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Decolonizing the Native American Experience

Sub: Thirsty for a Strong Instructional Practice?

November 8, 2018

Native american dancingHow often do you think about Native American students on campus? How often do you think of Native Americans? Why do we not think about this group of students very much? Although Native American students make up only a small percentage of college students at Metropolitan State University of Denver, we need to think about them because so many Native American experiences are our collective experiences. However, in the most recent MSU Denver student survey, Native American students have “lower average positive responses in the themes of academics and personal than other respondents” and have the lowest retention rate on campus (Student Climate Survey, 2017). Challenges include lack of role models, feelings of isolation, racial discrimination and a cultural mismatch in higher education (Garrod and Larimore, 1997; Larimore and McClellan, 2005). They often are nontraditional students, are the first in their families to attend postsecondary education (see SIP on working with first-gen students), are employed while in college, have dependents and live in poverty (American Indian College Fund Data, 2011).

So how do we teach this group of students better? We develop an understanding of colonization’s effects on everyone, and then we build from there.

This SIP intentionally looks different in format from others. Writing the SIP has been a learning experience for the SIP Squad, as we are beginning to learn how to decolonize ourselves and our collective writing to honor a different tradition of understanding, knowing and demonstrating knowledge.

Take a SIP of this: Decolonizing the Native American Experience

Colonization has affected every one of us by forcing on educators and students limited ways of understanding and of demonstrating that understanding in postsecondary education. We have all experienced the power of language on our educational experiences. Be mindful of every word said, unsaid and written, and the potential impact on students. Focus on the usefulness of words. Work to achieve integrity and reliability of our message. This is helpful when we understand there are many languages and ways of expression and communication that permit better understanding among all of us. It helps us to look at our preconceived notions and biases about groups of students. The lasting impact results in a foundation of equality for difficult conversations and broadening the possibilities for engagement.

If you read that and you still do not understand what we mean, we are with you. The SIP Squad struggled how to write about and offer an example of decolonizing an educational experience. So instead of a “how-to,” as many SIPs are presented, we offer you our conversation on our struggles with doing so.

From Dr. S M, our guest contributor and an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation of Indians of Wisconsin:

Just wanted to share some thoughts on the article that I authored and I was hoping to speak to you personally. I was going to speak with a colleague we have in common since I have a relationship with her, but she’s not available. Nothing major, just some thoughts about the article and maybe a way for me to better understand your culture.

Dr. S M

Sipster #1

I am really struggling – both in actually writing this SIP, but also with conceptual struggles related to this SIP. Dr S M and I spoke on the phone today and she has a really different conceptual understanding of how to write what to write in this SIP in a way that honors her contributions and the idea of bullet points and numbering is part of her struggle with a colonized way of writing. She worries that if the SIP is too prescriptive, then people with think “they know how to work with Native American students.” However, we also have an easily digestible format (introduce why a topic is important, lay how to do it, in bullets and or numbers, and then further resources) that we like to stick to. She is uncomfortable enough she does not want her quote in there and does not want to be associated with the SIP in the way it is going. I let her know that I would not let it go out without her blessing - we would remove it and rerun something or get it in good shape.

This is obviously a very truncated version of our conversation.

I am inclined to pull it as I do not feel like I can do justice to her concerns in this short amount of time. I would love to sit down with her at some point and think about how to write something like a SIP, that does have a specific format, and honor her ways as well. I just do not feel like that can be done right now.

What do you think?

Sipster #2

Oh, thanks for sharing Dr S M’s concerns. I feel strongly that we need to honor Dr. S M’s wishes. I am sorry I didn’t understand this before I made my comments, but I see now how she would see my comments as colonizing.

One of the issues I see is that people like me tromp all over Native American people without even realizing it. Is there a way for the SIP to be revised with more specificity of examples? To me that is important for understanding while the format stuff is important mostly for consistency.

