November is Native American Heritage Month, so we return to our conversation about Indigenous people as one the most underrepresented communities in higher education - particularly Native women. We discuss how higher education recognizes (and erases) Indigenous peoples, Native experiences in higher education, and what you can do to support Native people in higher education. Check out the First Nation’s Educational & Cultural Center's numerous Indigenous events and initiatives for more!
Reflect: What is the Purpose of a Land Acknowledgement?
An increasingly common practice in higher education and many academic associations is to begin gatherings with land acknowledgements, discussing tribal connections to the area upon which the group is meeting.1 Although this practice demonstrates progress the intended justice, the words in some land acknowledgements often imply that the genocide and forcible removal of Indigenous peoples is a thing of the past; in reality, settler colonialism continues to affect Native tribes, leading to disparities in access to affordable food, housing, healthcare, and education, as well as on-going loss of culture (like language). Land acknowledgements that only frame Indigenous history and experience as a thing of the past erase the lived reality of Indigenous people and their cultural beliefs of what “land” truly means. If you are thinking about doing a land acknowledgement, ask yourself how you are framing Indigenous history. Are you offering a chance for their history and stories to be told, unfiltered and in their own voice (centering the voices of those who are harmed rather than those who are in power)? Are you sharing resources to support Native thriving and success, too? For more conversation about this issue, read Dr. Len Necefer’s article in Outside.
Learn: What’s it Like to Be Native in Higher Education?
For Indigenous people in higher education, their experiences are affected by legacies of exclusion, bias, and stereotypes. Only 19% of 18-24 year old Native Americans are enrolled in college,1 with less than 50 Native students enrolled on all IU campuses. A recent national study of faculty in the top 50 research universities was sobering. Psychology had the highest representation among assistant professors (1.0%), but had no full professors. In fact, only six fields -- mathematics, mechanical engineering, economics, political science, and biology -- had any Native full professors. Among the top 50 disciplines in the physical science and engineering, only six have any Native assistant professors, indicating at least a seven-year lapse in hiring in the other 44 disciplines.2 Comparatively, IU has 28 Native faculty/staff total for all campuses - with only 4 tenure track faculty (2 of whom are full professors). Bias and invisibility are particularly impactful for Indigenous women.3 While Indigenous women are starting to view universities as safer, microaggressions and discrimination persist, particularly as perpetrators believe them to be subtle.4 These microaggressions vary, including people challenging their knowledge around Native experience/culture, being perceived as hostile when challenging erasing narratives around higher education, and the romanticization and homogenization of Native people.5 Native women who enter academia often report feeling joy in their intellectual and teaching positions, however these joys are accompanied by isolation, tokenization, and gendered/racial bias.6
- Examine your Settler Moves to Innocence: There are many ways that people currently avoid, distract, or detract from their relationship to settler colonialism, known as settler moves to innocence.7 A few of these moves pop up all over the workplace and in higher education. For example, settler nativism avoids complicity by claiming native ancestry without any cultural connection (“But I’m 1/16th Cherokee!”). Colonial equivocation – using the concepts of colonialism/decolonization/etc. vaguely – and free one’s mind and the rest will follow - making no change in one’s behavior following the “decolonization” of one’s mind – attempt to signal a shift in consciousness that does not inherently translate to liberation. Question others who use these tactics to avoid confronting their relationship to settler colonialism.
- Check your language: There is a lot of language throughout the workplace that appropriates Indigenous culture. For example, it is common for people to call a gathering “a powwow” or to say that something that is low priority is “low on the totem pole.” You might be tempted to call someone you idolize your “spirit animal” or describe someone acting irrationally as “off the reservation.” These phrases trivialize the cultures and histories of Indigenous people, contributing further to negative stereotypes about the lives of Native people.8 Furthermore, beyond simple phrases that are problematic, recognize when you linguistically put Native people and culture into a mythical/mythological light, as if the culture of Native peoples is a thing of the past or as an exotic, lesser than experience. When we create a mythological narrative around Native people, we functionally reinforce a position that Western ideology and culture are real, legitimate, and sensible.
- Reframe how you view Indigenous peoples: Most people have a deficit view of Indigenous life that removes the agency of self-definition from Native peoples and treats them as an “at-risk” community.9 Ask yourself how you replicate this narrative in your approach to Native students or colleagues, such as asking one Native person to speak on behalf of the rich and diverse Indigenous community. A few ways to celebrate Indigenous people in resistance to this narrative is by sharing the voices/works of Indigenous people regularly and respectfully incorporating Native values in your workplace/classroom.10Fish and Nyed (2018) offer a great perspective on how we can reframe/change the many spaces and services of the university to better support Native students that can also be translated to the workplace.
Additional Resource Recommendations
- Book: Native Presence and Sovereignty in College – Dr. Amanda Tachine, a Navajo scholar, details the experiences of Native students in their first year of college.
- Video: Do All Native Americans Think the Same? - This video from Spectrum features the opinions of Native Americans on issues that face the community, including blood quantum, indigenous representation, and more.
- Article: Indigenous Perspectives on Native Student Challenges in Higher Education - Robin Zape-tah-hol-ah Minthorn discusses policies/practices in campus offices, classrooms, and beyond that can honor Native student experience and culture in higher education.
- Podcast: This Land – Rebecca Nagle examines how the US legal system has been used to destabilize the rights of Native Americans through the lens of one legal case surrounding the adoption of a Native Child.
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