WINNEBAGO, NEB. -- While the elders of the Winnebago tribe were meeting on a recent Sunday afternoon over some chokecherry soup and home-baked fry bread to talk of the needs for jobs and education, Dawn Makes Strongmove, a 19-year-old college student, spoke of poetry. Her own. She has been writing since childhood and can recite whole poems by heart, which is where hers come from.

The story of Dawn Makes Strongmove, a young woman with a caring heart, reflective mind and stunningly beautiful face, is part of the surging hope and self-confidence to be found these days on the Winnebago Reservation.

The 30,000 acres of ancestral land -- on the sere plains of eastern Nebraska in the Missouri River Valley and home to 1,200 tribal people who have close ties to the nearby Santee Sioux and Omahas -- is the site of the Nebraska Indian Community College. Dawn Makes Strongmove, earning all As, is one of 190 full- and part-time students at the accredited two-year school, now in its 11th year.

Nebraska Indian Community College, which has two other campuses that serve the Santee Sioux and Omahas, is one of 27 tribal colleges, all founded and controlled by native Americans. Together, the schools -- from Little Big Horn, Salish Kootenai and Dull Knife in Montana to Standing Rock and Little Hoop in North Dakota -- are a coalition of commitment. They offer a small but strong chance for tribespeople to overcome the often unimaginable severities of poverty and disease common to all reservations.

Some 12,000 students are attending the 27 colleges, with the 16 in Montana and South and North Dakota having larger enrollments than all the other public colleges in those three states combined. Despite this growth in the past 20 years -- Navajos in Arizona began the first college in 1969 -- little has been reported. "Most educators and policy makers," the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching said last year, "do not even know these colleges exist. They have no idea that a network of tribal colleges plays an important role in native American education or in community development. Nor do they recognize the increasingly significant role tribal colleges play in shaping the nation's American Indian policy."

At the moment, it would help if at least Congress and the federal government woke up and appreciated the colleges. Only $1,900 annually is provided in federal money per tribal student, well less than half the national average per student in state schools. The impoverishment of the tribal colleges -- seen in everything from shortages of books in the libraries to lack of day care for single parents returning to school -- means that at Nebraska Indian Community the average attrition rate is 30 percent, with more than half the freshmen last fall on academic probation. Ninety percent are the first members of their families to attend college. They come from households with average incomes of $5,000, down from $8,000 in 1982.

At lunch recently, about 20 professors, administrators and students gathered in the college meeting room to offer each other encouragement to keep pushing on, despite heavy headwinds against them. Patricia Phillips, who is 48, an Omaha and a recovering alcoholic, told of graduating last spring and the event being a high moment in her life. Nearly two-thirds of the college's students are women, with an average age of 31. For many, it's the final chance for a job and a stable life. Phillips is training to become a counselor. "We have a nurturing faculty here," she said.

Another alumni is Frank LaMere, 40, a tribal leader recently appointed by Nebraska's governor to the new rural development commission. He wondered aloud why American colleges and universities "are eager to recruit students from Chinese provinces while skipping over young Indians who were here before the white man came."

Among the exceptions to that pattern is Pennsylvania State University. Its College of Education is working out the details to recruit 10 students a year from the Winnebago college and the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwa Community College in Hayward, Wis. Both are two-year schools, and tribal students would study two final years at Penn State for their baccalaureate degree in secondary education.

That's the goal, with a modest alteration, of Dawn Makes Strongmove. She plans to go to Penn State for a B.A. but then pursue a doctorate in English and return to her community to teach. If she one day encourages and develops a few young poets like herself, she will be a much-needed and much-loved teacher.