As an American Indian woman and a first-generation college graduate, I understand what it is like to be different.
Since I have always attended mainstream institutions, I thought I understood the struggles of walking in two worlds, and as I approached my dissertation in education at Capella University, I developed a strong interest in cross-cultural issues. The research I found addressed the experiences of minority students at mainstream institutions, but there was a void in the research related to the experiences of teachers who differed ethnically from their students at minority-serving institutions.
As a faculty member at the College of Menominee Nation (CMN, Keshena, WI), I saw many faculty members attempt to acclimate to a very new environment with varying levels of success. I wanted to understand what it was like for them to adjust to the expectations and culture of a tribal college or university (TCU), and this became the focus of my dissertation.
For my project, I conducted a qualitative study that consisted of interviews with eight non-Indian faculty members at a tribal college in the West. I thought that by understanding their thoughts and experiences, trainings could eventually be developed to support their needs.
Initially, I assumed that sudden immersion into another culture would cause some dissonance within individuals. Since TCUs are mission-driven institutions charged with incorporating culture, I wanted to know how non- Indian faculty members felt about fulfilling this responsibility. What did it feel like to be held responsible for teaching curriculum through a cultural lens that was new to them? I reasoned that it might be similar to the experiences of Jews teaching at a Catholic school and so might be relevant to many people.
Personally, I also wanted to know if they experienced any conflict with their own identity as they were immersed in a new culture. I was surprised that they did not report a cultural conflict in maintaining their own identity. In fact, their interest and pursuit in discovering their cultural past was intensified when they began teaching at a TCU. The more they learned about American Indian culture, the more they felt cheated by not having a strong sense of cultural identify within their own families.
A 2006 survey of 35 tribal college faculty members found that 57% of faculty identified themselves as non- Indian while 42.9% identified themselves as American Indian. Since 79% of students at TCUs are American Indian, according to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC), this cultural disparity must be addressed.
One of my study participants described a situation that had a significant impact on him. He explained that he took his wife to a cultural event in a nearby community as a way to immerse himself in the culture of his students. He was not well received, and his presence was not welcome. He admitted that for the first time in his life, he felt like an outsider. As a white male, he expected to be welcomed since that had always been his experience. He was able to relate this experience to those of his students. Before his interview, he had not realized that his ability to choose when to be a minority was unique and indicated a privilege he did not know he had. He acknowledged that his students were in the minority in most places and did not have a choice in the matter. This seemed to be a significant insight for him.
Perhaps the most relevant aspect of the study was the recommendations made for tribal college administrators. These suggestions came from participants when I asked how their college administrators could support them. They identified four major areas of information, including: American Indian language and history, cultural protocol, cultural expectations, and poverty.
They explained that while they were able to take tribal history and language courses at no cost, many did not have time to take them. Faculty development opportunities should be focused on language and history on a regular basis. They also reported that many of them acquired knowledge over time but an overview upon hire would have been helpful.
They voiced some anxiety regarding expectations and behavior at funerals and powwows. Information about cultural protocol could be offered upon hire also. Finally, they wanted information on poverty issues. It was difficult for them to understand or predict the problems associated with poverty and how they might affect students.
The faculty members also reported that it would have been useful for them to know more about what to expect from students based on culture. One of the most commonly reported expectations was the role of family during illness and death. This cultural difference was difficult for faculty members to understand.
They were not aware that funerals often mean that students will be absent for days rather than hours. If they had known what to expect when a student had this issue, they could have been more supportive. They said that they learned over time, but their initial lack of cultural knowledge caused them great discomfort.
Several participants recommended the development of a cultural handbook for each college. This handbook could provide information on faculty expectations surrounding the cultural protocol specific to that tribe. Immersion into a culture is intimidating, and sensitivity to this anxiety is essential to faculty members. Another suggestion would be to assign new faculty members to a mentor in the school or community as a “go to” person. Just having a safe person to ask cultural questions without fear of offending them would be extremely useful.
Conducting this research taught me that non-Indian faculty members at tribal colleges have unique needs. Since the majority of tribal college faculty members are non-Indian, it is imperative to develop methods to support them. Future research in this area could be expanded to other types of missiondriven institutions.
Sharon Fredericks (Menominee/Irish) taught at the College of Menominee Nation for nine years and is currently dean of student learning at Rasmussen College’s Green Bay, WI, campus.