Croff: Look Up, Smile

When many American Indian students study at mainstream institutions, they experience culture shock. For many, it is the first time away from a close-knit community. For others, it is their first experience away from the reservation. Transitioning to a life on a large campus can feel alienating and unwelcoming. Iva, a member of the Blackfeet nation who had lived in the reservation her whole life and a graduate of Blackfeet Community College in Montana, transferred to the University of Montana this fall to continue her studies and to earn her bachelor’s degree. In this blog, Iva shares her experiences there, and how she determined to overcome an environment that felt unwelcoming to her with her own brand of spunk and spirit.

It took me a while to determine a proper path in which to express an issue that would make me look like a racist; when, in fact, I’m not.  So, I thought, I will just let those who don’t already know my story get to know me a little before I share my thoughts about a rather sensitive issue.

I have just completed my first semester as a student at the University of Montana. I love school, even if it gets stressful and lonely at times. I love learning and sharing what I have learned. The most difficult thing for me has been leaving my home. I’m a mom and grandmother, and before I started college five years ago, I was a working woman. My husband and I were comfortable, and we made a home out in the country 16 years ago. It was hard to leave that behind and move to the city into an apartment which I affectionately call the “compartment.” I also struggle with my loneliness for my adopted nephew who is a resident in a long-term care facility back home. Visiting him two or three times a week every week, doing his laundry, reading to him, filing his finger nails, cutting his hair, and giving him a shave every now and then has been a big part of my routine for the past four years. After being in Missoula for a month, my nephew’s mom and my daughter called to let me know he had suffered a seizure and was being sent to the hospital in Great Falls. It was heart-wrenching enough leaving him and my routine behind, cold turkey, and when he landed in the hospital – that was the one moment I hated moving here.

Coming from the Blackfeet Reservation, a big family, and living in a very rural area all of my life could prompt me to paint a contemporary Rez-version of a Norman Rockwell picture. However, I struggle to draw stick people, so I will just say that in those types of surroundings it’s very easy to get acquainted with almost everyone in the community and the adjacent communities. It’s commonplace to walk by someone you don’t know and smile, nod, or say “hi” or “good morning.” That’s what this blog is about. When you’re in a tourist city like Vegas, New York, San Francisco, etc., it’s easy to approach a stranger and ask them to take a picture of you, and they oblige.  I don’t really consider myself a country bumpkin, but I must say that the campus at the University of Montana certainly made me feel that way.

I am a Native American Studies major, and my first day of classes started in my comfort zone – the Native American Center. Then, it was out into the cold campus where I discovered how unfriendly the majority of the students were. This is where the subject gets sticky, so I will just say that my mother is Blackfeet, my dad is white, and I have experienced poor treatment in both worlds. I found the lack of student-to-student cordialness on U of M campus rather unsettling. The majority of the Caucasian students will walk right by one another and everyone else they don’t know without even a glimpse at the other. I found most students of color to be quite different, and I took some time over the past few months to really observe that. My first thought was, “We Indians must have a sixth-sense to spot one another because I’m rather light-skinned, but we all manage to exchange a smile or nod.” Then, I noticed when I passed another person of color, he or she responded in a similar manner.

This really made me curious as to why the students of color were, without provocation, so much friendlier than the Caucasian students. I realize that the vast majority of the students at the University of Montana are freshmen, but surely that doesn’t give most them the loner complex.  I’m not sure why, after dodging skateboarders and bicyclists almost every day, but I thought, “I just have to put myself out there. If no one reciprocates, hopefully it won’t have any long-lasting effects on my psyche.”

I had been admiring several of the students’ maroon and white Nike athletic shoes. One day, I approached a young man in the University Center market and asked him where he got his shoes. He was quite a bit taller than me and looked down and responded, “Pffft!” The challenge was on and I told the rude young man, “No, seriously, those are pretty cool shoes. Where did you get them?” He replied in a snide manner, “Nowhere around here. I ordered them online.” Then he started to walk away, but I know he heard me say in a cheery voice, “Thanks! Have a nice day.”

I get compliments all the time from people I know and strangers alike about my earrings. I always touch an earring to recall which set I’m wearing, and respond with a “thank you,” and give a quick little credit to whoever gave them to me. This was my tactic to start engaging people around here. I started small – asking classmates in various classes how they did on the exam, complimenting different people on an article of clothing or jewelry, and even telling someone they had a cool tattoo. I love shoes, so when I see someone with cool shoes, no matter where I am, I have to tell them. This has been somewhat embarrassing for my kids. I got a few responses, and one young lady in my Sociology class of 100+ tells me hello almost every time we have class and when we pass one another around campus. Turns out, she’s from Great Falls, which is a major city smaller than Missoula, but where people from at least three Indian Tribes along the hi-line frequently visit for special medical care or shopping. I felt the victory with this young woman was small, but at least I had made some headway.

As the holidays began to approach, I thought for sure I would notice a cheerful change in people. Perhaps I was being overly optimistic because not much changed. I got better acquainted with my classmates in my small classes of 20 or less. A cowboy-looking kid started saying hello when we met at the door of the lecture hall, but the student-to-student exchange on the campus hadn’t really improved. I knew I had to step up my game. I just started telling people good morning even if they were just looking right past me. People with their heads down didn’t get the pleasure of my bubbly salutations, though. Still, not much of an improvement, other than the occasional frown that I believe was supposed to be a response.

During finals week, just when I was ready to throw in the towel, a young man in a wheel chair came up to me and said, “I just wanted to tell you thank you for always smiling and telling me ‘hi’ at the Social Science building and the dining hall.” It was all I could do not to jump up and down with excitement. Then I realized, it’s not about people making me happy and making my life easier here at the University; rather, it’s the reward of knowing that maybe, just maybe, I made someone’s day by making them feel less invisible.

To THINK INDIAN is not about me changing others; it’s about me continuing to smile in the face of adversity while maybe creating a better world for someone else.

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