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Reducing anti-Native bias on campus, a Q&A with Samantha Eldridge

In this 18-month project, University Communications reached out to campus experts to provide content for these Q&As based on their academic and/or lived experience. These Q&As are part of a larger series. They do not represent the official position of the University of Utah and are provided for educational purposes.

Samantha Eldridge is the director of the American Indian Resource Center (AIRC) at the University of Utah and is the institution’s tribal liaison for the state’s eight federally recognized Indigenous nations. She is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and has over 10 years of experience in local, state and tribal government, and academia. Her research focuses on the historical and institutional structures that create inequitable policies, practices, and barriers that impede the success of Indigenous communities—particularly, in matters of public administration, representation, and governance.

Indigenous peoples are frequently classified as a racial minority. It is important to understand that terms such as “Native American” or “American Indian” do not strictly denote racial categories. Due to the sovereign status of tribes, Indigenous peoples and tribes are recognized as political entities. Membership of a federally recognized Indian tribe also depends on the membership rules established by each individual tribe.

To contextualize this conversation about race and bias on campus, what are important things to understand about the history of Indigenous people in the United States?

 When Indigenous people talk about our history, the most common response we receive is: “It happened so long ago, why are we still talking about the colonization of the United States?” But I remind people that it wasn’t so long ago. This history is still part of my generation.

My mom was placed in an Indian boarding school in Utah. My dad grew up at a time when they were still taking children away. I was part of one of the last student cohorts in the Indian Placement program run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—where Native students were placed in foster families as part of the church’s mission to assimilate and support Native youth. So for me and my parents, it’s still very much a part of who we are. It wasn’t that long ago.

Indigenous people are often lumped into one big community and we are seen as a monolith. But as of today, we have 574 federally recognized tribes across the United States. Some tribes are still going through the process of regaining their tribal sovereignty with the federal government and tribes that are state-recognized are trying to become federally recognized. But no matter the status of these tribes, each one has its own culture, history and traditions. Depending on where these tribes are located regionally, they will have access to different resources. While some obtain revenue from casinos or natural resources, this is not the same for all tribes.

As we work to remember that Native people are not just a thing of the past, the university’s official land acknowledgment serves as an important reminder that there were people here before the pioneers came and settled here. It is part of how the university recognizes and supports tribal communities.

What are common stereotypes, assumptions and microaggressions?

I think there’s an assumption that we all agree on how we represent or identify as Native peoples. Some people prefer Indigenous; some people prefer Native. And others still use the term Indian. Among scholars, there are ongoing conversations about whether we should use American Indian or Native American.

I always encourage everyone to ask people individually how they prefer to be identified. For me, that is with my tribal affiliation, which would either be Navajo or Diné. But that changes for everyone. It’s important to respect how people want to identify. If you are in a situation where there is not a specific person to ask for their preference, such as giving a presentation, acknowledge that different Native people identify in different ways and that during this presentation you will be using a few terms interchangeably to account for those preferences.

People also make general assumptions about where we live and what our homelands look like that are based on broad stereotypes. For example, people will ask if we all live in teepees, even though that is just one type of home that Native people have used. This is an assumption that sets us in the past, rather than the present. Though we’ve seen huge advancements in film and art as to how Native people are represented, the assumption so often is that we are part of history. When I share my tribal affiliation or where I am from, I still get students or community members who’ve never met a Native person or are surprised to see me dressed in modern clothing existing in the contemporary world.

An assumption related to higher education is that our students go to school for free. While there are treaties many of our tribes signed with the federal government tied to education, here at the U, our students do not go to school for free. While there is the Native Student Scholarship that meets a student’s tuition and mandatory fee charges not covered by other scholarships and grants, this scholarship is not a tuition waiver. The money that covers tuition and fees has to be raised from donors and funders to provide students with this financial support.

Because the U has close ties with the Ute tribe and uses the Utes’ name, we have responsibilities and obligations under the memorandum of understanding. Because of educational initiatives, things have gotten better in terms of avoiding cultural appropriation at the university. But this is an ongoing effort. Questions must be continually asked about how to best honor the tribe, without mocking or playing Indian. We still have problems arise, including the 2022 RIBRT report of a Native student who was recorded while practicing a traditional dance and then harassed on social media.

When incidents like this happen, they serve as important reminders that we are all human and we need to work to better support and respect each other. For people who come to our campus to participate in things like sporting events, we ask that they review to learn more about ensuring their behavior is respectful and appropriate.

What are terms people should make sure to avoid?

There are phrases from Native culture that people will use in the workplace or at school that are intended to bring people together, but show a lack of respect or understanding for Indigenous people. For example, asking a group of people to gather should not be called a “pow wow.”

What are ways that people can be better allies to the Native people who are part of our campus community?

One of the biggest ways to help Native people is to not make assumptions about what we need. Oftentimes, we have allies with preconceived notions about what we need and how to best support us. If you want to support our tribal communities, that needs to include a really intentional tribal consultation and decisions need to be made with our tribal leaders and communities.

If campus community members want to learn more about the Indigenous people on our campus, my advice is to come you our center and then really embed yourself in our community and really listen to what tribal leaders and communities are saying about how they want to be supported. Most of the time, it will look completely different from what someone initially thought or assumed we needed.