Dalen Littlebird had the same feelings about coming to college as most of the 3,025 other incoming freshmen at Montana State University; he was "excited about [the] new beginnings" that life in Bozeman would bring. He anticipated being able to make new friends and enjoy the freedom that accompanies living outside the watchful gaze of overprotective family members. However, for Littlebird, an enrolled member of the Crow Tribe who is also affiliated with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, there was "another side to [his] experiences going into college."
"Whenever I talk[ed] to others in my classes I felt like I couldn't relate to any of them," he explained, noting that a lack of belonging has been "the central theme" of his college experience. And, statistically speaking, Littlebird is the odd one out––in the fall of 2015, students who identified as American Indian/Alaska Native made up under 2 percent of the total undergraduate population at Montana State. That same year, a mere 0.8 percent of college students nationwide were of Native heritage.
"Being a 'microminority' I have felt extremely isolated," explained Klamath Henry, a junior at Emory majoring in anthropology and a member of both the Shasta Tribe of California and Tuscarora Tribe. Henry, who hails from the small town of Fernley, NV, has found life in the bustling metropolis of Atlanta to be trying at times. Although the proverbial ivory tower affords students' some protection from the pervasive discrimination of the "real world," the picturesque quadrangle and endless rows of stacks in Woodruff Library can't change the fact that "it is difficult going to a school where there is nobody like you."
Shayleena Britton, a freshman studying 3D animation at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, reports that "being a native student here, the hardest thing was getting used to the big city because I come from a very small reservation."
Housed in room 21B on the second floor of Cleveland Hall is the Native American Student Center (NASC). Directed by Faith Price, the Center serves the Native community of Washington State University, providing students with a comfortable space to relax as well as access to a myriad of academic resources. For Jaissa Grunlose, a sophomore on the pre-med track and member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, the NASC helps her connect with other students who "understand [her] culture and where [she] come[s] from," which in turn serves as a base for academic achievement.
While conservative commentators have launched a crusade against the so-called snowflakes that have taken over college campuses, dismissing their requests for trigger warnings and concerns over controversial speakers as quintessential liberal sensitivity, many students continue to find identity-based resources key to their social and academic success.
For students of color, there is an additional dimension to the normal stress associated with college life. The concept of minority-status stress in the context of higher education was brought into the spotlight in a 1993 article in the Journal of Higher Education. Oftentimes freshmen arrive on campus with a history of identity erasure in other educational settings. For Native students in particular, a lack of acknowledgment of their culture is institutionalized. In Oklahoma, a request to wear tribal feathers on caps at graduation was met with resistance, and Leilani Thomas, a member of the Elem Indian Colony who goes to Lower Lake High School in California, had her grade lowered because she refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance out of respect for her ancestors.
It comes as no surprise then, that many Native students continue to suffer from minority-status stress in college. "My first term I took a class called Perspectives. It was a NAS (Native American Studies) class, and it was a bunch of white kids looking for an easy A," explained Pachynne Ignacio. "I was angry. A lot of students were either on their phones, shopping on their laptops or completely missing the point of some of the readings," writes the Dartmouth sophomore and member of the Tohono O'odham Nation.
A lack of knowledge of Native peoples is widespread. Outdated and white-washed curriculums tell a limited––and often incorrect––history of Native peoples. "[Students are] coming to college believing that all Indians are dead," Professor Sarah Shear told Indian Country Media Network. In her research on state standards dealing with Native history, Shear found that only 13.34 percent were focused on Native issues post-1900. The systematic erasure of Native history in the 20th and 21st century has created a crippling ignorance of Native peoples––Grunlose describes a class discussion she had in college in "a lot of [her peers'] responses were along the lines of just reading a chapter in an outdated history book way back in elementary school."
As Alan-Mychal Boyd, a freshman at Notre Dame from Mission, SD and member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe/Sicangu Oyate, pointed out, "Native issues have been mostly erased from textbooks, especially the civil rights movement."
Some tribes such as the Mohegan Tribe have published lesson plans that teachers can incorporate into their existing curriculum, but their success hinges on teachers identifying holes in the state-mandated standards and being willing to adapt their instruction accordingly. Since teachers are already experiencing high levels of stress on a daily basis, placing the burden of change on individual instructors is not a realistic solution.
"My friend Jennie was doing a reading program during [my class] and they had flash cards for these kids (1st graders)," Ignacio says, "And they had a question, something like 'what do Native Americans live in?' and all the kids said teepee and she wanted to speak up about it. Because that's wrong. To teach kids the stereotypical answer [rather] than the factual one [is wrong]."
When college students lack a foundational knowledge of the existence of lives of Native peoples, they often expect Native students to take on the role educator.
"Honestly I hardly had any interactions outside of the NADs (Natives at Dartmouth) because I didn't want the headache of having to explain my heritage to others," Ignacio says.
Confederates and Columbus
Following the fatal attack in Charlottesville, colleges across the country came under fire from students demanding monuments honoring the Confederacy be removed from campus. Students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill rallied in opposition to the Silent Sam statue honoring the Confederacy.
"Tell me what you stand for, and am I 'negro wench' to you?" Miriam Madison, a black woman and student at UNC, asked the board at a hearing on the future of the statue.
