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Cover Story: Keeping the culture

 by James Kindle
 published on Thursday, November 2, 2006

Kimi Serna, Ms. Indian ASU,  says students are still blinded by sterotypes against American Indian students. “[They think] that we’re drunks, that we’re freeloaders, that we think we deserve special treatment...” she says./issues/arts/698635
Jeremiah Armenta / STATE PRESS MAGAZINE
Kimi Serna, Ms. Indian ASU, says students are still blinded by sterotypes against American Indian students. “[They think] that we’re drunks, that we’re freeloaders, that we think we deserve special treatment...” she says.
 

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American Indian students are less likely to continue attending ASU after their first year than any other racial group. Here's how tribes, the government and ASU aim to change this statistic — all while making sure American Indian culture stays strong and vibrant.
They identify themselves as Apache, Hopi, Navajo and dozens of other tribal backgrounds.

They come from rural, urban and reservation environments.

The have white mothers, Chicano fathers and many other ethnic combinations in their lineage.

Despite these differences, they are often categorized -- by ASU, the government and society in general -- simply as American Indians.

And for as long as ASU has been analyzing academic trends on the basis of race, fewer of them have graduated, per capita, than any other racial group at ASU.

"Across the board, American Indian students are persisting at a much lower rate," says Michael Begaye, director of American Indian Student Support Services. "Same thing with graduation."

About 65 percent of American Indian first-time students continued from their freshmen to sophomore years between the falls of 2004 and 2005 -- the only racially-identified group below two-thirds, according to the Office of Institutional Analysis.

Moreover, of first-time American Indian freshman starting in 1999, only about a quarter graduated within six years, a far lower amount than the average of 55 percent.

Despite these bleak statistics, "We have the opportunity to change our futures, to change our destinies," says Kimi Serna, a Piipash member of the Gila River Indian Community.

Serna, an American Indian studies and public policy senior, is one of a rising number of success stories among this often misunderstood group of students.

She and others like her are using personal motivation and increasing institutional and tribal support to persist and graduate from college. For them, education is not simply a personal goal, but also a way to help their tribal communities.

Being 'American Indian'

Kimi Serna boasts an impressive resume.

She holds a 3.8 GPA. She is Ms. Indian ASU, heads the pageant committee, and has served in other important leadership positions from the Gila River Indian Committee to the National Congress of American Indians. She is looking at possibly attending Harvard or Yale for graduate school next August.

But due to bigotry and generalizations, some people tend to think Serna's accomplishments are outside the norm.

"[They think] that we're drunks, that we're freeloaders, that we think we deserve special treatment or the United States government always takes care of us, that we're lazy, that we're fat, that we're ugly," Serna lists off with harsh precision. "Geez, there's so many. ... I could go on and on."

Dwayne Lopez, a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation and an interdisciplinary studies junior in communication and American Indian studies, said students are mostly "just interested in my culture and where I come from."

Contributing to this misunderstanding is the unfamiliarity many students have with students of American Indian backgrounds.

Americans who identify themselves as American Indians and Alaska Natives accounted for about 1.5 percent of the total population in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

At ASU, that number increases to about 2.5 percent, or about 1,500 of the more than 60,000 students attending all four of the University's campuses. Though the percentage is an increase from the 1.8 percent who attended ASU a decade earlier, the number is still the lowest of any racial demographic the University tracks.

"A lot people don't have a lot of exposure to the diversity in communities. It's kind of upsetting, actually," Serna says.

For some students of tribal backgrounds, the blanket label "American Indian" itself oversimplifies tribal complexities, lumping together disparate tribes into a more digestible heading that can breed prejudice.

"We all have different value systems," says Serna. "We all believe different things. ... I just think that [lumping tribes together as American Indians] promotes the stereotypes, and [they're] not always true."

Kim TallBear, an assistant professor of American Indian studies, says the term can gloss over the different cultural and geographic traits unique to tribes.

"I'm Dakota. Our creation stories, our economic stories [and] our relationship with white cultures ... makes us really different culturally," she says. "I have so many Dine [Navajo] students and I'm astounded by how different we can be."

But TallBear says the American Indian grouping is necessary for tribes to work with the U.S. government and for schools to teach issues of American Indian law, policy and community and economic development.

In many cases, American Indians have united under this heading in a unification known as "pan-Nativism" or "pan-Indianism," due to their shared treatment by the United States, TallBear says.

"We have been defined by others and made into having a group identity," she says. "American Indian," like all group labels, carries problems with it.

