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NASA on the Rise

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In the past few years, the Native American Student Alliance has expanded from three members to over 15. The forces behind this change have come from a variety of places, some less expected than others.

Although she was in the first generation of her family to be raised off of the Navajo reservation in Arizona, junior Ashley Claw spent her childhood summers and long weekends visiting family on the reservation. There, she was immersed in her Navajo culture –  learning to weave, pick Navajo tea and make fry bread and blue corn pancakes with her grandmother.

But despite this immersion, Claw grew up without some of the language and traditional knowledge her elder relatives had. Although Claw’s grandparents were raised to practice traditional Navajo spirituality, they converted to Christianity through missionaries after getting married.  Her grandparents then raised their children as Christians, Claw’s dad even attending a Christian boarding school. As a result, Claw’s parents moved away from Navajo spirituality and eventually off the reservation.

Because of this, Claw herself was also raised Christian and never learned about basic elements of her culture like the Navajo creation story, the meaning of sweat lodges or the importance of the Navajo sacred mountains. It was in high school that Claw began to realize that even after spending so much time on the reservation, she was still missing out on integral aspects of her culture.  

“I started to realize – who am I without my culture?” Claw said.

Since then, Claw has been using everything from her grandparents to YouTube to teach herself more about Native American traditions. She is even practicing the Navajo language with the help of YouTube pronunciation tutorials.

It was in the midst of this learning process that Claw was making college decisions.

“[Native Americans are] already a small population of the United States – we’re 2% – and an even smaller number of us go on to higher education,” Claw said. “So I knew I’d be facing stark odds when going into a school like Duke.”

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Schools like Stanford and Dartmouth are known for having resources for Native American students – they have Native American studies programs and multiple Native American student organizations. Duke, not so much.

“I started to realize – who am I without my culture?” Claw said.

Despite North Carolina having the sixth largest Native American population in the US, Duke has relatively few Native American students. Instead, local Native Americans are more inclined to attend UNC, which has an entire center dedicated to American Indian support.

Students in the area know that Duke doesn’t offer them much support or recognize their cultures on campus, while other institutions like NC state and UNC offer Cherokee language classes, Native faculty, a larger undergraduate Native population, and centers to help support the students academically,” Claw said.

However, such an obstacle did not deter Claw’s application or interest in the slightest. Instead, she viewed the disparity as an opportunity.  

“I think I wanted to come here because the native population was small,” Claw said. “I thought if nothing is there, that gives me more of a challenge. I want to be the person to widen [Duke’s] Native community.”

With this on her mind coming into Duke freshman year, Claw immediately started attending the Native American Student Alliance (NASA) meetings, but was disappointed to find that there were only three or four consistent members of the club. Given the minimal membership, the programming was weak and NASA just didn’t feel like a community.  (Many Duke faculty members, including Professor François Lutzoni, who would later become a central part of NASA, had never even heard of the organization.)

Discouraged, Claw stopped attending the meetings.

However, her break from the group didn’t last long. The then president of NASA, Ryan Chavis, personally reached out to Claw and brought her back to NASA. Chavis knew Claw wanted NASA to be so much more than it was, and eventually convinced Claw to transition into his leadership role since he was graduating.  And with that, Ashley became co-president with junior Taylor Miller and made it her goal to grow the Native American community at Duke and increase NASA’s on-campus presence.

To do this, Claw first focused on creating and fostering friendships between Native students at Duke. She would reach out to individual students and invite them to just have lunch or hang out. Then, when Claw would plan a more social NASA event, those same students would actually come.

“I’m maybe not the visible minority by being white and male, but I’m an audible minority because of my accent,” Lutzoni said. “I know the stigma that can be attached to these things.”

Claw also worked on networking with the presidents of other cultural organizations, like Mi Gente, and the staff at the Center for Multicultural Affairs (CMA), looking for advice on how to expand NASA and to generally get its name out. Claw said that J’nai Adams, CMA program coordinator, and Ashley McMillan, a Native graduate student who works at the CMA, were especially helpful.

Claw attended panels and workshops on diversity to spread the word about NASA as well.

“I was literally so annoying,” Claw said. “I would just go to random places and talk about NASA.”

One such place was the faculty Teaching for Racial Justice Workshop during the Spring 2016 semester, where Claw was introduced to NASA’s future Academic Liason, Professor Lutzoni.

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As part of the French-Canadian minority himself, Lutzoni was naturally interested in the workshop.

“I’m maybe not the visible minority by being white and male, but I’m an audible minority because of my accent,” Lutzoni said. “I know the stigma that can be attached to these things.”

Lutzoni completed his doctorate in botany and genetics at Duke in the 90s. At the time, the university was predominantly white, and he said that although Duke has come a long way since then, there’s still much more to be done.

