Colorado State University is taking a barrage of flak after two Native American students who'd signed up to tour the campus were detained by police after the mother of another potential CSU attendee dialed 911 because their appearance disturbed her. But Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the Denver-based American Indian College Fund, sees the university less as the cause of a disease than a symptom of one.
"The CSU incident put a public face on an experience that my colleagues and myself know many of our Native students have had," Crazy Bull says. "There are a lot of people holding Colorado State responsible, but I personally don't think of CSU as being the party here that's responsible. I see what happened as being a really good example of implicit bias and racism in our society."
As noted by Inside Higher Ed and confirmed by audio and video released by CSU, whose president, Tony Frank, has issued apologies aplenty about the matter, the mom in question told the 911 operator that she was worried about "two young men that joined our tour who weren't part of the tour." She said they "really stand out" in part because they didn't offer their names or volunteer information about potential majors and wore clothes with "weird symbolism" — presumably a reference to T-shirts that touted assorted metal bands.
Afterward, a campus police officer dispatched to investigate had the two students empty their pockets, patted them down and quizzed them for a couple of minutes before being shown an email confirming that they had indeed been invited to look over the school. But by the time they were released, the rest of the group had already moved on. The students, who'd traveled to CSU from their home in New Mexico and were cooperative throughout the exchange, wound up driving seven hours back home rather than completing the tour.
Here's body-camera footage of the students' interaction with CSU police. Note that there's no audio for the first thirty seconds or so, prior to the beginning of the conversation.
These events resonate with Crazy Bull.
"I think the experience Native people have is that we're invisible in this country — so then people don't necessarily connect with who we are," she says. "What's happening in higher education is the result of there being a lack of education being provided in school systems at lower levels and those schools not doing a very good job of teaching about indigenous peoples' knowledge and experiences."
Likewise, she continues, "I see the individual who called 911 as really being representative of a significant portion of our society today, where when you see somebody who looks different from you, you're uncomfortable with those differences and you interpret their behaviors through your lens because you don't have any education or experience that tells you otherwise."
Crazy Bull acknowledges that "I don't know who this person is, and I don't need to know. But in the transcript of the 911 call, this person used a lot of inflammatory language. She called the boys creepy and said they made her feel sick and that she'd never felt that way before. She also didn't like it when the students didn't respond to her — and when I heard that, I thought, as a parent and a Native person, 'The nerve of that — that you think they have to respond to you because that's your social construct.' Because that's not a tribal person's social construct."
To illustrate the misunderstandings common to Native Americans in predominantly white or mainstream institutions, Crazy Bull shares an anecdote from her daughter.
"She went to the University of Wyoming, and in one of her English classes, the teacher asked the class to write about a woman standing near a tree," she recalls. "My daughter wrote about what her knowledge was — a vision quest, a traditional Lakota ceremony where a person goes out on their own in nature and prays and sings for guidance and support. And afterward, the teacher called it out and made some pretty explicit and sort of dismissive remarks about it. My daughter felt singled out and she wanted to quit, because she was made to feel that her differences didn't have any value."
In Crazy Bull's view, "That's what bias is — 'I view the world in a certain way, and if you don't view the world my way, then your way is either discounted, unacceptable or made fun of.'" A corollary is when "people have called out my last name. They can't believe a person would have the name Crazy Bull, whereas in the tribal environment, those kinds of names are common. Now, I wouldn't call out a person with a very unusual last name from my perspective, because I've been educated to be more accepting. But I think that experience is reflective of the sense of entitlement some people have — that they feel entitled to take action, and whether that action has a negative consequence is irrelevant to them."
On a related subject, Crazy Bull had issued what she refers to as "a call to action" intended to address problems being experienced by Native peoples in college settings.
"We encourage and support institutions that acknowledge that they do their work on indigenous people's land, and we do the same for institutions that create targeted recruitment and acceptance of Native students. We work with many tribal colleges that have students who transfer to other institutions, and we encourage those institutions to hold transfer spots for those students. We also support Native students having their own campus tours, where they're shown resources the campus has that would fit their needs — a Native student center, a multicultural center, and any kind of Native student programming or housing for Native students."
In addition, she continues, "we're promoting training of faculty and staff around cultural inclusion and race and making sure the curriculum of an institution offers an indigenous perspective. It would be great if every teacher's college in the U.S. either integrated into their curriculum or created separate classes that taught teachers about indigenous people. Imagine the difference that would make."
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Such training should go both ways, Crazy Bull believes: "We do a lot of support to help our students figure out how to navigate uncomfortable situations. I'm a firm believer that we can help a Native student who's on the receiving end of what can sometimes be outright racism, so they know how to respond and the resources and people available to support them."
The need for progress in these areas is great, she stresses.
"Only around 14 percent of American Indians and Alaska Native people have bachelor's degrees, and it's 28 percent for the U.S. as a whole. I feel every student counts for us to close that gap, and that's why another of my focus areas is asking colleges, 'What's your indigenous student data? Where are you recruiting students from? And what's their retention and graduation rate?' When we ask those questions, the default position is often, 'We have 40,000 students and only forty Indians,' or 'We have 1,000 students and we only have two Indians.' But my feeling is, if there are only two, you should really be paying attention to make sure those two are graduating."
In the meantime, Crazy Bull expresses gratitude that the Native students at CSU didn't get hurt. "I'm sure they were traumatized," she says. "But if they had been defiant, the consequences could have been really bad. And they were bad enough."