Colleges must understand Native culture, speakers say at Pablo meeting

2013-06-01T08:06:00Z 2013-06-01T23:49:09Z Colleges must understand Native culture, speakers say at Pablo meetingBy VINCE DEVLIN Missoulian The Billings Gazette
June 01, 2013 8:06 am  • 

PABLO — American colleges and universities that are serious about recruiting and educating students from Indian tribes will go beyond creating Native American studies programs and centers.

They will reach out — across their own campuses to other departments, to national educational organizations, and back to reservation communities, tribal elders and tribal governments.

That was part of the message delivered Friday by some of the editors and authors of “Beyond the Asterisk: Understanding Native Students in Higher Education.”

The title, as co-editor Heather Shotton explained it, refers to the fact that on many U.S. campuses, there are so few American Indian students “that they’re relegated to the asterisk that says their numbers are not statistically significant.”

It makes them, and their cultures, virtually invisible to the institutions of higher learning that are supposed to educate them, she said.

Shotton and four others involved with the book spoke at the second day of the annual meeting of the Native American Student Advocacy Institute, which moved its agenda from Missoula and the University of Montana on Thursday, to Pablo and Salish Kootenai College on Friday.

“Culture plays a crucial role in the development of our students,” said Steven Martin, director of the Native American Student Center at the University of Idaho and co-author of one of the book’s chapters, on incorporating Native culture into student affairs.

If colleges and universities don’t understand Native cultures, he went on, “they’re going to have a difficult time serving those students.”

Panel member Karen Francis-Begay, a Navajo Indian and assistant vice president for tribal relations at the University of Arizona, contributed to two chapters in “Asterisk,” including one on the experiences of first-year Indian students at traditionally white colleges.

She also wrote a chapter about her duties at the University of Arizona, and on Friday explained how that position evolved.

Following the lead of other universities located in Indian Country, Francis-Begay said UA turned to K-12 educators on reservations and at tribal colleges, plus chairmen of Arizona tribes, to form an advisory council.

From their suggestions came her initial job, as a special adviser to the president of the university.

The job has three primary facets, Francis-Begay said: student recruitment, retention and graduation; interacting with faculty; and outreach to Indian communities.

That’s still the same. What’s changed is her title, and she said that’s been a significant step forward in conveying the University of Arizona’s commitment to providing educational opportunities to Indian students in a state with 21 federally recognized Indian tribes.

“When I was special adviser, I knocked on many doors, but not a lot of them opened,” Francis-Begay said. Now, as an assistant vice president of the university, she is automatically granted access to a wide variety of key people at UA, from those who deal with the budget to those involved in alumni relations.

Shotton, a member of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes and an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, said Idaho’s Martin had co-authored one of “Beyond the Asterisk’s” most important chapters.

“Native people come to universities for different reasons,” said Martin, who is Muskogee Creek and Choctaw of Oklahoma. “It may be for healing, it may be spiritual, it may be just to get away from what’s going on at home.”

Those who are career-oriented often intend to use their degrees to return to their reservations and help their people, “and that needs to be appreciated” on college campuses, he said.

“There is no separation to how we live our lives as students, and as Native Americans,” Martin said. “Cultural identity can be complex, and you have to approach it carefully.”

Educators need to respect that culture, Martin went on, and what Native American students “can contribute, if you let them. You can’t have a cookie-cutter process.”

Contributing to the book was “a great medicine,” according to Martin, who co-authored his chapter with Adrienne Thunder. “There were a lot of tears shed. It brought a lot of perspective to our own lives.”

Also on the panel were John Garland, an associate professor at Alabama State University, and Stephanie Waterman, an assistant professor at New York’s University of Rochester.

Waterman spoke about budget and staffing cuts to Native American programs she said are undermining their ability to retain and help students.

Garland, who co-authored a chapter on best practices for national educational organizations to support Native Americans in higher education, stressed the importance of creating alliances with others on campus and beyond.

“The last thing we want to do is isolate ourselves,” Garland said.

“It’s one thing to keep identifying problems,” he went on, “but another to offer solutions. That can go a long way in building trust.”

Many conference participants took tours of Salish Kootenai College, considered one of the most successful tribal colleges in the nation, on Friday, and more than a dozen more professional sessions were held as well. Last year’s conference was in Los Angeles, on the campus of UCLA.

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