The University of Missouri is known for its rigorous academia and celebrity alumni like Brad Pitt, Sheryl Crow and Jim Lehrer, however, it is not celebrated for being a mecca for American Indian students.
A group of current students wants to change that.
A Native student organization is back at the university’s Columbia campus after a nine-year absence. The university in October officially recognized Four Directions: Indigenous Peoples & Allies, a group of 12 students with a growing list of supporters.
“Native American students encounter unique experiences, issues and concerns on college campuses across the United States,” Four Directions President Anastacia Schulhoff, said in a news release. “The purpose of Four Directions is to unify students at the University of Missouri and to act as an ally to any student who is interested in Native issues,” said Schulhoff, who is Sioux, Apache and Mohawk. “We hope to be a place of support and encouragement for underrepresented students while, at the same time, working for social change.”
The group, originally organized in the mid-1990s in response to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), was active for about a decade, said Pablo Mendoza, director of the university’s Multicultural Center. The group dissolved in 2003 when the last of its members graduated.
Students reorganized the group this year to bring Native culture and issues to the forefront of peoples’ minds at a school where American Indian and Alaska Native students historically have made up less than one half of 1 percent of the total student population.
According to data collected during the fall of 2011, more than 26,000 undergraduate students were enrolled at the University of Missouri, or Mizzou. Only 93 of those students were Native.
Of the 6,500 graduate students enrolled during the fall of 2011, only 23 were Native.
Recognizing that Native students are a minority among minorities at the university, the group’s first goal is to seek out other Native students and create a haven on campus, Mendoza said.
“Right now, they want to provide a safe space for themselves,” he said. “They want to start by finding out who’s Native on campus and bringing them into the fold. After they become more solid, one of the goals is to start working to attract more Native students and faculty.”
The university employs 7,900 full- and part-time faculty members, but only two of the tenured faculty members are Native, Mendoza said. He hopes that number will double within the next three or four years, with help from Four Directions.
The group also wants to actively recruit more Native students, said Sarah Shear, a non-Native graduate student who serves as treasurer for Four Directions.
“We want to start campaigning to bring in more Native students, to be able to say Mizzou is a good place to come to college,” she said. “We need more of a presence on campus and more curriculum geared toward Native students.”
Since reorganizing, the group hosted two film screenings and campaigned to educate the community about insensitive or offensive Halloween costumes.
A lineup of activities for the spring semester includes a food and clothing drive in January. The group plans to deliver support and supplies to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
“We want to continue getting faculty support, to continue to start dialogues about Native cultures and issues,” Shear said. “You can accomplish a lot on a campus when you have an open dialogue.”
Although the group is tied to its predecessor in the 1990s, Four Directions: Indigenous Peoples & Allies organized with some distinctions, Mendoza said. The previous group was called From the Four Directions. The newly reorganized group broadened its scope.
“They really sat down and discussed this and decided this group needed to be open, to include all Native people and a special place for those who aren’t Native but who are considered allies,” he said.
Shear, who is researching the way social studies textbooks portray American Indians and Alaska Natives, said the new group welcomes anyone in the university community.
“This is a great, positive, student-fueled group,” Shear said. “It’s a safe place for Natives and a place for non-Natives to learn more about culture and issues.”