Native American students look for place on campus

It's a long way from the Navajo reservation in Ganado, Ariz. to Durham. It's almost 2,000 miles by car-and perhaps even farther culturally.

But freshman Latisha Yazzie, a member of the Blackfeet and Navajo tribes, made that journey. Yazzie is one of a handful of Native American students at Duke. As the Native American Student Association holds events this week in honor of American Indian Heritage Month, she and others say it is difficult and daunting to be a Native American on campus.

Less than one-quarter of one percent of Yazzie's class identifies as Native American. The five-year high, the Class of 2009, was .58 percent Native American, but only .01 percent of juniors identified as Native Americans.

"Duke is culturally diverse, but it's also segregated," Yazzie said. "People have their groups-the black group, the Asian group, the Hispanic group-and we have our group. But there are so few of us."

NASA has expanded about fourfold this year, said President Adair Hill, a senior and member of the North Carolina-based Lumbee tribe. The increase has allowed the organization to hold more events, including a screening and question-and-answer session with leading Native American film director Chris Eyre.

Hill's group will also host a festival with song, dance and a fashion show on the West Campus Plaza this afternoon from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., and hopes to hold more events in December and in the spring.

NASA is working with the University to increase recruitment of Native Americans-both in the Southwest and in North Carolina, which has the largest Native American population east of the Mississippi River.

She added that NASA is also lobbying for the hiring of faculty to teach classes about Native Americans. She said Native American populations are often overlooked not only by students, but in the classroom.

Freshman Sadie In The Woods, a Lakota Sioux from the Cheyenne River Tribe, said isolation has been a major problem for her in her first months at the University.

In The Woods, a club basketball player, said she came to Duke because of the women's basketball team. She said when she visited during Blue Devil Days in the spring, she was placed with Yazzie and told there were other Native Americans on campus. Since arriving, they have found that statement to be only nominally true and In The Woods said she has been unhappy.

"At this point, I don't have much to go on beside prayer," In The Woods said.

But even that is problematic. She said she has a difficult time finding a place to express her spirituality and has no one to practice it with.

"At home, that's what it's all about, being together," she said. There is only one other Lakota on campus, she added.

Despite her unhappiness, In The Woods will not leave Duke. Her home on the Sioux reservation is in one of the poorest counties in the nation, and she said she hopes to return home and help to improve people's lives after graduating.

"I'm here-I can't go home," she said. "The whole reservation would beat me up."

Besides isolation, Native American students suffer from the insensitivity of others on campus. In some cases, it comes through blatant jokes about Pocahontas, tepees and casinos, but often the problem is sheer ignorance.

"I tend not to really blame the individual people for that-I blame the American school system," Hill said. "That's the whole reason I do what I do."

Many students also make jokes about how the Native American students are only here because of affirmative action.

"People are so concerned with people outside of America, but they don't focus on people inside," Yazzie said. "It's like going to someone's house and not getting to know them-and then kicking them out!"


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