How can colleges best elevate Native American students’ sense of belonging in higher education?
We must remember and acknowledge how education was established in North America. Education in our country, historically, was reserved for the privileged and elite, as evidenced by the first colonial colleges that were established by white European men for white European males. Only three colleges (Harvard College, the College of William and Mary and Dartmouth College) made a commitment to educate other people — Native Americans — but they failed miserably in their efforts. Subsequently, this institutionalized privilege has dictated and influenced the establishment and development of our K-12 system and social and health services. Because everyone else was excluded in those colonial colleges, including other colleges that were established shortly thereafter, historically black colleges and universities, women’s colleges, religious affiliated institutions and tribal colleges and universities were created. It is crucial that people are aware of these historical facts so that they understand the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion today as we broaden the participation of underrepresented and unmentioned people in higher education.
What advice do you have for Native American students who may not feel known and heard in college?
There are times in college where I found myself to be the only person of color or the lone Native American and it continues today. So, I usually haves to inform and educate others about Native American history, but it is worthwhile to do so. It can be frustrating to have to explain that not all tribal communities have casinos and that we pay taxes just like anyone else, and we do not necessarily receive anything for free. Most people are not aware that tribal nations have government-to-government relationships with the federal government that are based on treaties and in those treaties are provisions that allow for some educational and health care benefits, but they are limited.
We have survived a litany of atrocities committed through federal government legislation — forced removal from traditional lands, termination policies, government boarding schools, loss of language and culture — but we are still here. It even continues today with allowing the environmental rape of our land and lack of respect for tribal sovereignty in such developments like the Dakota Access and Keystone Pipelines, as well as the reduction of national monuments — Bears Ears, etc. Therefore, I encourage all Native American students to have a solid understanding of who they are and where they come from since this will provide information in any debates and/or discussions about tribal sovereignty. Perhaps most importantly, indigenous students need to take pride in their languages and cultures for this will sustain us for many generations to come.
What are some of the reasons Native American students may feel they don’t belong while in college?
It’s not so much that Native Americans don’t feel like we don’t belong, it’s more of acknowledging our presence and our understanding of the value of education. It’s also about understanding that we are a nation of nations as there are over 570 tribal nations in the U.S. We may have some common values and traditions, such as respecting Mother Earth and Father Sky, but we have distinct languages and cultures, so people should not assume that we are all the same.
For example, I currently live on Long Island and while I am Navajo and Native American, my language is not in the Algonquian language group for it is Athabaskan. Moreover, the culture, traditions and food of the Algonquian people on Long Island are interconnected with the ocean; whereas Navajo culture, traditions and food are based on high plateau and mountain terrains. Furthermore, the definition of success is relative. In mainstream society, a person is successful if they have a bachelor’s degree. However, in indigenous knowledge bases, a college degree does not hold the same value since we, as Native Americans, have traditional ecological knowledge that we pass on to our children. So, if one of our youth is tapped to become a practitioner of traditional ethnomedicine, we encourage and support such an aspiration.
In addition, for some Native American communities, there is the economic reality of supporting a family and obtaining a postsecondary credential from a tribal college/university or a community college serves that need.
What can schools do to help?
Tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) do an excellent job in recruiting and graduating Native American students and they accomplish this through programming that is respectful of all students. In addition, there is cultural relevance in the curriculum, so students are aware that their language and culture are welcomed and respected and this leads to more thoughtful engagement and learning. Other minority serving institutions (MSI) operate and deliver education in similar ways so mainstream institutions can learn from all TCUs and MSIs to recruit, retain and graduate minority students.
Furthermore, every institution that has been built exists on the traditional homeland of a tribal nation. Accordingly, each institution should acknowledge this in some way, especially if they partnered with local tribal nations or communities in some capacity to recognize this fact. Way before the colonists arrived, all of Turtle Island was indigenous and all of us need to be mindful of this.