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Preparing for a Change in Season: An Experiential Reflection of an Indigenous Male Student Affairs Professional

August 26, 2020 Tim Topper Chapman University

During the summer months, many folks look forward to the longer days and shorter nights, seasonably warm temperatures, icy-cold beverages and snacks, baseball, and floating down the local river to relax and maybe catch a tan. The season that belongs to the Summer Solstice and the Warm Moons holds a special place for me as both as a member of my Indigenous and Student Affairs communities. Many of my peers, in and out of higher education, are stoked when Spring yields to warmer days and the end of the semester. While I have enjoyed my fair share of summer activities growing-up, the summer months were some of the hardest to enjoy.

As an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and a descendant from French and Irish family, summer means that along with the change of temperature and daylight, the complexion of my skin begins to eclipse the subtle tan undertones of the winter and spring. By late July or early August, the color of my skin is molded into a unique shade of red that folks couldn’t find in a box of Crayolas or in the paint section of their local hardware store. While strangers, peers and even my own family would compliment my summer appearance by saying things such as, “I wish I could get as dark as you,” and “You probably don’t sunburn,” I did not share this sentiment. Growing up with a conglomerate of skin tones that rotate throughout the year like the Moon from every season was something that excluded me from owning my own identity.

Just as the moons, I moved around once every 1-to-2 years due to my parent’s work, ultimately going where we were needed next. This journey led us through the south byways of southern Indiana, metropolitan Georgia and a post “wild west” Colorado, where my summer skin tone was either too dark or too light to be accepted in typical summer activities children grow-up with.

The Warm Moons for my ancestors and my people signaled to prepare for colder months by crafting tools and weapons to repair the tribe’s tipis and to hunt while also making time to celebrate renewal. Similarly, working at my current institution in the Cross-Cultural Center role, summer still means renewal for me as I spend most of my days not only reflecting on the past year but preparing for the next cohort of students to come through my doors.

My summertime activities have shifted more towards planning through the Winter Solstice with identity and culturally-based programs for students. Additionally, I also spend a lot of time reflecting on my experience as the only Indigenous staff member on a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) college campus.

During my regular responsibilities of having to educate, support and advocate for all students, many underrepresented students look to me based on my appearance before my position in the University. Many of my colleagues in faculty and staff roles have also assumed this at various meetings and appointments which lead me to ask myself, “If it wasn’t for the impression of the sun left on my skin, would you still believe I’m here to support students on campus, beyond diversity, inclusion and equity work?” Every Fall and each time an issue facing Indigenous Peoples hits the news, I suddenly become the expert expected to have all the answers and information on every injustice from Christopher Columbus, Thanksgiving, and even  the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. Despite my unique tribal identity, these personal and professional experiences have left me feeling like my Indigenous identity is near invisible to my colleagues and my students regardless of what color my skin is from the summer sun.

Despite these less than ideal experiences, I continue to enjoy working with students, staff, and faculty to turn these assumptions and stigmatizations into opportunities for educational growth, and healing. Institutions of higher education need to be reminded that Indigenous students and staff proudly exist on their campuses and possess unique identities. I am proud and thankful to be in a position where I can make a positive impact on-campus and as long as the Warm Moons of the Summer allow me to recharge and celebrate the arrival of the upcoming academic year, Indigenous knowledge, support and resiliency of my people will persist!