More Schools Should
Support Community-oriented Indigenous Research Perspectives
Humetewa, a Hopi, made history last year as the first Native
American woman to serve as a federal judge. Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvliet,
a Navajo, was ranked in the Top
25 Women in Higher Education for becoming in 2007 the first
Native American president of a mainstream university, Antioch University
Zepeda, a Tohono O'odham, is a renowned poet and linguistics
expert. She is the author of the first book on the grammar of the
Tohono O'odham language. Her work is indispensible toward efforts
to revitalize Indigenous languages.
American graduates with the Pendelton blankets they received
from the Stanford University's Native American Cultural Centre.
Acquiring a postgraduate college degree was a crucial step toward
each of their legacies. But the odds of obtaining a Ph.D. are against
Native Americans. Of the 175,038 doctoral
degrees conferred in 2013, only 900 less than 1 percent
were earned by Natives (a group that includes American Indians
and Alaskan Natives). And while the national
enrollment rate in graduate and first-professional degrees has
increased over the past two decades by 57 percent, enrollment for
Natives in those same degrees fell 10 percent.
Higher education reports show
multiple barriers that inhibit degree attainment. Cultural alienation,
racism and discrimination, a lack of indigenous role models and
financial stresses all can be serious impediments to Native graduate
students completing their degrees.
I can attest to the accuracy of such reports. I was
fortunate to be one of eight Native graduate students in the University
of Arizona's Center for the Study of Higher Education something
of a rarity. But more often than not, students like me find themselves
the only Native person in their classes, department and discipline.
That feeling of isolation can be compounded by a sense of marginalization,
particularly if their research leads them away from the Eurocentric
methodological approaches that predominate the social sciences.
Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, sociology professors at
University of Pennsylvania and Duke University, assert in their
Logic, White Methods" that research methods rooted in white
ideologies from the racially motivated origins of statistics
and the eugenics movement to manipulating statistics to cast people
of color as the problem can oppress underrepresented populations'
approaches to research.
For example, Eurocentric methods rely on objectivity as the
standard norm in scientific inquiry. While objectivity has its place,
it can also close off sources of knowledge. Indigenous methods acknowledge
tribal cultural protocol, which are the actions that a person takes
to create a relationship with another person or group. Therefore,
to pursue research with individuals from tribal nations, creating
and fostering relationships with the people matter. As a researcher,
I do not attempt to distance myself from the people who share their
experiences with me, as Eurocentric methods would require. Rather,
over time our relationships often strengthen and I believe a deeper
awareness and understanding of experiences are revealed.
A holistic approach that includes
spiritual and cultural well being
is critical in supporting Native graduate and professional students.
Hearts," Theresa O'Nell, an anthropologist at the University
of Oregon, writes that because Native people often place high regard
on belonging within a community, "loneliness symbolizes the worst
fate that can befall an American Indian." In higher education, that
loneliness can manifest while utilizing Indigenous methodology in
research. With limited Indigenous scholars in the field, there were
times when I questioned my place as a scholar as I wondered whether
I was conducting research in a way that was respectful of tribal
From 2000 to 2010, the overall Native population increased
by 39 percent, while in contrast, conferred doctoral degrees stagnate
at less than 1 percent. Unless it is counteracted, this gap is likely
to widen over time. It poses the question, What are institutions
doing to increase and support Native students toward degree completion?
For one, we have to stop blaming students' lack of fortitude.
Researchers have traditionally characterized resiliency as an attribute
that can enable people to succeed in higher education, but Iris
HeavyRunner and Kathy Marshall developed the idea of cultural resilience,
which includes factors such as tribal identity and oral traditions.
When used pervasively, however, the concept
of resiliency can be problematic, because it suggests that if
Native students are not successful in college, it is because they
are not trying hard enough. This blames the individual rather than
structural barriers and a failed system.
Because Native peoples are severely underrepresented in higher
education, Stephanie Fryberg, an associate professor of American
Indian Studies at the University of Washington, claims they constitute
an "invisible" population, which can limit Native people's sense
of self and their possible future.
Secatero, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico
School of Education, asserts that a holistic approach that includes
spiritual and cultural well being is thus critical in supporting
Native graduate and professional students. For example, he found
that spiritual practices and a sense of purpose to serve Native
communities were powerful sources of motivation. Further, being
connected to a community of support, often with other Native graduate
students and Native faculty, relieved isolation and provided hope
that a doctorate was attainable.
Native Americans to Graduate From University of Minnesota
With Help of Shakopee Mdewakanton Scholarships
Increasing Native graduate student enrollment to college is
just one piece of the solution. We also need to advocate for more
Native faculty who can contribute to scholarship and Indigenous
methodologies. We need to provide a space for Native students to
share their perspectives, questions and concerns, which will help
find answers to increase their representation in higher education.
We must be attentive to the ingrained ideologies and systematic
structures that contribute to invisibility, isolation and overall
On May 18, 10
Pueblo Natives graduated from ASU with their Ph.D.'s, as part
of the first joint endeavor between ASU's School of Social Transformation
and Santa Fe Indian School's Leadership Institute. Their success,
which sparked a wave of joy and inspiration across Native communities
and beyond, should inspire all higher education institutions to
embark on similar initiatives. In this way we can ensure that we
are creating opportunities for Native people to build greater legacies
for our future.
Amanda R. Tachine is Navajo and received a Ph.D. at the University
of Arizona's Center for the Study of Higher Education in May 2015.
She is a Tucson public voices fellow with The
OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter: @atachine.
The OpEd Project's mission is to increase the range of voices and
quality of ideas we hear in the world. A starting goal is to increase
the number of women thought leaders in key commentary forums to
a tipping point. We envision a world where the best ideas - regardless
of where they come from - will have a chance to be heard, and to
shape society and the world.