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KC Wednesday: Combating the Indigenous Stereotypes on Campus

by on January 23, 2013

Our latest KC Wednesday post comes to us from the Indigenous People’s Knowledge Community and is authored by Tara Leigh Sands, Residential Coordinator at the University of Rochester and Region II’s representative to the KC.

Indigenous people of today combat stereotypes both in the media and within research. In the media there are the portrayals of Indigenous people which are inaccurate and misrepresent. Within the research, it is not a stereotype as much as an exclusion from the data. How can we as student affairs practitioners and researchers support Indigenous students in higher education settings deal with these inaccuracies? The first step is to recognize our own identities and how we can use them to become allies. Additionally, there is a need to understand how the media (news, movies, fashion, etc.) are showing Indigenous people and their culture, and if these representations are accurate or based off stereotypes. With this recognition, we can increase awareness with student groups when advising to steer away from the stereotypes. Furthermore, when reading research pay attention to who is in the study and who is excluded. In a large majority of research Indigenous students are excluded due to the small “n” in quantitative research. Recognizing each of these can lead to an increase in awareness and support for Indigenous students on campus.

Being an ally is important for Indigenous students, but how does this look and who knows are crucial questions to be aware of and we need to know the answer. Allies are crucial with only 1% of college students being Indigenous and the lack of knowledge regarding the confusing racial and political aspects of Indigenous identity. I am an ally for Indigenous students and have participated in Indigenous higher education research; however this has lead to an interesting challenge for me. This challenge comes not from the students but from other professionals. I am asked often about the different tribes and nations. While I share what I know, I remind people of how many different traditions there are and each tribe and nation may be different. When one of these conversations occurred, I shared it with an Indigenous individual on campus, who reminded me, that my own privilege placed me as a knowledge giver over someone from the Indigenous community. Recognizing my privilege has allowed me to understand how I can be a better and supportive ally in the future. Being an ally has also made me more aware of the inaccuracies seen in the media and the missing population in research.

The media adds fuel to the inaccuracy and stereotypes on Indigenous people. A recent example of this occurred at the Victoria Secret fashion show with a model wearing a headdress. Indigenous attire or regalia have special meanings behind each article and with a non-Indigenous person wearing an item with no notion of its meaning within Indigenous culture it becomes an insult. Victoria Secret did issue an apology and stated they did not intend to offend. However, they are not the only fashion company at fault, others have had powwow theme shows in the past. Another recent example that has fueled stereotypes and is racially insensitive occurred at the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia, PA on Jan. 1, 2013, when one of the string bands dressed in Indigenous theme regalia and darkened their faces. A key point of this revolves around the fact that wearing blackface was outlawed by the parade in 1964 but redface is still acceptable. Other examples include movies (the new Lone Ranger) and sport teams. Recognizing Indigenous students are facing these challenges and may be upset with them, can lead to an opportunity for a program to share with the campus. Use these opportunities to share knowledge.

Finally, there is a need to understand the research on higher education tends to exclude Indigenous students. This exclusion stems from quantitative research and the small population size of Indigenous students on campus and is seen as an asterisk within the study. The asterisk normally implies, due to the small “n” indigenous students were statistically insignificant and were excluded from the study and results. By this exclusion, the research may not be applicable to Indigenous students. Recognizing this practitioners and researchers should seek knowledge on Indigenous students and learn about their development and higher education journey. One resource that discusses this issue will be published March 2013 called Beyond the Asterisk: Understanding Native Students in Higher Education.

Recognizing these issues and understanding the history behind the stereotypes can lead to an increase in support and awareness for Indigenous students. We need to know about Indigenous students and what programs/services are provided to them on campus. While they are a small percentage of the population in higher education, what is the percentage on your campus? If you advise student groups, do you have groups that want to have a powwow or Indian theme event? What does the educational moment look like? Being aware of these issues and advising on them can lead to a more inclusive environment for Indigenous students. As practitioners we should be increasing our own knowledge and questioning these stereotypes when we see them. By doing this we become supportive advisors and allies to the Indigenous students on campus.

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