Being an American Indian university student in the times of Covid 19

For this article I will be using the term “American Indian” and “AI/AN” (American Indian and Alaska Native) to identify the student population. 

The University of Utah is a beautiful campus, tucked up against the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains at approximately 5,000 feet above sea level. Utah is also the home of eight Federally Recognized American Indian Nations. By Treaty acknowledgement the University sits on Skull Valley Goshute homelands. However, the vast majority of the American Indian students at the U are citizens of the Diné (Navajo) Nation. It is important to understand that the Diné Nation is the largest nation in many ways. The geographic size of the nation is 72,519 square Kilometers (the size of the Nederlands is only 41,543 square Kilometers) The last census indicated over 300,000 enrolled members. This is compared to some of the other Nations that have enrollments of less than 150 citizens. If we are going to discuss the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic one of the things to consider is the barriers that many of my Diné and AI/AN students face.

First I should provide some historic background that helps explain the barriers that most AI/AN students face.  The 19th Century was devastating for all AI/AN people living in what is now the United States.  We suffered from our enemies and “friends” almost equally.  The enemies wanted to exterminate all indigenous people.  Our friends held the arrogant belief that their culture was so superior that to “save us” they had to eliminate our cultures.  The off-reservation boarding school operated under the assumption that to “Save the man you must kill the Indian” During the 1880s ALL Indian cultures and languages were illegal.  This did not change until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.  American Indian people were denied any protections under the Constitution until citizenship was imposed in the American Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, as money saving method after World War I. It would take a series of books to fully explain the twisted relationship between the U.S. and American Indian people, but for this article the next most relevant Act was the Education and Relocation Era in the 1950s under President Eisenhower.  To receive educational funding and jobs American Indians were “relocated “to large U.S. Cities.  The two largest AI/AN populations are in New York and Los Angeles. This is relevant because many of the AI/AN students at the U are from Urban backgrounds but with close connections to the reservations.

In the Covid 19 environment, much of the focus of the media is on the Diné Nation and the catastrophic events that continue there.  Some of the realities of the Diné Nation are that in an area that is almost twice the size of the Nederlands has only 13 grocery stores. To complicate matters even more, the average annual income for a family of four is around 17,000€, the majority of roads are not paved, and there are few cell towers to provide internet connectivity.  All of this drastically impacts the outcomes for AI/AN students.

Most the Diné students I work with has either lost a clan member or has someone in their families wo has passed on. Many of these students are studying Health Sciences so that they can return to their communities of origin to improve the extreme negative health outcomes on the reservation. To complete the requirements for these degree students must complete a number of lab classes, like organic chemistry and genetics.  Most of the students have confided that they do not learn in a “non-hands-on” environment and their grades are showing this.  Those who do live on the reservation, suffer from lack of connectivity.  The university will provide hot spots, but with no cell towers the hot-spots do not help.  One student who was in the top 3% of grades lives where there is no cell service, no electricity, and no running water. With water being hauled in weekly in 50 gallon drums, frequent hand washing is impossible.  All of this coupled with the stress of studying for the test to qualify for Medical School led to her withdraw from the University.  With the Diné Nation on complete lock down the struggles many students are facing are complicated with extreme slowdowns in receiving tribal financial aid. One of the biggest lies that continues to haunt AI/AN students is that they receive free college educations.  Education was promised in Treaties with the U.S., but this promise has never been fulfilled and did not include higher or college education. If a student cannot pay for their tuition by the end of the second week of classes, all classes are dropped.  The standard response to student financial difficulties is to suggest they take out a student loan.  Federal Student loans places more people in crisis than mortgages Student loans are also one of the debts that can NOT be listed on a bankruptcy filing.  When in financial difficulties, such as under the job losses due to the pandemic, a person can request payment deferments, which means the person does not make the monthly payment, but it does NOT stop the compounding interest rates from increasing the amount that will have to be paid back.

When the American Indian Resource Center was created in the late 1980s it’s mission was, and continues to be the “Home away from home” for AI/AN students.  Over 40 years of research indicate that a key factor in AI/AN success in higher education, is finding a safe place on campus where they can be surrounded by people like themselves.  The University of Utah has around 40,000 student.  The AI/AN students are less than .5% of the total population.  Therefore in most of their college classes they are surrounded by non-native classmates.  Often there is an extreme lack understanding or knowledge about AI/AN cultures and lifeways.  A good example was a response I received in an Introduction to America Indian Culture class.  After watching the documentary, “In the Whiteman’s Image” that discusses the origins of the  off reservation boarding school era the students were asked to answer the prompt of, “how would you react to having your child or you yourself removed from family and culture to be forcibly taught a differ culture and language. Part of the history of the Boarding School Era is the creator of the Carlisle school came up with the idea while at the American Indian Wars, Prisoner of War Camp at Fort Marion.  A female student seemed to only recognize Fort Marion and answered, “Well, considering that those savage braves had killed innocent American soldiers, it seems very kind to educate them rather than execute them, and you have to admit, they came out much better people than they went in.  I cannot over emphasize what sitting next to people who think like this, does to a native student.  That is why my office motto on the wall states, “Come In, I’ll give you shelter from the storm.” (borrowed from Bob Dylan)

For me personally, the stress centers on the fact that we do not know what will happen this fall as we try to come back to school.  The AIRC budget depends of state monies which mostly come from gas taxes.  With the greatly diminished tax fund, we have been cautioned that our budgets will be impacted.  As long as the confirmed Covid 19 cases and deaths increase daily, the AIRC remains on lock down.  Therefore, students do not have access to the food pantry, or soups and tutoring that had formed key elements of student support.  Sadly the food in the pantry is also almost depleted.

In closing, all I can say is that once again, AI/AN student must, “endeavor to Persevere.” (Chief Dan George)

University of Utah’s American Indian Resource Center, Director, Franci Taylor