I remember when I found out I got into Duke. I was at my momma’s office and it had just gotten dark outside. I knew the decision was coming that day, so I used her computer to check my email (which was firstname.lastname@example.org – how embarrassing right?!) and there it was. The decision was in the unread emails of my inappropriately named yahoo account. I opened it. And I saw the word “Congratulations” and barely read the rest. I had gotten into my dream school, the only school I had applied to. To say I was confident and foolish would be an understatement, but what did that matter? I was going to Duke.
But whatever I thought Duke would be, it both was and was not at the same time. Somehow, in all the drama and emotion of my acceptance, I had not considered what it would mean to be Indian at this notoriously non-Indian school. I did not know that I would be the only Lumbee on campus. I did not know that I would be one of perhaps 10 Natives on Duke’s entire campus. I did not know that people did not know who Lumbees were or how we talked or what we looked like. But, I found out quickly.
During my first days at Duke, it was a whirlwind. Nevermind getting used to being on my own, or living in a dorm, or acclimating to the academic rigor of Duke, I was coming to a larger, more meaningful realization that would eventually shape the trajectory of my professional life. When I was first asked “do you live in a teepee?” I must have laughed. Or later when someone jumped up and down, yelling and patting their hand against their mouth and pretending to be Indian, or what they thought was Indian at least, I must have been shocked. Or the time I was told Indians have smaller brains, or the time a classmate said Indians on reservations are not “regular people,” or the time, or the time, or the time. I won’t harangue you nor myself further with the details.
Somewhere though, in their disbelief and ignorance, was my own. I had grown up in a tribal territory. I had gone to a school with a large Native population. I had attended a predominantly Native church. I had gone home day after day to my Native momma and grandma. I had been in the Native American Student Alliance, attended powwows, been to Lumbee Homecoming. I was the quintessential Lumbee youth. But I hadn’t the first clue about what it meant to be Lumbee because no one had ever called it into question, no one had ever made me think critically about what it meant.
My feelings at Duke at first oscillated from shock, to anger, to frustration, and then to self-reproach. Why didn’t I know how to shut my classmates down? Why didn’t I know more about Lumbee history? And so I taught myself what Duke could not teach me.
Out of this burgeoning awareness of my own Lumbee identity and what it meant to be Lumbee away from home, I graduated from Duke. Went to UNC (yes, you read that right) and encountered more of the same. Worked for a few years and then began pursuing a PhD at UNC Charlotte. It was at this University that I realized that I have never had a Native professor. Or shared a college class with another Native person. I am always the only Indian in the room. And it is exhausting.
I remember one particular time on the first day of class that semester. I had introduced myself and announced that I was Lumbee, as I always do. During an icebreaker later in the day, a classmate beelined to partner with me. She told me she was so excited to meet me because she was a part of the YMCA’s Indian Guides Program when she was a kid. This program is notoriously anti-Indigenous as it encourages stereotypes about Indigenous people and encourages children to “play Indian” by giving them an “Indian name” and a tribe. And then she proudly, but to my chagrin, announced to me that she was a member of the Hopi Tribe within the program. I had no idea what to say. Later in class, she spoke out against racism and cultural appropriation. I was thinking, “I know this girl is kidding.” But of course, she wasn’t.
A person can proclaim that they are pro-diversity, pro-inclusion, pro-POC, and somehow, almost always, none of these pros include Indigenous people. I met an academic who told me that she prints out cartoon pictures of Native people, has her students bring in pictures of themselves with their family, and then cuts off the faces of the Native people, and inserts the pictures of the kids with their families.
I met another academic who told me that for her Indigenous studies unit, she has her students draw a teepee and write “Indian words” around it. This is a person who claims to specialize in culturally responsive education. Perhaps this is culturally responsive. Responsive to an American culture that demands either the erasure or stereotyping of Indigenous people. Responsive to a system that is predicated upon the removal of Indigenous people from the American narrative. Responsive to a system that keeps Americans thinking that we live in teepees, or worse, that we don’t live at all.
Academia has been a double-edged sword to me. It has been wielded against me in many forms, and it has been a tool in my arsenal towards liberation. It has been both full of anti-Indigenousness as well as the mechanism by which I proclaim pro-Indigenousness. It has simultaneously denied and provided me space. As I find solidarity with other Indigenous scholars and allies, these spaces become all the more open and free.