Native Americans and Higher Education: A Conversation with Dr. Jodi Burshia

Published November 22, 2021

Originally posted on The Graduate Network

The Graduate Network: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI).

Dr. Jodi Burshia: I was in Tucson, Arizona, for about 20 years or so and I earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree there. And then I needed to be closer to home, the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico. My village is Seama village, which is one of the six villages that comprises this Pueblo. I was in the process of working on a doctoral degree when I moved back to New Mexico, which I defended yesterday.

I’ve had a chance to work with SIPI — Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute — since 2015, and I’ve just loved it. I’ve loved working with these students and seeing firsthand the powerful role that tribal colleges play in the lives of students and the lives of everybody who works there. Because that’s where tribal colleges initially got their start — it was an act of sovereignty by the various different tribes to say, “Okay, this is what I want for my various tribal members so they can have that bridge between regular home life and Western higher education.” Tribal colleges play such a powerful role, and that’s what I get to see firsthand. I can see myself continuing to work for SIPI and other tribal colleges for as long as possible.

TGN: What inspired you to get into the field of higher education?

Dr. Burshia: I started to examine how indigenous youth were looking at how their heritage and languages played a major role within their own lives and in how they were able to operate in sovereignty. That’s what got me into starting my master’s degree. I think maybe I’ve just been a big nerd this whole time. I just loved going to class and writing papers and I wanted to share a part of that passion with my students and really help them to critically analyze all sorts of texts, audio pieces, and media — that’s what has led me to get into academia.

TGN: What is your doctoral dissertation about?

Dr. Burshia: The title of it is Staying Afloat, and I look at how previously incarcerated indigenous students find success within tribal colleges. I’ve had the honor of getting the chance to work with many different students for whom being previously incarcerated for very nonviolent offenses is part of their histories. As a result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, they got locked into being part of a larger group, which is part of mass incarceration, too. So I definitely wanted to shed a spotlight on them, and that’s what I got a chance to do.

TGN: Do you encounter many Comebackers among your students?

Dr. Burshia: Yes, very much. I don’t have an actual number, but I would say more than 60 percent of the students that I get a chance to work with might be considered older than the traditional student, and so they would potentially be part of that population.

TGN: A central focus of the Graduate! Network is examining the systemic barriers that Comebackers face when they return to school to finish their degrees. When it comes to Native American students, and particularly Native American Comebackers, what are some of the barriers they face persisting to graduation?

Dr. Burshia: I think one of the primary barriers is that people don’t think that it’s possible for them to go to school and graduate, and so I think that once people are in school, it makes it more possible for them to finish the trimester, to complete the semester, and to finish up the academic year. Then they just keep going.

And of course, there’s the issue of whether or not people receive support, whether it be family or financial or people believing that they’re supposed to be there. It brings me back to this quote that is often attributed to W.E.B. DuBois that the system isn’t created for us. Yet more and more, there are indigenous scholars that are proving that to be wrong. We are supposed to be here.

TGN: We often find that once a student overcomes that challenge of not believing that they belong in college, they can face other challenges. And so often it’s just the lack of everyday things like transportation, reliable Internet, and child care that hold them back. I thought it was very interesting to see on SIPI’s website that they offer some of those resources, like on-campus child care and a dental clinic. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that and what other support might be offered to students at SIPI or other tribal colleges.

Dr. Burshia: Because childcare is such a huge part of life, there is an entire department that is dedicated to child care at SIPI, to looking at those future generations and who they are, and making sure that they are cared for and are safe. The department looks at all the various aspects of child care, including the pedagogical needs that are there for the kids and their parents, who are usually students.

There are so many aspects that are tailored to the actual lives of the people who are attending. And I know that SIPI is not the only tribal college that offers that type of setting for their students. Tribal colleges play a special role in people’s lives, caring for the students and for their families. In looking at that aspect of SIPI and other tribal colleges, it definitely provides that relevant connection to people. So when people need to go back home for whatever reason—they have cultural commitments, they have family responsibilities, they have so many different reasons why they need to support their home life— tribal colleges definitely do that. They can make that possible so that people don’t feel weird or bad or anything—any of the other feelings that can go along with that. And it’s not seen as a negative, but it’s seen as a positive, that this is part of home, this is who raised you, and this is where you actually come from. Having that aspect of the accountability to home and having that live link to the responsibility of being family is important, but it’s also a part of tribal nation-building, which is an extremely important aspect of SIPI and other tribal colleges.

TGN: Listening to you, I’m thinking about how much this aligns with the Graduate! Network’s work to help institutions of higher education become what we call “adult friendly.” What might tribal colleges have to teach other institutions of higher education about reaching Comebackers where they’re at and helping them succeed?

