Student Voices: Hearing and Supporting Native/Indigenous Students
I was born and raised in the central part of the Navajo Nation in a town called Chinle, which is near the Canyon De Chelly national monument in Arizona. For most of my life, I was surrounded by people who looked like me. Growing up, the only time I left the Navajo Nation was to purchase clothes, food, and other necessities in towns that were two or more hours away.
I never felt like a minority until I flew on a plane for the first time the summer of 2012 after finishing the eleventh grade. I was on my way to Princeton University to participate in a seven-week summer program called the Aspects of Leadership Summer Institute, ran by the nonprofit Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA). The program provided ACT and SAT test prep, writing instruction, trips to local colleges and universities, and more. While on the plane, I felt like I was making a mistake. All I wanted to do that summer was spend time with my mother and watch her weave traditional Diné (Navajo) rugs, each with an origin story of its own, and explore the canyon in our backyard with my younger sister and cousins. The summer program seemed appealing when I applied eight months prior, but as the plane prepared to land in Newark, New Jersey, I felt anxious and afraid.
LEDA had sent me a packet with a list of names of the other students and where they were from. Only two of them were from the Navajo Nation, and out of the 60 high school students, we were the only three who identified as Native or Indigenous. That was the beginning of my realization of my own minority status, and it has been a familiar experience ever since.
A year later, I was on another plane flying to Providence, Rhode Island, to attend my first year at Brown University. I felt anxious and afraid once again. I knew that I was going to be one of the few Diné there and one of the few Native/Indigenous students. Several weeks later, I called my mom and, with tears streaming down my face, told her that I did not feel like I belonged. I felt stupid and inadequate. I felt alone. I wanted to go home. But my mom would not allow it. We did not have the money for a flight home and my mother wanted me to finish the semester. She reminded me that I chose to be there and that I belonged. She promised me it would get easier. She knew what I was going through because she had previously experienced that feeling of inadequacy, self-doubt, and sense of not belonging.
When I was 10, my mother graduated from Northern Arizona University. She was the first in her family to ever receive a bachelor’s degree and, five years later, she received her master’s from the same university. I remember her telling me stories about how awful, insensitive, and racist some of her teachers and professors were. My mother did not always have positive experiences with the educational system, but was determined to finish because she always wanted to be a teacher. She wanted to remind children, Diné children, of how special and amazing they are, because throughout her life, very few people had made her feel that way in school.
Statistically, only 23% of all Native/Indigenous students, in what is currently known as the United States, who enroll in four-year institutions as first-time full-time students graduate within four years according to the 2017 Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups. And only 41% graduate within six years. Given the challenges that I faced in my own experience and the broader narrative of Native/Indigenous students in education, I find these statistics unsurprising.
To understand these alarming statistics of Native/Indigenous students in higher education, it is important to understand the historical context. Education toward Natives, or Indigenous Peoples, since the invasion of Europeans has always been a form of assimilation, or a system of indoctrination meant to strip them of their indigeneity. One example is Captain Richard Henry Pratt, founder and superintendent of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, who famously uttered the phrase, “Kill the Indian in him, save the man.” Captain Pratt was intentional in his efforts to assimilate Native/Indigenous students through education as a means of asserting and maintaining European dominance. The removal of Indigenous languages, cultures, and traditions was a means for that end.
Now, as a graduate student and aspiring student affairs professional, I have reflected about how institutions of higher education lack the knowledge necessary to adequately support Native students. A foundational text in the field of student affairs, which is still referenced today, is The Student Personnel Point of View. This text has argued that the goal of higher education is to preserve transmit, and enrich culture through scholarship, instruction, and research. But to which culture are we referring? It is clear that the culture referenced does not include the many and different cultural beliefs of Native/Indigenous Peoples, because they were demonized and considered illegal to practice until 1978.
Despite the legalization of Indigenous cultural beliefs and practices, the 1978 law did not change Captain Pratt’s remaining legacy. Just in the past year, Native/Indigenous students have been blamed for an institution’s failure, have had the cops called on them for going on a college tour, and were restricted from wearing an eagle feather and beaded graduation cap because “only school issued decorum” was allowed. If we are not successful, it is because of our culture. If we wear clothing with strange symbols, have long hair, have dark skin, and a quiet demeanor, we must be trouble. If we want to wear traditional regalia, we cannot because graduation policies say otherwise. The cultures and presence of Native/Indigenous Peoples continues to be othered and removed through a variety of systematic ways. Native/Indigenous Peoples in what is currently known as the United States have endured a history of violence and forced assimilation since the arrival of Christopher Columbus, and my peers and I, continue to endure this history, both personally and professionally as we navigate higher education. We should not feel like we do not belong on land that was stolen from us. We do not need to be killed or saved, we need to be heard and supported.
As a result of the continued legacy of violence and assimilation, Native/Indigenous students often do not feel as if they belong in higher education spaces, but that should not be the case. In order to remedy the negative experience that many Native/Indigenous students face, and improve the abysmal graduation rates, institutions of higher education should adapt to the needs of their Native/Indigenous students. There are some concrete actions that institutions of higher education can do to begin to improve the experience of Native/Indigenous students. Some examples include:
- Create meaningful relationships with local Native/Indigenous communities whose traditional homelands institutions of higher education occupy, which can begin through publicized land acknowledgements.
- Allow Native/Indigenous students to wear traditional clothing at graduation, or other related celebrations.
- Evaluate diversity and cultural competency training and programming to make sure that the material includes Native/Indigenous perspectives and that all staff, including security and police, are regularly trained on their implicit biases.
- Hold listening sessions with Native/Indigenous students after incidences of racial and cultural bias take place on campus and acting on their recommendations.
- Celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day and invite Native/Indigenous speakers, activists, and/or community leaders to participate in the event.
- Remove the use of Native/Indigenous mascots, or any other offensive caricatures or depictions of Native/Indigenous Peoples on campus, especially in murals, paintings, and photographs.
- Create a physical space designed by and for Native/Indigenous Peoples to gather and be with community.
- Create an action plan to ensure that administrators, staff, and faculty are provided with culturally relevant and competent professional development trainings to improve their abilities to better support Native/Indigenous students.
Native/Indigenous students have inherited unique strengths and wisdom. They deserve an education that is respectful of their cultures and their communities. Institutions of higher education should begin providing this by listening to their Native/Indigenous students, acknowledging their strengths, and taking action.
Charlie Scott is a Diné (Navajo) scholar, photographer, and educator from the central part of the Navajo Nation. Charlie earns an M.S. from the University of Rhode Island in May 2019 and will be a doctoral student in higher education at the University of Denver starting fall 2019.