Long Underrepresented and Overlooked, Native American and Indigenous Students Are Getting Texas Colleges’ Attention
By Paula Levihn-Coon
Even as a little girl growing up as a member of the Miskitu tribe of Nicaragua, Ruth Matamoras dreamed of going to college and one day earning a doctorate. But when she arrived at the University of Texas, her dream ran into a discomforting reality.
“It’s intimidating,” Matamoros said, when describing how it feels to be a lone Indigenous person in a class. “Sometimes feeling different is good. I like being different. But in this case, it’s an awkward feeling of being different. It feels different in a bad way.”
As UT has become more diverse with increasing numbers of Black and Hispanic students, its enrollment of Native American and Indigenous students has dropped.
Indigenous faculty and students, working with the university’s admissions department, are trying to make UT a more attractive and supportive place for those who historically have felt like they don’t belong.
On Indigenous Peoples Day, Oct. 11, members of the admissions department faculty in the Native American and Indigenous Studies program and students from the Native American and Indigenous Collective held an inaugural recruiting event for prospective Native American students.
Though a small and virtual get together, it was an important one — the result of a deliberate effort by many people over several years.
“It’s a great partnership that we started to make sure that we’re being intentional about having specific events for our Native and Indigenous students,” said Veronica Pecero, UT’s director for access and inclusion. “It’s all about building community even before these students step on campus.”
In the spring, the group is planning another event to welcome admitted students to UT and make sure they know the support structure available through NAIS and NAIC.
They are trying to reverse a trend that has seen UT’s enrollment of American Indian or Alaska Natives drop by two-thirds, from 143 to 50, over the past 10 years, while enrollment of Asian and Latinx students has risen and enrollment of Black students has held steady.
“Until recently most of our focus has been on our African American, Hispanic Latino and first-generation students,” Pecero said.
The efforts at UT echo those occurring at other Texas universities.
“Texas is late to the game,” said Jeffrey Shepherd, a history professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who has advocated for Native Americans on the UTEP campus.
“What is needed is a whole suite of services and cultural competencies to support these students who have a unique history and unique needs,” Shepherd said. “It has to be a whole student, whole university endeavor.”
Though their overall population in Texas is growing, Native American and Indigenous peoples have been an outnumbered and overshadowed historically underrepresented group.
“We have a real issue that the state of Texas does not recognize itself as Indian country,” said Circe Sturm, a NAIS faculty member whose father is Mississippi Choctaw. “But the reality is that we have the fifth-largest population of American Indians of any state.”
In Arizona and New Mexico, tribes drive busloads of prospective students to university campuses for admissions activities. For now, similar trips are only a dream at UT Austin, but momentum for these efforts is gaining.
Many tribes offer students scholarships for college, but universities must understand and accept them. When Cheyanne Lozano, a half-Navajo, half-Latino student, attended New Mexico State, her Navajo scholarship was easily incorporated into her financial aid package. That was not the case when she transferred to UTEP, she said.
“Every year was a struggle with the financial aid office and my tribal scholarship. They didn’t know what to do with it. They’d lose the paperwork. They didn’t take it seriously,” Lozano said. “They finally had someone talk to me very specifically to help me through this and luckily that happened, but it was a headache the first three, four years of my undergrad.”
Native American student recruitment is unique because of ties to reservations and community centers. At TCU, Scott Langston, the Native American nations and communities liaison, helped form a Native American Advisory Circle. It developed a guide for recruiting Native American faculty and students that has been embraced by the admissions department. This guide says that Native American identity is more than having a Native American ancestor or DNA. Relationships,especially to communities and cultures,are crucial and axiomatic elements of Native American identities.
Native Americans come from a variety of backgrounds, which complicates universities’ efforts to understand and support them.
“I’ve met a number of students who the extent of connection to their community or culture is that they had a great great grandmother who was native. And that may be all that they know,” Langston said. “On the other hand, we have students who are very connected to their communities and cultures, who are living with them.”
