Jul 24, 2015 - Going From Native Culture To College And Back, By Anpo Jensen
All while growing up I always heard two phrases: “It’s hard to be Lakota,” and “It’s hard to balance two worlds.”The first phrase is complicated. It merges into the last phrase which means Natives are consistently at crossroads with their traditions and with western standards. This is especially true in academia. I’ve heard these phrases all my life and I’ve always kept them in mind, but I never really figured out their meaning until my first quarter at Stanford.The transition to college was tough. And for a moment, I thought I was the only one struggling. I later discovered I wasn’t, thanks to people sharing their transition experiences – I learned it was all a part of the process, so I was open to the change. I also noticed that, for me, the schoolwork itself never challenged my perspective because I was also taught that life is learning. Whether it is through different lenses, from different people, and standards—I’ve always accepted that system.However, what did put me at a crossroad was the western social structure. In high school, I never had to do too much social adapting because most of the kids were Native.At home, it’s easy to be quiet and listen. Listening was the first sign of respect when elders or older adults were around. Elders always have something important to say. They are the wisest of our people, so their teachings are gold to me. Teachings are my million dollars, because, believe it or not, every teaching I’ve ever heard has helped me in some way. That’s the power of oral tradition and I have no doubt that it helps other Natives.
However, this didn’t translate too well in my interactions with professors. It was hard for me to talk to them. Professors were like elders to me. They were the best in their field; reading their work and doing their assignments only confirmed that fact. But, professors LOVE questions, and here is where I was confused. Why was it so hard for me to ask them questions?
I respected them like I respected elders. I had to get rid of this mindset. I started to see that questions were vital to surviving at a place like Stanford. Slowly but surely, I began to think, “Okay, what would I do if I didn’t understand something an elder would say at home but I knew that it was important?”
I told myself that I would probably ask questions, because if I didn’t understand then an entire future generation of mine also wouldn’t know, all because I couldn’t ask. And that was my solution. I had to navigate my way through this transition by thinking of a situation from home that I was familiar with and translating it to academics.
Another difficult part of living in between these two worlds is transitioning back home for the summer. Summer at home is a lot of work, for cultural reasons. It involves a lot of waking up super early, cooking, and working. I’ve only been home for a week this summer, but it’s been strenuous. I joked with my sister, “I forgot how much work this was. I feel like going back to my internship is going to feel like a vacation.” Neither could compare, of course; they are both very different types of work. Even so, it’s home and it’s always rejuvenating.
The main point, though, is that I am not the only one. There are a lot of Native people out there doing this and sometimes with more difficult endeavors and situations. And there are still some social customs that are hard to get over, like needing to directly look at people in the eyes when speaking to them – it just feels weird, but it has to be done.
Anpo Jensen, Lakota.