While Lutzoni may not be Native American, his Canadian background and the fieldwork he’s done in the Arctic has familiarized him with the Inuit culture. Of course, the exceptional diversity among Native Americans tribes means the Inuit may not be representative of other tribes, but it was some connection. Moreover, many Native American tribes emphasize respect for nature, and as a biologist, Lutzoni resonated with such an ideal.  

“Their connection to the natural world and the respect they have for it touched me very personally,” Lutzoni said.

With this background, Lutzoni felt compelled to help NASA in any way he could after hearing Claw speak at the workshop and offered to take on an advisory role within the club. Now, he attends NASA meetings and events whenever he can and meets with Claw and Miller individually to discuss event-planning, effective communication with the administration or anything they want another opinion on.

The summer after the workshop, Lutzoni met with representatives from UNC to see what resources Duke was lacking in comparison.

“The take-home message was we need to have a larger critical mass of Native Americans at Duke,” Lutzoni said. “We should be able to do a better job of attracting at least the North Carolina Native American population.”

Lutzoni’s next step was to meet with David Rabiner, Director of the Academic Advising Center, and Stephen McLaughlin, Associate Dean of Admissions for Native American students. Together, the three men analyzed what they could do to not only recruit Native students, but also to facilitate their transitions to Duke.

“It’s one thing to bring more, but that’s when the work starts,” Lutzoni said. “It is our responsibility to make sure that they have all they need to be happy here. Otherwise it’s a disservice to everyone.”

So while Claw was working to build a supportive community for Native students through NASA, Lutzoni focused on improving their academic guidance.

As an academic advisor for underclassmen interested in the sciences, Lutzoni has seen how minority students can be neglected. All first-year students are assigned a pre-major advisor based on their general interests. So, in a type of pilot program, both Lutzoni and McLaughlin decided to each fulfill this role for three or four Native American students from the class of 2020. This way, Lutzoni and McLaughlin could cater to their specific needs.

“It’s one thing to bring more, but that’s when the work starts,” Lutzoni said. “It is our responsibility to make sure that they have all they need to be happy here. Otherwise it’s a disservice to everyone.”

“They’re often very quiet, and in an environment like Duke where it’s all about go-getting, it’s hard,” Lutzoni said. Because of the obstacles he sees facing these students, both generally at Duke and specifically within STEM fields, Lutzoni hopes that he can be a supportive faculty member for at least a few of the science-oriented students.

As a result of his advising roles, Lutzoni has witnessed much of NASA’s rapid growth – they’ve expanded enough to warrant a full executive board and over 15 dedicated members.

He described an event they hosted in November 2016 where NASA brought in two representatives from the North Dakota Sioux tribe to discuss the Dakota Access Pipeline’s potential devastation.

“People were sitting on the floor and there was not one inch of the walls that people weren’t leaning on,” Lutzoni said.

And that was just one of NASA’s many events from last semester.

Lutzoni and Claw have both invested so much time and energy into NASA – for Claw it’s almost like having an extra class. But, more than anything, they’re driven by the reality that,  despite all of NASA’s new-found success on campus, it’s still not easy being Native American at Duke.

“People have asked me some crazy questions here,” Claw said. “Don’t call me Pocahontas. Don’t call me Sacagawea. I don’t live in a teepee.”

For instance, at a meeting Claw attended, an administrator thanked everyone  for attending the “powwow” at such short notice.

Claw immediately raised her hand and asked the administrator if he knew what the term powwow meant.

“If you don’t know what a term means, what makes you think you have the right to say it?” Claw said. “You’re confusing something sacred and really important to our people and comparing it to a meeting.”

PSA:  A powwow is a Native American ceremony that celebrates Native American culture through song, dance and prayer. In fact, on April 8, NASA reinstated their own annual powwow after a two-year hiatus due to lack of membership–a true reflection of how much the group has achieved in the past few years.

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Claw hopes that events like the powwow will teach students more about Native American culture and help reduce further misunderstandings in the community, but she knows how much progress has yet to be made.

“We want you to know how significant and how culturally important this is to native people,” Claw said. “But even as educated as people can be, you’re not going to know everything.”

“People have asked me some crazy questions here,” Claw said. “Don’t call me Pocahontas. Don’t call me Sacagawea. I don’t live in a teepee.”

Clearly, there’s much more work to be done both on Duke’s campus and within the larger community. And Claw, Miller and Lutzoni want to use NASA as a platform to work with Native American and non-Native American students to eliminate misconceptions held by both peers and faculty. The highest priority among their many goals is to get a Native American faculty member.

“It’s really hard to be a student here when you don’t see someone like yourself in higher up positions,” Claw said.

While such changes are large and take time, thanks to Claw and Lutzoni, NASA now has a platform strong enough to make these changes possible going forward. But for now, we can agree that the group truly deserved a powwow to celebrate the year’s achievements.

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Writer: Diana Joseph

Editors: Vivian Zhang and Emilie Padgett

Photography: Angela Griffe

Web: Rohan Kothari

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