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 without mentioning 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 didn’t 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 I am reduced to the enemy, the historical figure – the other.
Diné nishłį́. Asdzą́ą́ nishłį́.
I am a Duke student.
My struggles in the classroom stem from my education in a reservation school system. Unlike my peers, my high school offered two AP level courses, not ten. I do not speak three languages because I am still struggling to relearn my mother’s. I may be seen as the “token” student in all my settings, but 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, often overwhelmed college student, I looked to my resources.
Unfortunately, but not to my surprise, Duke doesn’t employ any Native American faculty. There are no Native professors or advisors on my campus. I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my financial, academic, and overall Native struggles with a White 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” – or worse, “take some time off”.
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. Every day I chose 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 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 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 expected long papers, sleepless nights of studying, cultural shock kind of way, but for us – in the, “wow, I really don’t belong here kind of way”. 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. It was the dated “Beacon on a hill, kill the ‘savages’, live happily ever after” story you have heard all your life. Except, 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 I wrote a response on the legacy and perception of Abraham Lincoln, I included his order for the execution of thirty-eight Dakota men on December26, 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. I received a comment on my response paper stating, “Interesting comment Shandiin. Exactly what evidence do you know of that Lincoln carried out these acts you mentioned?” This comment came from a historian. I received a B on the paper. Here’s my thing – why would I cite sources that have the pages of my own history, our history ripped from their presence? And then the stories, often oral, in our way of recording, don’t fall under the same category of “evidence”.
In a policy class, I focused my semester’s memos on the Bears Ears National Monument controversy, advocating for the designation of the National Monument. It was then that I realized very few people understand and respect the value of cultural significance. 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 vulnerable lands will lead to and have led to, looting, defacing, and complete destruction. Not to mention, my tribe and the others who have joined the Inter-Tribal coalition still live off the land – we still depend on her, therefore we must protect her. Yet, if there was not a dollar sign attached to my argument, it failed. I received a B. However, when I was instructed to write the Op-ed in support of President Trump’s legislation to rescind the monument, I received an A. I don’t know what hurt more, the fact that I was practicing protecting my homelands and failed, or that joining the other side meant success.
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 did I try so hard to fit into the mold of the “typical Duke student”? 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 men and women sprayed with mace at Standing Rock, images of dog attacks, and the fear of witnessing history repeat itself. I began to care less and less about school when I saw another post on Facebook of an Indigenous women 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.
Is it really worth losing myself in order to conform to these systems? If receiving an A in a class meant surrendering my tenets as a Native woman then no, it is not worth it, and I will not conform. I decided I do not need the A everyone loses their opinion for. I just wanted validity. I thought an A signified my belonging at Duke. In reality, an A only indicated my conformance to their rules.
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 our history out. As a professional in history, I assumed he must have had at least a basic knowledge of Native people. Yet, he did not talk about 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 – but most importantly he talked about Native people retrospectively. 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 at the end of the semester, where I presented on American History from a Native person’s perspective. I was granted the freedom to talk about anything I wanted, anything I thought this class of 100 or so Duke students should know. I am thankful for that moment and for that professor who allowed me an opportunity to let me speak for myself.
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. And to the greater Duke community who have opened their minds and hearts to me.
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. Our opinions matter. We matter. 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 is possible to piece ourselves back together when the world continues to take pieces of our identity.
Diné nishłį́. Asdzą́ą́ nishłį́.
I am a Duke student.
The question I was asked was, “what do you pray for?”
My answer was patience.