"Whatever term you use you should realize that no term is completely innocent," she says. "Each term has a particular baggage that comes with it."

Challenges to education

Racism, like that encountered by Serna, is one of several challenges cited by Aaron Jackson, an associate professor in counseling psychology at Brigham Young University who has researched and co-written several articles on American Indian college student persistence.

Many of these experiences are passive, but no less damaging, Jackson says.

"Professors would minimize some aspect of Native American culture or minimize their opinion of Native American culture despite [the student] being Native American," he says.

Jackson tied many difficulties some American Indians face to issues facing the larger American Indian society as a whole.

"A lot of it's being a first-time college student and coming from a relatively low socioeconomic status," he says.

Due to a number of factors, about 14 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives age 25 and older have obtained a bachelor's degree and 25 percent are below the poverty line, according to 2005 reports from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Serna says American Indian students also face the challenge of a lack of support for tribal schools from the federal government's Bureau of Indian Affairs. "Lots of tribes have been under the gun trying to fight for whatever scraps are left over to fund our education [from the federal government]," Serna says.

"Statistically you have to look at the other elements that have affected it, such as the quality of education that we have received," she adds. "So many historical factors ... have affected our people and continue to affect our culture."

Begaye described the lack of preparedness faced by students who encounter an unfamiliar environment and resources at ASU.

"Many of them come from rural areas [and] homes without many amenities [like] telephone service [and] Internet," he says.

Students who came from tribal schools can face a different environment in the classroom, as well, Begaye says.

"Sitting in a class where they're no longer a majority, that's a big change," he says.

Family first

A dominant hurdle for American Indian students attending college is the struggle to balance the autonomy of college with continued duties to families.

In a survey of 330 American Indian ASU students conducted through the Office of American Indian Studies, students were asked what had made them temporarily or would make them leave ASU. The most common reasons cited - for 35 percent of students -were personal issues including family and health.

The conflict between the autonomous nature of college and students' obligations to their communities and families is a chief barrier to retention, TallBear says.

"A good Dine is going to go home for weddings [and] for funerals," TallBear says. "They can't be as individualistic as some non-Native students are expected to be.

"[College] embodies a different set of a values and a different way of acting than these students are rewarded for at home," she adds.

Indeed, Serna says she is taking care of her mother from their home in Gila Crossing on the western side of the Gila River reservation and must balance these obligations with attending school.

Lopez said every weekend except for finals he drives an hour and a half to his home on the Tohono O'odham Reservation.

"For me and for other students it's family first," he says. "Family is who you are. It's what keeps you going. You're obligated to them."

"If you're having problems at home and you're at school, you will always have that in the back of your mind," he says. "'I should be home; I shouldn't be here.'"

Lopez said when he was attending community college, his grandfather died, and many students didn't understand why he needed to take a traditional weeklong period to prepare for the funeral.

"We do everything for their last time here in this earth: we cook, we make stuff, we clothe them, we bathe them and prepare them," he says.

The number of factors playing into the low persistence rates of American Indian students seems as numerous as the number of tribes making up this category.

As a result, in dealing with the problem, officials must look at students on a one-on-one basis, Begaye says.

"We can't just say everybody's not persisting because they can't do math ... or they're homesick [or] they have no money," he says. "It's really an individual thing."

Avenues of support

One resource that is attempting to help students on this one-on-one basis is the American Indian Student Support Services, a resource center located in the Engineering Annex that Begaye directs.

The office provides students with tutors, two computer labs, study areas and access to phone, fax and copy service, as well as a place to simply congregate, which is vital, Begaye says.

"It's sort of a home where you can go," Begaye says, describing the sense of community AISSS works to build.

Support Services also links students up with about eight American Indian campus organizations. Begaye says this is an important factor in retention.

Begaye, who began as director in May, is not short on goals for Support Services. He would like to see the office look more into graduate-student needs, work with tribal spiritual resources, build direct relationships with different tribal governments and expand the office's current three-day summer orientation program for high school students into a weeklong event, he says.

But with five full-time workers, four tutors and two student workers, Support Services can only do so much. "We need more resources, more manpower," Begaye says.

Due to the group's small budget, Begaye says they work to link students up with resources on campus like tutoring and counseling not specific to Native American students. Many students are not proactive enough in seeking out resources on campus, Begaye says.

"Students are not being assertive," he says. "Our goal is to empower students with information."

The American Indian Resource Guide, which contains information to help students of tribal backgrounds, lists 13 different resources on campus, 19 different clubs and a variety of programs and events.

