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Inclusion > Exclusion
We are finally on spring break and while I don’t quite see the light near the end of the tunnel I am looking forward to getting closer to the end of the year. It’s a mix of feelings because once June hits, it will be a year until my family is done here; a year until I have my Bachelor of Science degree. I am excited but a year isn’t that much time. I would like to make a difference on campus for future students and keep my sanity. Student government is one way I have worked on this goal, this year. It has been a turbulent ride, while full of opportunities for personal growth.
I can only speak for student government at my tribal college, but I am inclined to say because tribal colleges are such a relatively new thing compared to larger, quite established universities, student governments are faced with classic capacity-building challenges. Challenges like participation, engagement, enthusiasm, training, available mentors, effective mentors, and a range of working or non-working relationships with school administration and college boards. Tribal colleges support tribal sovereignty by allowing tribes to have direct oversight of their higher educational institutions. This is not meant to take away from support or involvement for other “community colleges” or state universities. Ideally, Indian education in form and function is equal—ideally. There is room for growth, what we in natural resources know as adaptive management.
The history of policy, not just for Native Americans but for education, is not one that considers input from the student or group that is meant to be benefiting from top-down assertions. In this way, as engaged Native students we must consider that we are functioning in institutions that were not necessarily or holistically made for us. We must ask, respectfully and persistently, that our campus communities and also state boards of higher education facilitate a space where a diverse set of students are allowed to discuss the issues we face within the spaces that policy has created.
I equate this to a time-in vs. time-out for the twins. If I truly want them to learn a lesson or help transform a negative experience into an opportunity for growth, then exclusion is not the most effective path. Inclusion though creates power, supports them as individuals, and brings about a functional family-community process of understanding. Mentors who practice inclusion provide a framework with filters that catch systemic flaws and stop individual bad habits from continuing. I would say this comes from my own cultural understandings and at the kind of policy level I am talking about it can be more difficult, although not impossible.
I had a wonderful conversation about inclusion with one of my peers, TaNeel Filesteel, who is currently participating in the Native American Political Leadership Program in DC. In honoring tribal values vs. fitting into the institutional mold, she stated, “When there is a common ground of respect then there isn’t a worry of people being on the defensive. This is a reflection on the leadership at every level. When we as tribal leaders are promoting respect and transparency [we can get rid of] this process that prevents people from doing their jobs, creating new ideas and more positive growth.”
Celina Gray (Blackfeet and Little Shell Chippewa) is a student at Salish Kootenai College and the mother of twins.