When asked how I would describe my students—I teach at Haskell Indian Nations University, a four-year college here in Lawrence for American Indian and Alaska Native students from federally recognized tribes—the word I like to use is “diverse.”
Friends are often puzzled when I give this response. “But by definition, isn’t it less diverse than most universities?” they ask. “After all, even historically black colleges and universities admit non-black students; Haskell only admits students from federally recognized tribes. Every single one of your students is Native.”
What they say is true—in order to attend, students must have proof of tribal enrollment—but it overlooks the wide variation within our student body. Race, culture, economic class, educational background…there are many different kinds of students at Haskell.
First, some background: Haskell Indian Nations University was founded in 1884 as the United States Indian Industrial Training School, a boarding school for Native children to teach trades and homemaking skills. As with many boarding schools of the era aimed at Native students, the goal was assimilation into larger European-American culture—students were forbidden from using their native languages; they were given short haircuts, uniforms, and English names; and they were expected to worship at Christian church services. This philosophy was summed up by U.S. Army officer Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School: “Kill the Indian and save the man.” Conditions at these schools were not good, and students dealt with poor nutrition, disease, abuse, and neglect. Not all survived. That history is still palpable at Haskell even today, whether in the stories of hauntings of campus buildings by the spirits of former students, or in the presence of a small cemetery of children’s graves on the edge of campus.
Over the years, conditions improved, and the school evolved. The Industrial Training School became the Haskell Institute (named for U.S. Representative Dudley Haskell, who played a large part in getting the school located in Lawrence), a high school that later became a vocational-technical institute. In 1970, it graduated to a junior college model, becoming Haskell Indian Junior College. In 1993, Haskell evolved once again, beginning to offer bachelor’s degrees, and was renamed Haskell Indian Nations University. Now the only federally-run, intertribal four-year school in the country, Haskell serves hundreds of American Indian and Alaska Native students from over a hundred federally recognized tribes in partial fulfillment of treaty and trust obligations. In contrast to its assimilationist beginnings, Haskell now attempts to incorporate Native culture and identity into everything its faculty, staff, and students do.
So, then, if all our students are Native, what kind of diversity do we have at Haskell?
Racial: We have students that, on first glance, might appear to be solely white, or black, or Latino. Other students “look traditionally Native” enough to pose for a statue of Sitting Bull.
Tribal: We have students from a host of different American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. From the Pacific Northwest to the Great Plains, from the arid Southwest to the eastern seaboard, students come from different tribes, each of which has its own culture. Some come from rural reservations, while others come from heavily urban areas. There is no universal “American Indian” experience. Growing up in the Navajo Nation is different from life in Tahlequah, Oklahoma (capital of the Cherokee Nation), and neither probably represents the lives of Haida people from the Pacific Northwest.
Economic/Educational: We have students from some of the poorest areas and worst schools in the country. (For example, we have many students from Pine Ridge, a Lakota reservation in South Dakota where life expectancies are among the shortest of any group in the Western Hemisphere, one in four children is born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, and infant mortality and teen suicide rates are far higher than the national average.) On the other hand, we also have students from relatively affluent middle-class households and strong public schools, and I’ve taught multiple students who hailed from USD 497, right here in Lawrence.
Preparedness: We have many students who come to Haskell unprepared for college-level coursework. A large percentage of our incoming students have to take one or more developmental classes in either Math or English, and the English Department is currently working on a college bridge program (with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities) to help students in need of additional help transition from high school to college workloads. Conversely, we also have students who come in to the classroom fully prepared, and who could hold their own at any university in the country (Ivy League not excluded!).
However, my friends are right in one of the things that they say: whatever else these students are, every single one is Native. Even this doesn’t mean the same thing to all of our students, though. Some have grown up in “Indian country” and in a strong Native tradition; they might dance at powwows on the weekends, or speak a traditional language. Others come to Haskell to learn more about their Native history and who they are as Natives, which until now may not have been a major part of their identity. In many ways, I believe the fact that everyone is Native—and the fact that that does not mean the same thing to everyone—gives a good vantage point from which to appreciate all the differences in Haskell’s student body.
In the meantime, if you’d like to find out more about Haskell, we will be having our annual Indian Art Market on September 10th (10:00 am-6:00 pm) and 11th (10 am-5 pm). It will be held at the Powwow Grounds on Haskell’s campus. Stop by and say hello!
Joseph Rodriguez is an instructor of English and current acting Dean of Humanities at Haskell Indian Nations University. He earned his doctorate in English in 2012 from the University of Iowa, specializing in medieval British literature. In addition to teaching at Haskell, he has also taught at the University of Iowa and Central Methodist University.