Outside looking in 

UM proposes Office of American Indian Support Services

In Spokane’s downtown and outer suburbs, they called her a stupid Indian or a poor Indian and, for those who knew her blood, a fat Eskimo. One day, unannounced, a professor from the University of Montana showed up at her inner-city high school to recruit her. He had walked down some unfriendly streets just to talk with Tara Dowd. She was flattered. She was not completely sold, not right away, but she had been on the fence about college. She needed the encouragement, she says, and the professor’s tactic worked. She would attend UM. A lot of white blood flowed through Montana, she knew, and she expected racism. But she also reasoned that people were smarter at an institution of higher learning, and the level of ignorance lower.

“I hung onto that myth for a couple of weeks,” Dowd says.

The myth collapsed like a sand castle licked by a wave. Her English 101 class was discussing an essay. She doesn’t quite remember whether it was written by a slave or about a slave. But she clearly remembers a classmate’s comment: “When are we going to get over this slavery thing?”

“When he said that,” says Dowd, “I wasn’t floored, because it didn’t surprise me, but it gave me a clue of what I was going to have to deal with the rest of my years here.”

The English professor did not say one word in reply, Dowd says. So she did. And she has been inserting—forcing—her perspective into the classroom ever since. For her outspokenness, Dowd considers herself an anomaly. Many of her Native classmates, she says, will not challenge authority; their religion and ingrained respect for elders, she says, bind them to silence. So they witness narrow, even racist statements and perspectives go unchecked, and they disengage within the first two weeks of school, she says.

Bill Old Chief, former chairman of the Blackfeet, says the Blackfeet sent 35 students to UM last year. At the end of the year, he says, between seven and ten remained.

Patrick Weasel Head, a UM consultant, describes the drop-out rate for Native students as “drastic.” Many students, he says, last two semesters.

Earlier this year, UM touted its record number of American Indian students. Like Dowd, they are smartly, diligently recruited. Then, many become casualties of a system that longs for and seduces diversity and then squelches that which makes it so.

The phenomenon is called, in hushed tones, “cloning,” and referred to as the “assimilation model,” aka the cookie-cutter method. These are bad words in the academic environment. They aren’t attributed; no professor is directly faulted. But students aren’t oblivious. They know.

“We were told [that] to be successful, we have to strip ourselves of our culture, our identity, our history,” says Old Chief, who is now completing a business degree.

In January, UM will get its first look at a blueprint for change: a proposal for an Office of American Indian Support Services.

“An important point,” says Barbara Hollmann, vice president of student affairs, “is that establishing this office is a piece of the puzzle, but doesn’t solve everything.” What the office can provide is infrastructure and faculty and staff education. It cannot bleach away dirty attitudes. “You’re going to have individual people within the university that are still going to do and say ugly things,” says Hollmann, but “you keep chipping away at it.”

Cultural disregard is not always overt. Professors don’t always send the message directly or maliciously. Instead, it manifests itself in an absence of action. For example, in the way teachers lead class discussions. Unless a leader invites them to speak, Dowd says, many American Indians will withhold their opinion and refrain from questioning an authority figure. The behavior exemplifies a respect and humility, she says, intrinsic to their culture. Old Chief gave up these traits in one class. In their place, he says, he adopted arrogance and boastfulness, because he had learned that his success in the institution was dependent upon setting aside his Blackfeet values. Beyond the borders of campus, though, he knows people are recognizing the value of diversity.

On campus, students are talking about it. The idea for the proposed office began after Hollmann listened to some American Indian and international students talk with the Diversity Advisory Council last year.

“I got the sense in listening to the students,” she says, “that they felt marginalized and not as welcome on campus as I had hoped and wanted them to feel.” She collected about two dozen people who met and talked about the retention of Native students. In August, Hollmann and President George Dennison pooled funds to hire Weasel Head. He was charged with discovering how to foster an educational environment that would better retain the Indian students. The proposal is almost complete.

“I’m going to try to have it in the president’s hand by January,” says Weasel Head, interim director of the office. “Whether it’s funded or accepted will be left to the administration.”

