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Storytelling is a tool that has been used cross-culturally for centuries as a means to teach lessons, express viewpoints and build communities. Arizona State University’s new Native Narratives program strives to expand on the tradition of storytelling in Native American culture by using it as a tool to prepare students for careers in the humanities and academia.
In the two-year program, Native students from a variety of schools, departments and disciplines within ASU complete specialized courses designed to help them gain tools to effectively share their stories, connect with university mentors and receive ongoing support. Supported by a three-year, $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the program is a collaboration between The College of Liberal Arts and Science’s Center for Indian Education and Center for Imagination in the Borderlands.
Bryan Brayboy, President’s Professor in the School of Social Transformation, director of the Center for Indian Education and special adviser to the president on American Indian affairs, and Natalie Diaz, director of the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands, associate professor in the Department of English and the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry, launched the first interdisciplinary cohort in 2019.
Brayboy, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, and Diaz, a member of the Gila River Indian Tribe, said they are fueled to do this work through their own personal experiences as Native scholars. The idea for the program came to be when they were exploring ways to build a community where Native students feel accepted and empowered to move forward in higher education.
“Natalie and I are both engaged in and grew up in and around communities where stories were one medium through which we learned lessons,” Brayboy said. “We thought about who we were as members of communities and as Native peoples, while drawing on who we are as cultural beings in a way that is consistent with the challenges of what it means to be an Indigenous person in the academy, which is not always kind to Native peoples and our lived realities. This was a first attempt for us to begin thinking about how we can create the conditions for students to think about themselves as writers and as intellectuals.”
Chael Moore, an undergraduate student studying English and creative writing and a citizen of the Navajo Nation, is one of eight students in the first cohort. Moore grew up in Crystal, New Mexico, on the Navajo Reservation with her siblings and parents. As the youngest in her family and the first to pursue a degree in the humanities, she said she has independently made connections and forged her path in higher education.
“My siblings are all in STEM and other things like architecture or law. My mom was focused on environmental science, and when my dad was going to school he was thinking about architecture. For me it was creative writing,” Moore said. “I was very hesitant to declare that to my family because of that. But it's also very rewarding because my family doesn't have any connections in that world. So I'm very proud of where I'm at right now, considering that I kind of did it all on my own in a way.”
Moore said through writing about her lived experiences as a Diné woman, she strives to honor her family while shedding light on a perspective seldom shared in mainstream literature. In one of her most recent writings, “Woshdee’ (come on in),” she passionately expresses some of the difficulties and prejudices she regularly encounters throughout her life.
"The first time I ever felt shame for being who I was
was in the first grade.
Sitting in my chair with ch’izhii brown skin, a little girl from the Rez
shielded from the world, I heard
‘Welcome Chael everyone, she’s Native American!’
Her words made me feel like I was her prize.
one she had just won from an ad that said:
Indian children for sale!
A second time I was at a bar.
I stood in line, minding my own damn business when this white couple approached me.
I tried my best to avoid conversation
She stood closer, inhaled my air, then said
‘Wow you have a very exotic face. Can I touch your cheek bones?’
Her husband nodded in agreement gazing over what was left of me
A third time, I was at a club with my friends.
A man approached me asking if he could take me home by whispering
‘Will you be my Pocahontas tonight?’
I stood there thinking not again.
You see, it is not all fun and games.
Because while you hear it, you see it, you condone it?
I experience it."
— Chael Moore, excerpt from "Woshdee’ (come on in)"
Moore said through the program she has not only honed her writing skills, she has also collaborated with researchers from around the world and made new connections.
“The program gives us the opportunity to rewrite our own narratives, instead of other people writing them for us,” Moore said. “I'm really appreciative to be in the spaces I've been in, like collaborating with Dr. Brayboy and his colleagues and Natalie Diaz. That's something I never imagined doing. My experiences in the program have opened a lot of doors for me because I’ve been able to connect with people who are interested in the things I want to do in the future. I've also been able to make new friends, and it’s just really nice to know more Indigenous students on campus.”
Every student in the program is assigned a mentor at ASU, each bringing a different set of skills, background and expertise for the students to learn from. Through the program, students are paired with an established ASU professor who has interests that align with their own. Students meet regularly with their mentors to assist with research and other scholarly projects, attend events together, and ask questions or express concerns they might have, both academic and personal in nature.
“What we know is that when Native students have positive relationships with someone at the university, they are more likely to persist and they are more likely to be successful than if they don’t,” Brayboy said. “Human beings broadly, but Native people in this case specifically, go through life with mentors who guide us and offer wisdom when it's necessary to help people navigate difficult situations.”
