Growing Pains 

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

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"If faculty and staff and administrators could understand the cultural differences, take a step back and look at things from our point of view, it would make a big difference in a lot of situations, instead of trying to force us to conform or assimilate and have us lose ourselves," Two Bulls says, adding, "We're not asking for special treatment. We're just asking for the understanding."

'We're still here'

As its Native student population grows and UM struggles to diversify its faculty, there's pressure to make the transition smooth.

This fall marked the start of the first Living Learning Community for Native students. The program, in which Two Bulls is a volunteer, tries to provide fellowship and community for incoming freshmen. The 14 students in the program this year are housed together on campus. They can meet peers, Two Bulls says, network with mentors and discuss any problems they might have adjusting.

But as with the Native American Center, Two Bulls says, the program needs to prove successful to validate its existence. The students "have to do well, they have to get good grades and they have to do well next semester. If they don't, all eyes are on us."

There's responsibility on all sides, says John. The students need to stand up, voice concerns clearly and realize their worth to the university. UM needs to welcome and encourage such behavior. Most of all, she says, UM needs to at least be willing to admit that it might not be doing the best job possible at times. "There's this belief that we're color-blind," she says. "That exists out here in Missoula, too. People want to believe that it's so accepting of diversity. Maybe on a superficial level, but I think at a deeper, meaningful level, no, it's not.

"The university has a wonderful opportunity," John continues. "They have access to Native students—Native students are coming to them. They have the opportunity to be on the [cutting] edge in the area of creating an environment that welcomes, respects and values many cultures. But they really have to want to do that."

There's an impressive body of academic literature on integrating Native views in Western institutions. It's not just about responding to allegations of racism or learning to accept other cultural values.

Scholars such as Betty Bastien, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet who teaches at the University of Calgary, and Gregory Cajete, a Tewa Indian and Native American Studies chair at the University of New Mexico, have emphasized for years the importance of recognizing that Native students come from a culture where education is based on a connection to the land. Native views of life and learning are circular, with a major goal being the transmission of culture to new generations. Entering the linear model of education—in other words, the model of UM and every mainstream, white-dominated institution in America—can be a shock to young adults who grow up in reservation environments. Linear, accomplishment-based thinking challenges their cultural identity and prods them to "act white."

click to enlarge At last years UM Rome exhibit, someone placed signs that played off the history of European conquest in North America. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • At last years UM Rome exhibit, someone placed signs that played off the history of European conquest in North America.

Short Bull understands that concept well, having worked to develop culture-based curricula for public schools on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Two Bulls gets it, too. Her parents have toured the country offering presentations on what they call the "Medicine Wheel Model" of teaching. The goal, Two Bulls says, is to introduce faculty and administrators at mainstream institutions to a Native worldview.

"Even your definition of being successful, that's a really big thing for me," she says. "My family really encourages me to do well and get good grades, but I'm at the point in my life where I'm grounded enough in my culture and grounded enough in myself where I know I don't need a degree to be successful, to say I'm educated. But I do know being at the university this long, there have been a lot of times I've felt like I have to have this degree in order to do anything in my life. It's created an imbalance in me where I've lost who I was."

The tribal college movement in the 1970s was built on the concept of integrating Native culture and education in the interest of preserving endangered aspects such as languages. Somehow, that didn't translate to mainstream colleges and universities, John says. Neither did the Civil Rights movement.

"It seems to me that the Civil Rights movement in the '60s and '70s made it to campuses for other oppressed groups—African Americans, Asian Americans, women," she says. "It didn't occur for the Native population. I think things died off after [Natives] took over Wounded Knee in South Dakota [in 1973]. It started to dissipate.

"Will it ever happen? I hope so."

Short Bull hopes it will, too, for her sake and for her two young sons. She says she's noticed a lot of Native students discussing the Occupy Wall Street movement on Facebook lately. Individuals who feel under-represented are finally beginning to act, she says.

Look at the Arab Spring in the Middle East, John says. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya—masses of revolutionaries have staged protests and demonstrations out of sheer frustration. John sees the desire for a voice bubbling to the surface there and wonders if it's time Native American students took a turn.

The Day of Dialogue panel largely avoided the topic of stereotypes. Comments regarding European conquest were presented with caution. Annie Belcourt briefly touched on the influence that centuries of us-versus-them and "kill the Indian" mentalities have had on Native senses of community and self. But Vernon Grant, a grad student in health and human performance and a member of the Blackfeet tribe, went straight for the jokes. He arrived late, having driven down from the Flathead Valley, and within minutes made a crack about running on "Indian time." Non-Natives in the audience chuckled uneasily.

Then he turned serious. "You see people who are badly defeated," he said. "I have a good friend who's Northern Cheyenne, and he told me about these guys who were researching a cure for alcoholism. They were fascinated by Indian people. They asked, 'How are you still here? How did you survive?'

"They asked elders, and the elders said, 'We pray for each other. We help each other.'"

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