Resources are coming from outside as well, especially from students' own tribes.

For example, the Gila River Indian Community, which provides Serna's scholarship, has invested $7 million in financial aid for community members to attend college, says Bonnie DeWeaver, a student adviser in the Community's Department of Education student services division.

The purpose of the scholarships, which come from community enterprises like casinos and farms, are twofold, DeWeaver says. "The goal is, No. 1, to benefit the community members individually in pursuing their education and career goals ... and, No. 2, to establish a very qualified workforce ... for the jobs that will be generated within the community."

DeWeaver says the program has developed in the last five years and covers tuition, books, room and board, transportation and personal expenses for about 300 students in undergraduate through doctoral studies across the U.S.

This tribal assistance is essential for many American Indian college students, she says.

"I don't think it would be possible for a lot of our students to go [to college] were it not for the support of our tribes," she adds.

The Gila River community is not alone in their efforts. Tribes across the United States contribute money to tribal-member education, DeWeaver says, though all are not necessarily as generous as Gila River.

"The majority of tribes across the country [also] get a small portion of higher education funds from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but it's miniscule compared to what the tribes who make their own revenue [contribute]," she says.

But Jackson warned that these scholarships can sometimes send the wrong signal to outsiders that American Indian students have it easier in terms of obtaining an education.

"In some ways, I think folks look at the money available to Native American students and think, 'It would be so easy if I was a Native American ... and that's not the case,'" he says.

Looking Ahead

When he graduated from ASU in 1963, Peterson Zah was a symbol of persistence.

The son of a father with an eighth-grade education and a mother who couldn't speak English, Zah, a member of the Navajo tribe, spent all but $5 of his money to register for classes, slept in the old football stadium, and worked cleaning the stadium and serving food to pay for his education.

Now, as the adviser to ASU President Michael Crow on American Indian affairs, Zah is working to ensure other students don't face the same challenges he has.

"That experience motivates you," he says. "It tells you how important it is to get that help."

From his office on the third floor of the Agriculture Building, the boxes and newspaper-wrapped pictures around Zah's office indicate the major changes underway for American Indian resources at ASU.

Two major parts are the continued hiring of American Indian staff, which he describes as an "all-star lineup," and the creation of a new policy center.

The center, which hired its first employee in July, will work on providing information on policies relevant to tribal issues.

The center will bring state tribes closer to the university, that will increase recruitment and retention efforts, Zah said.

"We need to bring in those Indian tribes, work with them closely and make them feel that they're part of the system," he says

"When tribes find out about that, they want to utilize our services, and more importantly, they want to send their students to ASU," he adds.

Zah's ultimate goal is the creation of a new Native American Center, that would house all American Indian resources on campus in one building. This goal, he admits, is a ways down the road and for now the focus is on the policy center and bringing resources together.

Reason for hope

Despite the challenges facing students of tribal backgrounds, many factors point to a promising future.

Though American Indians still have the lowest persistence rates of any group profiled, they also had the largest percentage increase in the last decade - about 13 percent.

"We're trying to repair years and years of damage, [but] it's not a bleak future," Serna says.

A greater emphasis on biculturalism, incorporated by many American Indian institutions, among tribal leaders and school officials is contributing to this future, Jackson says.

Biculturalism stresses embracing tribal culture and traditions, while pursuing a marketable education in mainstream society.

"They'll be well connected with their traditional culture, their reservation culture, and they'll be able to be successful in the white culture, the dominant culture on most college campuses," he says.

Serna stressed this idea in her Ms. Indian ASU platform: "Maintaining a cultural identity in contemporary education."

"We as Native American people have to maintain our cultural identity," Serna says. "We have to remember we have roots in our tribal communities and [responsibilities to] our ancestors and our families ... to come back to our communities and help our communities grow."

Though the classification "American Indian" can statistically bring with it concerns of academic difficuties, it can also impel students to persist.

"All of my American Indian studies majors tell me they are here so they can get skills to take back to their communities," TallBear says.

Lopez says he plans to go into tribal law and become the legislative attorney and eventually chairman of his nation.

"When I ... feel stressed, I remember my people back home and how I can help them through my education," he said.

Serna, who calls the motivation of her tribe the "fuel to [her] fire," sees things this way as well.

"I really think that my tribal background inspires me and motivates me to continue my education," Serna says. "I know what our tribes need. I know what is happening in our communities and have a feeling my education is going to change things."

Reach the reporter at James.Kindle@asu.edu.



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