Indigenous education and philosophy are rooted in the concept of relationality – the relatedness of all things – within the framework of place-based experiences and knowledge. This article (cite: Crazy Bull, C. & White Hat, E.R. Int Rev Educ (2019) 65: 117. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11159-018-9760-8) focuses on tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) in the United States – in particular, their dedication to land use and preservation, sustainability and tribal ecological knowledge within their missions of cultural preservation, academic and career development, and community engagement. TCUs are post-secondary institutions chartered by their respective tribal governments to serve as the higher education institutions of the Tribe. In the TCU environment, tribal identities emerge from an understanding of how all things are related. Evidence includes creation stories, tribal languages and place-based knowledge. The circular relationship among place, engagement and identity is often manifested in how land and its resources are preserved, managed and expanded through education, outreach and research. In 1994, the Equity in Educational Land-Grant Status Act was passed, granting TCUs endowments for facilities and institutional capacity building in place of land. This article explores the time periods of 1968–1993 and 1994 to today in the context of the development of TCUs; first as place-based institutions preserving tribal identity and later as land-grant institutions preserving tribal environmental and ecological knowledge and resources. The authors provide examples about how TCUs exercise the inherent sovereignty of Tribes to provide quality education to their people by incorporating their language and Indigenous knowledge and values.