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How Schools Can Finally Do Right by Native Students

After decades of diversity initiatives and tokenization, Native students deserve advisers who look like them—and a curriculum that treats them as equals.
College studying textbooks

I recently had a meeting with two educators who asked me how to increase diversity at their institution. They said it was difficult to get students to self-identify. I remembered my own experience as an Indian student applying for MFA programs, and how a white professor had told me to play up my Native-ness and my financial situation. I became upset at the memory. I told the educators that it would be nice if students could have access to advisers like themselves, advisers who could encourage students to self-identify from a place of power and pride, rather than from a place of subjugation. I tried to impart to them how demoralizing it feels when students are advised to emphasize that they are impoverished, or different, or in the margins, and that if they make it into the institution, it's often not quite right—because they don't come in as equals; they enter as tokens.

I believe in diversity, although I've never actually seen it. Diversity can seem an abstraction, like love: hard to exact, hard to make tangible and real, but you know it's possible. You can envision the perfect type of diversity, where people are equal, have a good quality of life, and can do their jobs or receive an education without being and feeling subject to discrimination. But the truth is that I don't think we can have diversity until white supremacy within institutions is defeated, and that would take a change in our communities and the way we include one another. Even if an institution could have a perfect pie chart of diversity and inclusion, it doesn't mean that institution can retain those students or provide them with an inclusive education, where the reading lists aren't problematic and limiting.

I am a Native author, and most of the Native literature professors I've met are white. Something about that rubs me the wrong way. I took a Native literature class once for a "Viewing the Wider World" credit in college, and at the time it was one of my favorite courses. It was my first experience with a reading list of Native writers; we saw some of them interviewed in person, and I realized it was a possibility that I could become an author myself. The teacher was white, and he did his best, which was enough for me back then. Now, looking back, I realize that the course had been treating Native work as a cultural artifact that told a story about that specific culture and nothing else; that our art was never simply art, but a relic that existed to teach future generations about Indians. The professor played us YouTube videos about creation stories, and students raised their hands to make eager observations about how all of the Native writers used "oral storytelling" as their foundation.

Yuck. Looking back, it disgusts me, because our art was reduced to a tourist trinket with a cool story behind it. The worst part about it is that it was mostly Natives in our class—because we wanted to read our own stories, and see people like ourselves creating art. This is not the exception to what students in higher education experience: These courses were created out of necessity, and sequestered—because they didn't want to include our texts in their normal literature courses.

Again, diversity fails us. Those institutions can't retain us or give us the education we deserve until they include us in their regular reading lists and welcome indigenous knowledge in the curriculum. When they stop centering Western thought, they will be able to provide an environment that isn't damaging to our psyches.

When my mother went to college, she took me, from a very young age. It's where I discovered poetry and the art of writing. The same things she griped about in the car ride home are the same things I gripe about today. We see what our parents went through as something from the past. We think things are better now—but when she was a student, I have no doubt people saw her as helping with the pie chart of diversity (diversity was an initiative during her time too). I wonder if this initiative is cyclical, like violence in families; I wonder if it is as invasive. I wonder how to break the cycle, and I find the answer is what I told the educators in the meeting: We need faculty who look like us, creating a more dynamic curriculum, including our work in reading lists beyond Native literature. We need more advisers who come from where we come from—we need more and more of them, until those institutions look nothing like they used to, until our inclusion isn't tokenized as fodder for a brochure—it's the norm.