Nationally, the tradition of attending a university is lower for Native Americans than any other ethnic group. In 2017, only 20% of Native Americans went to college, compared with 41% for white, 65% for Asian, and 36% for Black and Hispanic students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
And universities have struggled to retain Native American students. According to an article in the Journal of American Indian Education, this attrition rate is about 80%.
“Once American Indian students enter into higher ed, we see huge rates of attrition,” said Circe Strum, a NAIS faculty member whose father is Mississippi Choctaw. They often feel out of their element. They get lost in the system because they’re not around other American Indian students who are sharing these experiences.”
Those are the trends that the group at UT is working to overcome.
NAIS is starting student recruitment efforts through outreach to Native American community centers, which exist in all major Texas cities and welcome people of all tribal affiliations. In its embryonic stages, NAIS director Luis Cárcamo-Huechante, of Chilean Mapuche origin, is spearheading these efforts with support from the admissions department.
Sturm envisions the future of UT Austin’s recruiting efforts. “What I would like to see is that it becomes a formal part of outreach through the admissions office where they go every year to the same communities, the same schools. Students know that there’s always going to be somebody knocking at the door, because you want a pipeline where you get students from one tribe that have had a good experience and then more will follow. Ideally, that’s how it works.”
Malik Crowder, the adviser for the Native American and Indigenous Collective at UT, credits undergraduate Native American and Indigenous students with forging connections between the university and Austin’s Native American community.
“As undergrads, they have this power of convening the Native American faculty, staff and elders. They’re the ones that have convened these groups regularly at UT. It’s not top down. It’s from students up,” Crowder said. “I’m really proud of that.”
When Matamoras first came to UT Austin for her master’s degree, NAIS did not exist. Coming back years later to earn her doctorate in Latin American studies, she has found NAIS to be an important place for Indigenous students and professors to congregate.
“There is a lounge where you can go. There are refreshments. There is a space. They’re always hosting all sorts of events,” Matamoras said. “You see professors, postdocs, students from all backgrounds as long as you’re a native. I like it.”
But even finding a home for NAIS was a struggle. The UT administration initially offered it space in the football stadium, far from the middle of campus where other academic organizations have been allocated space.
“Using the language of Indian removal, we said that’s not an acceptable thing to do to native students,” said Jennifer Graber, UT’s undergraduate certificate program director for NAIS Native American and Indigenous Studies. “There was wheeling and dealing and negotiation and we got a small but centrally located place in the same building as the Multicultural Student Center which gives our students a lot of support.”
NAIS is also an important resource for Indigenous scholarship.
“I see NAIS as a channel to amplify Indigenous voices in all levels,” Matamoras said. “It gives access to what Indigenous peoples are saying in academia, to the narratives that are being built from Indigenous people’s voices, rather than having to read something that white people wrote about Indigenous peoples. It’s a whole other story when you read something written by an Indigenous researcher. The narrative is very different.”
All of these efforts by faculty, staff and Native American and Indigenous students are paying off. Crowder has noticed that some prospective students have been pleasantly surprised by the community on the UT campus.
“Native American and Indigenous people who come from bigger native environments like Oklahoma or New Mexico are impressed that there’s a vibrant and Indigenous community in Austin and around the state,” Crowder said. “They are pleasantly surprised by our programming that includes welcome programs, powwows, working with the community, and having the elders interact with us.
We want it to be bigger, obviously, so we tell potential students that there’s a community here, there’s a sense of belonging and there’s a gathering of the students,” he said.
Matamoros is currently in Nicaragua working on her research for her doctorate on Indigenous land issues but has challenges with the interrupted internet service there, so is thinking of coming back to Austin to work and feels good about this because of NAIS.
“All the community building through NAIS is emotionally lifting. There is a metaphor that I like to think of when I am in spaces such as those provided by (it).It feels like the ‘ugly duckling’ finally finding his ‘flock of swans.’”