Mistrust of education is rife among Native Americans, says Cynthia Lindquist, president of Cankdeska Cikana (Little Hoop) Community College, in Fort Totten, N.D.
“Education was used to force assimilation in an organized government fashion," she notes. “There’s that whole Great White Father myth that we live with, and educated Indians are sometimes seen as ‘thinking they’re better’ than reservation Indians.”
Some leaders at mainstream academic institutions believe that understanding Indian culture and political status may play a crucial approach in getting more Native American students to attend colleges and universities. The population currently has the lowest college graduation rates of all student groups in the U.S.
Many Native Americans have learned about historical injustices from family members and community elders, some of whom were required to attend boarding schools during the 19th and 20th centuries. At such schools, Indians were forced by their teachers to forget about their own unique cultures and languages.
Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the California State University System, says that in the university's broad effort to attract more students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups,  one of the biggest challenges it has faced is “working with Native Americans the way Native Americans want to be worked with.” With more than 80 federally recognized tribes in his state alone, Reed says, each tribe has unique interests, so university officials don’t anticipate results overnight.
“But we have to do better,” says Reed. “And we will do whatever we have to do to improve the numbers.” There are about 2,850 students who identify as Indian in the Cal State system, which enrolls 406,000 students over all. According to U.S. Census data, about 200,000 Native Americans live in California.
In recent months, Reed has asked that presidents throughout the Cal State system work with him to hold educational strategy meetings with tribal leaders and Indian officials throughout the state. In the first of such meetings this year, Reed attended a tribal council gathering, in which many leaders told him it was essential for non-Indian educators to grasp the concept of tribal sovereignty. The Constitutionally rooted concept means that Indians have a unique legal status that calls for government officials to work directly with tribal governments.
One person who has helped hammer that point home to Reed is Cyndi LaMarr, executive director of Capitol Area Indian Resources, an academic assistance group for Indian youth in Sacramento. She says that because Native Americans have a unique political and legal status in the U.S. Constitution and in state treaties, Cal State should be looking for ways to legally challenge Proposition 209 on behalf of Indian students.
Although Proposition 209, which was passed by voter referendum in 1996, barred public agencies and entities from using affirmative action, many Indian leaders say that the Constitutional amendment should not stop public institutions from providing Indians special affirmative action-like educational assistance. LaMarr says it should be the job of the state-supported Cal State campuses to help dramatically increase the numbers of Indians in higher education, and believes that all institutions in California, including Cal State, should start special programs for Indian students. She’d ultimately like to see free tuition offered to all Indian students in California to lessen the financial burden for an overwhelmingly poor population.
Reed, who says the argument makes sense to him, has the university's lawyers looking into this issue. “We hadn’t thought about Proposition 209 for several years,” he notes. “I can see the rationale for what tribal leaders are saying in that state governments do have a certain obligation to work with native peoples.”
Michael Hanitchak, director of the Native American Program at Dartmouth College, says many Indian students are rooted in cultural and political traditions that may be foreign to many higher education leaders. He says that Dartmouth leaders go to reservations throughout the year, in conjunction with recruiting teams from Harvard University, Stanford University, Cornell University and other institutions.
“Our most successful strategy has been to have continued relationships with a specific tribe, like the Navajo Nation,” says Hanitchak. “We visit there often and become a known entity. In turn, we become a safe choice for applicants and their families. Native people tend to go where they know and trust folks.”
Hanitchak says that recruiting for Native American students should vary depending on an institution’s geographic location. His own institution has often looked West because there are not as many Indian students near Dartmouth, compared to other areas of the United States. “We don’t have a predominant local tribe, whereas, a place like the University of Arizona does,” he notes.
Shelly Lowe, a graduate education program facilitator at Arizona, says that she finds it useful to conduct recruiting at Indian professional conferences, like the annual meeting of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, and at tribal colleges and universities.
“We know we need to recruit in tribal communities,” says Lowe. Soon, the university plans to begin an advertising campaign in specific tribal newspapers and in the Tribal College Journal, in an effort to help get the word out about the doctoral program in American Indian studies offered by the university, one of the only such programs in the nation.
Lindquist, of Little Hoop, notes that many Indian students find it convenient to attend one of the nation’s approximately 35 tribal colleges because they are near their reservations, and put culture and language learning before traditional academics. Her own institution is chartered by the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation. She says she’s working hard to track where students go after graduating from the two-year institution, so that the college and tribal government can eventually attract them back to work in the community.
Lowe, despite forming bonds with reservations near the University of Arizona, says she finds it especially difficult to recruit Indian graduate students. “There are financial barriers and a lot of them have families and don’t want to leave their communities,” she says.
According to Lowe, the university tries to let students know that upon finishing their degrees, they can return to their tribal communities to mentor younger people and to help aid in health, law, government and other tribal affairs. “We also try to connect them with tribal communities through their learning efforts, through research and other projects,” she says.
Nationwide, Lowe says she’s happy to see the discipline of American Indian studies growing at institutions like the University of North Dakota. She would also like more institutions to pursue Native American faculty to provide mentors for Indian students on all campuses.
Lowe says Reed should keep tribal sovereignty at the forefront when reaching out to tribes. Sometimes tribal governments have special grants or scholarships that they can offer students -- especially for the few tribes that have casinos -- so student affairs officers would be wise to look into these programs to entice students, adds Lowe.
Reed says he is committed to “hooking on” to more Indian events throughout the state to help build trust. In October, he and several Cal State presidents plan to attend a gathering of tribal leaders at one of the Cal State campuses. “I know that we have to sustain this effort,” he says. “We have to keep listening to them on their grounds.”
LaMarr, for one, believes Reed’s efforts are going beyond the lip service that she says many politicians and other leaders often provide on Indian issues. “You really have to acknowledge the fact that we have a chancellor who is ready to pursue outreach,” she says. “We’ve been told that things will improve for so long that sometimes we get too skeptical. “But I think something good will happen this time.”