Montana and Western Montana College. An avid sports enthusiast, Dr. McDonald was inducted into the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008 as a coach and all-around athlete.

Dr. McDonald’s touched many lives with his dedication to education opportunities for Indigenous students and his community. He will be greatly missed.

A public service and celebration of Joe’s life will be held on January 17, 2024. The 10:00 a.m. funeral service will be held at the St. Ignatius Catholic Church in St. Ignatius, Montana and a noon celebration of life luncheon will be hosted at the Salish Kootenai College gymnasium (the Joe) in Pablo, Montana.

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