Native students are––and have been––asking administrators to remove the vestiges of colonialism from campus and instead honor the indigenous peoples who were violently slaughtered and stripped of their identities. The latest clash over the glorification of colonialism between university administrators and their students is playing out in South Bend, IN on the campus of the top Catholic college in the United States.
The University of Notre Dame's campus––and the 5 million acres surrounding it––was once Potawatomi land. The passage of the Treaty of Chicago in 1833 resulted in the forced relocation of the Potowatomi, Ojibwe and Odawa tribes. Chief Leopold Pokagon, of the Michigan band of Potawatomi (now known as the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi), refused to concede to what he recognized as an unjust trade and negotiated the right of his people to remain in Michigan and to purchase land. When the federal government became serious about enforcing the Treaty in 1840, however, Pokagon obtained an opinion from Judge Epaphroditus Ranson stating that because the tribe had "embraced" Catholicism and was therefore "civilized," they could not forcibly be relocated under Michigan law.
In a "gesture of thanks" to the Catholic missionaries who helped them avoid forced relocation, the Pokagon Band granted a parcel of land to the Congregation of the Holy Cross in the early nineteenth century. It is extremely important to note, however, that while the few existing sources on the Pokagon Band's conversion to Catholicism present it as a voluntary decision (which is most likely the result of scholars adopting the perspective of the colonizers and/or the written record being the result of Natives lying as a means of survival), the historical relationship between Native peoples and Christianity is anything but virtuous––Edwin Schenk (Lac View Desert Ojibwa/Cheyenne River Sioux) describes the history as one of "missionary dominance." While the land on which Notre Dame rests was supposedly obtained from the Pokagon Band without nefarious tactics, the vast majority of land acquisitions from Native tribes involved force and/or coercion.
Beneath the Golden Dome atop the Main Building at Notre Dame is a series of 12 murals painted by Luigi Gregori. Students and alumni have signed a letter asking the university to remove the murals, contending that they present a glorified version of Columbus in which his mass genocide is ignored.
Boyd clarifies that taking down the Columbus murals involves much more than their physical removal.
"For me personally, I only want to see them removed to accompany something else, like a Native American Studies major or a Lakota language class. Removing the murals is a symbol of progress and it should accompany progress, taking them down won't change much so it should accompany actual change," he said.
Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown responded to the push for removal, stating that the university recognizes the "historic and artistic value" of the murals and has "no plans" to remove them.
Boyd disagrees with the university's defense of the murals on the basis of historic value. "The 'erasing history' argument doesn't really stand as the murals don't really depict history in any way," he explained, "If they truly would like a true depiction of Columbus' history, then I suggest commissioning a painting of rape, enslavement and genocide. That is truly looking at Columbus through a historical lens, not the one that glorifies colonialism."
Role of Non-Native Allies
When asked what she wished non-Native students would stop doing when interacting with Native students, Ignacio said that she wished "they wouldn't continue to be racist and insensitive. That they would show a genuine interest in each individual tribal person they come in contact with. All tribes aren't the same. We don't all live in teepees. We don't all come from our traditional lands. We have urban Natives too."
Recognizing that Native peoples do not all have identical experiences is key to decolonization, Henry explains.
"In order to decolonize, we need to have real conversations with real Native Americans about their tribal history. Yes, there are larger problems that can be summarized for all Natives. But, it is extremely important to keep the individual narratives of tribes in order to respect sovereignty."
The terms "Native American" and "American Indian" are used out of convenience and can homogenize "the cultural, political and diversity of American Indian identities." In fact, the term "Native American" itself is derived from the name of the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci who contributed to the colonization of North America and perpetuated the myth that Natives were uncivilized and lawless. Non-Native people need to acknowledge the fact that there is not a singular Native culture, history or experience and that attempting to paint the experiences of 567 sovereign nations with a single brush is harmful.
"We are 'Native Americans' but being Native is a larger tool of erasure and colonialism in itself," Henry explains. "Every Native person is from a tribe. We all come from independent nations. This separates us from the Latinx and Black communities."
Non-Natives must defer to the identification preferences of individual Native people and avoid using blanket terms such as Native American and American Indian when a desire to be referred to by their tribe/clan has been expressed. For example, if a friend prefers to be referred to as Diné, it would be disrespectful to instead use "Native American" or "American Indian."
Many Natives are embracing self-identification as a form of language reclamation and decolonization––preferring to refer to their tribe/clan in their native language rather than the Anglicized version. If the pronunciation is unclear, a quick Google search will likely produce a multitude of results including audio clips and phonetic guides.
Similarly, Natives are under no obligation to educate non-Natives about their culture or history. Native college students already have to deal with the normal stresses of higher education and demanding that they engage in emotional labor to remedy the ignorance of others is unfairly burdening them with things that are not their responsibility.
Non-Natives can educate themselves on the basics of Native culture and history and listen to (and respect) the stories of their Native peers. Some Natives may feel very comfortable discussing their culture while others may prefer not to discuss it at all––simply be respectful of each individual's willingness to share.
As Henry explains, "we are living, breathing individual[s] with stories. It just takes somebody willing to listen."
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