The College puts a lot of emphasis on diversity and tries to bring in students of very different backgrounds, races, socioeconomic classes and interests. Sometimes, however, we forget about a very important Williams minority: the Native Americans. With well-established student groups like the Black Student Union, Koreans of Williams and many others, it’s easy for William’s students “of color” to feel instantly welcomed and embraced by cultural groups. The Native American students at Williams don’t have this; we have no group to align ourselves with, and we have no venue in which we can celebrate our cultural background and shared experiences. Coming from states where Native Americans are plentiful (New Mexico and Arizona) and after attending an all-Native American high school, it was shocking to come to college and discover that I was suddenly one of few. Demographically and representatively, Native American culture and life at Williams is virtually non-existent.
Yet such is not out of the ordinary. Native Americans are portrayed in old Westerns as savage and pictured in textbooks very romantically. We are thought by most people to have died out or assimilated into nothing. A lot of the world knows almost nothing about Native Americans, and the things they do know are not always positive. You hear stories about scalping, rain dances, teepees, war raids, chiefs, ceremonies, shamans and Thanksgiving. For most people this is the extent of their knowledge. Such popular representation is common, and this is one of the reasons Williams needs a Native American group: to show a different story.
Ethnically, I am one half Navajo. My mother is full Navajo; her parents are full Navajo and so on. I grew up on an Indian reservation and attended Bureau of Indian Affairs-run schools. I can understand Navajo and speak my tribal language. I live in a place where people don’t have access to running water and electricity, where poverty is common, where people can’t find work and where alcoholism is prevalent. Growing up on the reservation has given me a perspective on privilege, identity and perseverance that I feel gives me and other Native Americans a unique story to tell.
I had not met another Native American student at the College until this year, yet one of my first memories here is of being bombarded by various people about starting and maintaining a Native American club on campus. From what I’ve heard, years ago there was a Native American female student who started a club and was pretty successful in organizing a few big Native American events. The various people who approached me about starting a club told me stories about how much they missed the pow-wows, costumes, stories and other cultural activities. As a first-year coming in, however, the thought of starting a Native American “club” seemed daunting. Representing a culture and attracting members to a group like this are difficult challenges.
The idea of starting a group kept resurfacing this year, and as much as I wanted someone else to take the reins, I finally realized that there’s no one here who can do this but me. As a Native American, I will be able to correct many of the misconceptions about my own culture as well as fill in the blanks for those who know little about us: Who are Native Americans today and what is it like to be such a small minority? I do not think of myself as being fully representative of Native American culture, and it scares me to know that the events this club organizes and how it chooses to portray Native America might be the College’s main source of information on the population. It is important to start this club, however, because Williams needs to hear another side to the story. We need a group to talk about specific cultural issues. We need a group dedicated to us and to our stories. We need to have a group to represent the small Native American population and a place where these students can come and be around other Native American students, as well as a forum for them to share their experiences and concerns.
Starting a group completely from scratch and with no permanent footing is hard work. The Class of 2012 has one Native American student (me) and the Class of 2013 also only has one. Who knows if the College will have another Native American student in the next few years who will be willing to continue this club? I’ve come to understand that this group may not be a permanent fixture of the Williams community and it might only last for the next three years that I’m here and then vanish. Yet introducing this new voice to the Williams community is something long overdue. I have an advantage in starting this club here and now. I know my culture pretty well and with others who are interested and willing to share their stories, we have a clean canvas to work with. Anything we decide to do will only help Williams better understand Native Americans today.
Jeannette Rivera ’12 is from Teec Nos Pos, Ariz. She lives in Fayerweather.