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Mainstream college can be different, but achievable

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DENVER – Graduation nears for some Native students, while others may find themselves included in college dropout rates exceeding 60 percent.

But the large numbers of those leaving college before completion and the relatively few Native Ph.D.’s are two measures that reveal more about different ways of thinking than about American Indian students’ intelligence and ability, a prominent Native academic believes.

Donald L. Fixico, Seminole/Creek/Sac and Fox/Shawnee, said the Native ethos is more circular than linear and more inclusive than exclusive, and those from traditional homes think “in a very different way – in a way that affects the way they see the world.

“American Indian students going to college have the mental equipment to succeed in college,” he said, urging students at the University of Colorado-Denver to “learn the system and how the university works.”

Fixico, who is Distinguished Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University, described the current picture of Native students in higher education in a humor-laced address that acknowledged his own early struggles in academia.

Today, he said, there are about 250 Indian Ph.D.’s in the United States and “I can’t believe there aren’t more than that.”

A number of forces can work against Natives’ attaining graduate degrees, and at present American Indians are attending graduate school in numbers even lower than the scant one percent they represent in the college population as a whole.

One possibly outdated and irrelevant measure for college-age Natives puts their average IQ at 102.8 percent, compared to the mainstream 110, a difference that doesn’t exist with younger children, he said.

“As they get older, Indian students do not read or write as much (as do mainstream students) about mainstream topics,” he said, and IQ tests are oriented toward the mainstream.

Although differences between Indian and mainstream students are accompanied by tribal differences – an Eastern Woodland person thinks “way differently” than a Southwestern tribal member – overall, the spoken word is emphasized and knowledge is “more visual.”

“The way I approached things was very different because I was close to the Seminole/Creek tradition,” he said. “We’re struggling in a system that’s very linear.”

“Basically, the Indian mind is more openly inclusive to accept the truth literally, whereas the mind of the mainstream is linear and desires empirical evidence as proof of the truth. The latter is more factual and scientific, whereas the Indian perspective is open to things that cannot necessarily be explained.” -Donald L. Fixico, “American Indians in a Modern World”

Another difference from the mainstream is that the Native ethos accommodates spirits and ghosts, but many Native scholars do not acknowledge them, at least not openly.

Plants, animals, ghosts, the Creator, presence of the metaphysical, unseen forces, everything known and not-known – an abundance, in Native culture, which is “all about understanding relationships and the elements.”

Recalling his childhood, Fixico told of a white neighbor who went hunting with Fixico’s father when, at dusk, both heard unidentified sounds. Dusk, a powerful time when day and night meet, provided the setting in which the sounds of an ancient event could have crossed temporal and cultural lines to allow them both to briefly hear it, he said.

At the interface of Native/mainstream culture, some 40,000 books have been written about the experience of contact from the white-toward-Indian point of view, but fewer from the Native vantage point, he said, and despite the fact it generally has been typical to “look at things in a very binary fashion,” it’s important to move beyond that.

The scholar said Native people removed from their culture never became truly mainstream, although they can function in that world: “Assimilation doesn’t really happen.”

Before joining the ASU faculty, Fixico was the Thomas Bowlus Distinguished Professor of American Indian History, CLAS Scholar and founding director of the Center for Indigenous Nations Studies at the University of Kansas. He has been a visiting lecturer, visiting professor, or exchange professor at the University of California, Berkeley; UCLA; San Diego State University; University of Michigan; University of Nottingham, England; and Freie Universität Berlin.

He has written more than 10 books on federal Indian policy, urban Indians, American Indian history, tribal natural resources, economics on Indian reservations, and other topics in Indian country.

His address April 21 was sponsored by the University of Colorado-Denver Department of Ethnic Studies and conducted by Prof. Donna Langston, department director, and Jennifer L. Williams, program assistant.