Norma Jean Gargasz / Alamy

Native PhDs bring fresh approach to academic study

More schools should support community-oriented indigenous research perspectives

June 6, 2015 2:00AM ET

Diane Humetewa, a Hopi, made history last year as the first Native American woman to serve as a federal judge. Cassandra Manuelito-Kerkvliet, a Navajo, was ranked in the Top 25 Women in Higher Education for becoming in 2007 the first Native American president of a mainstream university, Antioch University Seattle. Ofelia Zepeda, a Tohono O’odham, is a renowned poet and linguistics expert. She is the author of the first book on the grammar of the Tohono O’odham language. Her work is indispensible toward efforts to revitalize Indigenous languages.

Acquiring a postgraduate college degree was a crucial step toward each of their legacies. But the odds of obtaining a Ph.D. are against Native Americans. Of the 175,038 doctoral degrees conferred in 2013, only 900 — less than 1 percent — were earned by Natives (a group that includes American Indians and Alaskan Natives). And while the national enrollment rate in graduate and first-professional degrees has increased over the past two decades by 57 percent, enrollment for Natives in those same degrees fell 10 percent.

Higher education reports show multiple barriers that inhibit degree attainment. Cultural alienation, racism and discrimination, a lack of indigenous role models and financial stresses all can be serious impediments to Native graduate students completing their degrees. 

Alternative methodologies

I can attest to the accuracy of such reports. I was fortunate to be one of eight Native graduate students in the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education — something of a rarity. But more often than not, students like me find themselves the only Native person in their classes, department and discipline.

That feeling of isolation can be compounded by a sense of marginalization, particularly if their research leads them away from the Eurocentric methodological approaches that predominate the social sciences. Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, sociology professors at University of Pennsylvania and Duke University, assert in their anthology “White Logic, White Methods” that research methods rooted in white ideologies — from the racially motivated origins of statistics and the eugenics movement to manipulating statistics to cast people of color as the problem — can oppress underrepresented populations’ approaches to research.

For example, Eurocentric methods rely on objectivity as the standard norm in scientific inquiry. While objectivity has its place, it can also close off sources of knowledge. Indigenous methods acknowledge tribal cultural protocol, which are the actions that a person takes to create a relationship with another person or group. Therefore, to pursue research with individuals from tribal nations, creating and fostering relationships with the people matter. As a researcher, I do not attempt to distance myself from the people who share their experiences with me, as Eurocentric methods would require. Rather, over time our relationships often strengthen and I believe a deeper awareness and understanding of experiences are revealed. 

A holistic approach that includes spiritual and cultural well being is critical in supporting Native graduate and professional students.

In “Disciplined Hearts,” Theresa O’Nell, an anthropologist at the University of Oregon, writes that because Native people often place high regard on belonging within a community, “loneliness symbolizes the worst fate that can befall an American Indian.” In higher education, that loneliness can manifest while utilizing Indigenous methodology in research. With limited Indigenous scholars in the field, there were times when I questioned my place as a scholar as I wondered whether I was conducting research in a way that was respectful of tribal cultural protocol. 

Institutional support

From 2000 to 2010, the overall Native population increased by 39 percent, while in contrast, conferred doctoral degrees stagnate at less than 1 percent. Unless it is counteracted, this gap is likely to widen over time. It poses the question, What are institutions doing to increase and support Native students toward degree completion?

For one, we have to stop blaming students’ lack of fortitude. Researchers have traditionally characterized resiliency as an attribute that can enable people to succeed in higher education, but Iris HeavyRunner and Kathy Marshall developed the idea of cultural resilience, which includes factors such as tribal identity and oral traditions. When used pervasively, however, the concept of resiliency can be problematic, because it suggests that if Native students are not successful in college, it is because they are not trying hard enough. This blames the individual rather than structural barriers and a failed system.

Because Native peoples are severely underrepresented in higher education, Stephanie Fryberg, an associate professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, claims they constitute an “invisible” population, which can limit Native people’s sense of self and their possible future.

Shawn Secatero, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico School of Education, asserts that a holistic approach that includes spiritual and cultural well being is thus critical in supporting Native graduate and professional students. For example, he found that spiritual practices and a sense of purpose to serve Native communities were powerful sources of motivation. Further, being connected to a community of support, often with other Native graduate students and Native faculty, relieved isolation and provided hope that a doctorate was attainable.

Increasing Native graduate student enrollment to college is just one piece of the solution. We also need to advocate for more Native faculty who can contribute to scholarship and Indigenous methodologies. We need to provide a space for Native students to share their perspectives, questions and concerns, which will help find answers to increase their representation in higher education. We must be attentive to the ingrained ideologies and systematic structures that contribute to invisibility, isolation and overall exclusion.

On May 18, 10 Pueblo Natives graduated from ASU with their Ph.D.’s, as part of the first joint endeavor between ASU’s School of Social Transformation and Santa Fe Indian School’s Leadership Institute. Their success, which sparked a wave of joy and inspiration across Native communities and beyond, should inspire all higher education institutions to embark on similar initiatives. In this way we can ensure that we are creating opportunities for Native people to build greater legacies for our future.

Amanda R. Tachine is Navajo and received a Ph.D. at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education in May 2015. She is a Tucson public voices fellow with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter: @atachine.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter