When sustainable parks, recreation and tourism senior Molly Paquin came to MSU, she said she experienced a culture shock.
She came from an environment where everyone shared the understanding of her tribe’s history and the system they lived within. Living at MSU, where few shared her experiences, came as a stark difference, she said.
“When I got here, no one knew what I was talking about when I said things like ‘reservations,’ or the casinos, or just being tribal in general,” said Paquin, who is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians in the Upper Peninsula.
Native American students have long made up less than 1 percent of MSU’s population. And in recent years, even that number has shrunk.
North American Indigenous Students Organization Advisor Emily Sorroche, a member of Haudenosaunee Confederacy with the Cayuga Tribe, has researched the decline in MSU’s Native student population for her doctorate program since August 2017.
She said she found a steady decline since around 1994 and 1995.
“There isn’t really a lot of research out there stating why,” Sorroche said. “I think that’s going to be the second piece of my research, to understand what those stories are, because I think that’s going to be our first steps into healing this decline and righting the wrongs.”
A shift in measurement
Jim Cotter, director of MSU’s Office of Admissions, said a major decrease could be attributed to a change in the way the federal government tracks demographics in 2010.
In addition to other shifting categories, a “two or more races” demographic was added, which he said many students of Native American ancestry identify as.
“In 2009, we had virtually no ‘two or more races’ (freshmen),” Cotter said. “In 2010, we jumped to 202.”
A total of 108 fewer students identified themselves as “American Indian/Alaska Native” in fall 2010 than in the spring, a 35 percent decline, according to data from the MSU Office of the Registrar.
Since 2010, the number of incoming Native American freshmen has varied widely every year, but has not established a specific pattern, Cotter said.
“To some degree, there’s always going to be some normal fluctuation in enrollment data, and because the Native population is not a large number, those fluctuations can at times be really significant percentage wise, where numerically, although important, may not be that big a difference,” Cotter said.
However, Native enrollment has also declined at a steady, albeit slower, rate for years. MSU’s Native student population continued to decline following the demographic shift, from 201 in fall 2010 to 116 in fall 2017.
Because of the way demographic data is collected, Cotter can make estimates as to how many students under “two or more races” identify at least partially as Native American. But, he said he cannot provide an exact number and is concerned with the accuracy of the guesses. Segmented data for this demographic is not displayed on enrollment reports from the Office of Planning and Budgets or reports from the Office of the Registrar.
“We just supply it as an aggregate number,” Cotter said. “Because it can split down into two, three, four, five different choices, it’s not compiled. … Once you start splitting to two or more, it gets really difficult to identify exactly what that number count might be.”
Based on the number of potential students who paid a deposit, Cotter estimated 73 of 266 students admitted in 2016 who identified as two or more races were Native American, in addition to 16 who solely identified as Native.
In 2015, in addition to 18 who identified as Native, 63 of 238 identified as Native and another race, according to Cotter’s estimate.
Cotter said the further back the data goes, the less likely the numbers are accurate. Prior to 2015, no data was available for the individual racial groups within “two or more races.” Cotter’s estimates include anyone who paid a deposit, which doesn’t necessarily represent the true number of incoming students.
It’s difficult to tell the impact of the change in categorization without knowing the number of students who identify as two or more races, one of them being Native American, Sorroche said.
Many Native American people will be of two or more races in some way, Paquin said, so marking more races might seem like a more honest answer to some.
“It would really depend on how you view yourself,” Paquin said.
After conversations and research, Sorroche said she believes the main causes leading to fewer Native students are potentially academics, adjustment to campus and financial burden.
Sorroche said she plans to survey students further to test her hypothesis.
“In Native culture, we come from strong familial ties,” Sorroche said. “There can be pressures with having to support their families back home while the student is going to school and working either a part or full-time job.”
Sorroche said pressures such as grades, time management and adjusting to the workload can be difficult for some students, particularly when they are supporting families.
One issue that could affect admissions is the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver, a program unlike any other in the country. Members of federally recognized tribes can attend public colleges and universities with waived tuition.
According to The Detroit News, the state has underfunded the waiver for years, forcing colleges and universities to pick up a significant share of the bill.
At one time, the waiver was funded by Michigan as a result of treaty agreements between the state and its Native tribes. MSU continued to honor the waiver by funding it even if the state didn’t, Cotter said.
A potential barrier for students attempting to use the waiver is tribal affiliation. A student must be able to show proof of affiliation with a federally-recognized tribe and that they are at least one-fourth Native American by “blood quantum” to make use of the waiver.
Paquin said she works two jobs on top of being a resident assistant and taking 20 credits. She was unable to use the waiver for her first three years at MSU because she could not prove she was at least one-fourth Native American, and instead accrued debt.
Blood quantum is not determined by a test, but rather from census records or other written proof, Paquin said. Native Americans have an oral culture and don’t typically write things down, so it’s difficult to prove their heritage through written records like the government requires, Paquin said.
Many Natives have further trouble finding proof of their heritage because popularly-used census data was collected at a time when political factors could discourage Natives to self-identify, Paquin said.
“If someone knocks on your door and says, ‘Hey, are you this troubled minority?’ You might not say yes,” Paquin said. “Some people have a problem finding that they can prove that particular blood quantum degree because they’re not properly documented on the census.”
Paquin was eventually able to re-apply and make use of the waiver after family members found documentation sufficient for the government to classify her family as half-Native, she said.
Though the waiver did not determine her choice to go to college, it could impact others’ choices, she said. Should her family members decide to attend college, they will now be in a much better position to do so.
Because each tribal government works on its own accord, a potential student can file for the tuition waiver and it can take six to eight months for them to get approved, Sorroche said.
Though the MSU College of Law has been successful targeting and recruiting students from tribes, MSU law professor Matthew Fletcher said the college is considered a private institution and does not recognize the tuition waiver.
“I wish that were not the case, but right now it’s the way it is,” Fletcher said.
If a shifting demographic can’t fully explain the trend, fewer students seeking to attend MSU could. Paulette Granberry Russell, director of MSU’s Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, said she has seen a decline in the number of Native applicants.
“This is of particular concern for us, and most recently, certainly over the last year, we’ve been having more discussions internally to the different strategies we can employ to encourage a higher application rate, and hopefully as a result of that an increase in the number of students who are admitted and actually enrolled,” Granberry Russell said.
This is not a recent issue, Granberry Russell said, but she’s unsure as to what the exact reasons for the decline are.
Several factors could contribute to the decline in applications.
Fletcher said he thinks Proposal 2, an amendment to the Michigan Constitution prohibiting the consideration of ethnicity and other factors when admitting students or hiring, has hurt recruitment of all people of color, not just Native Americans. Fletcher is a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and sits as a judge on the courts of many different communities.
“I can only speculate that, if you are a Native person or any person of color, the writing is on the wall,” Fletcher said. “The state has decided that you are not welcome here, (there’s) a strong implication that they don’t want you here, and so why would you want to come to school here?”
However, Proposal 2 does not apply to Natives because they are considered a political minority, not a racial minority, Fletcher said.
There’s always room for improvement in how the university handles the recruitment of Native students, Sorroche said. She said she hopes to do more research by end of semester, focusing solely on upperclassmen.
Student recruitment has fallen more upon tribal communities to reach out to universities and programs, Sorroche said. She thinks MSU should make efforts to have a partnership with every tribe in Michigan.
“That would be another question that I would throw into the atmosphere is, ‘Are these recruitment strategies happening at the university level?’” Sorroche said. “There’s the due diligence I feel that we have to pursue is to develop and nourish these relationships with the tribal communities.”
However, enrollment is catching on as an issue, Sorroche said.
Administrators are asking the same questions she is. She has been pulled into brainstorm sessions. But MSU can always do more, Sorroche said.
A brief dip in freshman Native American enrollment in 2017 worried Cotter, but he has seen a significant increase in freshman applications for the coming year. He anticipates the number of incoming freshmen in the fall who identify solely as Native American will rest along the higher end of recent classes.
“I’d like to say that’s because we’re doing something more aggressive, I don’t know if we’re doing anything a whole lot differently than we did last year,” Cotter said. “Some years those strategies work better than others.”
Paquin said she would like to see more of a focus on recruitment by MSU’s administration, and also on supporting students already at the university.
