As I am in the midst of graduate school, I have been working on a presentation on the sense of belonging as it pertains to Native and Indigenous scholars in Colleges and Universities. While working on this presentation, and reading social media posts by fellow Native scholars in College/Universities, I realized that there really is not a ‘how to’ guide on navigating Colleges/Universities for Native scholars. That is alarming because I struggled and I know that there are many other Native peoples who struggle too. And so, I thought of starting the first blog post of many, titled A (mini) College Guide for Native Scholars.
I will admit first-hand, that this guide is not perfect. There are differences between four-year and two-year institutions, as well as Tribal Colleges and non-Tribal Colleges/Universities, and for-profit and non-profit institutions. There are unique and specific strategies required, and so my hope is that this guide offers some insight, even if limited.
Before I begin, I want to share my reasoning for typing scholar instead of student. It is because of the impositions of hierarchies and perception. Students are often perceived as someone younger, have limited knowledge about certain subjects, and/or are at the bottom of the academic hierarchy. I say and type scholar because it challenges those notions. The perception of a scholar is someone who is highly educated, someone who has a specialty, someone who does research, and/or someone who excels in particular subject areas. The definition of a scholar is often exclusive, but through my inclusion and re-imagining who can be a scholar challenges the perception of who Colleges/Universities are for. Native and Indigenous youth are scholars, as well as every other marginalized person because they are highly educated, they have a specialty, and they excel in particular subject areas. They are and always have been scholars.
Second, although I have much hope for this guide, I know that it can not be an be all or end all for Colleges/Universities. Just like people, Colleges/Universities are unique in the support services, majors, where they are located, weather, demographics, etc. Yet, The history of Colleges/Universities is the same. Colleges/Universities were formatted to train clergymen and teachers for schools to reproduce the same knowledge(s) and thought(s) from their religious founders. Specifically, for Native and Indigenous Peoples, education was a form of cultural genocide in assimilating Native children, often through violent means, into ‘American’ society. It is with that history of education towards Native/Indigenous scholars that navigating Colleges/Universities is essentially violent in various ways.
With that, here is the beginning of A (mini) College Guide for Native Scholars.
The first year of at any College or University is overwhelming. You have orientation the first week, you have to choose your classes the first week, you meet a ton of people who tell you their name, but you probably forget their name within the next five minutes (this is me, I’m bad at remembering names), you have to decide which organizations you want to be involved with, which extracurricular activities are appealing, and it is so much happening all at once. It is a lot.
Depending on how you have learned to orient yourself, whether that is through lists, researching, calendar, talking to folx, etc. (or even none of those, which is totally fine.) You have to mentally and physically prepare yourself for an onslaught of information that will be coming your way.
But, for Native scholars, it is also more than that. You have to not only prepare for all this first-year information but also the amount of culture shock that is going to come your way and the amount of ignorance and (mis)representations (or lack of) that you’re going to encounter when folx find out that you are Native.
And that is something no one is prepared for. Right now, I cannot offer you direct tools on how to prepare for such violence because it is very contextual and depends on your comfort/capability/how you react to conflict.
What I can tell you though is that it is not your fault. There are systems and structures in place that will enact violence upon you, whether if it is an advisor who says something stereotypical, or a friend who thinks wearing headdresses are costumes or someone who is visibly surprised that Natives still exists – it’s violence that is reproduced by a society who thinks Natives do not exist or are treated special because they get “a free education”.
You have to be prepared for that because when you first encounter it, I can only hope that there is someone there to support you through this realization.
FIND AN ADVOCATE/SUPPORT.
This is imperative. Finding people who support you who are in positions of power and who are trained to support you can make navigating undergraduate life much easier. This is probably going to be difficult because advocates, especially the Native and other marginalized communities, are stretched thin on supporting many other students. Oftentimes, people perceive this as finding a Native faculty or administrator at your undergrad, but I am very careful about supporting such a stance.
I recognize that it would make things much easier, having someone who understands the emotional and physical difficulties as an advocate, yet I would advise caution because, and this is a most unfortunate reality, not everyone who is Native is going to support you on your educational journey.
Such an advised caution is tabooed to even speak or write into existence, yet I wanted to share that with you. There are Native faculty and/or administration who will not offer the support or advocate on your behalf for a variety of reasons. This may sound antithetical to what we have been taught about community, but being in a Western space for so long, one tends to develop violent characteristics towards the self and others. That is just how colonization works, and I am very sorry to share such information with you.
Trust me when I say though that finding someone who supports you in every way will make your undergrad the most fulfilling and easier to navigate. They may be Native, or they may not be, and that is totally fine. You need to feel supported and encouraged, especially within such violent spaces.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.
