Just as a foreword; I do not speak for all Native American students. My story is my own, and just as there are thousands of Native American college students, there are thousands of different experiences.
1. People believe you are extinct.
I was lucky to be able to go to two universities that are right in the middle of Indigenous territory, so as institutions, they acknowledged that Native Americans exist. Syracuse University had the Haudenosaunee Promise scholarship, which graciously gave me 3 years of free tuition. Beyond that though, Native Americans were an extinct relic of a past age to most people, faculty included. (To be fair, SU has a great Native American Studies minor.) Freshman year was interesting, because all the 100 level classes ask you for an introduction. “Hi, my name is________. I’m from ____________. I’m a __________ major, minoring in _____________” Well hi! My name is Kawehras. I’m from Akwesasne. I’m a Sport Management major, minoring in Native American Studies. The dumbfounded look on people’s faces as they wonder what the hell you’re talking about is priceless. You get questions and comments from people like “I thought you all were dead.” “So do you live in teepees still?” “Oh, it must be nice to go to college and have electricity now.” No really, I’ve gotten that more than once. I can’t blame them for the ignorance that an American education afforded them, but the questions need to stop.
2. You are going to end up the token "Indian".
As soon as people find out you’re Native, you basically become the token Native for everything. I’ve had teachers who think that everything I ever want to contribute to the class is revolved around Native life. When they want to talk about Native American issues, you automatically become the reference point or you have to do the teaching. Sometimes you just want to sit in the back of class and not talk to anyone, especially not become the teacher for all native issues. Like I said before, there’s thousands of us and we are different, and I do not want to speak for everyone.
3. It's a bit harder to adjust to the school environment.
My freshman year was rough as all hell. Thank god for SU’s Native Student Program that was basically my second family. I had a terrible roommate, school was soooooo hard, and everywhere I went I just felt like I was surrounded by a bunch of high-class, nose in the air, rich white kids. I can’t say I had a chip on my shoulder; I think I felt like I did in the moment, but looking back, it was just me feeling like I was incredibly different than most people there.
4. There is not much encouragement to get an education beyond highschool.
My highschool was great in terms of getting you to graduate. We had counselors and support people to get you through those 4 years, but the effort to get you into college was less than adequate. There are financial advisors for my people, which will get you a little funding to get through college, but actual advisors for college admissions? No, you’re on your own.
5. There's lateral violence from other minority groups.
Crazy to think, right? Yeah, well, sometimes other minority groups are more expressive of their disdain than the majority. The amount of times I have been stared or glared at for walking into the multicultural center is ridiculous. I mean, forgive me if I’m one of the lighter shades of brown. I have been called “snowflake” for walking into the multicultural center, even though a Native American grant was used to furnish the entire place. I once took a Caribbean Culture class and the professor singled me out as if I was some smug white student taking the class and did not belong there. He did this every class and would look directly at me whenever he was blaming the majority for racialization, as if I was white. It eventually got to be so taxing that I had to withdraw from the class. I'm not saying that all diverse students do this, I have many friends from many
cultural backgrounds, but I have noticed that some people just don't like other minorities.
6.Some people are going to pose as Native American.
Why would anyone in the right mind want to be deal with the struggles that come from being Native American? I’m guessing because it’s fun to feel like the triumphant person who came back from the adversity of being Indigenous, without actually being Native American and dealing with the actual life struggles that come from being oppressed. Story time: I met this girl who pretended to be Native, assumed the role of President of the Native American group on campus, dated a Native guy and then got accepted into grad school under affirmative action, all the while being white. Basically the Rachel Dolezal of the Native American world. It’s incredibly frustrating, especially because there is, more likely than not, another fully capable Native American student wanting to get an education, but some poser is out there making a mockery of our indigeneity.
7.You might be treated like a "dumb Indian".
Historically, scientists tried to prove that based on skull and brain size that different racial groups, including Native Americans, were inferior to the white masses. You wouldn’t think that this presumption of inferiority remains today, but it truly does. I have had professors make a point about having Native Americans in their Honors classes, like it was some sort of shock to them. I have had my highschool math teacher segregate Native American students from the rest of class because he did not believe we belonged there in the advanced class. Despite all the disadvantages of going to the impoverished elementary and secondary schools, let me tell you something, my race does not preclude my intelligence. I did not get into university because of affirmative action or the school needing to meet some sort of quota for colored people. Being a Native American in college is hard because you have to work twice as hard as the white people just to prove you belong there. You are almost expected to become a drop out, and there really is not much of a support system to keep you from veering down that path.
