Tristin Sam (SFS ’23) thinks he might be the only Native American most Georgetown students meet in their lives.
This isn’t a radical claim—Sam is one of three Native students he knows of currently attending the university. Just 0.1% of Georgetown students identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native in 2017. For students who venture into the rest of the city, the prognosis isn’t much better; American Indians and Alaskan Natives make up just one-half of one percent of all residents of the District.
It’s slightly ironic, then, that in a city traditionally seen as racially diverse (and still majority non-white), the Indigenous population has gone almost completely ignored—except, of course, when a vague and inaccurate depiction of their presumed culture is used as racist iconography to root for the home team.
On July 13, the District’s football team announced they would be dropping their much-criticized name, and a few days later, that they would be simply going by the Washington Football Team until they decided on a new mascot. This decision, part of a nationwide reckoning over racist iconography and policies following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in late May, came decades too late and (understandably) without fanfare. In response, the city seemed to breathe a sigh of relief—okay, we took care of that.
But this summer has been a season of symbolic gestures from city officials, epitomized by the creation of the Black Lives Matter Plaza by Mayor Muriel Bowser, who then opposed cutting the police budget, an ask of many Black Lives Matter supporters. Though the name change could allow D.C. residents and Georgetown students to close the book on Native issues, I would hope that instead, it allows the recognition of a long-avoided truth: the Georgetown community systemically ignores the existence of 5.2 million people, two percent of the U.S. population.
When I first moved to D.C., I saw the team as evidence of what was wrong with the way the District handled Native issues, as a glaring neon sign saying “not welcome here.” In the past, Native students on campus have told me it required some mental gymnastics to be happy to live in a city that often failed to recognize their humanity. But really, the team is a symptom of the larger problem of the invisibility of Native people in D.C. and on Georgetown’s campus.
Sam feels this invisibility acutely.
“Every time I go into the elevator and there’s a Spanish-speaking person, they immediately speak to me in Spanish,” Sam said, adding that when he can’t respond in Spanish, they often think he is Hispanic but ashamed of his culture. “Trying to explain who I am in a short twenty-second elevator ride, it just doesn’t work out.”
For many Native American students on campus, the Native American Student Council (NASC), of which Sam is the president, is the only place they know they will find people who have an in-depth understanding of the experience of Native students—somewhere they won’t have to pitch a whole culture in 20 seconds.
Finding a community like this has been hugely important to Sam, he said. Sam first came to the Northeast from his home in Arizona on the Navajo reservation to attend high school in Rockville, Md. for a year and a half. The difference between his nearly entirely Native high school in the Navajo Nation and both his school in Rockville and Georgetown was pronounced.
“It was interesting to see the lack of awareness about Native American issues, or that we exist,” Sam said. “It was definitely a shock from me coming from a basically 95 percent Native community and a reservation to here.”
His freshmen year, Sam found the NASC table at CAB Fair and met the former president, who ended up being a fellow member of the Navajo Nation with a home just an hour south of his. Finding someone to relate to, especially when he didn’t expect it, was important to Sam his freshman year. However, this connection Sam found so valuable is dangerously tenuous.
NASC currently has five members, only three of whom identify as Native American. Two of those members will graduate at the end of this school year, possibly leaving Sam as the only Native he knows on campus. To make matters worse, Sam and the former president were an exception—it’s rare for students to find other individuals from their tribe at Georgetown.
That absence of the community that is so present on a reservation or in heavily Native areas follows Sam around campus, no matter what he is doing.
“It’s interesting to be on campus and realize that every single classroom you go to, you’re the only Native American in the class,” Sam said, adding with a small laugh of realization, “In the cafeteria too. Everywhere you go, it’s really interesting. In the library, I sit there after I’m reading and I’m trying to relax my eyes and I realize wow, I’m the only Native in this room. It’s everywhere I go.”
I am not Native American; I am white. Still, after attending an Oklahoma high school where just under ten percent of my peers identified as Native American and regularly shared parts of their respective cultures with the rest of the school, I felt something was missing when I first came to Georgetown. I cannot comprehend how severe the shock must have been for Indigenous students.
Though Georgetown has by no means excelled at appreciating and encouraging racial diversity, most other non-white or non-American racial and national identities have a substantial, if not thriving, organization designed to support those who share their identity. While NASC has tried to create that same environment, a combination of low Native American representation on campus and lackluster student support limits their visibility at Georgetown.
With so few Native students on campus, Sam said he has often found himself in the role of educator, even though that’s not what he set out to be.
“Originally when I came here I did not want to be what’s called ‘marked’ for my identity, I just wanted to go about my classes, not having that come up and making me different,” Sam said. “But as time went on, and the more I interacted with the students, I realized how important it was to mention my identity and mention my viewpoint and where I came from, because for most of these students, I am the only Native person they will meet in their whole lifetime.”
For Georgetown’s Class of 2019, finance and legal work were in the top five most common job functions. Sam is constantly aware the people around him are hoping to go into careers in policy or the private sector where they will have the power to affect the lives of Native people when they may have never spoken to Native Americans about their identities, cultures, or oppression.
“They don’t have any idea of general knowledge about my people, two percent of the American population. So that’s when I became more adamant about my identity and mentioning it a lot more often,” Sam said.
Growing up in Oklahoma, part of my education and socialization was learning about Native American cultures. The state is by no means good at this—an elementary school reenactment of the Trail of Tears populated entirely by students of color comes to mind—but there is an acknowledgement of the trauma experienced by Indigenous people and, at least in my town, that Native cultures (not one, many) are something of value to be protected. I learned, without having to seek out much information, how to talk about land rights and the status of reservations, and heard from friends about the egregiously long lines at Indian Health Service locations.
