Displacement has characterized the Native American experience for hundreds of years. This threat extends beyond the reservation, however, as University of Wisconsin-Madison students are still impacted by a lack of university support and a need for deeper community understanding.
As a freshman, Faith Bowman walked miles across campus without catching sight of another brown person. Left wondering where other Native Americans were hiding at a university built on Ho-Chunk land, Bowman said without a community she felt lost.
“Native students have been displaced for far too long,” Bowman said. “Both historically and just on this campus.”
Coming from Milwaukee, Bowman said she was able to assimilate to college more easily than other Native American students who come from small towns or reservations, but she still struggled to find a home on campus. Bowman’s mother is a part of the Stockbridge-Munsee community and Bowman is considered a descendant who was born on the reservation but raised in the city. It was not until the second semester of Bowman’s freshman year that a non-Native graduate student told her about Wunk Sheek, one of UW-Madison’s Native American student organizations, and Bowman found a community.
Bobbi Skenandore, a UW-Madison alumna from Chicago who is a member of Oneida Nation in Wisconsin, had a similar experience. She said as a student unaffiliated with any of UW-Madison’s scholarship programs, she came to campus not knowing what resources were available to her. After her first semester, she wondered if UW-Madison was the right decision, but met another Native student second semester who helped her get involved in Alpha Pi Omega, UW-Madison’s Native American sorority.
While finding the Native American community on campus makes student life easier, miseducation about and disrespect toward Native American culture can make four years at UW-Madison difficult.
Recruitment and retention
The summer before her freshman year, Bowman’s mother wanted her to consider attending UW-Milwaukee instead of UW-Madison, so she convinced Bowman to attend the other university’s orientation. Bowman said there was a stark difference between UW-Milwaukee’s orientation and the UW-Madison orientation she went to a week later. At UW-Milwaukee, an adviser pulled Bowman aside to show her all of the Native American resources on campus and encouraged Bowman to call her “aunty.”
“For students like me, there is that serious concern of if they will find their place on campus and if they will feel welcome to a point that they will graduate.”Bobbi SkenandoreBowman said she wished UW-Madison worked harder to reach out to its Native community earlier so students like her would not have to struggle until they found it on their own. UW-Madison created the position of American Indian campus and community liaison two years ago in an effort to reach out to the Native community.
Nichole Boyd, who took the position, said it is difficult to meet the needs of more than 400 undergraduate and graduate Native American students without support.
At the beginning of each semester, Boyd receives a list of everyone who identified as Native American during their application process and sends out a welcome email with about two pages of information on resources and organizations that could be helpful to Native American students.
“I’m an office of one so I’m still trying to work and navigate how to best access students and really figure out what they need and how I can make that work at a school that has [more than 40,000] students,” Boyd said.
Boyd said the two main programs UW-Madison uses to recruit Native American students are the Pre–College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence and the Information Technology Academy-Tribal Technological Institute. While not exclusively for Native Americans, PEOPLE helps prepare students in disadvantaged Wisconsin communities for college through tutoring and mentoring.
ITA-TTI teaches students how to use technology to tell their tribal stories in the Lac du Flambeau and Oneida communities. The programs aim to bridge the achievement gap and close the digital divide by working with Native American students.
Boyd said the UW School of Medicine and Public Health’s Native American Center for Health Professions also hosts the Indigenous Health Summit every spring. It draws Native American students across the state to show them how they can pursue professions in the medical field.
“It’s a way to introduce students to campus and to help instill that is something that’s attainable for them — they can go to college,” Boyd said.
Skenandore said students coming through these programs are well-connected and know what resources are available to them, but for unaffiliated students she fears it can be too hard to transition.
“For students like me, there is that serious concern of if they will find their place on campus and if they will feel welcome to a point that they will graduate,” Skenandore said.
“Walking in two worlds” as a Native American student
Richard Monette, UW-Madison law professor and director of the Great Lakes Indian Law Center, grew up on Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota with a mother who passed away when he was 8 years old and a father with a drinking problem. He said going to grade school was a way to ensure he ate two meals a day.
He received degrees from Mayville State College in North Dakota, University of North Dakota, University of Oregon and UW-Madison before becoming a law professor. He described his extensive higher education experience as “walking in two worlds.”
“Whether it’s an academic adviser or a certain TA or teacher or somebody in the financial aid department, any familiar face [new students] can see on campus just to say hello during a passing period. [They are] little things that make college livable.”Nichole BoydMonette’s father told him it’s “convenient” Monette has two feet to accommodate the two worlds but questioned which world his heart would “come down in,” because he only has one.
