Looking beyond LMU’s first observance of Indigenous Heritage Month, three Indigenous faculty, Mónica Cabrera (Qichwa), Ernesto Colín (Masewalli), and Brenda Nicolás (Zapoteco), addressed concerns of identity, student success, and the need for a program or department devoted to Indigenous studies. In the quest for deeper historical and cultural understanding, an education that embraces the whole student body, and to promote justice that serves faith, LMU’s focus on anti-racism, implicit bias, and diversity, equity, and inclusion means facing hard truths with a willingness to change. One hard truth is that the number of American Indian and Alaska Native students attending LMU has fallen to under 10.
Questions about identity prompt wide-ranging responses, indicative of the Indigenous experience in America. Individual expressions often depend on the cultural moment. “During my undergraduate years at LMU,” said Colín, “these were not overt issues, maybe because indigenous students at LMU were in the shadows.”
Nicolás said, “I am Zapotec from Xhiin and Lao Yaa,’ which are two communities located in the Juárez highlands of Oaxaca, Mexico. Identity has become problematic when as Indigenous diasporas from Abiayala (Latin America) we become racialized in the U.S. as Latinx/Hispanic, because it obscures our unique difference in cultural, political, linguistic, and other ways of knowing.”
Cabrera’s experience growing up in Peru was different; Indigenous identity was split between the colonized world and the Indigenous. “There was a stigma attached to Indigenous identity that was a problem from early in life.” Adds Colín, “Because indigenous lifeways are so much a part of Latinx cultures, those of us who identified with those communities found moments of resonance and representation in student organizations and programing coming out of Student Affairs.”
Cabrera sees interpreting a sense of identity for students as an awareness of learning from the students and reflecting it back. “I am amazed how they resisted and flourished, and my advice to students is to continue doing that,” she said. Added Nicolás: “As Indigenous peoples we have survived more than 500 years of colonization, and ongoing. Our mere existence demonstrates that our ancestors have interrupted colonization, empire, and all forms of racial and gender violence at every single turn. It demonstrates that elimination has failed as we continue to hold our multiple Indigenous practices, identities, and beliefs dear to our hearts.” Reaching out can be one of the most difficulties things for students to do, but in doing so, it is likely that more doors will open, Nicolás said.
Giving and taking instruction, a crucial aspect of the learning process, becomes a delicate interplay between respect for elders and establishing an independent path. Colín leans on advice that was given to him by an elder, Celia Herrera Rodríguez. “In life, as you go through college and your career, or in the community, you will be faced with so many decisions. As you navigate those environments there is one question you can ask yourself to help you with your choices. The question is this: ‘Will this take me home?’ Now, home is a metaphor, and you must decide what home is for you. And home is not just about you as an individual but about you in relationship with others. You have enough maturity to define what home is for you. Later, you will refine what home is and develop your instinct as well.” Nicolás recognizes much of her own experience in the students she meets. “As a first-generation faculty, who is also the first in my family to go to college, and the first woman in my two Zapotec communities to earn a doctoral degree, it has not been easy to navigate my career up to this point,” she said. “When you are feeling lonely, experiencing self-doubt, and not validated, remember that we come from a long lineage of ancestors who have fought for us to be in these spaces and walk our Native lands. Reach out to staff, faculty, students that you feel will understand your specific challenges, questions, comments without judgment.”
The environment of learning is also a crucial component of the experience. Those aspects of the university that reflect colonialism are inherently exclusionary, yet, habits of organization and tradition are so ingrained as to be hard to recognize. Think regalia and the traditional academic hierarchy. Cabrera sees the recognition of place as primary to realigning perspectives. “The Tongva connection to the place we exist in and the people who exist here is really important and we need a more active connection by establishing networks,” she said. “We have the beginning, but we need to build on it by utilizing resources such as Native American Connections to see that Indigenous students are crucial for LMU to achieve its mission; let’s flesh out those connections.” Colín takes a matter-of-fact approach to creating a nourishing environment: “If you build it, more will come,” he said. “Indigenous students are already at LMU. More will come if we have spaces for them; if the curriculum reflects them more; if there are minors and majors relevant to their experience; if they have living and learning communities; if Student Affairs professionals are geared towards them; if the Admission team focuses recruitment efforts; if financial aid and partnerships are built for them; if they have faculty and staff with whom them resonate; if we value them.”
Nicolás said, “We need to understand that Indigenous peoples are vast, diverse, and have different knowledge systems that we continue to practice and hold dear to our identities, who we are and where we are at in relationship to all living things, water, animals, earth, fire, wind and that we cannot live without our relationship to all as these are fundamental in our own understanding of having survived more than 500 years of colonization.”
To attract and retain Indigenous students, the three professors strongly advise an Indigenous Studies Department for LMU. “If we are to truly commit to the education of the whole person at LMU, as an underrepresented Indigenous faculty, I understand it as always working with promoting justice and service to all faiths,” said Nicolás. “Therefore, one of the first ways is by garnering support among students and the greater Los Angeles community to bring their voices and visibility to the fore at LMU in seeing the importance of pushing for an Indigenous Studies Department.” Cabrera said, “I’m surprised we don’t have it already. It is long overdue and would be a vital institutional support for students.”
Colín adds, “This department, along with its faculty, curriculum and students, would only enhance a university which proclaims its roots in the liberal arts. This department would be the ideal of a global imagination, intersectionality, going beyond words in anti-racism projects, a whole-person education, the exploration of faith, expansion of internationalization, the power of service, justice work, and solidarity, and so forth. Indigenous communities have so much to offer in all the arts, in environmentalism, in knowledge systems, in languages, in spirit practice, in humanities, in all the sciences, in business, in activism, in history, in philosophy, in futurism, and on and on.”
The above comes from a Nov. 30 posting of LMU This Week.