My answer was patience
My answer was patience.
Tiring is the adjective I use to describe my college experience as a Native person. Countless times I have bitten my tongue during class as I listened to my professor lecture on American history, glossing over the genocide of its first inhabitants. I have had discussions with policy professionals who spoke as if over 500 treaties with Native Nations have not been broken. I quietly sat in rage as I read another health report that completely ignored my demographic in their research. I have struggled in the “easy” classes at Duke. I have emailed professors notifying them I would not make it to class because I was “feeling sick” when really I just did not want to sit in my own silence. Silence is lonely. Silence is reminding. Silence begins to embody your identity. That is what it feels like when my identity is always reduced to the enemy, the historical figure- the other.
Diné nishłį́. Asdzą́ą́ nishłį́. . .
I am Navajo. I am a woman. I am a Duke student.
My struggles in Duke classrooms stem from my education in a reservation school system. I may be seen as the “token” student in all my settings as I am usually one of three minority women in my classes. I have to remind myself everyday that I have earned my place here. I work twice as hard to sit next to students whose attendance was inherited. My legacy is perseverance.
As a confused and overwhelmed Native college student, I looked to my resources.
Unfortunately, but not to my surprise, Duke does not employ any Native American faculty. There are no Native American professors or advisors on my campus. I did not feel comfortable sharing my financial, academic, and Native struggles with the person sitting across a desk trying to understand me. They judged the community I come from, admired my resilience, but only advised me to “work a little harder”.
But again, even in the office of a supposed advisor, I sat in my own silence, misunderstood time and time again.
I always contemplated my three options: transfer, quit, or prove everybody wrong. Everyday I choose the latter.
Partly my own fault I suppose. How could I expect someone who has never even set foot on a reservation to understand my descriptions of it? Someone who could not possibly understand the intergenerational trauma I learn to suppress every day, while maintaining good grades, and a healthy lifestyle sat across me advising me to just “work a little harder”. Needless to say, I became my own advisor.
“Oh, but life isn’t so hard Shandiin, you go to Duke University. You are a role model to so many Native children seeking higher education”
While I am always honored to be labeled a role model. For those who look up to me for any sense of direction or guidance, I must be honest. College is hard. Not only in the typical 10-page papers, sleepless nights of studying, cultural shock kind of way, though those are also valid. But for us, for Native students, we are reminded everyday that these institutions were not made for our success. We do not belong here, but we exist. My eyes have been opened to the institutional systems designed to keep people who look like me in the margins. The very result of this can be seen in the education we are receiving.
Last semester, I sat silently through weeks of learning about American History. In the state of North Carolina, home to a large Native American population, we managed to make it through weeks without mentioning the prevailed existence of Native people. Native people were only mentioned as “savages”, enemies to the American Dream. I seemed to be the only one who contested the notion that these lands were “open” for settlement. In fact, America had been inhabited long before the quest for westward expansion. I thought of my ancestors who were tormented by the federal government, genocides that were deemed wars, and truthful stories finding life only in the sounds of the wind. My silence was broken by the image of a “redskin” staring back at me from the sweater of a classmate. In that moment I realized that this is where history has led me. In a classroom full of students who wholeheartedly believed that Native people were “extinct”, as one classmate told me. These students have never heard of the American Indian Movement nor could they fathom that their presidents ordered the murders of thousands of women and children. Today, they proudly wear the images of our dead men on their backs.
When asked to respond to the legacy and perception of Abraham Lincoln, I expressed my honest opinion. America’s 16th President ordered the execution of thirty-nine Dakota men on December 26, 1862, shortly before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. He was not a hero to me. My heros lie in unmarked graves, covered by generations of omission. The confused faces of my classmates reminded me that the Native history I know is not what America teaches.
In a policy class, I focused my semester’s memos on the Bears Ears National Monument controversy, advocating, like many of my tribal leaders, for the designation of the National Monument. It was then that I realized very few people understand and respect the value of cultural significance. The land is sacred not because of the natural resources, but because She is our mother. She provides for us, we must take care of her. My arguments did not appeal to the majority opinion, which was to free up the “open space” as a classmate put it, for the economic development of local residents. I worked tirelessly to prove that my homelands were sacred and sticking another pipeline in an already vulnerable land would not be prosperous in the long run for anyone. Yet, one classmate asked me, “why do you care, it’s just land?” I was frustrated and I felt hopeless. How do I convince a room full of students that we only have one opportunity to care for our land, and one chance to keep our rivers flowing?
I read old journal entries from my freshman year. I was excited, proud to be at this university. The more time I spent here, the longer my entries became. Filled with frustration and confusion. Why didn’t I say anything to the professor who did a disservice to our class by not accurately portraying my people? Why did I lie to my mom when she called to ask how I was doing? Why didn’t I fight harder to advocate for my people?
I felt like a ghost. I walked across campus dreading every step to class because I couldn’t focus on studying when I saw videos of women who looked like me sprayed with mace at Standing Rock. I began to care less and less about school when I saw another post on Facebook of an Indigenous woman missing. When President Trump announced his proclamation to reduce our Bear’s Ears National Monument I felt defeated.
When Standing Rock remained in the news – no comment. When Indigenous women went missing – no comment. When another young Native person took their life – no comment. So I am sorry if I am a little too distracted to raise my hand in class today.
One day I woke up angry. I promised myself not to bite my tongue anymore, not to just listen to someone speak untruthful stories, and not to quietly be left out of the conversation. I reanalyzed my position as a representative and as the sole Native voice in many of the spaces I occupied. I was directly harming myself by allowing others to talk over me.
I approached that history professor after class and asked why he chose to leave so many important moments in US history out. As a professional in history, I assumed he must have had at least a basic knowledge of Native American people. Yet, he did not talk about the real stories: the Dawes Act of 1887, the mobilization of Native people with AIM, he did not inform the class that the last group to achieve citizenship did so under the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Most importantly he talked about Native people retrospectively. Instead of saying the federal government, “handled the Indian problem”, he should say, “attempted”. We are still here. I am here.
I challenged opinions, wrote pieces that were important to me, I found ways to make Duke more welcoming for myself. After all, I knew that if I did not take action over my education and well-being, nobody would.
I received an email from a professor in the Environmental Policy department asking if I could speak to her class. I was recommended by the History professor. I agreed and I presented on the effects of Uranium on my homelands and the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act of 1990.
I returned to that History class where I presented on American History from a Native person’s perspective.
I found my voice. Though I have created more work for myself by giving guest lectures and presentations, I am grateful for these opportunities. I appreciate the professors who have allowed me to educate their students.
College is about adding moments to your story. For my first two years at Duke my narrative had been on mute. I accepted the silence; I made it my home. I am often asked what the turning point for me was, and honestly I just want the next Navajo student who attends Duke or any institution to understand that their positions are important. Our struggles are important. It is hard to succeed. We juggle the life of a scholar with our cultural teachings, and sometimes the two collide. If I have learned anything, it is that it is possible to remain whole. It takes courage to approach a professional and tell them they are wrong. It takes courage to make people uncomfortable, but it is necessary.
I am Navajo. I am a woman. I am a Duke student.
To quote Lucille Clifton,
“. . . both nonwhite and woman,
what did I see to be, except myself?
I made it up,
here on this bridge between starshine and clay
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
The question I was asked was, “what do you pray for?”
My answer was patience.