Nurturing native Americans on campus

Indigenous studies programs aim to reduce culture shock and improve graduation rates of native American college students.

Her first time around, Debby Tewa struggled through just two years of college. Having grown up on the Hopi reservation, she had attended schools in Arizona and California before heading to Northern Arizona University (NAU) in Flagstaff. "I was totally unprepared," she says. "I kind of felt lost."

It was an academic and emotional whirlwind - one that many American Indian students encounter on large campuses. Whatever support systems might have existed at the time, Ms. Tewa didn't know about them.

More than a decade after leaving NAU, and in midcareer as an electrician, Tewa came back to finish her bachelor's degree. The enhanced academic and mentoring programs she found hint at the kinds of efforts colleges around the country may need to make to improve retention rates for native American students.

Nationally, only about 15 percent of native American 12th-graders who are likely to attend college actually earn a bachelor's degree within eight years. For tribes, that makes it difficult to find people with enough education to serve a host of critical roles, ranging from doctors to economic-development experts.

But there's no silver bullet. For many native Americans, there's still a sense of culture shock and missing home when they first arrive at a university. Other obstacles include prejudice, finances, language barriers, and alcoholism, according to a study of several dozen successful American Indian college students in Montana in the mid-1990s.

More than 90 percent considered leaving college at some point. But the study also gave insight into what helped them get to graduation: In addition to the support of family and friends, the students found some professors who were caring and culturally sensitive. The report recommended incorporating more Indian history into the curriculum and making sure the campus had native role models.

That's what drew Tewa back to NAU. She saw a brochure for Applied Indigenous Studies, a program that grounds students in both traditional native knowledge and Western academics - and equips them to apply their skills in indigenous communities. Paired with a minor in environmental studies, it was a perfect fit for Tewa, who had been working to bring solar energy to parts of reservations that were still without electricity.

For the first time, Tewa's classes covered the history of native Americans. But she also learned practical matters, like how to apply for grants. "When I graduated [in December 2004] and became involved with the Sandia National Laboratories [as a liaison with tribal governments], all of the theories and the course work totally applied," she says.

The reason the indigenous studies program is so attractive? "It's affirmation - there's now relevancy for what they're learning," says department chair Octaviana Trujillo. Although NAU is a bit late to the game - many universities offered native American studies in response to activism in the 1960s and '70s - she's proud that the program was designed in consultation with tribal leaders and has the rare status of a full academic department. About 40 students major in it each year, concentrating on everything from law to economics. But the department's offerings have a much wider reach - both for native and nonnative students and faculty.

Perhaps there's no more tangible form of outreach than the "resident elders" on campus. A few years ago the department brought in James Peshlakai, a Navajo "Keeper of the Way," as he calls himself (preferring that to labels such as "medicine man"). He brings a treasure trove of knowledge both of the songs and ceremonies that transmit Navajo culture, and on how to straddle two worlds - his remote sheep farm, where life is governed by the rhythms of nature, and city life, dominated by brick buildings, clocks, and e-mail.

The story of his first semester at NAU shows the ripple effects his presence has had. "I thought, these kids, they come off the reservation.... I have to build their courage up to face a new life away from their people." So his first talk was titled, "Being an Indian youth." He was shocked when he walked into the room and found it mostly full of white professors. "So I look around, look up, and say, 'Oh Great Spirit ... give me the power: All of these guys want to be an Indian youth.' So they all laughed," he says with a face-creasing smile.

It was a humorous start to a serious task - helping professors understand their native students. Some would complain, he says, that Indians are "uncontrollable" and do crazy things like jump out of windows into snowbanks. Mr. Peshlakai invited them to his sheep ranch, where they saw his grandchildren grab their bikes and disappear into a vast landscape. "The whole desert is their playground," he says.

Peshlakai still has an edge of anger, something many native students can relate to. "I saw my people denied life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," he says. Like many in his generation, he was sent to a boarding school where he was whipped if he was caught speaking Navajo.

He tells the students, "You have to have a college degree today," but he's trying to make sure that they can survive in the dominant culture without losing their heritage. "A lot of the native American students write papers and let me critique them. I tell them sometimes, 'This is not true.' And they say, 'I got it out of a book.' Well, it's not true."

Last fall, two more resident elders joined him - Bob Lomadafkie, a Hopi, and Marina Vasquez, a Mayan from Mexico. "As an elder, our position is nonthreatening, because we have no influence on their grades," Mr. Lomadafkie says. "We encourage them to seek out tutoring, or if they need financial help or psychological help, we can guide them to [the right resources]."

The hope is that Indian students won't drop out when they hit a rough patch if they can turn to these mentors. The 1,300 native students make up about 10 percent of NAU's student body. But only 29 percent of first-time native American freshmen graduate within six years, according to the institutional planning office. While that's significantly higher than the national average, it's much lower than the 46 percent rate for the overall group of first-time freshmen at NAU.

There's also a physical structure on campus that embodies the support network: a Navajo hogan, where talks are given and students can have traditional ceremonies that might otherwise require a long trip home. Located outside the building that houses the indigenous studies department, the octagonal wooden structure was built by students and a local nonprofit group in 2002. Peshlakai brought soil from his land to create the hard-packed floor. In the snow nearby, branches of traditional medicinal plants peek out, waiting to bloom again in spring.

These efforts are still too new to track their effect on student retention, Professor Trujillo says, but there's anecdotal evidence that makes her optimistic.

Take Temashio Anderson, a recent graduate who grew up on the Navajo and Pomo Indian reservations. "The resident elders are very important," he says. "Sometimes you do need somebody to talk to - that understands, that's been through these different problems before.... They always welcome you with open arms - kind of like your grandpa or grandma."

As a teenager, he says, he was full of anger and got into trouble with gangs and drugs. "I stopped one day and thought about what I'd been doing.... Everybody has some kind of vision of who they want to be ... and I envisioned myself as maybe someone who's helpful to the community, a mentor to the children, [someone] involved in his culture."

Now Mr. Anderson has bachelor's degrees in both environmental science and applied indigenous studies, and he hopes to continue studying uranium contamination on the Navajo reservation. He always consults with native leaders and residents to shape his projects, even though it can slow things down. That stands in contrast to a history of exploitative research, he says. Anderson is part of a new tradition that "really stresses that research needs to be done for the [native] people, and it needs to ultimately benefit the people."


The number of American Indians and Alaskan native students in higher education in 2002, more than twice as many as in 1976.

Percentage of the native American population age 25 and older who had at least a bachelor's degree in 2000 (compared with 24.4 percent for the overall population).

Percentage of enrolled native Americans who are female.

Percentage of native American full-time undergraduates who received financial aid (similar to average for all groups).

Percentage of native American full-time faculty members at degree-granting institutions in 2001 (native Americans are about 1.5 percent of the US population).

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