Want to know why South Dakota needs to do more to help American Indian students get into our public universities? Consider this table (click to enlarge) on the percentages of Native students from the high schools with the most Native graduates who enroll in Board of Regents institutions:

Education at South Dakota's public universities may not be for everyone, but it is probably for more than 4.1% of Indian graduates from Pine Ridge, or 1.1% of Indian graduates from Sisseton.

Last week I discussed the South Dakota Board of Regents' report on placement outcomes for their graduates. Noticing that American Indians make up 8.9% of South Dakota's population but only 2.2% of our public university graduates, I suggested that any major initiative by the Regents to meet South Dakota's workforce needs should start with an effort to recruit more Indian students.

A couple of eager readers pointed out that the Regents are a step ahead of me. At their December meeting, the Regents also received "Like Two Different Worlds," a study of American Indian perspectives on higher education in South Dakota. 49 American Indian students from NSU, BHSU, SDSU, and USD participated in focus groups to discuss what keeps Indians from coming to university, what challenges they face at university, and what helps the smart, persistent, and lucky few push through to graduation. The study includes recommendations for Regental action to bring more Indians into higher education.

One obvious problem is money. The crushing poverty of the reservation makes higher education unaffordable for many Indian families. Increasing tuition and cuts to scholarships don't help, but even with financial support, many Indian students find it hard to leave home when their families need every dollar and every worker to feed the kids. Even if they get tuition assistance, many Indian students face campus life in dire financial straits. They can't count on any financial help from home the way many white students can. Having grown up in poverty, Indian students often lack basic personal budgeting skills that the Anglo culture takes for granted. That lack of money and money skills isolates Indian students (it's tough to be part of the gang when can't just head to Dough Trader for pizza on a lark), stresses them out, and drives many students out of school.

A deeper cultural problem is what I might call the tension of the tiospaye. The Lakota/Dakota sense of extended family creates a healthy sense of identity and community. The commitment to the tiospaye holds Indian tribes together in the midst of hardship. It motivates many students involved in the study to go to university and get their degrees so they can better support their families, serve their tribes, and set an example for their fellow Indians.

But the ties of the tiospaye also pull young Indians away from university. As mentioned above, young Indians feel an obligation to stay home and work for their families. Leaving for university feels like abandoning the family. The obligation and guilt Indian students feel is reinforced every time they visit home... and as one student in the study points out, those visits often take place in grim, powerful circumstances:

…if someone’s aunt dies or someone’s mom dies or someone’s brother dies – I mean, the reservation, it’s not an easy place to live. There’s a lot of death on the reservations. And you know when someone dies you obviously you go back to their funeral…and when you go back then you’re going to be like talking to those people again. And then you’re going to realize you miss them. And they are going to miss you, and like you said you depend on them, they depend on you…I think that’s why a lot of Native Americans don’t stay in college, is because they don’t necessarily feel that support or because they feel like they’re needed at home to support those other people. I just think that there’s a lot of like – to me, an image of hands like grasping at people and like pulling them back [student, "Like Two Different Worlds," South Dakota Board of Regents, May 2013].

Remember: our current Congresswoman left college in 1994 when her father died, and we don't begrudge her that choice. Indian students face grim choices like that in their extended families on the reservation more frequently.

The hands of the tiospaye, "grasping at people and... pulling them back," can also push Indian students away. Many students in the focus groups reported that going to university earns them resentment and alienation from family and friends back home. Rather than winning respect, their decision to go to university earns them reactions like these:

"...You're not better than us... You stay here. This is what we've all done."

...some of our friends refused to talk to me....

"...oh, just because you got an education, doesn't mean s---" [students, BOR, May 2013]

One student likens that resentment to the old-time anger at the "hang-around-the-fort" Indians. Another notes that the whole Western notion of higher education and credentialing doesn't fit with Lakota culture. Even our noble universities are imperialist institutions, and Indian students attending them will face accusations of surrender to the Wasicu.

That rejection painfully isolates students coming from the tiospaye. That close-knit community is all that they are. They go off to university and find themselves outsiders in the white-man's world of Spearfish or Brookings. But they come home to find their own families accusing them of belonging more to that white-man's world. To feel like an outsider everywhere and at home nowhere is too great a burden for many young people to take.

The Board of Regents will not single-handedly solve any deep cultural tensions. But the Regents did approve acting on the following recommendations to be acted on immediately:

  1. Creating a central office position for an American Indian liaison to high schools, American Indian students, and their families. This outreach would go beyond the usual one-time high school visits from admissions office reps. This outreach would include much more follow-up, meetings with students and families explaining the basics of university life, and helping American Indian students fill out their applications.
  2. Coordinating system-wide efforts to keep Indian students in university. The specific programs the Regents want to use and expand are scholarships, emergency campus funds, special Native orientation programs, summer bridge programs, and (one of the best suggestions) work-study jobs that will send American Indian students out as recruiters.
  3. System-wide professional development activities for American Indian student service specialists.
  4. Reviews of mission statements, inclusive language, and zero-racism-tolerance policies.

The Regents also approved three longer-term actions:

  1. Developing an advisory committee of high school principals and/or guidance counselors to help the Regents develop better American Indian outreach programs and to share among high schools practices that help get more Indian students ready for college.
  2. Studying American Indian recruitment and retention more closely.
  3. Strengthening relations between the Regents and South Dakota's tribes... which is the vaguest statement among the recommendations. I wonder... shall we require that one Regent be a tribal member?

If we hear any opposition to efforts by the Regents to recruit, enroll, and graduate more American Indian students, it will likely couched in opposition to "affirmative action" and special favors for certain groups. But restoring scholarships, helping Indian students fill out their apps and FAFSAs, and offering support networks on campus aren't special favors. They are efforts to give our American Indian citizens the same support that students from the dominant culture already get from other sources.

The Regents are headed in the right direction on outreach to American Indian students. The Legislature and the Governor should support them with the resources necessary to bring up those enrollment percentages from Pine Ridge, Sisseton, and other South Dakota communities.