What Weasel Head found when he looked around campus, he said, were pockets of helpful programs, but no coordination. He saw some faculty and staff working hard to make UM a welcoming place for diverse peoples, but many worked in isolation. Part of the proposed office’s function would be to network the existing support—mentoring, diversity forums, grant-writing—and then offer a centralized office where the students could take advantage of what is available, but often not visible.

The seeds for change were planted about eight years ago, says David Strobel, dean of the graduate program. “We began to find people around the campus that understood the value of diversity,” he says. They held meetings, wrote grants, started to build transitional pipelines from community colleges to the university.

“We are not an institution that is fumbling,” says Strobel. “There are some of the faculty that can break away and see we’re not the only culture, we’re not the only perspective, we’re not the only way of seeing things.”

By bringing diversity to a university that has been “pretty isolated,” students begin to understand that the real world is a mixture of viewpoints and value systems that don’t always reflect one’s own. “This world is changing,” says Old Chief, but “this system, I don’t believe has changed in 45, 50 years. It still represents the white, Anglo-Saxon.”

It was the white, Anglo-Saxon government that shortchanged his tribe and his people of an economy, of a culture, and of land. The Blackfeet live on land, he says, that was supposed to be their graveyard.

If diversity is to succeed at UM, he says, upper management and faculty should take a class he likes to call Indian 101. The curriculum could include, for instance, the fact that in some cultures, direct eye contact can be perceived as a threat. Or a lesson on “Indian time,” which means, he says, that you can set a meeting time, but “some of those elders, you’ll find they’ll show up when they’re good and ready.” It isn’t that he’s trying to impose his values. It’s that he’s seen his people sacrifice enough. And he knows UM is capable of lavishing extra attention on groups it chooses to target. He’s seen other recipients.

“I observe the athletes. There are concessions that are made for these individuals. If they fail in the classroom,” says Old Chief, “then the University of Montana fails on the field.”

Professors should invest the same attention in Indian students, he says.

And some, like Penny Kukuk, do. Patrick Calf Looking, a graduate student in microbiology, was awarded a fellowship. Then, he was diagnosed with leukemia. “I was on my death bed almost,” he says. In his Seattle hospital room, the phone rang. It was Kukuk. “She says, ‘Pat, do you still want to come back to school?’

“‘The way I’m feeling right now? Penny, give me a year to think about it.’” She gave him two years. She held his fellowship when she could have given it to another student. He is in remission and has almost completed his master’s.

Kukuk is an anomaly. Strobel explains why. Ironically, at a learning institution that should be open to new ideas and fresh thinking, the unconscious sociological impulse is for faculty to protect knowledge, he says. So instead of seeking out the deviation, exploring the odd perspective or reaching to understand the different thought, professors clone. And cultural change comes ever so slowly.

There is another factor outside the university. Weasel Head mentions it with a caveat: “I might get burned for this one.” He thinks the academic bar might be lower at the community colleges. A top student came to UM from the Blackfeet Community College, one of seven tribal colleges in Montana, and quickly turned around and went back. “It’s our role, and it ought to be our role,” he says, “to do a one-on-one follow-up with that person and say, ‘What happened?’”

If the proposal is funded, UM could implement exit interviews, one-on-one mentoring, diversity education, and additional scholarships from grant-writing. The proposal will request between $100,000 and $150,000 for a director, coordinator, and support staff, plus supplies and travel.

If this program gets money, says Hollmann, it would likely come from a reallocation of funds, “and nobody likes to hear that.” Something else gets cut.

In the meantime, the Indian students seek an education at an institution that often stifles their points of view. Tara Dowd is one. Occasionally, she bends in order to survive: “It is not in my culture to deal with that, so I have to change my thinking.” She will continue to work within a curriculum that marginalizes her perspective. She will endure until May because, she says, she, too, is an anomaly, an Indian woman who is outspoken. She tries not to speak in anger, she says, but she does speak with fire. “It is a white privilege to not speak out,” says Dowd.

It may be not with malice, but in complacency, that the UM professors smother the differences they seek. “The most power that some people have,” says Strobel, “is to be passive.”

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