Understanding history and fighting inequalities go hand in hand. I want to help stop the Keystone XL pipeline, but I feel like I would create more damage because of the privileges. I am privileged because of my male identity, my parents socioeconomic stability, and the encouragement I received from my family to go to college. Therefore, I struggle internally with ways to help others because others do not have the same privileges as me. I constantly question my motives to help others because I fear that I will blindly misuse knowledge that I gain in college.
The Keystone XL pipeline is an example of this fear I have. When I heard about the “Cowboy and Indian Alliance,” I thought about how I would like to be part of this group, where Native Americans, white people and other people come together in order to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from being built across the Mid-western states. My initial reaction to the delayed ruling of the Keystone XL pipeline had me thinking: “Wow. Now I want to be part of the movement to stop the pipeline.”
I had a “savior-like” complex after I heard about the keystone legislation extension. I wanted to help, but I didn’t understand the history of the pipeline. I still do not have a complete understanding of the pipeline. Regardless, I did not think my identity mattered because Natives and Whites are fighting the Keystone pipeline legislation. Therefore, the only thing that would matter is my drive to seek justice for the environment and Native communities affected by the pipeline.
From my experience with elders in the Diné community, I was told that education is important. I was not prepared for the type of education I would receive. If I wanted to learn about my culture when I was younger, I could have asked a relative and he or she would have explained Diné teachings to me. Now that I am at Columbia, it is harder to learn about Diné culture and teachings through personal interactions. There are not a lot of Diné students at Columbia, and there are few Native scholars at this university to learn from.
So, I often question my interactions with people because I interact with people that are different culturally, racially, and socioeconomically. Since I left my small reservation town at a young age, I constantly think about my racial and cultural identity. Questions that come up include: “What does it mean to be Native American?” “Do others know I was born on a reservation?” “Why do people always think I am from Asia?” and so forth.
I think my college experience is bizarre because I often feel isolated. While people confuse my racial identity, I often feel in a position where I have to explain myself to others. When I told people about my heritage, others seemed to not understand my racial and cultural history. To combat this feeling of isolation, I learn about my Diné heritage from books, articles, and some Native scholars.
It is ironic that I started learning about my heritage after I left my home. However, I aim to remember history through personal interactions. Person-to-person contact is foundational in Native American identity. I cannot get the same experience of story telling, compared to what I can get in my home community in New Mexico.
Even though I am comfortable interrogating my personal identities, I am not comfortable interrogating other people’s identities. If I were to become involved in the fight to stop Keystone XL, I worry if I would say the wrong thing to someone about his or her identity. I worry I will sound too intellectual. I fear if I used words like “colonialism,” people would view me as the guy who shows off his intellectual power over others by using big words.
When I am at Columbia, I “deconstruct” many ideas. When I “deconstruct” an idea, I try to break down the meaning through historical usages, like colonialism. I also try to understand how my identity relates to the idea. For example, I constantly interrogate my identity to see how white culture influences me. Then I try to make comparisons between other broader, theoretical claims, like how colonialism is influenced by thirst for power.
I try to deconstruct how my experience as a Native student in college would make an impact in the Keystone XL debate. However, I recognize that other Native students on campuses across the country may not completely agree with my belief about activism through constant interrogation. I do not have the same access to history like I had when I lived in New Mexico. This difference in accessibility makes me want to find ways to be involved with other Native Americans.
What has helped me tackle this internal struggle I have about helping people is to interact with people in person. I feel empowered when I understand and learn about the struggles students and adults experience. Therefore, my duty is not to change the world ignorantly. Even if I cannot go to Washington, D.C. to protest Keystone XL, I’ll find a way to help others through the exchange of personal stories.
Devin Etcitty is a Diné student at Columbia University’s Foundation School of Engineering, and he is pursing a major in Applied Mathematics, with an emphasis in Computational Biology and a concentration in Anthropology. He is pursing research interests in Diné (Navajo) mental health. Current passions included Indigenous history, adolescent mental health, and developing international relations between other Indigenous nations.