My students call me “Uncle.” It’s a title and responsibility I bestow upon myself the first week of every oral communication course. I’m typically an hour or so into class when I replace the authoritative semantics of “this course will instill its learner with a sense of…” with the familial “what your uncle plans to do here is…” I then pause and say, “I feel that by now we’ve created a bond, and so going forward you may all refer to me as Uncle Ryan.” This transition always gets a laugh from my class, but my hope is that it will continue to serve as an icebreaker for the relationship I’m proposing. I want my students to feel free to respectfully approach me with any question they have. I want them to know that despite public speaking being the top fear in the country, they can trust me to help them overcome the barriers impeding their success. Of course, I’m hardly alone in trying to foster this kind of learning environment at a tribal college or university (TCU), but I knew I had to put my thoughts into a column once I heard Haskell’s distinguished professor, Dr. Daniel Wildcat (Muscogee Creek), state, “Organizations once had offices of human relations, now we have offices of human resources…We would do well to seriously re-examine the widely shared wisdom of American Indian tribal worldviews that understood our lives on this planet as surrounded by relatives not resources.” I both concur and believe that if we TCU faculty and staff commit to conducting ourselves as a type of extended family, we’ll harness our educational potential and shift some failed paradigms.
Following his remarks, I shared my own thoughts with Dr. Wildcat and through a series of emails he elaborated on his beliefs. He wrote, “Human behavior might substantially improve the deadly situations we face today in the areas of ecology, environment, and economics if all of humankind started living among relatives again—relatives we did not crassly use, but relatives with whom we respectfully and responsibly shared this planet.” Of course we can all agree that conventional wisdom needs to evolve in all institutions, but his next point seemed especially true when applied to intellectual and academic exploration within college classrooms. In fact, I think all TCU faculty members should use it as a model for encouraging student interaction. Wildcat stated, “If we come together as family—as relatives—I have the freedom to speak honestly, for I know I’m among relatives. If I misspeak, someone will correct me, for that is the responsibility of good relatives. Speaking honestly means I might be honestly wrong…Among relatives I find some security in knowing I do not have to be right, but I do have to be honest.”
In one of my favorite anthologies on Native education, Beyond the Asterisk, essayists Steven C. Martin (Muscogee Creek) and Adrienne L. Thunder (Ho-Chunk) reinforce this point. They write, “If [Native] recruitment [and beyond] is conducted with integrity, involves extended family, and emphasizes respect, first-year students will establish an early, essential connection with the university and have some mental preparation on fundamentals (i.e. student organizations, support services, and programs) needed to survive in college.” The authors go on to offer advice to faculty that helps students thrive and echoes the bond TCUs should be striving to create. They write, “Be a teacher and a student; do not be afraid to learn. Listen to and encourage students to establish what they would like to achieve; help them work toward their goals with the expectation they will succeed. This approach puts students in charge of their own experiences.” To turn the old phrases, we instructors need to shift from being the “sage on the stage” to embodying the “guide at your side.” And if the students whose minds we’re seeking to expand feel comfortable in both questioning us and in calling us “cousin,” then all the better.
Of course, creating a family learning environment on our individual campuses is one thing, but what if we also approached one another as relatives? While it’s true that every TCU is its own institution, we’re also connected as part of the tribal college movement. Yet while we share many ideas, resources, and alumni, TCUs can also do more to strengthen their bonds. On point, Wildcat specifies, “I think even among tribal colleges we have much to gain in exploring what it would mean if we related to each other as sister institutions in a TCU family as opposed to a consortium of TCUs. We need to have some difficult and honest discussions about why we do so little partnering and cooperation. We often face our own ‘turf’ issues.” He goes on to state, “I truly believe TCUs can be the centers of excellence—exemplars—for the next generation of advanced learning environments. It is time we play to our strengths, our own intellectual and cultural traditions. As Einstein is often quoted apocryphally, ‘Sometimes you cannot solve problems with the same kind of thinking that created them.’ I believe it is reasonable to suggest we need to explore another way or kind of thinking. Where better to start than in the TCUs?”
In a 2013 newspaper article about the AIHEC student conference held in Green Bay, College of Menominee Nation student, and my metaphorical niece, Melissa Wilber (Menominee) stated her thoughts on the merits of TCUs: “I feel like we get classes we wouldn’t get in mainstream colleges. I like that I have tribal teachers that I feel you won’t find in other schools. It feels like family.” It most certainly does, and that familial feeling is one we can all use to drive our success. Everyone invested in a TCU should endeavor to create a learning community for relatives that spans campuses, Native nations, and the world our students will someday inherit. If we harness our strengths, and have an honest discussion about our opportunities, we can further demonstrate to the over-culture that Native knowledge and lifeways have always held the keys to respecting one another and healing the planet we call home.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year. He gratefully acknowledges the conversations he had with Dr. Daniel Wildcat in August and September of 2015, which contributed to this essay.
Martin, S.C. & A. L. Thunder. (2013). Incorporating Native Culture into Student Affairs. Beyond the Asterisk. H.J. Shotton, S.C. Lowe, & S.J. Waterman, eds. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Zarling, P. (2013, March 22). Native American Colleges Offer Tradition, Academics. Green Bay Press Gazette. Retrieved September 2015 from: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/03/22/indian-college-education/2010685/
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic 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.