Creating Space as a Native Academic

By: Justin Lund, AIGC Scholar

Natives represent a small percentage of the US population. And we’re only a fraction of a percent of those who will choose to continue on to complete a doctoral program – meaning this space, the academy, is incredibly underrepresented by Natives and other Indigenous peoples.

For those underrepresented folks who choose to pursue advance academics, this space can feel foreign and isolating. Regardless, the academy is where knowledge is created, legitimized and shared – and Natives must have a voice in that process. 

Over the past 10 years I have been an under-graduate, a master’s student, a Ph.D. student and finally a doctoral candidate with little guidance. In December 2020, I will graduate for the last ime and begin the next leg of my academic journey as the Dr. Justin Lund. This major life transition forced me to wonder what might be next. 

Recently, I was able to talk with several American Indian Graduate Center Alumni and a Scholar about our experiences in hopes of gleaning some advice. Our varied and evolving journeys have instilled in us a responsibility for building and maintaining supportive networks for the future benefit of Native academics.

Beyond practicing our fields, Native academics often feel a responsibility for maintaining a momentum of increased representation. This is true for American Indian Graduate Center Alumnus Dr. Joshua Nelson (Cherokee Nation), University of Oklahoma Associate Professor of English.

Joshua Nelson - Native Academic
Dr. Joshua Nelson, AIGC Alumnus

He and I discussed there are many Native professionals who have found success in any number of fields, and how creating a pathway success for all Natives is the ideal for the future and being adaptive is the key.

“We are dramatically unrepresented and increasing representation has been one of my main focuses, particularly within the key areas we work: research, teaching, and service,” he said. “If we can connect those three areas with an eye towards increasing representation, we will see better results over time.” 

Reflecting his own experience, Nelson said he was able to find a student community but finding a faculty community took more effort: “Native faculty are sometimes in very wildly disparate disciplines and so having a focused a conversation around research can be challenging. It took time to build that network and learn where to turn for what sorts of conversations.” 

Nelson’s last bit of advice for me expressed how his experience has fostered great optimism for Native futures. 

“I’m optimistic the more we are focused on telling our own stories, representing ourselves and setting our own policies we will want to draw on our own resources to do that, and we’ll need really well-trained educated people in those positions,” he said.

Much of my conversations centered around the important benefits of having a Native academic network of mentors and peers. American Indian Graduate Center Scholar Alumnus Dr. Corey Still (United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians), who serves as American Indian Graduate Center’s Director of Scholarship Operations, believed much of his own success has been due to the kind encouragement of Native mentors and professors. For Still, beginning his career in academics with Natives by his side was a unique “privilege.”

Meet Our Team Corey Still
Dr. Corey Still, AIGCS Alumnus

“I did my undergraduate degree in Native American Studies, so I was very fortunate to start my academic career in a space that favored and lifted Indigenous voices. The professors who influenced me the most were these strong Native scholars. That experience definitely placed me in a place of privilege because I was so fortunate to have the influence of these Natives- to talk to, to get on to me, to really become my academic aunties and uncles.” 

Still elaborated on this type of “privilege”. 

“It was those Native professors and allies who really allowed me to explore and challenged me to think critically from an Indigenous mindset. Obviously, my program forced me to think critically, but these professors really got me to think from an Indigenous perspective. They made me ask questions about what the intentionality behind certain research might be and what is the potential impact to our communities. Those very import-ant concerns must be addressed and taught to future researchers, and all that can be overlooked without some Native representation in the process.”

These unwritten responsibilities of the Native academic can change our individual paths. Dr. Tyler Parisien (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians of North Dakota), American Indian Graduate Center Alumnus, Professor and Medical Lab Technician Program Director at Turtle Mountain Community College openly shared his experience. 

Tyler Parisien - Native Academic
Dr. Tyler Parisien, AIGC Alumnus

Parisien’s success and desire to give back to Native youth undoubtably comes from his long relationship with American Indian Graduate Center’s strategic partner, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, of which he has been a member since he was 12 years old. For many Natives we realize during the process of becoming academics there is a true need for more stewards of the process.

He reflected, while he has a degree in medical lab science, his passion lies with teaching: “I felt  the lab environment was a little too mundane. It takes too long to get to the exciting part, but with teaching it can be instantly. I find it more rewarding.” 

One thing we all agreed on is there is an evolution to our experiences, things are quickly changing, and we are fortunate to be part of the process. Historically, Native cultures were not welcomed into learning spaces. Parisien was happy to report that is not the case in his classroom.

“A very unique aspect of Tribal college is we are expected and encouraged to incorporate aspects of our culture into our curriculum,” he said. 

American Indian Graduate Center Scholar, Catherine Montoya (Diné) talked about the evolution of her own experience. Montoya is a PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico, where she also works as the Student Success Specialist for the Native American Studies Department. Montoya’s academic journey has inspired her to focus on the well-being and advancement of other Natives.

Catherine Montoya - Native Academic
Catherine Montoya, AIGC Scholar

“I want to help other students like me who are coming from the reservation who may not have had a lot of support from their families or their communities,” she said. “Some-times back home they don’t know what we’re going through trying to navigate this system. I felt it was really important for me to share my experience and help others along the way.” 

Montoya’s unique doctoral program was designed by Native voices with a goal to cultivate Native students into the professionals those communities need. She pointed out what exciting future programs like this could lead to and how they are a reflection of the success of those Natives who have come before us.

“When I was in my master’s program there was no Native faculty, and I was able to manage. So, I was really excited to find this kind of Native-based program and amazed it even existed. From my perspective, I can see a big evolution.”

American Indian Graduate Center Alumna Dr. Maria Spirakus (Diné) is the founder of Early Educo, an organization advocating for early child-hood development and education. She serves as an Educational Consultant, dedicated to student success. Through both her work and personal experiences, she also knows the additional unspoken challenges of becoming a Native academic. 

For that reason, Spirakus’s consultant work aims to disrupt the lack of Native representation in academia by focusing on early childhood minds and exposure to language. For Spirakus, beginning at a young age for learning, teaching and using our Indigenous languages is key to inspiring and encouraging inquisitive Native minds into adulthood. 

“Every person I’ve talked to about their doctoral program has had to find their people who will help them navigate and get through everything. It’s sad because you wonder about the kids that didn’t have that and just struggled through it.” 

“For Native people family is very important… You have to find your academic family.”

Maria Spirakus
Dr. Maria Spirakus, AIGC Alumna

Our journeys began with a love for our discipline and a desire to succeed, like any other academic. But for Native academics we must balance many more responsibilities. The fulfilling part of our journeys becomes finding ways to make the path incrementally better for the next generation. It is true, there is no guide on how to be a Native academic and there are many hidden challenges throughout the journey. 

But those Native who do occupy this space are incredibly resilient. We all find great comfort in each other; in the fact we are not alone and the support we can provide one another through merely existing. Our Indigeneity sets us apart from our non-Native counterparts, but our values and sense of community and family is what continues to make our scholarship relevant and meaningful.

Read more articles like Creating Space as a Native Academic in the Fall 2020 edition of The American Indian Graduate Magazine