In 2013, a classroom full of Columbia University undergraduates started a nonprofit that could change the way Native American students connect across the nation.
AlterNATIVE Education is a peer-education and mentorship initiative aimed at bridging the gap between Native American high school and college students. Its humble beginnings in the Columbia seminar course “Approaches to Contemporary Native American Education” speak to its innovation and relevance to Indian Country today.
Native Americans have the highest high school dropout rate of any other minority at more than 60 percent. Of the 40 percent who graduate high school, less than 10 percent pursue higher education, and of that 10 percent, less than 5 percent graduate with degrees. Co-founder Fantasia Painter (Columbia College ’13) and her peers agreed that the best way to combat these discouraging statistics is to be at the forefront of the battle: in reservation classrooms.
“Ultimately, we believe that through discussion, mentorship and knowledge, we can empower young Native people, ourselves included, to be agents of change in Native communities,” Painter said about the nonprofit.
Two years ago, the pilot run launched. Last year, CNN covered alterNATIVE. Flash-forward to 2015 and it’s growing slowly but surely into something incredible.
I’m an ethnicity and race studies major, with a track in indigenous and Native American studies, scheduled to graduate spring of 2016. This is my second year as an alterNATIVE peer facilitator. There is a philosophy behind the word choice of “facilitator.” With every interaction and presentation of ourselves as indigenous college students, we’re trying to break the barriers so often presented in academia. We aim to facilitate conversations, ideas and aspirations among peers, not stand in front of a classroom lecturing with an inaccessible vocabulary or condescending tone. Because after years of schooling as Natives in the American education system, we all know how that feels.
I’m the only Seminole Indian on the alterNATIVE team. Of the eight facilitators, we have students from multiple Nations and Tribes across the country. We may have different majors and backgrounds, be it in Columbia College (CC) or the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), but our motivation to change the Native American education narrative brings us together. These varied points of view help make alterNATIVE a relatable and adaptive program.
“I joined alterNATIVE because I wanted to have a positive impact on Native students. Without a doubt, Native Americans have a very small presence in higher education,” said facilitator Christian Gould (SEAS ’18) from the Navajo Nation.
Senior facilitator and co-founder Danielle Lucero (CC ’15) invited us back to her home on the Pueblo of Isleta. Her community, as well as Zuni Pueblo, Laguna Pueblo, Pine Hill Navajo and To’hajiilee Navajo, are the communities in New Mexico we’ve been graciously welcomed to run our program. It’s a weeklong curriculum that covers Native history, policy and identity, as well as sensitive subjects like Native stereotypes, racism and social issues on reservations. Each week, we run our program simultaneously from two separate locations. My team was at the Pine Hill Navajo Reservation and Laguna Pueblo, while Lucero’s was at Zuni and Pueblo of Isleta.
The first day is always the hardest. We arrived at the Pine Hill high school in matching black T-shirts with “alterNATIVE” scrawled across the front, anxiously searching for Room 5. It was a sweltering July morning as the dry heat already began rising from the chalky, red dirt. As returning facilitators, Michelle Crowfeather (CC ’17) and I felt an unspoken responsibility for the week. Our other team members, Olivya Caballero (SEAS ’17) and Gould, were joining alterNATIVE for the first time.
Though the student-to-facilitator ratio wasn’t ideal and the awkward silences were tangible, the day picked up when we started talking about personal experiences. Creating “identity charts” revealed what’s important to us as both Native community members and individuals. Being outsiders to such a tight-knit community, it was a magical feeling to hear the students speak candidly about their experiences as Pine Hill youth.
As the week progressed, the facilitators and students became more comfortable with sharing ideas and pushing them forward. I swelled with pride watching the new facilitators take the floor and explain with ease complex concepts such as colonization or historical trauma. We exchanged excited eye contact with each other whenever quiet students added nuanced perspectives to discussions like the meaning of history or micro-aggression.
“AlterNATIVE is a great experience for learning about Native history or the college process. All the information I’ve obtained from the program has helped me tons,” Morning-Rae Yazzie, 15, said about the week.
She’s an active member of the Pine Hill community and an incoming sophomore at Navajo Preparatory. This is her second year participating in alterNATIVE.
In high school, they don’t really talk about the genocide committed against the indigenous population in North America or the legislation that, to this day, keeps us marginalized peoples. To be honest, I didn’t truly understand what systematic oppression was until I was well into my sophomore year of college. These types of discussions are something I and all involved with alterNATIVE wish we had in high school.
We, as the Seminole Tribe of Florida, are lucky to have retained a lot of sovereignty because of our courageous ancestors, but many Tribes are not so lucky. Too many have been swindled out of their land, resources and political agency. Poverty, substance abuse, racism and suicide are just a handful of the consequences indigenous people experience today from colonization hundreds of years ago. In order to collectively heal as Native Americans, we must take the first step and talk about the issues at hand. We must educate ourselves and learn the alternative history, the truth hidden beneath the Founding Fathers or Manifest Destiny. We must decolonize the way we approach education.
On the last day of the program in Pine Hill, facilitators spoke about the college application process, our struggles as Native students and where everyone saw themselves in the future. Things turned very real as we confessed our fears of inadequacy, our homesickness and our battles with discrimination. But we also spoke about the greatest opportunities, friendships and lessons learned since our time at university.
After our college talk, we had the students do a personal presentation. Yazzie taught us how to speak about the sacred mountains in Navajo. Another student played her favorite pow-wow song and we round-danced in the classroom. A huge component of decolonizing education for Pine Hill was incorporating Navajo tradition into the curriculum. I couldn’t believe how mature and intelligent these students were, how important they would be for their communities in the future.
“I was impressed and glad to see how knowledgeable the students were about their own traditions and language. I didn’t realize how much I would learn from the students,” Gould said.
I consider myself very lucky to have found the Native community I did at Columbia University, and I hope all indigenous students can have the same experience and support. We hope that with alterNATIVE Education, those communities will be built across the nation, regardless of which Tribe or school one belongs.
For more information about alterNATIVE Education, visit https://www.facebook.com/alterNATIVEeducation1.