The Experience of Indigenous Students in Higher Ed

Arianna Antone-Ramirez, Contributor 

Across the United States, November has been recognized as Native American Heritage Month. This is a time to celebrate American Indian culture and heritage, but this is also a time to call out the injustices that our communities still face to this day. Navigating the world of higher education as an indigenous student is by no means easy. That struggle does not even begin on our first day of college; it starts before that. By the time I reached 5th grade, I was already aware of the fact that Native American students have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any ethnic group, a statistic of which I was constantly reminded. It is no understatement to say that it is a miracle that many of us got to college considering all of the obstacles we had to face to get here, and that does not even begin to cover the challenges thrown at us once we get here.

Moving through an institution of higher education as a Native student is often mentally and emotionally draining to the extreme. In the classroom, we are often the only Native student present. I can say that here at Augsburg; I am usually the only indigenous student in the classroom unless it’s an American Indian studies class. Classmates and professors will automatically look to us to be all-knowing ambassadors ready to explain Native culture. This frustrates many of us because many non-natives do not realize that while some ideas are shared across tribes, there are actually over 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States, meaning there are over 570 sovereign nations with their own distinct cultures. It is wrong to assume that just because I am a Native student, I should know everything about every tribe. 

Another challenge of being an indigenous college student is that often, if we do not do the extra emotional labor of being outspoken about issues affecting our communities, then those issues will not be addressed. It hurts to see our culture and our struggles be overlooked, especially given the fact that no matter where you are in this country, you are standing on stolen Native land. Dealing with that historical trauma every single day makes getting our degree that much harder, especially given that many of us are first-generation college students.

So, given all the struggles we face, what do we expect from our non-Native allies? First of all, do not assume things. Not all Native students go to college for free, we are not all rich from casinos, we do not feel honored by sports mascots and we are not all from the same tribe. Instead of assuming, take the time to get to know us and our cultures by talking to us and asking questions. But at the same time, respect that some cultural information is not to be shared with non-natives. No one is entitled to details of our culture simply because they ask for it. We want to share our cultures with people, but some details are traditionally kept within the tribe or community. 

Another thing our allies can do is to help uplift our voices. Make space for us to educate the Augsburg community about our issues. And finally, our allies can remember the importance of land acknowledgments. No matter what meeting or event you are at, giving an acknowledgment of the indigenous people who lived there first is a crucial first step to recognizing our history and moving forward in the fight to achieve justice for indigenous people today.