Three Lessons for College Leaders during Native American Heritage Month

Achieving the Dream is proud to uplift the leadership of the Indigenous students, teachers, administrators and advocates who contribute to the powerful work of ATD Network colleges across the country.

In celebration of National Native American Heritage Month, and to help colleges and universities nationwide better support Native American students, we are recapping some of the important messages delivered by Native speakers during Achieving the Dream events in 2020. The insights that they have shared with us are valuable lessons for educators and community leaders of every background to incorporate into their ongoing work for student success and educational equity.

Collect data on small populations to increase visibility

During this year’s ATD Data and Analytics Summit, Dr. Jameson Lopez, Shelly Lowe, and Dr. Heather Shotton presented a session focused on the issue of data invisibility for Native American students in higher education.

As Shelly Lowe pointed out, Indigenous students “are one of the most diverse populations in higher education.” For example, Native Hawaiian students, Indigenous students from the Pacific Islands, and Native American tribes in mainland U.S. are very different groups. There is also enormous diversity among Native American tribes across the country.

However, due to their small numbers, most governments and institutions group Indigenous students into one category in data collection, such as Native American/Pacific Islander, which severely limits each group’s visibility in campus systems. “We do a disservice when we collect that information together and think about it as ‘diversity,’” Lowe said, making the case for further data disaggregation.

If we don’t really see and understand the differences in our student populations, it will be difficult to design institutional policies and practices that will support their unique needs. 

Lowe and her co-presenters made the case for further data disaggregation, not just for Native American students but for all racially minoritized groups.

For more information, we recommend Beyond the Asterisk: Understanding Native Students in Higher Education by Lowe, Dr. Shotton, and Stephanie J. Waterman

Go beyond “traditional” metrics

In the same panel, Dr. Lopez pointed out a disconnect between Native community values and common measures of success in higher education. Dr. Lopez suggested that, for many Native students, “even if they may not complete college, it doesn’t mean they’re not successful in an educational sense. I think they’re still successful, but we’re using the wrong metrics.”

Dr. Shotton indicated that their research “was pointing to the fact that motivation for Native students or Indigenous students for higher education was really centered in… this desire to go back and give back to their community.”

Different ways of measuring success could include looking at how persistence and completion in higher education impacts students’ contributions to their communities. For Native communities, this may be a more meaningful metric that is more nuanced and appropriate than a static metric such as a student’s grade point average.

If institutions listen to what their students’ communities value, they can develop measures of success that better support Native students to meet their needs and achieve their goals.

Help change the narrative for Native students

Our keynote speaker for DREAM 2020 was Crystal Echo Hawk, president and CEO of IllumiNative. In her address, entitled “Change the Story, Change the Future,” Echo Hawk shared data from from the Reclaiming Native Truth Project, the largest study of its kind, about knowledge and perceptions of Native Americans and how they harm individuals and communities.

Here are a few key statistics she shared:

  • 27 states make no mention of a single Native American in K–12 curricula.
  • 87 percent of state history standards don’t mention Native American history after 1900.
  • Native American characters only make up 0–.04% of American primetime TV and films.
  • 78 percent of Americans know little to nothing about Native peoples.

All of the above contribute to making contemporary Native Americans invisible in public data, which Echo Hawk said was “the greatest barrier facing Native peoples. The void left by invisibility is filled with myths, toxic stereotypes, and inaccurate portrayals in movies, TV, and news media.”

What can you and your institution do to change the narrative around Native students and foster a culture of equity and support? Echo Hawk shared these strategies:

  1. Disrupt invisibility by including Native voices in conversations and systems which may otherwise have excluded them
  2. Smash stereotypes that fuel biases and stereotypes which play out in educational systems and policies
  3. Amplify Native voices to make sure Native students have the chance to tell their own story.
  4. Take action to promote equity and visibility on your campus, even if it’s uncomfortable.

IllumiNative’s action guide for Native American Heritage Month has more information and action items to promote the visibility, belonging, and success of Native students on your campus today. Scroll down to find the “Insights and Action Guide” to see how you can get started today.

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