Growing Pains 

The University of Montana and its Native American students are getting closer, even as they remain worlds apart

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Native faculty and staff can be more than an administrative representation of a campus minority. They can be role models for Native students struggling to overcome cultural disconnection, Short Bull says—role models who come from similar backgrounds and can relate better to what those students face. As it is, with so few at UM and so many Native students, the Native faculty are swamped. New professors are needed to balance new student figures.

"If we're going to continue to diversify the student body, we're going to have to...provide more mentors," Brown says. "But it's going to take enhancing the faculty to really make that happen."

The pool of Native and Native Alaskan graduates with Ph.D.s is one of the smallest in the country. Nationwide, Native Americans are 0.9 percent of the population and 0.4 percent of college faculty.

Brown says UM has teamed up with institutions in the Pacific Northwest such as Washington State University, Oregon State University and Montana State University to recruit Native doctoral graduates. The universities intend to hire from one another's graduate pools. "That will help us diversify—in the Native American arena, anyway—significantly," Brown says.

click to enlarge Last December, someone placed paper teepees and plastic Indian figurines on a scale model of Rome that was displayed in the UM Native American Center. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Last December, someone placed paper teepees and plastic Indian figurines on a scale model of Rome that was displayed in the UM Native American Center.

UM says it also plans to hire a second staffer in its Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Office, who would work solely on recruitment and retention of minority faculty.

Such longer-range plans are easily overshadowed by some of the immediate concerns voiced by Native students. Short Bull recently spearheaded a petition, for example, aimed at getting a Native faculty member with a Ph.D. in science appointed to the search committee for a new director for the Native American Lab, which gives Native students space for scientific research.

A small group of students had already persuaded the administration to put a Native student from the Sloan Scholars program on the search committee. The petition included a list of professors from other institutions that the authors felt were qualified, since UM has only two Native Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) faculty. They submitted it to Brown's office in late September. Brown emailed a response shortly afterward with the name of a Native scientist who'd been appointed to the committee. It was not one of the names suggested by the petition's authors.

Brown says it was always UM's intention to include a Native STEM faculty member on the committee. "The petition reinforced something I'd already made a decision about," he says.

Short Bull and her fellow petitioners felt they didn't have a voice in the process, and that UM's response at times was at best half-hearted. "It just seems like we've gotten a lot of lip service, a lot of double talk," she says.

"We're here to get our educations, so at some point we have to focus on getting our coursework done," she continues. The three petition authors "are parents. Only one of us has a partner, so the other two of us are single parents—the primary writers of the petition. This has already eaten up a lot of our time and energy. They demonstrated their lack of concern about our issues [by] the way that they responded to us."

Such deeper, subtler misunderstandings appear to be where UM suffers most as it tries to bridge cultural gaps. Blatant racism is easier to address than varying perceptions of marginalization or cultural insensitivity.

Short Bull recalls being in a cultural resource management class not long ago. The professor was discussing Native origin stories and referred to "mythical people" in the creation beliefs that are the theological foundation of many Native peoples. The professor used words such as "myths" and "legends" for characters in those creation stories, she says, and that gave her pause.

click to enlarge Krystal Two Bulls, a six-year senior in social work, helps Native freshmen adjust to campus as part of the first Native Living Learning Community at UM. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Krystal Two Bulls, a six-year senior in social work, helps Native freshmen adjust to campus as part of the first Native Living Learning Community at UM.

"It seems Christianity is pretty well accepted, and the use of the word 'God' on our money and in other places is common. So it's kind of belittling to use that language about people or beings that [Natives] have, for generations, felt and believed are very much real and alive."

John says she's had similarly subtle brushes with the disparity between Western thinking and Native views. She once attended a board game night hosted by several classmates. When she arrived, she says, they were in the midst of playing "Settlers of Catan," a popular German game that John noticed was "about colonizing an island...Boy did that make me feel uncomfortable. So in my awkwardness, I made a joke out of it. Then I think it dawned on everyone there, and it changed the whole mood. [And I thought] 'Oh shit. Here I am, the representative person of color here. Let me rain on your parade.' It's a tough situation to be in. What's the alternative?...Act white. Don't bring up those things if they come up in a group, because...you're going to be, like, 'I'm not going to get invited anymore.'"

Krystal Two Bulls, a sixth-year senior in the social work program, believes the solution is simple: Faculty, staff, administrators and students need to be open-minded about the cultural differences of Native Americans. For example, the definition of family is much more inclusive in Indian Country. Adopted or extended family members are equally as important as immediate blood relatives. Two Bulls was born Oglala Lakota in South Dakota, but grew up in Lame Deer. She returned home recently for three family-related emergencies. One was a funeral for her grandfather—not a blood grandfather, but an adopted one whom she'd grown up with her whole life. She missed an economics exam, and her professor questioned the legitimacy of her absence. Such instances occasionally make her dread coming back to school after a trip home, she says.

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