Effecting Change in an “Alternate Facts” World

What if we could bring back the buffalo? Imagine the changes that could occur if Native people were once again blessed with a single entity that provided for their communities? Literally speaking, it’s not a crazy speculation. Have you seen the images of animals throughout the world enjoying abandoned highways, beaches, and city blocks during this pandemic? Has their newfound freedom brightened your spirit? Have they given you a reason to smile in this dreary time? I know they have for me. Yet when I speak about bringing back the buffalo, I’m speaking metaphorically. What I’m actually imagining is the concept of the “New Buffalo” that Blair Stonechild (Cree-Saulteaux) helped to shed light upon. The New Buffalo is a college degree, because when Native people earn a post-secondary education, they are able to provide more richly for all their relations. While COVID-19 has caused what were once unimaginable obstacles for students, faculty, and staff throughout the world, tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) offer hope for Native nations now more than ever. In this sometimes scary, alternative facts world, everyone needs to remember that they are part of a solution much larger than themselves.

I understand that living through this pandemic is hard to endure. Many TCU staff members are struggling with the same issues our students are—loss of a household income, feelings of isolation, fear of the unknown, and all the frustrations that accompany schooling that require not only rigorous studies, but also the addition of updated computers, technologic fluency, and a reliable internet connection. It’s not ideal that we’re now forced to communicate through screens and attend classes from wherever we can find a somewhat quiet space in our homes. Still, it is far worse for someone to abandon their educational dreams when a lifeline has been extended.

Now is the time for each of us to remember why we’re at a TCU. We need to find ways that we can collectively make a better future for the next generation. We must look back not only to what we have overcome, but also what others have done so that we can be in the fortunate positions we’re in. We’re all part of colleges that practice culturally responsible teachings of Native values alongside the skillsets needed for an exemplary twenty-first century education. Our TCUs are the fruition of the dreams, sacrifices, and determination of so many who came before us. Their efforts have created a place for Indian education that is more than a single building, campus, or even a collective of schools. They created a movement that can and will overcome this and any other crisis.

Yet we can’t pause time to wait this out because despite the speculations, no one knows when this virus will be behind us. Although both essential and frontline workers are putting forth a herculean effort, there isn’t a magic cure in the pipeline. Regardless whether states “reopen” and stay-at-home orders are lifted, none us can ensure that we or our loved ones won’t contract the illness that has wreaked havoc on the lives of so many. Anyone who claims otherwise is living in a world of “alternative facts.”

But rest assured, we will overcome. The world will be different, but the values, ambitions, and joy that give life meaning will endure. The question is, where will each of us find ourselves once this pandemic has passed? My hope is that current TCU students will have progressed in their coursework, earned their degrees, and will be ready to face their new reality with the knowledge and skills their education has given them. My one wish for students is that they stay the course, remain strong, and continue to persist. This pandemic alone will not define any of us—only our actions can do that, and thus far I have witnessed heroics.

Still, I implore you all to finish this semester strong and enroll in the next one. I ask you to remember who you can help once you finish your degree. Keep those people in the forefront of your minds as you persevere through the worthwhile struggle that collegiate courses require. Rely on your family and friends to help you succeed and do whatever you can to encourage others to do the same. Native communities need educated allies to carry them forward in both times of calm and crisis, and you can help bring about the positive change that so many rely upon.

Although my classroom may now be a digital screen, every week I’m filled with optimism. I watch students demonstrate their acquired skills via social distancing, encourage one another through digital chat, and share wonderful moments filled with laughter and spontaneity. As this pandemic has proven time and time again, a building doesn’t make a school—people do. From my perch in a repurposed room in my house, I’m so proud to see the depth and breadth of learning evidenced in my classes. I’m thrilled to witness the spirit of TCUs thrive even when campuses are shuttered.

A pandemic can’t slay the New Buffalo. An education is worth the effort. You can effect positive change that ripples throughout your community. You just need to stay the course and remember that you are part of a solution much larger than yourself.

Ryan Winn teaches in the Liberal Studies Department at College of Menominee Nation. 

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

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