8. You are expected to never turn back after you get to college.
The school administration, faculty and other students as well, have a hard time understanding the connection us Native Americans have to our communities. It is assumed that we are like other disenfranchised groups, that going to university is a free pass for us, a “get off the rez free” card, if you will. It is assumed that because reservation life is hard, we want to cut all ties to it, that a college education will get relieve us from the blight, the way it gets people out of the ghetto or trailer park. What they don’t recognize is that these reservations are our homes, and have been our family’s homes, since as far back as history will remember. I don’t know how it feels to live on land that was borrowed from another person. I don’t possess a longing feeling to visit the motherland, the land of my forefathers. I’m on it. When Native’s go to college, usually there’s the intent to return back home and do better for their people. We do not cut the ties to our communities. We don’t just leave when things get hard, we return and try to fix the problems we face.
9.It's always exciting to see another Native American on campus.
Especially if you go to a school with a very small population of Native Americans. It might be a full blown wave, a hug, a war whoop from across the quad, or even a passing “sup?” head nod and the “its all good” head nod in return. (y’all know what I’m talking about). It’s a good feeling knowing that you are not in the struggle alone, so seeing another ‘skin is like finding Waldo.
10. We are going to be offended when we are caricaturized as mascots.
I’m assuming that not many people would like their faces turned into cartoons and paraded around while people shout out things like “fatty”, “butterface”, “braceface”, would they? Yeah, it’s offensive right? Imagine using race as a way to inferiorize a person, to show difference between what is normal and what is not, then having that difference exploited. It’s not “honoring us” or whatever excuse people use to justify their mascots. I think the whole Twittersphere going nuts after seeing Bomani Jones’ Caucasians shirt on ESPN is a perfect example of what people neglect to realize is an actual act of racism. I mean of course, when white is normal and colored is inferior, you won’t feel diminished as a human when someone calls you white. I know there’s a well known adage, “imitation is the greatest form of flattery” and I truly would like to believe that’s why we are your mascots, the reason you paint yourselves red and why you chant along to the tomahawk chop, but let’s be honest here, its not. Instead of making us your mascots, honor us by honoring the treaties you’ve made. Honor us by not calling us drunks. Honor us by not wearing headdresses at Coachella. It’s not that complicated.
11. We don't go to college to pick fights and become activists, it just sometimes turns out that way.
You see, living on a reservation, most of the time, you are so busy dealing with internal community struggles that you aren’t going out and picking fights with the government. Most of the time it’s the government or some other third party doing something wrong, like poisoning the water supply or kidnapping indigenous women, and we have to fight back. When we go to college, we aren’t there solely to pick fights with other students or the administration. We don’t apply to the worst schools for cultural insensitivity and picket on the first day. We chose our schools the same way everyone else did, by picking what we feel is the best fit for us to get an education. When we get there however, things really start changing. A professor will make a comment on why Manifest Destiny “was the greatest thing to happen to America”, a frat will throw a Cowboys & Indians party, a department will misappropriate funds meant for Native American students. In the same way the fight has always come to our doorstep, we are plagued with injustices to our people and we take a stand. “Oh the Indians are riled up again!” Well yeah, you poked the beehive.
12. We don't look down on people who didn't get the opportunity to go to college.
I think a main misconception is that we go off to school and come home stuck up and hating on people who never left. I mean, yes, there might be some other Native students that do this, but I think I’ve only ever met 1 out of like 500. I cannot look down on people who never got the opportunity to leave. Sometimes it falls to a few to sacrifice for the good of many, and that’s what college really is for Native Americans. We go to school to learn so that we can return home. I may look down on a brother, but it is with my hand extended to help him up.
13. Going to college doesn't mean we are "selling out."
On the other side of the college opportunity coin, you have people who never left the reservation saying you “sold out” or “traded sides” or are “getting a white man’s education”. While I have not personally experienced these kind of comments (to my face at least), I have heard others say that this is a problem for them. I think “white man’s education” is such a funny concept to throw out there, because well, we do not experience pre-Columbian problems anymore, we face 21st Century problems. As much as I appreciate traditional knowledge, going out to the woods to learn about nature, that knowledge will only get you so far in the colonized world. Traditional knowledge is a great background/foundation for an advanced education that can fix contemporary problems with the engrained values from our people. We need to stop bringing our own people down, when they’re just trying to build us up.
That is the end of what I have to say at the moment. I’m going to leave you with a few words. Go out into the world with strength and righteousness, do wrong to no one, keep your mind positive and good and advocate for peace wherever the road takes you.