Recently, two young Native American men had the police called on them during a campus tour at Colorado State University, because the mother of another potential student felt uncomfortable at their presence. The young men had shown up late after scraping together enough gas money to make the seven-hour drive to visit their “dream school.” Instead of envisioning themselves on campus and learning about the support services available to them, they had to prove to a campus officer that they belonged.
Native Americans make up only 1 percent of the student population in the entire United States, according to the American Indian College Fund. Only a bit more than 13 percent of Native Americans nationwide have earned a college degree, compared to about 33 percent of the general population. And when you consider that every college or university in America is built on the traditional lands of a tribes whose land was seized at some point throughout history, it makes these statistics even more outrageous and infuriating.
I am one of the 13 percent of the Native American community who holds a college degree. In fact, I now hold two. The latter, my graduate degree, is so rare in my community that when I graduated, along with two others from my tribe, we were featured in our local paper.
The emotional weight of being a student who does not fit the standard profile of a university student was heavier than I could ever have imagined. As an undergraduate, not only did I struggle academically, I struggled with imposter syndrome, stereotyping and ― most detrimental to my college career ― blatant racism.
Regularly, I was asked invasive personal questions that as an adult I now regret answering. There was the time one of my classmates asked me if all of my family members were alcoholics after I declined a celebratory drink with him after midterms. I fielded questions about teepees, peyote and casinos. How much money I received from my tribe was always on the minds of my classmates.
As a recipient of a grant program designed to help future Native American educators, I even remember hearing pointed reminders from a particular professor about how she had not received any help getting her degrees.
Incidents like the one in Colorado beckon all academic institutions to create more space for Native American students.
It was easier to “prove” that I was capable in a graduate program because I had already completed my bachelor’s degree and had therefore already “defied the odds.”
Historically, the education of Native Americans was not designed to emancipate us from oppression. Education was used as a form of oppression and assimilation, meant to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the government forced students to attend boarding schools away from their communities. Families were forcibly torn apart, culture and language were banned, children were sexually and physically abused, and many children died. Some of these schools are still open today, though their focus is no longer assimilation.
Native communities throughout the U.S. are still recovering from the impact of Indian boarding schools. My grant program was one of the many ways that the Native community is now trying to embrace education as a way to address the systemic oppression against our people by the U.S. government. Yes, I had financial help from my tribe in the form of scholarships and grants, but I was also a first-generation, nontraditional student with a family of four, and that help did not fully cover our expenses. I was constantly worried about my utilities being shut off and my car breaking down.
I also lacked support in other ways.
Like the two young men visiting Colorado State, I went on my school’s tour without my parents. In fact, the first time my mom or dad ever visited campus was on my graduation day.
My mom couldn’t afford to come for a campus tour, parent days or tailgate parties. At the time, asking my mom, when she didn’t own a car, to travel the 2.5-hour trip from the reservation to town to spend a day on campus simply wasn’t feasible.
There have been tremendous advances in education in Indian Country since I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in 2005. Closest to my heart is the tribal college and university movement. There are 38 federally and tribally run institutions in the United States that are working toward strengthening the lives of Native Americans through education. These institutions provide culturally relevant programs such as tribal language, history or even agricultural programs that honor and expand upon traditional knowledge. They provide students with support services unique to their community, such as providing smudging (a cleansing with smoke and typically sage), in addition to counseling services or recognizing tribal holidays.
The problem of Native students entering a mainstream university still remains. Yes, these organizations are preparing students to self-advocate and seek resources, but the root of the problem is this: People still hold negative stereotypes and racist attitudes toward Natives.
The emotional weight of being a student who does not fit the standard profile of a university student was heavier than I could ever have imagined.
Incidents like the one in Colorado beckon all academic institutions to create more space for Native American students. Hire more Natives on college campuses, provide more meaningful funding in your budgets for our specialized knowledge, and actively learn about and seek out the Native people in your area. Harvard, an institution whose 1650 charter included a dedication to “the education of the English & Indian Youth of this Country,” made history this year by hiring its first-ever tenured professor in Native American studies, 368 years later. According to the National Center for Education, Native faculty represent less than 1 percent of all full-time faculty at all degree obtaining institutions in the U.S.
Last year, I was offered a position at my local university, one that sits on my traditional lands. It would have allowed me to use my intimate knowledge and connections in my own community to recruit more Native youth. The pay was close to that of a first-year Arizona teacher’s, which, painfully, I had to turn down.
Meanwhile, of the eight times I’ve been on campus since then, I’ve fielded questions about my community from people who say they’ve never met a Native American before.
Given these facts, it comes as no surprise that the two young Native men were treated like oddities on their college tour. There is clearly much that universities can do to correct the decades of injustice faced by Native people. Not calling the police on them would be a good start.
Gabriella Cazares-Kelly is a member of Indivisible Tohono, a grassroots organization that provides opportunities for civic engagement and education for members of her tribe, the Tohono O’odham Nation of Arizona. She is an educator, and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.
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