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Becoming an Indigenous Ally

by on June 26, 2013

Tara Leigh Sands – Delaware Valley College

The NASPA Indigenous Knowledge Community has opened many doors for me as well as provided a great learning opportunity. However, one of the things I struggle with is my own identity when introducing people to the knowledge community. Many times when I talk about my KC involvement, I often get asked if I am Native. No, I am not. In fact, I am a White female. After this question, I wonder why that question is asked and what the assumption is behind the question. It has taken many reflections and work on a research team to confront some of the assumptions and to understand why this may be a question.

How did I become involved? A few years ago, I expressed interest to a professor with the desire to learn about Indigenous college students. I personally felt I had a weakness in my knowledge based, coming previously from an area near a reservation, and the thought that I should know about Indigenous students. My professor, who is Indigenous, invited me to serve on her research team. During this project, I had the opportunity to learn about Indigenous students transitions and challenges in higher education. Through this experience, I read literature and became frustrated regarding the lack of research. This frustration of mine was experienced by the research team as well. Our professor guiding us on the team, the only Indigenous person, asked us why did we get frustrated. We had assumed there would be literature out there. This assumption was based in the thought; of course, there is literature, there is literature on other groups. Through this experience, I became aware of the lack of programs, research, and awareness regarding Indigenous students. This awareness lead to a personal challenge to increase awareness and my professor referred me to the Indigenous Peoples Knowledge Community (IPKC). Through IPKC, I have had the opportunity to become involved and help create knowledge on Indigenous students. My own involvement led me to question why I am involved and how more non-Indigenous members can be involved.

Why?  I do not identify as Indigenous, but I do identify as an Indigenous supporter/ally. What this means to me, is that I support Indigenous college students both in research and practice. Additionally, I seek to educate others about Indigenous college students and increase understanding regarding their experiences in college. This comes both in research activities and in practice. However, one of the challenges I experience, is having others acknowledge yes I do have knowledge but I do not know everything. Why are you reaching out to me instead of reaching out to the Indigenous student or group on campus? An example of this occurred when I was asked what tribal/nation flag was correct for hanging in the Student Union, there were two options. I did not know and when I suggested they asked the student from the tribe/nation, the response was due to timing there is not enough time. I brought up my lack of knowledge and how upset I would be if the flag was incorrect. The assumption was I knew everything. So yes, I am an ally but I do not know everything and feel Indigenous students and staff should be included into these conversations and not pushed to the corner due to my own limited knowledge. Furthermore, I become frustrated at the lack of awareness of their experiences and the assumptions that people have regarding Indigenous students. I seek to challenge these assumptions. At conferences, I state how and why I have become involved and my own role as an ally. I appreciate the experience I have been given to serve in my leadership role and seek to further increase my own knowledge and understanding on Indigenous students.

So how, can you become an Indigenous ally? Attend programs on Indigenous college students. Many times at Indigenous presentations it is often the same members attending and contributing to the conversation. By allies attending, the conversation can have a larger impact and increase awareness. Ask questions both to staff and students. There is a need to understand Indigenous students’ experiences and how they might differ due to religious practices. Look around the campus and office, are they welcoming to Indigenous students. Learn, learn, and learn. Read the research. However, remember that you are not Native and may not have the correct answers but are willing to learn and share. Lastly, become involved by sharing knowledge and of course joining the Indigenous Peoples Knowledge Community (IPKC).

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