One of the things I struggled with (there are many) was taking care of my self | practicing self-care. Not just any plain self-care, but the kind that nurtured and restored my emotional, physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being. This is an area that many people struggle with and is a lifelong process. Within many Native/Indigenous communities’ knowledge(s), self-care is the goal of balance and harmony within the self in all aspects of well-being.
Specifically for Native scholars, it is maintaining familial connections (i.e. calling your family when you have a problem), practicing traditions (cleansing your room, praying to the ancestors daily), eating traditional foods, going on a run, etc. There are many ways that we practice self-care and within a collegiate environment, it becomes a challenge of making sure we continue those practices and traditions.
I called my mother every single day, I talked to her, told her how my day was, the struggles I was going through. She may not have known what to do, but she listened, and she shared stories that she thought would be helpful, she prayed and sat in ceremonies for me. In a lot of ways, that kept me going during my undergrad, knowing that someone very close to me believed in me, and made sure that I was taking care of myself. This was a combination of finding support, especially towards my social well-being. I also ran, I went shopping with friends, I cooked food with friends, I did a combination of things that made me feel better. Because at the end of the day, that is what you are going to need.
I am aware that many people do not have such support, and I want to acknowledge that. Taking care of yourselves involves being your own advocate and finding support. It involves continuing the routine of praying/running/preparing foods with friends everyone once in awhile and making adjustments to accommodate your needs and your pursuit of an education.
TAKE RISKS | FIND YOUR PASSION
This is easier said than done. It is hard. I am not the kind of person who takes risks or who knew my passion when I was a first-year scholar at an Ivy League institution.
You have already decided to take a risk: going to a College/University. Now, find your passion (and if you already found it, commit to it). It makes your undergraduate much easier, especially when navigating the violence. The risk I took were ones that I was comfortable and willing to take. I am not advocating that you should take a risk that endangers you, oh no. Risk taking can be that, but it can also be calculated or one that gets you to step out of your comfort zone.
For example, if someone invites you to have food with them, have food with them. You will learn something about them, and there is a possibility of friendship. If it is not a good lunch date, then you still learned something in the end, and you took a risk. Who knows, you might find out you like trying new foods, and that trying new foods becomes a passion.
Yet, in all of this, I cannot emphasize enough to please take risks with care. It is an unfortunate reality that Native/Indigenous Peoples are the ones most likely to encounter police brutality, the ones most likely to encounter violence, the ones most likely to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms. Please, have fun, take risks, and be safe. It may sound contradictory, yet you can be comfortable trying new things in a manner that contributes to your growth.
REMEMBER YOUR STRENGTHS | ANCESTRAL STORIES
Colleges/Universities are inherently violent towards Native scholars. The violence has always been there, it is as old as Columbus himself. That is not to say that you can learn something from a collegiate environment. The thing that I probably learned the most from finishing my undergraduate is that I will not find my ancestors in the academy, what I did find was a realization that the skills and knowledge(s) that I have learned when I was young and that I had inherited were always with me. They are just as valid and legitimate as those that the Colleges/Universities try to instill.
During my first two years at Brown, education made me forget who I was, who I am, and who I was here for. I felt uncomfortable being in my own home and I was very critical of everyone. I could not pretend to ignore the prejudice and trauma that existed in my family and I forgot the teachings of love, respect, and care for my ancestors and my ké, my family. Very slowly, I was losing my connection to my ancestors and my own warped sense of self. There was change happening, but my reaction to that change was unhealthy. I was being molded into the image of white old men, who wanted to integrate me into their ways of life. It was something that I did not want, nor did the ancestors want for me.
I had to remember that I came to this institution with a purpose, a purpose to give back to my community, a purpose to that is grounded in reimaging, restoring, and reclaiming the knowledge(s) invalidated into the academy and denied to many people. That is not to say that everyone comes with that similar purpose, but that carrying the weight of your community can exhaust you in more ways than one. It is from my community, or my purpose, that I draw the most strength. A strength that I inherited from generations of survivors and fighters.
For now, that is the end (beginning?) of this mini College Guide for Native Scholars, I hope that my insight offers you the capability to navigate/continue your educational pursuits, whether that be in graduate school or any other educational space.
No matter where each of you goes or are, whether it be a Tribal College, a Community College, or a 4-Year University/College, you are on a journey that is uniquely your own, and that you will face challenges and struggles. I have every hope that you will succeed.
Below you will find additional articles, resources, and hashtags on Twitter that I believe can be insightful and helpful as each of you navigate Colleges/Universities.
Articles, Resources, & Hashtags
- Why I attended a Tribal College
- Struggling, Graduation, and Home
- Winds of Change Magazine – primarily STEM.
- Native American College Student Support
- College Horizon Resources
P.S. I do plan on writing more posts with specific aspects of Colleges/Universities in the near future. It will take some time, especially considering that I am a second-semester-first-year graduate scholar.