Sipster #1

Honestly, I think there are ways the SIP could get done, with examples, but this week is just proving to be too big of a bite to chew. I think the conceptual questions are really interesting and want to be able to honor them, but not sure I can get it done in the next few days. And not just your stuff, Sipster #2, I think overall, the whole format of the SIP was troublesome to her. Such an interesting conversation that I really am working to wrap my head around.

Sipster #3

This is so interesting and reminds me of trying to “lecture” on postmodernism and the irony of textbooks on the topic.

Do you think you (and/or Dr. S M) could write a simple first-person narrative of your experience trying to write this SIP? … that would be a really cool SIP and make the point far better than anything fit to our template. Just a thought.

Sipster #4

Thank you for struggling with this important topic, and for the thoughtfulness with which you are approaching the SIP itself and your work with Dr. S M. It’s one thing to have a “writing assignment,” but it is another to really offer up your soul and world view for potential transformation—a lot for a busy week! Thanks for fighting this good fight.

I think that the question of the SIP format as colonizing is incredibly interesting. It calls to mind, for me, some of the work on multiple Englishes—looking outside the linguistic structure itself in order to free speakers from colonization and recover cultural meaning I confess that this is really difficult for me to understand, but when I think about it critically I can see the role my own privilege plays in this mental road block. Still, how to get around it? Not sure, but worth the attention/discussion.

I do think that Sipster #3’s idea of writing a SIP, out of format, that describes the difficulties of writing this draft on colonization under the shadow of colonization, would be brilliant. Maybe for next week? I’d love to hear what Dr. S M thinks of that idea.

From Dr. S M

Oh, dear Sipster #1

I hope I wasn’t being so demanding or arrogant to believe that we have to change the way SIP has been since its inception. I wanted all of us to think of ways in which to be culturally responsive while facing the equally important challenge of educating to numbers and outcomes and results - devoid of faces, names, or stories.

And, honestly, no apologies are necessary. Please tell Sipster #2 that from me. You see in some ways, changing status quo, policies and procedures casts the enduring rays of hope for all of us in education. And if people are thinking about the practice of and systematic colonization, then, ultimately, the benefit of those conversations and thoughts will reach our students, our colleagues, our staff, our administrators, as well as the youngest child and the newest baby.

And as we say in my culture, we pray for the next seven generations - we do this work now, not because we desire to be famous, but because we leave a legacy that will remain in existence for all the future seven generations.

Please send me the draft, if there is still time (always a deadline! :-)) and I will read it and send it your way. If there is no time, I trust your wisdom and thoughts regarding my little one-page SIP! :-)

Sipster #1

Thank you to each and every one of you for thoughtfully thinking with me. We are, I think, going to take the pressure off of forcing through a SIP that needs a little more thinking.

I think we are going to put into a conversational SIP with some framing from the original SIP. Dr. S M and I are still talking it over.

From Dr. S M

All of the participants in this thread were so committed and thoughtful. I must say that I think we can work on something that includes (my big deal about cultural responsiveness and inclusiveness) and each and every idea from your words, to Sipster #2’s words, to Sipster #3’s words, to Sipster #4’s words. I think we can do that and honor all voices.

I know that SIP and all it represents is a big ship and steering it is difficult, let alone trying to turn it, a bit, in a different, but absolutely culturally inclusive and responsive way. And I add that there is a benefit to everyone, albeit challenging, time consuming and scary. And it might have the added benefit of nurturing the idea of multicultural education in the broadest possible educational context at MSU - similar to the historical foundation of multicultural education written and practiced by James Banks, Janet Helms, Robert Cross, Paul Pederson, the Sue brothers and too many others to name.

Let me know how I may assist you. Please feel free to use anything that I wrote in my first draft to you. I do look forward to meeting you. Please let me know your thoughts.

Have a wonderful weekend.

Hopefully from our conversation you will see “What tribal people have is the value for relationship first, relevant cultural curriculum, and the expectation for students to do their best. Educators need to remember that the nature of teaching is promising students a better way. Multicultural education emphasizes the necessity and the value of integrating the best of all cultures for current and future generations” (Dr. S M)

Still Thirsty? Take another SIP of Decolonizing the Native American Experience

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