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Native Identity And Community On Campus

For the past 25 years American Indians have struggled to find a place at the table of higher education.


Ona Knoxsah says she experienced culture shock when she transferred from a tribal college to the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, but she was determined to find her place.

he struggle to earn a four-year degree for many American Indian students too often rests on the challenge to overcome cultural barriers, particularly when attending a predominantly White college or university.

Despite the growth of American Indian studies programs on campuses across the nation, more Native faculty, and the creation of nonprofit Indian education advocacy agencies, colleges are recognizing that creating community is the first step toward recruiting and retaining students.

Ona Knoxsah, Prairie Band of Potawatomi, found out just how crucial community was when she transferred from a tribal college to the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Knoxsah, who is 28 years old, was eager to be the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree. But when she entered the University of Minnesota, she quickly discovered that academic rigor would be secondary to the difficulties of adjusting to being part of an underrepresented and often misunderstood group on campus.

“At Haskell there were 800 Indian students,” Knoxsah says, in referring to Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. “All the faculty were Native. Indians were working at the movie theater. Driving around town you’d see people with eagle feathers hanging from their rearview mirrors. But it was culture shock at the University of Minnesota. I didn’t have that community. I didn’t see Indians every day.”

Native Americans have always struggled to find a place at the table of higher education. According to a 2007 report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, only 13 percent of Native Americans hold bachelor’s degrees as compared to 28 percent nationally. Connection to culture explains a great deal. In the past 25 years, tribal colleges have seen tremendous growth — much of that growth is simply because the 32 campuses are established on reservation land or within close proximity to Native communities.

But conflict with cultural transition issues for Native Americans looms large on White campuses, just as they did over the last quartercentury. Tribal reservation Indians still run into a cultural buzz-saw when they leave their rural communities for sprawling urban campuses. Those from urban communities often feel pressure to represent the face and voice of Indian country, when in fact many are struggling to find their own tribal connections.

Culture Shock

Aaron Bird Bear, who is enrolled in the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation of North Dakota, spent eight years as the American Indian academic services adviser at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Much of his work involved helping freshmen make those cultural transitions. Bird Bear created a freshman seminar that focused on the diversity and uniqueness of tribes but also aimed to help students connect with one another and the larger Native student body.

Beyond the classroom Bird Bear says he needed to have an open-door policy for students seeking to find a home away from home on campus. “Students complained of severe culture shock — going from small communities that would fit into one dorm tower, to being around thousands of White students,” he says.

 “Students came to me with severe stress reactions. Students spoke of not wanting to eat in the cafeterias out of general discomfort. Students hated Halloween with the many students and non-students dressed up as Indians.”

For those students who did not come from Native communities but were mostly urban, the challenge was to not only find but to be accepted within a community of Native students on campus.

“Students often wondered where other Indian students were at, and I steered them toward student groups,” Bird Bear says. “But it was hit or miss since students sometimes felt like the student groups were too clique-ish. Identity development was a much larger issue for this group.”

Bird Bear understands how critical identity and community are to succeeding at a mainstream college or university. He began his higher education journey over 15 years ago at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Unlike Knoxsah, Bird Bear was raised by parents with advanced college degrees. In the 1970s, his father graduated from Dartmouth College, and his mother received her undergraduate degree from the University of Denver. They both went on to attend law school.

But early in his freshman year, Bird Bear found himself on the receiving end of his classmates’ ignorance about Native culture.

“The Naval Academy was not known for its cultural sensitivity in the early ’90s,” he says. “Once, during my plebe (freshman year), upperclassmen ordered me to do a rain dance for the company in order that we might get out of parade. Not only did I have to do a made-up jig for them, as I explained I did not know a rain dance per se, they had my peers join me.”

After three years of racial stereotyping and an evangelical Christian classmate who was determined to convert his “savage dorm mate,” Bird Bear transferred to the University of Washington-Seattle, graduating in 1995 with a degree in physical oceanography.

Bird Bear is convinced that the erosion of identity and community is a direct result of decades of trying to acculturate Native peoples.

“The outcomes of colonization and coercive assimilation have destabilized Indian country as a whole,” he says. “The students that come to UW-Madison are all very bright, but many experience some significant distractions from the nuclear and extended family. Combine that with severe inequities in preparation from some schools serving Indian communities, and you have many students struggling. There are also the developmental components of identity for young adults, and, when students are away from their families and having minimal reinforcement and validation of their identities on campus or in the classroom, it challenges persistence and retention.”

Strengthening Tribal Ties

The issue of retention among Native students is one Knoxsah can relate to. In addition to being a single parent and trying to find affordable housing and transportation, Knoxsah admits that the lack of cultural connection on the University of Minnesota campus was enough to make her drop out. But she was determined to find her place at the university.

“I knew about an elder who taught at the school, so I brought tobacco and asked him to pray for me,” she says. “He advised me to get in touch with Indians on campus. And I did, but I really had to put myself out there. I had to rebuild an Indian community for myself.”

Aaron Bird Bear, the former American Indian services adviser at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says Native students often face identity issues when they enroll in predominantly White institutions, which ultimately affects retention.

Bird Bear believes Native student communities can be strengthened with greater efforts to tie Indian country to academia. By building on the concept of community service learning, he would like to see students earning credit by working with tribal communities on a variety of social service projects.

Getting students involved with tribal community building was always a cornerstone of the push for Indians in higher education since the late 1960s. Kim Wensaut, Potawatomi of Wisconsin, graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 1994 with a degree in American Indian studies, which included two years of Ojibwe language study.

“This helped me immensely when I moved to my home community after graduation,” Wensaut says. “Ojibwe is close to Potawatomi, so I had a good base when I started working with our Potawatomi speakers — becoming involved with efforts to preserve and teach the language. We are now working on creating a dictionary, 15 years later, which is crucial, considering we only have less than 10 fluent speakers left.”

However, Wensaut’s college and community journey is more rare than commonplace. Increased funding for culturally specific support services and institutional reform are still needed. Bird Bear says Native students will continue to struggle unless changes become reality in higher education.

 “Structural inequalities exist for the majority of American Indian communities today in public education, and the socioeconomics of most Indian groups make college a challenge,” he says. “The talented students will always keep coming to higher education, but improving their satisfaction with their higher education experiences will be influential considering how small Indian country is. With Indians being place-based peoples, there needs to be institutional spaces that are on par with the institutional structures serving majority students.”

Last month, Knoxsah received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts. The diploma represents the opportunity to move up the socioeconomic ladder, according to Knoxsah.

“For me this is just the first step,” she says. “It’s not the end of my education. I want to get my Ph.D. and eventually teach at a university.”

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