IU's First Nations cultural center welcomes move to new location

By MJ Slaby | The Herald-Times

Monday, July 21, 2014

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Fri., Aug. 22, 2014
10:30am to 3:30pm
712 E. 8th St., Bloomington
BBQ luncheon 12noon to 2:30pm
Activities, singing, house tours

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In Native American communities, the children learn by watching.

At some point, they start to notice how adults act at the traditional ceremonies, and they start to follow along, said LaDonna BlueEye, an assistant professor in the Indiana University School of Public Health, who grew up in a close-knit Native American community in Oklahoma.

“Even the dancing, they learn by watching,” she said.

So although no family members asked her direct advice about going to college, BlueEye knows she’s setting an example for her niece, nephew and cousins as the first in her family to have an undergraduate degree.

And now, she’s climbed even higher on the academic ladder and graduated this spring with a Ph.D. from IU. That makes her one of only about 100 Native American students who graduate each year with a Ph.D., according to statistics from the National Science Foundation.

LaDonna BlueEyeBrian Gilley
LaDonna BlueEyeBrian Gilley

Ask BlueEye and Brian Gilley, director of the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center, the reasons why that number is so low, and they say it goes back to a variety of ways Native American students -- especially those who grew up in traditional communities -- are unfamiliar with university life. “Natives have not had a good history with education,” BlueEye said.

But spaces like the education and cultural center are a place to build that familiarity.

“The students want a place to be with students with shared experiences,” said James Wimbush, IU vice president for diversity, equity and multicultural affairs. He said that’s an important role for all of IU’s cultural centers.

And the First Nations center, now located in a former residence hall on the edge of campus, is about to be closer to the heart of campus and other cultural centers.

The center is moving to 712 E. Eighth St., and Wimbush and Gilley hope to have renovations finished in time for the center to be open in the fall.

Showing potential faculty, students and staff a worn-out dorm room says IU’s commitment is not where it should be, Wimbush said. But the new center shows that First Nations is as important to IU as other cultures, he said.

Wimbush said the current center wasn’t big enough, but the new one will have a large, open space that will serve the center well for the next decade.

Gilley, an associate professor of anthropology, said he hopes the new center will help IU recruit Native American students and be competitive so that IU is a top choice.

Traditionally, cultural centers are there to educate the majority population, but the goal here is to use the center to alleviate structural inequality, Gilley said. So the center doesn’t do “sad, sad Indian stuff,” he said.

Instead, it provides resources and tries to bridge the gap between traditions and university life.

“We can never re-create the tribal-specific community, but we can be about family and values,” Gilley said.

Many Native Americans at IU are nontraditional students with children, Gilley said. So at the center, the children can play and eat while their parents can spend time together.

Gilley said other barriers that native students face are the same ones that many low-income students do, such as not being around many others who have higher education degrees and not having as many educational opportunities as their peers at college did.

BlueEye said her mother placed a high importance on education, but it wasn’t until BlueEye joined the military that she felt smart after excelling academically.

“I’ve been working on getting my Ph.D. since I was 15. I’m 50 and just now completed it.”

BlueEye said cultural norms in Native American communities can actually pose problems in the academic world.

For example, an emphasis on politeness and not bragging can hold students back, because they don’t speak up in class and don’t want to talk about their accomplishments, even in an interview or on a scholarship application, she said.

BlueEye said she was telling family members about working three jobs, going to school and making the dean’s list when she was told not to draw attention to herself like that.

“I felt really ashamed, and I never talked about my grades again,” she said.

And most Native Americans don’t want to change who they are to fit in, Gilley said. So policy changes and support systems can help attract native students to IU and still respect their heritage, he said.

Centers like the First Nations center can create conditions to help people succeed and “open a door that’s bigger than they have ever seen,” Gilley said.

According to IU data, there were a total of 60 Native American undergraduate and graduate students enrolled on the Bloomington campus in fall 2013.

IU First Nations Educational and Cultural Center website