Native American students’ alliance to combat institutional invisibility

Vassar’s website advertises the Class of 2016 as the most selective and diverse class in the College’s history. Out of 660 students, 107 are Asian, 69 are Black and 63 are Latino—given these sizable numbers it is plain that, within this data, which is deemed the apex of Vassar’s multiplicity of racial identities, there remains only one Native American student.

In attempts to remedy this disparity, Kaitlin Reed ’14, a Native American Studies correlate, is in the early stages of developing a Native American Students’ Alliance within the ALANA Center, which will begin with a free dinner on April 29 to solicit ideas from interested students.

“The ’NA’ in ALANA is supposed to stand for Native American yet I feel there really isn’t a presence on campus. I wanted there to be some kind of reminisces of a Native American alliance before I graduated,” said Reed.

Though she admits that there is a very small number of Native American students on campus, Reed maintains such a minority does not excuse the group’s underrepresentation and the general lack of awareness she feels surrounds native issues.

“Students on this campus, I don’t think, get any kind of foundation [in native issues] unless they take the Intro to Native American Studies class. Not everyone is able to take that class, but I think everyone on this campus should leave learning something about the people who lived here before them. It is these people’s demise that enabled us to have our picket fences and backyards,” Reed said. Part of the problem, Reed maintained, is an academic one; Reed believes the isolated nature of the department can often serve to perpetuate misconceptions about indigenous culture.

She said, “I think native studies need to be ingrained into more than that department. I think that isolating the subject in such a way makes it into a spectacle rather than having indigenous issues being made a foundational component to multiple courses. It could be incorporated in the Geography department, Women’s Studies, Political Science. I think the campus as a whole has a responsibility to represent an underrepresented area of study,” said Reed.

Hannah Ellman ‘14, an American Studies major, agreed, stating, “While it seems that the number of Native American studies students is growing, I feel as though much of my conversations with students about my focus of study require me to explain ‘why’ or ‘what the point is’ of focusing on something as obscure as Native American studies. While the department and classes themselves provide a wonderfully challenging, open, and thought-provoking space for me and other students, I wish the department received more attention both from Vassar Colege in general and from the student body.”

Professor of English and Native Studies Molly McGlennen echoed both students’ concerns though she said that the department has still come a long way since she worked on bringing it into existence in 2006.

McGlennen said, “We’ve definitely created a presence, though it is still small. It’s gaining a lot of ground and there is a lot of student interest—the courses are always full and it is definitely growing.”

However, McGlennen is part of an extremely small circle of professors who specializes in Native American studies. Reed said, “It’s definitely a problem that we only have one main professor. It also speaks to the societal indivisibility of Native Americans in academia as a whole—it’s hard to find a Native American.”

She continued, “We need Native American teachers teaching in the History Department, Political Science Department, across the scope, We need to assert indigenous issues in the main stream academia. I think that that’s just one of the perks of creating a native student space.”

McGlennen echoed these sentiments, stating that the major problem for Native American students on campus is that of visibility, an issue which remains a direct result of colonization.

She said, “In most people’s consciousness, indigenous peoples are associated with the southwest, but not with New England. Indigenous peoples populate all parts of the hemispheres and the globe, though in North America, Native peoples are less visible given the process of colonization and how it targeted tribes for extinction to open up land and resources.”

McGlennen continued, “For a variety of reasons, we’re not identifiably read as ‘indigenous.’ Often, we are only read and understood as stereotypical and/or extinct.”

The problem of personal identification is one which Reed finds particularly resonant. Native American, she said, is an identity which people constantly feel the need to challenge. “We read this book [in class] which said that Native American is the only race where people will tell you that you’re not. My family moved to South Dakota which was a predominantly Sioux area and I don’t look Sioux, so people would tell me I’m white,” said Reed.

Central to the issue is people’s conception of tradition and how it pertains to Native Americans. McGlennen said, “In western ideology, it’s as if Native peoples are some kind of stalled out race of peoples within the evolutionary hierarchy.  In this mainstream ideology, you have to be a “primitive” person, wearing a headdress or regalia, someone who knows a Native language and is from a reservation. This reductive narrative is difficult to unsettle.”

Reed noted that these stereotypes have the potential to make students feel as though their identity has been invalidated. She said, “It’s easy for someone to discredit part of your identity. It drastically affects the way you think of yourself especially as a student if you look white, you go to a public school, you live in a suburb—you’re not native.”

This phenomenon, McGlennen said, is symptomatic of a larger preoccupation which plagues America at large—and Vassar is not exempt.“Americans in general have this obsession with categorizing people because of what they think they should look like. The Vassar community is no exception. In addition to being a student group for people who identity as Native American, I would hope that this group will help bring about broader conversations about non-Native’s miseducation through misinformation that often replaces or writes over Native peoples’ stories,” said McGlennen.

For this reason, Reed encourages students who may not have considered Native American as part of their identity before to get in touch with that part of their background. However, even with all of these students, the alliance would still be a small one without the incorporation of a fundamental component—its allies.

Of these allies is Ellman. She said, “My ally-ship will be grounded in a deep form of self-awareness. I plan to work continuously to understand, to the best of my ability, the experience of Native students on this campus, to push for Native American issues and peoples to be, if not at the forefront of Vassar’s consciousness, at least a noticeable topic of conversation.”

Ellman added, “I would highly encourage other nonnative students who are invested in the goals of this alliance to be a part of it. Come to this dinner and even just listen to the conversation, the goals of the Native students, and the effective ways that you can help support the growth of the alliance.”

Hopefully, McGlennen said, such enthusiasm will foster growth in Native Students in upcoming years and the number of Native students will become far greater than just one

McGlennen concluded, “The next step, I think is now that we’ve created an institutional home or space, the next step is to think about the ways we are attentive to or not attentive to recruiting native American students. Part of that is the retention of those students. One of those ways I think is creating a space where people feel comfortable, who are like minded, where they can come and be together. ALANA seems like that’s the space.”

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