When Jasmine Neosh was 17, she enrolled at a private liberal arts college in the Midwest.
“I was captured by the idea of a big, illustrious, private liberal arts school,” said Neosh. “I found the coursework stimulating and the instructors passionate. But there was something that wasn’t clicking. And I didn’t understand what it was.”
So, she transferred to another Predominately White Institution (PWI) in Chicago, suspecting that she simply hadn’t found the right fit.
“At first it was fine, and it was kind of interesting to be the only indigenous person in the program, possibly in the whole school,” said Neosh. “But after a while, I didn’t fit anymore. I got to the point where I felt, like many Native students, that maybe higher education isn’t for me.”
Neosh, 32, shared her experiences on a virtual panel on Tuesday, convened by GlobalMindED, a nonprofit that works to close the equity gap by creating and connecting talent pipelines with programs, content, and courses for students from minoritized backgrounds.
Neosh’s desire to study environmental sustainability and policy brought her back to the world of higher education. This time, she enrolled at the College of the Menominee Nation, a Tribal College and University (TCU) in Keshena, Wisconsin. TCUs play an integral role maintaining and building upon an Indian nation’s sovereignty while keeping cultural practices and languages alive.
It was only after arriving at a Menominee Nation that it finally clicked for Neosh what she had been missing all along.
“[Menominee Nation] showed me what it was like not just to be a successful person in the western world, but also a fully indigenous person,” said Neosh. “The number one greatest thing that mainstream institutions can do to make us feel safe is to make us feel visible.”
That invisibility is part of the everyday struggle for indigenous students in higher education, which is one reason that The American Indian College Fund has started its newest movement, This is Indian Country, a media push to remind Americans that the land they live and work on was once maintained by indigenous populations.
At Tuesday's webinar, Dr. Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of The College Fund, spoke about the experience of being an indigenous person in the field of higher education. The panel addressed the damages of stereotyping, how institutions can use culturally based methodologies to assess a Native student’s success, and the difficulties of gathering data that does not present the hundreds of sovereign Indian nations as a monolith.
“I think that our story is not told because it’s a story of genocide and removal," said Crazy Bull. "If you look at the history of European contact with indigenous peoples in this hemisphere, it’s deeply rooted in a desire to gain access to resources. Just examining that history is very challenging; we want to look away from it and pretend it didn’t happen like that.”
Crazy Bull said that false narratives, including stereotypes, are sometimes created to smooth over the reality. Stereotypes play a big role in indigenous alienation, not only for those outside Native communities but also for those within.
Dr. Jameson Lopez, an assistant professor of educational policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona and a member of the Quechan tribe, said the most visibility he sees for Native Americans comes in the forms of stereotypes that bear no amount of truth.
“We’re not all alcoholics. We pay taxes. We don’t go to college for free,” said Lopez.
Lopez cited a study performed by Dr. James K. Cunningham at the University of Arizona in 2016 that analyzed a national dataset on alcoholism and found indigenous rates of heavy or binge drinking was equal to that of whites. The myth of the indigenous drunkard was created in the 1800s during the great land grab, said Lopez, as an effort to portray Natives as “incompetent, unable to take care of themselves.”
“This whole time, my whole life, we thought we were alcoholics. It’s in John Wayne movies, it’s been pounded into out heads in our own Native communities,” said Lopez. “Take the time to stop and ask, what is this based in? Do I have physical evidence this exists in the world?”
Panelists said that supporting indigenous students means institutions should not be using traditional assessments of success. For indigenous students, attending higher education offers a chance to bring something back to their community.
“The foundation of indigenous education is having a curriculum that’s based on developing good human beings,” said Crazy Bull. “For years, Native educations have viewed that it’s not our goal to raise our children for a job. Our goal is that our children can provide for their families and communities.”
Lopez said he returns to his tribal elders when he discusses research ideas, asking them what they think the purpose of higher education can be in Indian country.
“I said to our elders, ‘Hey, what’s a successful college student to you?’” said Lopez. “And none of them said persistence, GPA, or graduation rates. They said, protecting the land and keeping what’s ours. That’s employing indigenous qualitative methods.”
In 1928, the Institute for Government Research funded the Meriam Report, also titled The Problem of Indian Administration. It offered recommendations for indigenous schools to be staffed by highly qualified teachers, for education to be more culturally relevant to indigenous students, and for the removal of standardized testing.
“Fast forward to 2018 and you have the Broken Promises Report,” said Lopez. “[It offers] the same exact recommendations.”
The hundred years that separate these reports on the status of Indian country reveal a frustrating lack of change, said Lopez. “At what point will we realize we need to measure our Native kids against a different metric?”
Lopez advocates for indigenous data collection, working to study tribal communities based on similar creation stories. “If you collect by creation story, and we go down that river and find similar languages, cultures, bird songs, and cremation patterns, then you can really measure the things that are important to the community.”
Once those likenesses are found, then researchers can understand better how those cultures impact college outcomes. While those studies are not yet conducted, Crazy Bull and The College Fund have partnered with experts to produce easily accessible, online resources for PWIs or other institutions to help to serve their indigenous communities better.
“You should always ask questions about what’s happening to Native students on your campus, to your Native staff,” said Crazy Bull. “Even if you only have one Native student, you should know what’s happening with them.”
Neosh added that institutions need to do more to understand the historical inequalities that have kept Native students like her on the outside, acknowledging that her college journey was made possible by The College Fund’s scholarship. She will be applying to law school soon, and with her past experiences, she’s given herself a set of rules to follow so she won’t feel isolated again.
“If I don’t see other Native people there, I’m going to assume that’s a place Native people have chosen not to be, or don’t feel safe at,” she said.
“One of the most important things to remember about indigenous students is that we’re working in a system that was designed to destroy us. Literally,” said Neosh. “The magical part, that I think should invigorate us, is that despite that, we’ve found a way to use [education] to empower ourselves, our relatives, our communities, and fight for the things we love.”
Liann Herder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.