Dr. David Yarlott Jr., President of Little Big Horn College in Crow Agency, Montana, received the 2016 American Indian College Fund Tribal College Honoree of the Year award for his contributions in education that have made a positive and lasting impact on the tribal college movement.
Dr.Yarlott’s tribal college career began unexpectedly with a visit to Little Big Horn College to see the changes being made in the buildings on the campus while he was in Bozeman at graduate school, where he was working on his doctorate degree. During the visit, the then-academic dean mentioned to him that the business instructor was leaving and the school needed a replacement. Dr. Yarlott said he mentioned the opportunity to his academic advisor while they were playing a game of basketball when returned to campus. “My advisor asked me, “Well, isn’t that what you want to do, to return and help your people?’” Dr. Yarlott said. His advisor suggested that he try the position for a year, and if he didn’t like it, he could do something else.
“So, on December 28th of that year I accepted the position. On January 1, New Year’s Day, when it was 20 degrees below zero I was moving,” Dr. Yarlott said. He taught for 1 ½ years before applying for the position of academic dean when that opened. Then, in 2002, he was selected to be president of the college.
Yet Dr. Yarlott wasn’t always sure that being a tribal college president was his path. He was asked to take the position initially by the Little Big Horn College Board of Trustees, but he refused. They hired an acting interim president for 18 months. “Many people asked me to apply, but I refused. In the summers I worked for the Crow tribe developing natural resources. On a Sunday morning that summer I was eating breakfast when some students knocked on my door. They pleaded with me to take the position. I wouldn’t take the position when anyone else asked me, but when the students asked me, I couldn’t refuse. Later that summer, on July 31, I was en route to Kananaskis, Canada for my first meeting as president.”
During Dr. Yarlott’s tenure the campus has undergone a major transformation that includes the addition of a state-of-the-art library, administration building, and health and wellness center, all incorporating green technology so that the school is “kinder to the earth.” Dr. Yarlott’s knowledge of land grant program strategies was an example to the entire tribal college movement system.
Dr. Yarlott’s lifelong love of sports played a significant role in both his life and the success of his college and tribal college sports. He says the act of working on a team taught him humility. He was the Little Big Horn College activities director in basketball, which lead to being named to the role as a founding leader of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium Athletic Commission, where he worked to drive the growth of sports in the tribal colleges. His hard work and dedication to inter-tribal sports led to his nomination on the advisory board of the World Indigenous Games by fellow tribal college president Carole Falcon Chandler of Aaniiih Nakoda College.
In the fall of 2015 Dr. Yarlott traveled to Brazil with the first U.S. delegation of tribal college students to participate in the first-ever World Indigenous games, an experience he says they will not soon forget. The students enjoyed the opportunity to immerse themselves in learning about indigenous people there from all over the world. Dr. Yarlott says he was honored to have been part of the event and the electricity in the air from the excitement was palpable. “I told the students that now they are part of history. There will never be another first,” he said.