Monette said not all Native American students at UW-Madison face the same dilemmas. He said when it comes to the transition, the class load is often not the most challenging part, rather it is dealing with the cultural divide. He said there are some divides in cultural values that can be overwhelming and negatively impact their ability as students.
Bowman called Boyd the “aunty” of campus because she works to make herself available to all Native American students, but she said Boyd needs more help.
How UW linguists are helping keep Native American languages aliveBrittany Williams, a Ph.D. candidate at University of Wisconsin studying linguistics, can vividly recall her experiences working with speakers on various Read…
Boyd said there is a mix of urban Natives and students coming directly from reservations at UW-Madison. To make Native American students feel at home, Boyd said it is essential to create a safe space where they feel comfortable being themselves.
Since familial relationships are highly valued in the Native American community, they are necessary to the creation of a safe space. Boyd said Native American culture sees everyone as an aunty, uncle, cousin, sister or brother — the family goes far beyond biological makeup.
“Whether it’s an academic adviser or a certain TA or teacher or somebody in the financial aid department, any familiar face [new students] can see on campus just to say hello during a passing period,” Boyd said. “[They are] little things that make college livable.”
Last March, stereotypical war chants interrupted a Native American student sexual assault healing ceremony at Dejope Residence Hall, a building whose name is derived from the Ho-Chunk language. According to the 2015 UW American Association of Universities Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Assault Climate Survey, 46 percent of Native American and Alaska Native female undergraduate students reported being sexually assaulted.
47 percent of female Native American UW students reported being sexually assaultedStudents, faculty, community members and elders of Wisconsin’s Native Tribes gathered Wednesday night around a “community healing circle” to raise awareness of Read…
Bowman said after the incident at Dejope, a lot of Native American students did not feel safe and started coordinating to walk in groups when traveling on campus. She said the location of the incident, a residence hall with Native American roots, was especially disturbing.
“The fact that students in that dorm did that is really terrifying because that should be the one dorm on campus [where] everybody knows the importance of the Native community,” Bowman said. “They literally have a fire pit with all the seals of the Native community on it so it … just really [felt] like this university doesn’t care about us.”
“College shouldn’t damage you — college should teach you some things but it should also lead you to a better experience.”Nichole BoydBoyd said she thinks the incident was born out of miseducation. She believes inaccurate Native American representations in Hollywood lead to widespread misunderstanding of the culture as well as the creation of dangerous stereotypes. She said several students contacted her about feeling unsafe after the incident. Their fear was not necessarily toward the incident itself but toward speaking up for themselves after it and being criticized.
Boyd said the incident was a continuation of historical trauma and just one of the more overt aggressions Native American students and faculty face everyday.
Boyd said sometimes she will start a lecture with the joke, “Hey, sorry I forgot my buckskin and feathers today but I promise you I … grew up in the Chicago Native community.” She does so because there is a stereotype associated with Native American culture that her appearance may not fit, but she does not want it to discredit her knowledge on the topic.
On the other hand, Boyd said if a professor recognizes a student is Native American, they often single them out as an expert on their culture even though they are still students.
At times it can feel like Native American students are just recruited to meet a cap and the university is not particularly concerned about retention, Bowman said. Reaching higher education in Native communities does not happen often so the students who do become role models. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the college enrollment rate for American Indian and Alaska Native individuals increased from 16 percent in 1990 to 35 percent in 2014.
Ho-Chunk Nation struggles with low Native American enrollment numbers at UWFootball Saturdays, pink flamingos and sitting with Abe on Bascom go back years of University of Wisconsin tradition, but the Read…
She said it is challenging for Native students to give positive feedback on UW-Madison to their respective communities since not all their college experiences are ideal. While they want to encourage other students in their communities to attend UW-Madison, it’s difficult to recommend it when they are dealing with these conditions, Bowman said.
Boyd said it is necessary to create a safer environment for Native students so communities want to send their children to UW-Madison.
“College shouldn’t damage you — college should teach you some things but it should also lead you to a better experience,” Boyd said. “You should be able to go back to your community and say, ‘Yes, you should go to UW-Madison for all these fantastic reasons,’ and I’m just not quite sure that our students of color, if you’re listening to what they’re saying, are able to go back to their communities and say that wholeheartedly.”