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Native American Cultural Centers Imperative to Student Success

When Burgundy Fletcher began her college education, she just wasn’t at a disadvantage by being an older nontraditional student with a family at home.  Fletcher is also part Native American attending college at a school that, until just recently, did not have a community center addressing the needs of Native American students.

“When I started school in 2014, the school only had a few native teachers and probably only 100 to 120 Native American students,” said Fletcher, 44, who is now a chemical engineering senior at the University of California San Diego.

That isn’t an unusual situation for mainstream colleges, said Dr. Joely Proudfit, director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center and department coordinator of American Indian studies at California State University, San Marcos, even for colleges such as UCSD that are in a region with a large population of Native Americans.

Like many campus community centers for minorities, the UCSD Inter-tribal Resource Center was a product of longstanding racial tensions that culminated in 2010 with an off-campus fraternity party known as the “Compton Cookout” in which students mocked Black History Month.

Fletcher said the resource center was a long time in planning and was a welcome first step in making current Native American students more comfortable in the college life. “I think it was really one of the last cultural centers to get up and running, and it really took the Inter-tribal Resource Center a few years to get its own space.”

A paper published in 2008 by Southeastern Oklahoma State University said that, in 2002, Native Americans represented less than 1 percent of all students enrolled in college. Most of the students attended two-year colleges within the tribal system. As well, only 0.7 percent of all associate, bachelor’s and advanced degrees were earned by Native Americans that year.

The paper also concluded that numerous studies indicate that factors that include pre-college preparation, family support and supportive, involved faculty, commitment of the institution and maintaining an active presence in their home community as well as continuing cultural ceremonies are keys to academic success.

For her doctorate dissertation in post secondary and adult education, Jan Grieco, an instructor in the English department at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, recently conducted a study on Native American women in college and the effects of support systems.

Grieco said the catalyst for the study was her own college, which is across the street from a Mi’kmaq community. The school also draws Native students from nearby Canada, where there are no nearby community colleges.

“What we were seeing in our own school was that women would enroll in school for a year, maybe less and then disappear,” said Grieco. “Men seemed to do much better at completing their education.”

Grieco sampled 13 Native American women in two non-native colleges in Maine (not at Northern Maine Community College) and two native colleges in the Midwest. “What the small study found was that there was a sense of discomfort of female Native students who don’t have that sense of community,” said Grieco. “What it found is that all of the students felt they needed to be recognized as a part of a community and they need a cultural center or student group.”

Furthermore, at least two of the students who did not disclose their native heritage had experienced some form of racially charged hate speech by non-native students, directed at the native population. “One of the women had heard non-native students go as far as to say that Native Americans should be shot,” said Grieco. “She felt she had no safe place or a sense of community on campus.”

Grieco said her findings support statistics that suggest there is an overall lack of respect for native women. “Three out of five native women are dating non-native men, and one third of them will be victims of domestic violence,” said Grieco. “Their feeling is that they’re not at all valuable, and rape is also very common.”

The numbers in Grieco’s study are telling of how well female native students may integrate in non-native colleges. Of the 13 in the study, seven attended native colleges and, of those, all but one had first tried a non-native college, quit and then enrolled in a native college.

Fletcher, who was not part of Grieco’s study, said that she has faced the same feelings. Fletcher, who appears White and was raised in an assimilated community in Oklahoma, said she didn’t even learn of her Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma roots until she was 13. “A lot of folks are reluctant to say they are Native American; some of my own family to this day won’t talk about it,” said Fletcher.

She said it is for that reason that Native Americans need a place to commune with others who share their heritage. “Some of us who don’t look native still need support and a nonjudgmental atmosphere,” said Fletcher.

However, another problem is that, when colleges do create tribal community centers, they sometimes generalize the culture and experiences. “Some of the Native Americans at my school are from Oklahoma; some are from around San Diego; some are from Alaska,” said Fletcher. “Sometimes we all get lumped into one tribe and we’re stereotyped.”

Fletcher said that she believes the inter-tribal community center and the new tribal resource director, who was just hired last summer, are doing the best they can. “I think they need more input from staff and students to create services catered to different circumstances,” said Fletcher.

Fletcher said she plans on finishing her education at the university. Grieco said the same of the 13 women sampled in her study. “They’re fairly determined to stick it out no matter the challenges they face on their campuses,” said Grieco. “I hope they do.”

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