Graphic by Dana Liu

Eradicating erasure: Native American students advocate for recognition, respect of culture in classroom

Throughout the month of November, UW-Madison students are presented with several opportunities to partake in the educational and celebratory festivities of “Native November,” a time dedicated to raising awareness of and appreciation for Native American culture and history.

However, upon entering a classroom in November and throughout the school year, many indigenous-identifying students feel as though their identities are disregarded in the academic setting.

Justus Gaines, a UW-Madison senior (Taino-Maoli), attributes this erasure — or the gross lack of acknowledgement or obliteration of indigenous culture in the classroom — to attitudes of ignorance and arrogance toward the topic. Even in instances in which Native life is addressed, it is not done to a “proficient point,” Gaines said.

“I feel like what it means to be indigenous or aboriginal is kind of regarded in the past tense as if we no longer exist, we’re not here, we’re not present, but we are,” Gaines said. “I feel like it should be talked about in the sense of our struggles, our current struggles, how we thrive, our people, our culture and how it’s vibrant and how it’s still exists throughout the land.”

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Mariah Skenandore, a UW-Madison sophomore and member of the Oneida Nation, echoed these sentiments, citing long-held stereotypes of indigenous peoples as a source of the lack of recognition of Native culture on campus and in the classroom.

“[Students] still expect to see us walking down the street in our regalia and they expect to see us stereotypically portrayed, whereas Native people look very different than the stereotype, what is expected of us, so people don’t even recognize us when we’re around,” Skenandore said. “It erases our identity and makes us less valuable to the people around us.”

According to the 2010 census, 0.4 percent of the Dane County population was comprised of Native Americans, with a predicted increase to 0.5 percent in 2017. The 2010 census also reported that 7.4 percent of Madison’s population was made up of Native American peoples.

These numbers represent an area that is historically Ho-Chunk Nation land.

According to UW-Madison’s fall 2017 enrollment, 414, or 0.009 percent, of the 43,820 students enrolled at the university identified as American Indian.

For Gaines, this academic environment perpetuates erasure in failing to recognize both the students who identify as indigenous and the role of indigenous culture and history in various fields of study.

“It’s deemed to be not important,” Gaines said. “It’s deemed to be subordinate to any other topic, whether it be European history, Civil War, things of that nature. A lot of people take American Indian and aboriginal studies out of lots of topics when our lives are associated with them.”

In the face of this alleged ignorance, both Skenandore and Gaines reported experiences in a classroom setting in which they, as indigenous-identifying students, were called upon to speak on behalf of their culture or community as a whole — a phenomenon Gaines describes as tokenism, or calling upon a small group of people to represent an entire underrepresented population. He said this is common in conversations of indigenous peoples.

I feel that my grade has been impacted by my identity just because I don’t navigate the space the same way that a white student would because of my cultural differences and because of those differences in experience.

Results from this year’s Campus Climate Survey indicate that 45 percent of students of color reported instances in which they felt expected to speak on behalf of their entire identity in the classroom. Of those experiences, 58 percent of the respondents reported them to be negative.

While not all indigenous peoples identify as people of color, these numbers still demonstrate the frequency of this phenomenon in the academic setting.

“I have seen some instances where maybe a professor who knows I am aboriginal and I am Native American will say something about Native American people and look to me for validation, and I feel like, in most cases, that is not my place to educate everyone else,” Gaines said. “You are the instructor for that class. I would really hope you know what you’re speaking on.”

According to Stephen Scheflow, the American Indian Studies Librarian at UW-Madison, anywhere from 28 to 39 percent of the AIS faculty and staff identifies as Native American. Of the five official faculty members of the department, four have Native American heritage. According to the university’s course guide, 13 AIS classes were offered during the 2017-’18 school year.

Skenandore said these instances of tokenism arise from a lack of indigenous representation in the classroom. However, that does not justify what she considers an unfair responsibility on the indigenous students that are present, she said.

“I don’t think that any individual person should ever have to speak on behalf of their entire group because we’re all only experts in our own experiences. So as an urban indigenous person, it wouldn’t be right for me to speak on behalf of an indigenous person from the reservation,” Skenandore said.

These experiences also reflect the ignorance regarding the diversity of Native American culture and different experiences across aboriginal communities, Gaines said.

For Gaines, the true responsibility lies with the professor and classroom leadership to avoid putting indigenous students in this position.

“It’s not an aboriginal student’s job to educate others on their life. It’s a matter of if that topic is going to be addressed, all of the information needs to be present to do so. It needs to be a good conversation and people have to want to learn,” Gaines said.

According to Skenandore, the responsibility can be trying for the students who bear it.

“It’s kind of almost like, tiring. It can be like a job to be constantly aware of those things, and it’s almost like bearing a weight on your shoulders to take that responsibility even if you don’t have the energy for it,” Skenandore said.

Skenandore said this classroom environment impacts her sense of belonging and her comfort levels while interacting with both professors and peers.

I feel like what it means to be indigenous or aboriginal is kind of regarded in the past tense as if we no longer exist, we’re not here, we’re not present, but we are. I feel like it should be talked about in the sense of our struggles, our current struggles, how we thrive, our people, our culture and how it’s vibrant and how it’s still exists throughout the land.

“I’ve had situations where that’s even impacted my grade,” Skenandore said. “I feel that my grade has been impacted by my identity just because I don’t navigate the space the same way that a white student would because of my cultural differences and because of those differences in experience.”

Both Gaines and Skenandore believe that addressing these issues and offering a more positive learning environment for indigenous students starts with professors and classroom leadership. They suggest fostering discussions about Native culture, solidarity and what Skenandore refers to as “allyship” as possible first steps in this effort.

“If a student is saying something that’s racist, they’re protected by freedom of speech, but if a student is saying something racist, then who is protecting the race that they’re perpetuating violence against?” Skenandore said. “It becomes the responsibility of the professor to create a safe space in that environment for marginalized students as well as privileged students.”

That responsibility lies not only with the professor, but also with agency of the students in a classroom taking part in these conversations, Gaines said.

“Having that willingness to learn, that willingness to understand,” Gaines said.“That is what needs to be there. There needs to be a change in the attitude, in the educational tools, and a change in leadership, so that our presence, our education, our way of life doesn’t die solely with us.”

For Skenandore, inclusion and recognition of identity and culture goes beyond simply academic life as a student.

“From an indigenous perspective, I feel like I’m expected to assimilate to white culture in order to succeed, and that’s not something I should ever have to feel,” Skenandore said. “I shouldn’t have to feel like I’m giving up who I am in order to have a place in the world. I should have a place in the world being indigenous and being who I am.”


Megan Provost Box