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The Complexities of Developing Indigenous Relations

November 4, 2021 Terry Chavis UNC-Greensboro

Written with feet planted on the ancestral lands of Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation

Before we begin, take a moment to stand up and view the natural land that surrounds you. Use this reflective moment to start your acknowledgment and celebration of Native American Heritage Month.

Let us begin this discussion by setting the scene and invoking your senses. Imagine you are on the road to your new life in a new career position in another city, and you begin to reflect on the past few days. As you were leaving your former place, your workplace best friend(s) (or workplace-proximity associates, as described by one of my closest, former work best friends) told you that the new place would be rough. You may have a hard time fitting in because it is filled with people much different than yourself. They do not understand the work done by your former workplace and how it prepared you for the new position. Fast-forward to navigating your first few days, you begin to understand what your best friends were describing. You look around and see no one that looks like you or even has a similar dialect as you. You long to find someone that has even a glimpse of similarities to you. Your supervisor only talks about work and upcoming assignments but never talks about transitioning from the prior position and environment to the current ones. You begin to feel out of place as you struggle to connect with many colleagues. You do not know how the environment will support you as a professional, but more importantly, as someone with a different background. You left an environment where you were surrounded by support and folks just like yourself. Now, you feel... lost and disconnected. These are experiences that I had when leaving my hometown and tribal community to go to college five hours away. I could not find folks who shared my ethnic identity or speak with professors and staff members about my struggles with being away from family. I oftentimes found myself navigating the colonial imagination ingrained in the minds of my friends and community members as they thought all natives still lived in teepees, were proficient at outdoorsman sports (hatchet-throwing or archery), and many other stereotypical misconceptions. These experiences cultivated the development of perseverance that has carried me to where I am today with achieving my goals to attain my PhD. These experiences are catalysts to my passion for educating our students and community members on microaggressions and anti-prejudice concepts.

Now, let us translate this scenario to our First-Generation (First-Gen) students1, specifically our Indigenous First-Gen students, as we acknowledge National First-Generation College Celebration Day (Nov. 8th). Education is such a critical component to Indigenous peoples. This is seen in the salience of knowledge and wisdom passed down through generations of storytelling from elders and learning moments with family members. Indigenous students leave their tribal lands to pursue an education where very few people look or speak like them and have no understanding of their cultures. Their advisors and professors do not know how to connect with the student and mainly stick to speaking on what makes the advisor and professor comfortable. It is not a new concept that First-Gen students have more difficulty navigating higher education and finding their support network. However, it is even more difficult for our Indigenous First-Gen students to find their support network as they persist through the challenges of higher education. From the lack of culturally responsive curriculums to the microaggressions committed by classmates and professors, and by the lack of cultural affirmations from the institution.

A common phrase used by my people, Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, is “Who’s ya people?”. This is how we build a relationship with someone we have just met and how we seek kinship with those around us. The words “kin” and “relatives” are integral when describing an Indigenous person's connection and relationship with someone. Used when naming a person we have built a strong connection with and consider family. Even the previous sentence may cause one to think, what makes someone family? Indigenous cultures continue to separate themselves from western colonial ideals by staying rooted to familial practices and understanding that family is not just a person born within your lineage or extended lineage, but someone who has built a strong connection to yourself or others in your lineage. We have aunties who may not be of our blood but are one of the closest family members to us. This cultural practice is essential for us higher education scholars and practitioners to understand as we strive to support our Indigenous students. Many Indigenous students seek to find a family as they navigate life away from their home communities. Think to yourself for a moment, how are you building relations with Indigenous students as individuals and as a collective?

In their research, Tachine et al., (2017) discussed how Indigenous students strive to find a “Home Away From Home” so that they can connect to campus and find their belonging in their new environment. The researchers synthesized an Indigenous-focused belonging model using the theoretical concepts of Sense of Belonging (Strayhorn, 2012) and Peoplehood (Holm et al., 2003). This matrix, called Peoplehood Sense of Belonging, offers subjective guidance on the complexities of Indigenous cultures and how our Indigenous students stay connected to their tribal lands and culture. This matrix has been a tremendous resource when educating colleagues and campus partners on the energy and commitment needed to support our Indigenous First-Gen students and to provide a culturally affirming environment for them, not just in the residence halls but also in the classrooms.

Next Steps

What systems are in place to assist Indigenous students in building a family on campus, and to develop their home away from home? How have you created a connection with Indigenous students and organizations on your campus?

What cultural affirmations are currently practiced on your campus? Are land acknowledgments just checklist items, or is it woven into the campus culture? Is there anything on campus (plaques, sculptures, statues, buildings, etc.) that acknowledge the land's ancestral or proximal Indigenous tribal nation(s)? Furthermore, are there colonists praised and epitomized through names of buildings, sculptures, etc., that you should consider removing?

Examine the Eurocentricity of your campus. What are the origins of the architecture? Is there any Indigenous-influenced architecture or land on the campus? What is the mascot of the institution, and how is that in relation to proximal Indigenous cultures? (Minthorn & Nelson, 2018)

To further celebrate NASPA’s First-Generation College Celebration Day (Nov. 8th), you can utilize the incredible resources provided by NASPA’s Center for First-Generation Success. These theoretical and practical resources can guide your wraparound support and services for your First-Gen students.

1.First-Generation students, as defined by (Redford et al., n.d.), are those whose parents do not have any postsecondary experience.


Terry Chavis (he|him/his) is a Ph.D. student at UNC-Greensboro in the Higher Education program and will minor in Educational Research Methods. Terry currently serves as the Awards and Sponsored Programs Co-Coordinator and Region III Representative for the IPKC.



Holm, T., Pearson, J. D., & Chavis, B. (2003). Peoplehood: A Model for the Extension of Sovereignty in American Indian Studies. Wicazo Sa Review, 18(1), 7–24.

Minthorn, R. S. & Nelson, C. A. (2018). Colonized and racist Indigenous campus tour. Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs, 4(1), 73-88.

Redford, J., Hoyer, K. M., & Ralph, J. (n.d.). First-Generation and Continuing-Generation College Students: A Comparison of High School and Postsecondary Experiences. 27.

Strayhorn, T. (2012). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. New York, NY: Routledge.

Tachine, A. R., Cabrera, N. L., & Yellow Bird, E. (2017). Home Away From Home: Native American Students’ Sense of Belonging During Their First Year in College. The Journal of Higher Education, 88(5), 785–807. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2016.1257322