Brayboy and Diaz have found that through this aspect of the program, the student-mentor relationships have been mutually beneficial for the students and the mentors.
“The majority of our mentors are non-Native and we feel like that's really important because too often, just by default in our country, one of the ways we categorize and compartmentalize is by race or ethnicity. There's a presumption that Native students should stay in a certain area, in certain classes with certain mentors,” Diaz said. “What this program has shown is the immediate impact of our students interacting with some of our most visible faculty and scholars is that it creates a reciprocal relationship. Our students are benefiting from watching them research and from their interactions with them, and our faculty are building their own capacity to imagine Natives in their classroom and imagine Natives as being successful in these fields.”
Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and clinical assistant professor of history in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, serves as a mentor to Shauntel Redhouse, a human nutrition major and a citizen of the Navajo Nation. Redhouse is currently assisting Jackson with research related to high school sports and Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education programming.
“Working with Victoria has helped widen my view of everything — from different research that is out there to all the resources that ASU has to offer,” Redhouse said. “If Native Narratives weren't around, I wouldn't have been able to make the connections I’ve made. I wouldn’t have the mentors I have now and I wouldn’t have met the people I'm surrounded by. Within the class structure, our professors talk about what it means to them to be Indigenous, and that has really motivated us to speak about our history and tell our stories.”
As a student who comes from a more scientific background, Redhouse said she most enjoyed the introductory narrative course she took through the program because it gave her the opportunity to explore other disciplines outside of her major.
“Native Narratives has challenged me to write my own story so I can help others,” she said. “I think that's what the program has helped us with the most, connecting us with other students and creating a space where we can share feedback and help each other out.”
According to the U.S. Department of Education, despite an increase in the number of Native students attending college over time, they remain the highest underrepresented group in postsecondary institutions, representing less than 1% of enrolled students.
The underrepresentation of Native students also exists at the graduate level and among full-time faculty. Less than 0.5% of all students across the U.S. enrolled in graduate programs identify as American Indian, and faculty who identify as American Indian, Alaska Native or who are two or more races, each make up 1% or less of full-time faculty.
The Native Narratives program is one of many ASU initiatives working to improve these numbers and create new opportunities for Native students. This fall, ASU has seen a growing number of Native students enrolled, with 2,874 undergraduate and 596 graduate students. In addition, ASU is one of the nation's leaders in degrees granted to American Indian students annually. For the 2019-20 academic year, 663 Native undergraduate and graduate students earned 679 degrees from ASU.
A major goal of the Native Narratives program is to encourage and prepare students to pursue graduate school and eventually professorship or other careers in higher education. In addition, the program is aligned with the greater aspirations of The College and the humanities division to enable students to create the future of the humanities disciplines and make them their own.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Native Narratives program has evolved to be primarily online, with classes, events and mentoring sessions being held via Zoom. Although these experiences are quite different than the traditional, in-person gatherings that the cohort has become accustomed to, the community continues to thrive and meet students where they are.
Brayboy said he sees this shift to online learning as a metaphor for how he hopes to approach the evolution of Native Narratives. He and Diaz said they are intentionally unsure of what the future holds for Native Narratives, as they hope to evolve the program based on student and university demands.
“The idea that we're going to have 17 cohorts isn't something that I aspire to necessarily,” Brayboy said. “I'm much more interested in how we can evolve our thinking about this, but also the program and the students' presence in it. How does it evolve the institution so that the institution begins to behave and engage differently — to think about knowledge and writing and stories differently? That's going to create other opportunities for us to explore.”
Brayboy and Diaz said they hope the efforts of this program will eventually eliminate the need for a program like this, because that would mean they accomplished what they set out to do — meaningfully increase Native American representation and participation in the university setting. With the first cohort underway and the second beginning in summer 2021, they are confident and hopeful that they can create a new future for Native students in higher education.
“As the university continues to evolve, we won't need this particular program because in a way, this program was a call to action as we imagine together in a very different way. It was a call to our mentors, to see who among our colleagues will join us in this collective imagining for how to receive Indigenous students better,” Diaz said.
“Our students are teaching us the things that they need that are not the same things our students needed five years ago. We began this program, and that should be enough for Native presence; however, as with any program, we think a lot about innovation. Indigenous communities and imaginations are very innovative. So this program will continue to morph, to shift, to leap and become the next iterations.”
Top photo by ASU