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"Being American Indian isn't about how you look or dress," said Annie Belcourt, a professor of pharmacy practice at UM and one of the session's five Native panelists. "Sometimes it's how you act. But it's also not something you can choose to be on a given day."
Belcourt had cut straight to the question of what Indian identity isn't. What it is, she said, is a constellation of social, political and epistemological views.
That answer varied greatly among the panelists. For graduate student Kevin Kicking Woman, who grew up in foster homes on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, the image of identity was best conjured as a tree. "What does a tree need?" he asked. "Roots."
Julie Cajune, an educator on the Flathead Indian Reservation, observed that "American Indians get the unique experience of being asked to validate our ethnic identity, our 'Indian-ness,'" while her identity is derived from the historic belief that her people belong to the land; Cajune grew up in her mother's community, the Salish tribe, who refer to themselves as the "flesh of the land."
Belcourt is Blackfeet on her father's side, Mandan and Hidatsa on her mother's side, making her a blend of vastly different backgrounds. But there was a common theme to her personal definition of identity that was echoed by the rest of the panel. "We as Native people are home," she said. "We have always been home. This land is our home, and it's important to our sense of community."
For some Native students, it can be the distance or disconnection from their communities that stands in the way of higher education. Many grew up on reservations surrounded by extended families. UM presents a thoroughly modern, Western world by comparison—a place where they can easily feel lost. American Indians may be the largest ethnic minority on campus, but they're still a minority, and small in numbers.
There were 37 Native freshmen at UM at the beginning of the 1991 fall semester. In 2007, there were 45. Total freshman enrollment in that period went from 1,303 to 1,662.
Retention has been a problem for Native students. According to the latest figures from the Consortium for Student Retention Data Exchange, Native retention after one year at UM has dipped, with occasional rebounds, from 67 percent in 1991 to 50 percent in 2006. Meanwhile, retention after two years had increased from 35 percent in 1991 to nearly 43 percent in 2005—although one should note in both cases that the samples are small.
The challenge for Native students isn't just in making their way to UM, Short Bull says. It's also in finding enough support and community to stay there. "I know a lot of Blackfeet students that go home every weekend," she says. "That's four hours one way, and they do that every weekend. It has to be a pretty strong commitment to come here to begin with. But to make it through? It's a lot of sacrifice."
The new Native American Center has at least given Native students a place to gather. The former home of the Native American Studies Program, the tiny house on Arthur Avenue, was hardly noticeable and lacking meeting space. Laura John says that in the Arthur Avenue days, it seemed as though Native students were shadows who only emerged fully for the Pow Wow—or when someone broke teepee poles outside the building. Now Native students have a place where they can study together and share accomplishments or frustrations.
John says she was recently reminded of how the new center has remedied some of the rootlessness Native students once felt on campus. She was talking to people in her building about issues she'd faced in her department. Other students began to share stories, she says. "One student—I think a freshman student—was describing an experience of sitting on the Oval under a tree reading for class. Two female Caucasian students were walking by where she was sitting, and one says to the other, 'There are so many Native students here. It makes me want to transfer.'"
The new center is a refuge as well as a work of art and a new landmark. Provost Perry Brown says it represents the administration's dedication to accommodating Native students, and, he adds, it's the only one of its kind in the country.
Kathryn Shanley, a Native American Studies professor and Brown's assistant on issues of Native education, says UM is making headway. "The university's made great strides with the Native American Center and with, now, two full-time positions in American Indian student support. I've seen some fabulous strides made by the university in 12 years."
But the center has also seen a few cultural dust-ups, like the incident with the Rome display. And Native students are quick to pick up on subtle cues from non-Native classmates and faculty. Many have been exposed to what John calls a "colonized mentality" on reservations since they were young. They've seen family members try to resist an oppressive system and gain nothing. White-dominated mainstream institutions can perpetuate that colonization model by unintentionally forcing Native students to subscribe to a Western model of behavior. The students have a hard time voicing their concerns, John says, because "we're coming from communities where we've been taught it doesn't matter if you stand up...Or if it does, look at the Cobell case: fifteen years and still not resolved?"
John is referring to the suit brought by Eloise Cobell on behalf of many Native Americans, which was settled by the federal government in 2009. Plaintiffs still have not seen any money.
"What does that do to someone's psyche?" she asks.
'Not a whole lot of brown faces'
UM's Diversity Strategic Plan—an evolving document aimed at addressing the needs of underrepresented minorities—includes a lengthy list of short- and long-term goals. One of the most telling, and most critical, is diversifying UM's faculty and staff. "There's not a whole lot of brown faces as far as staff and faculty go," Short Bull says.
Native student enrollment may be up but the number of Native faculty available to those students remains low.
"If you don't come here with a support system already in place, if you don't come here being able to maintain relationships at home, that's pretty hard," Short Bull continues.