“I think that would be helpful, when you come here and you’re already here as a Native student, to feel like, ‘People who are in faculty positions know something about me,’ rather than ‘I don’t think anyone knows anything about me,’” Paquin said. “I think that would help give students a sense of belonging to the university.”
Providing more information on what paths are available to them, as well as highlighting the existing Native community at MSU and having a support network for students once they get here, might encourage more Native students to apply, she said.
“We’re a small voice of a small voice,” Paquin said. “There’s not many of us … it’s hard to build off of a small number, but I don’t think it’s impossible.
Paquin said she can’t think of a particular reason why fewer students have continued to identify as Native. She said she doesn’t see a broad cultural shift that would explain it, but it could be students aren’t feeling there’s a significant Native community at MSU.
“Which is sort of a Catch-22, because the less people who come, the less there are for the community,” Paquin said.
Paquin said she grew up in a central hub for her tribe and went to a high school with a 60 percent Native American population.
To Paquin, the most important aspect of being Native is the sense of belonging, she said.
“Being part of a community of people who understand some of the cultural differences you sort of just ended up having with the way you grew up,” Paquin said.
She said she’s found part of that community of understanding at the North American Indigenous Student Organization, or NAISO, and has made connections with students who understand her experiences there.
While it’s a small issue to notice, Paquin said a decline has been more noticeable in NAISO itself. Fewer people have been involved in the organization through the years, she said.
“It’s been getting smaller and smaller, which makes it much harder to plan things because it puts a lot more responsibility on each individual person who shows up to the meetings,” Paquin said.
Outside of Native groups, Paquin said she doesn’t often run into people who know what she’s talking about. There are only 14 students who identify as Native American within her college, she said. Only one other Native student has lived on the floor she serves as a resident assistant on.
Because most people she interacts with don’t understand her background, Paquin said she is often happy to answer questions and help educate her peers. She is glad she’s taken tribal history and law classes, which have helped her better explain issues to people, she said. An American Indian and Indigenous Studies minor, Paquin said she’s interested in moving to Washington, D.C. to help educate lawmakers on Native policy issues.
However, the pressure to help can sometimes be stressful. Out of few Native students, fewer will be willing or have the time to speak with their peers about Native issues, Paquin said.
“You feel like you have to be the voice that represents all of Indian country,” Paquin said. “And you don’t know if that person’s ever going to meet anyone else who’s going to explain this to them, so then they might live their whole life thinking that perspective is the only one … so you have to be very careful about what you want to say and how you want to say it, so you don’t give them an impression that ‘This is just how it is for everyone,’ when it’s not like that for everyone, that’s just my experience and I can’t speak for everyone.”
Non-Native students are well-intentioned, but sometimes make ignorant statements, she said, which can be an additional stressor. She said she sometimes has to choose not to address comments that rub her the wrong way, because she might not have 20 minutes to explain the underlying issues.
“Lots of times if people find out that I’m Native, the very next question that they’ll ask me is ‘How much?’” Paquin said. “Sometimes I just say, ‘I’m Irish,’ and no one ever asks me how much. No one ever asks which side of my family, or ‘Whoa, that’s fascinating, didn’t know, you don’t look Irish.’ No one ever says that to me when I say it that way.”
Paquin said she’s talked to several Native students who are also frustrated by similar issues.
However, this extends beyond students. Paquin said interacting with MSU administration is sometimes a struggle as well, as some employees don’t understand certain programs benefitting her and other Native students.
“They end up googling something or looking it up, and I’m like, ‘OK, I could’ve done that,’ you know?” Paquin said.
The main issue with the Native American Tuition Waiver, Paquin said, is that no one knows what it is.
“It’s kind of hard, because I expected to be able to go in (to the Office of Financial Aid) and have someone knowledgeable give me an answer, but turns out being I actually know more about the tuition waiver than (they) do,” Paquin said.
Coming from a Native community to a place like MSU can feel like a mixed bag, she said.
“It depends on who you interact with a lot,” Paquin said. “Sometimes it feels really cool. Sometimes it feels like I have some kind of knowledge that other people want to know about. And sometimes … it feels like no one knows anything about me.”