College for Native students is a blessing, a blessing fraught with hardships. Native students who manage to make it to college out of high school usually have little experience being adulated. This is no different than our non-Native peers. You get to campus and all the student organizations try to scoop you up, adding you to email lists—80% of which probably won’t get much attention…unless they feed you. Students, traditional or not, are always trying to get in where they fit in. Cliques abound, even in college.
Now, here is where I am going to get a bit biased and say it is easier for Native students at large universities and smaller tribal schools to find a “good time.” In my own experiences growing up and now in college—even at this second go of college—it is much easier to make friends if you find a party, no matter the size. The ole college 49 consists of staying up, studying late, and enjoying a few adult drinks to drown the pressures of class. You would think that in making it to college, most students have the self-control to quit while they’re ahead and to not go overboard. But, hey, if you grew up on the rez, you may have a higher tolerance than your “civilized” brethren. A stereotype gets fulfilled every now and then—that’s just the truth of it.
I have friends and acquaintances who I have seen turn down this road and still beat out those bad spirits. And I have some who have been fully chained, unable to break the links of addiction. Every community is touched by drugs and alcohol; college campuses are no different. Homesick for close friends and family adds more pressure to Native students, but even I have felt like I walk a tight rope when it comes to other people’s addictions—a tight rope that is my track of goals, and being in college is my safety harness. Addiction is like time wearing on this harness. There is no cure; it is a daily battle of the minds. I see it in my college cohort and I see it at home, affecting family and friends. I have another saving grace though—my community, which is my net below. But this net does not go unaffected either by time or by addiction.
I took my first drink when I was in college before I had my twins. My father had just died—who could blame me, I was only 19. My safety harness did not give way. I took three years off, had kids, and got my butt back to school. My other half, the father of my children and his family, have had quite the battle with addiction though. Experiences which frankly I have hardly any right to write about, or which I can hardly understand. Often, I find it hard to even empathize. My goal for family and friends has always striven towards not enabling. Brutal honesty—that I do not want that life for those close to me or in the lives of my children.
Enabling those we care for is a tight rope of its own, and there are little to no safety measures. I am positive I am not alone in these very personal struggles. I am also positive that we are not victim to our circumstances because of the resilience of our Native people and the traditions that ground us. Now that I sound like an ad for SKC (“Grounded in Tradition, Charging into the Future”), I also have to end on a prayer. A prayer for the still-suffering addict and the children caught in the crossfire.
Celina Gray (Blackfeet and Little Shell Chippewa) is a student at Salish Kootenai College studying wildlife and fisheries.