Dr. Burshia: Learning is not just relegated to a certain group or to a certain age bracket. When we think of college students, it’s normally people who are in their early twenties, but what we’re seeing is that more and more students are potentially nontraditional students. Some students are 30-plus, and they have that valuable aspect of life knowledge, that life perspective that younger students just don’t have. Nobody has that in their early twenties. The entire demographic of who is inquiring about college and who is staying in college is definitely different now in 2021. And tribal colleges have definitely responded to the different aspects of who our tribal members are. You know, our tribal members have a wealth of life experience that needs to be talked about and focused on, especially in school. And when that doesn’t happen, people don’t necessarily feel connected to school: “This isn’t really the place for me. What do I have to contribute here?” They have so much more knowledge to contribute than is tapped into, acknowledged, and focused on.

TGN: This is something you’ve already alluded to, but can you tell me a little bit more about the history of tribal colleges?

Dr. Burshia: Absolutely. Tribal colleges came out of the need for a better bridge into Western education, because so many of the tribes were responding to hundreds of years of colonization. Many tribal members just did not feel like college was a safe place to be or that it was where they were supposed to be: “Can I trust colleges? I mean, this is what has happened to my people, to my tribe and my community.” That’s where tribal colleges came out of — they came out of the need for their tribal members to be successful within Western society. The first tribal college came about in New Mexico. It was initially Navajo Community College, and they went through a name change in 1997. Like many tribes, they went back to their original name, so they went back to Diné College. In many different tribes and communities, tribal colleges stemmed from the need for tribal members to receive a Western education.

TGN: How many tribal colleges exist?

Dr. Burshia: There are currently 37 tribal colleges. If you look at the American Indian Higher Education Consortium’s website, you can get a lot of good information from them, too.

TGN: Do you have students from many different parts of the country at SIPI?

Dr. Burshia: Yes, especially during virtual school. We did have a pretty wide range of students from all across what is now known as the United States before as well. They came to attend school physically and they lived in the dorms, especially if they were from outside of the state of New Mexico or were not local. But especially now that we’ve been in virtual school, there are so many calling in from Wisconsin, or Colorado, or Montana and North and South Dakota. They’re just from all over, and it’s great because thankfully with this virtual setting we can connect with so many more people.

TGN: We talked briefly and exchanged a few emails before this interview, and you shared some information with me about some of the challenges Native Americans currently face. I wonder if you could talk about the role higher education has in addressing some of those issues, and what limitations in might have.

Dr. Burshia: I tell the students every time I get a chance to meet with them that they are getting closer to earning their degrees. They don’t always see that reality or the promise of higher education and how it can potentially bring about a higher income for themselves and for their families. They think it’s for somebody else. And I think once that story changes, and there’s not those different barriers, then the world can really benefit from the cultural wealth and the intellectual wealth that is there. When we are talking with different tribal students, we get a chance to talk about, say, chopping wood, or herding sheep, for example. Those are life skills that not everybody knows or is comfortable with, yet those are daily living skills that people need to know how to do to be able to survive — to be able to chop wood to make sure there is heat in their homes, or to be able to herd sheep so they can eat that sheep later. Those are just regular life skills that I think people have not seen as wealth. So I think that when that entire dynamic changes, we can all benefit from that knowledge.

TGN: I want to give you a chance now to talk about anything that I haven’t asked you about that you would like included in this piece.

Dr. Burshia: One of the pieces that I think could potentially be a barrier is the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. I think it’s important because people don’t necessarily see this issue. It’s becoming more of a big deal, and people are noticing that yes, this is certainly happening, but for so many hundreds of years, people were sweeping it under the table and were not giving it the focus that it needs now. I sent you a couple audio pieces and some video pieces of people talking about this, and I think being able to bring some of that awareness really raises the issue of this being a possible barrier, a possible real-life piece of life.

Also, I think when people are thinking about Native Americans, it’s easy to group people into one or two categories, yet there are over 500 specifically distinct tribes. That is extremely important, and it directly connects to representation, especially during Halloween. There’s still images of Natives where they group people into this one particular outfit or one thing or another and say, “Oh, that’s just Native.” That comes up with mascots and things of that sort. That’s an important conversation that I get to have with the Native students.

TGN: What can non-Native people do to learn more about Native peoples and become better allies in the success of Native American students and peoples?

Dr. Burshia: We all have the responsibility to learn. We all need to learn about others. To not just say, “Okay, this is what I’ve been taught and this is true,” but to actively learn more information. I think all of us have the opportunity to do this. That would make everybody a stronger ally — for all people.