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A Lesson in Isolation: Being Hopi in Higher Education

Dr. Sandy Kewanhaptewa-DixonDr. Sandy Kewanhaptewa-Dixon

As an assistant professor at a state school, I have the privilege of working with our Native student populations representing 40-plus tribes. I love my work. However, I am the one and only Native American professor in our Ethnic & Women’s Studies Department, in our college and at our university.

­There is one other Native who is in management and one staff member at our Native American Student Center (NASC). Several days go by, or more likely, several weeks go by, that I do not see Native American faculty or staff beyond the NASC coordinator. My campus has more than 22,000 students and more than 600 faculty and adjuncts.

Yet, as First Nations people, the audacity remains that we are the least represented among all other ethnic groups. I have many days that I seek discussions on the epistemologies in Native American studies and at times would like to ignore and step away from discussions on the intersectionality of race, class and gender and collaborate with other colleagues on the state of our tribal nations.

I find it difficult to play the token Indian, to be one of the few Native role models and the one voice that fights for the development of programming that meets the needs of our Native students and local tribal communities. The wall still exists. We are still invisible.

Oh yes, there are intermittent days when I am visible. Around Columbus Day and Thanksgiving my office phone is filled with requests to speak to diversity groups and classrooms. My last email from an elementary school teacher requested that I bring items “like pieces of animal skins,” and of course the No. 1 request: “Would you wear your costume?”

As one of the few Natives on campus, I have been asked to offer a blessing for organizations. Although I do not consider myself an elder, it seems I have all the right “qualifications” according to my non-Native counterparts; this is not so — spiritual advisers/ guides or medicine people are the only ones recognized to bless. Although offered, I have not been invited to another professor’s classroom.

I believe my experience as a teacher and administrator in public and tribal schools; my research; work in various native communities; and being a Native woman with life experiences on and off our tribal lands would offer some credibility in history, anthropology and education courses when topics include Native Americans and diversity issues.

It is a systemic problem. ­The colonizers have done well in maintaining us in their educational system. Within this system we see various issues of social injustices. For example, it is not uncommon for the few Native faculty to see ethnic fraud still abound as some institutions of higher learning take the first “indigenous” or brown person that fits the stereotypical image, often referred to as “the White man’s image.”

­This is detrimental to our Native ways of thinking, our Native knowledge and often misguides the Native students on campuses across this nation.

Many institutions set a precedence that we do not matter. Consequently, our students do not matter. In research, we are not “significant” and often absent in diversity studies. Research language, in itself, is demeaning to Native people. Systemic inequality at many universities makes it difficult to advance our Native students toward graduate programs. Research suggests that there are many issues why our retention and graduation rates are below the national average and still below 1 percent enrollment at most universities.

Financial issues, invisibility, internal and external motivation, and unequal access are some of these issues. High-impact practices (HIP) often do not address Native student populations beyond recognizing there is a need. Consequently, if HIP is not part of the everyday conversations in undergraduate programs, we will continue to see underrepresented numbers of Natives in graduate programs.

There are several questions that I propose as graduate programs consider outreach and retention of Native students. I have limited research to support my questions (probably not significant enough), but please consider the following:

  1. Are graduate programs providing adequate support and resources beyond financial?
  2. Does the faculty receive cultural awareness/sensitivity training with a primary focus on Native communities and issues?
  3. Does the program provide Native role models and instructors?
  4. Are we using the best selection process in awarding scholarships?
  5. Are programs supportive of students taking leaves for family and ceremonial needs?
  6. Does the program offer cohorts or distributive learning models that bring the classroom to the Native communities?
  7. Does the program build a self-sustainability model and encourage students to complete the program in a reasonable time?

As a Native tribalist woman, I look forward to our university hiring another Native faculty member next year. We will double our numbers! I look forward to future in-depth conversations that may lead us to address the issues on our campus that will enhance social and systemic equality for our students and their families.

I frequently tell my Native students that I mentor that, one day, they will work and teach beside me and eventually take my place as the next tenure-track faculty member. I look forward to the day when I can walk on my campus and wave my hand to another Native faculty member on a daily basis. I leave you with a Hopi proverb, “Work hard, keep the ceremonies, live peaceably, and unite your hearts.”

Dr. Sandy Kewanhaptewa-Dixon is an associate professor at California Polytechnic University, Pomona and an alumna of Fielding Graduate University. She worked for the Bureau of Indian Education for 17 years.

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