In my experience, this basic language needed to talk about the systemic racism Native people face in the U.S. is often missing from the vernacular of Georgetown students and professors. I have never seen a white person bring up Native American issues in a class and have regularly heard professors make off-hand comments based on offensive perceptions of Native people.
Georgetown students predominantly come from the Northeastern United States, but states with high concentrations of Native Americans are in the center and west of the country. Oklahoma, which has the second-highest proportion of American Indians and Alaskan Natives in the country and is the headquarters of 39 tribes and nations, was found to be the most underrepresented state at Georgetown in 2017.
The effect is that most Georgetown students have never met someone who identifies as Native, much less befriended them, much less had an honest conversation with them about the appropriation and destruction of Native American culture.
This ignorance manifests on campus in many ways, Sam said. Last October, he found himself explaining Native American history after the arrival of Europeans and the genocide of much of their population, introducing a peer to concepts like forced assimilation and boarding schools for the first time.
“It honestly really shocked me that he didn’t know that,” Sam said.
In 2019, Georgetown officially stopped recognizing Columbus Day but has yet to call it Indigenous Peoples’ Day, opting instead for the vague nomer of Mid-Semester Holiday.
And, of course, there’s the Washington Football Team. Though Sam hasn’t seen the team’s former logo on campus a lot, he’s become somewhat desensitized when he does.
“When I do it slips my mind, I guess I got used to it,” Sam said, adding “And I know I shouldn’t.”
While Sam said he supported the name change, the changes Native students are seeking from Georgetown are not symbolic—they are tangible shifts in the way their peers interact with the concept of being Native and recognition from the university in the form of academic programs and increased recruitment.
Though students have expressed support for members of NASC in the past, signing petitions to echo their demands, few of these asks have been realized, and that support rarely extends into a desire to learn about Native cultures or open dialogues about the experience of Native students on campus.
“I honestly thought there’d be more interest in that. I think people are afraid to discuss it or don’t really know where to start on it, so it just never begins,” Sam said. He was quick to add that most students he encounters are willing to listen and have never been openly racist towards him the way non-Natives from border towns near his Arizona reservation regularly are.
Still, a lack of racism is not equivalent to open support.
As I listened to Sam talk, I could not help but feel that we, both as students and an institution, are letting our Native peers down. They are an admittedly small group, but even this fact is a result of their oppression—from the genocide of five centuries ago to a public school system that routinely fails its Native students. The former football team name was just one of many signs barring Indigenous people from feeling comfortable in the District. Most of these signals are not sent by billion-dollar organizations, but by individuals and groups that do not know what it means to make a space welcoming to Native students.
While individual education is vitally important, Georgetown the institution also has a role to play in centering Native narratives on campus. In the past, NASC has called for the creation of a Native studies program, an increase in the number of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Indigenous Pacific Islander faculty and staff, a program coordinator dedicated to Native American and Indigenous Pacific Islander students and the inclusion of Native American and Indigenous Pacific Islander peoples in the core curriculum.
It is not welcoming when Native students never encounter a Native faculty member. It is not welcoming when Native students have no clear faculty dedicated to supporting them and no designated cultural space. It is not welcoming when the displacement and genocide of Native peoples are not only often glossed over in classes, but rarely acknowledged by a university located on land previously occupied by Native Americans, until Jesuits began a campaign of conversion and their sovereignty was slowly siphoned away.
When I asked Sam what students could do to support NASC, his answer was simple.
“Becoming aware,” he said.
Though NASC has graciously hosted many events that can serve to educate students about Native cultures, it is crucial students take that on themselves as well, especially since the issues facing tribes in their home states are likely not the same ones members of NASC face.
“Native American is not a monolithic demographic,” Sam pointed out. “I can only speak as a Navajo coming from the Navajo tribes on issues that affect my people. But my people is only one out of 500.”
This education can happen in D.C. through visits to the National Museum of the American Indian and a tour of the city through the Guide to Indigenous D.C. Students should also find out which tribes occupy or previously occupied land in the places they call home, whether that’s D.C. or elsewhere, and educate themselves about the issues facing those tribes today. Many tribes run their own newspapers and sites focusing on current Native issues.
Beyond that, on a campus which has already proven itself to be ignorant of Native experiences both past and present, academic programming dedicated to these experiences is a moral necessity.
Georgetown has the power to create a campus culture that is cognizant of Native American students, as well as its own history with Indigenous people by formally acknowledging that the university is located on land formerly occupied by the Piscataway tribe. The university can uplift Native voices by inviting Native speakers to campus and actively celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Month in November, when it is nationally recognized, rather than April.
Small improvements based on asks from Native students, such as the implementation of smoking ceremonies for Native students last year, can go a long way towards creating a comforting space in a place where many students feel alone, Sam said.
“I didn’t expect it to be so relieving,” Sam said. “Smelling that smoke, it just brought me home.”
However, nothing short of prioritizing Native American students in the recruiting and admissions process will combat the underlying problem of systemic racism. The need for these students on campus is urgent.
“We need to increase our recruitment because [no more Native students] would basically mean the death of our organization, for lack of a better word,” Sam said.
It is not surprising that one of the smallest demographic groups on campus would also be one of the least supported. It is not surprising the dynamics at Georgetown mirror those seen across the country, as Native people are consistently relegated to the sidelines as they fight to preserve their cultures and lands.
However, Georgetown and its students have a responsibility to do better both for the Native students who are on campus and the ones who are not. Institutions of higher learning are already gate-kept from Native Americans—that gate should not include the apathy of their new city or the ignorance of their peers. As we address obvious instances of racism against Native people, we cannot forget that the main causes of the lack of Native students on campus are insidious and deeply entrenched.
Conversations about how to support and magnify the Native presence on campus have never really begun in most corners of Georgetown; I have heard more students discuss the former name of the Washington Football team than the situation of Native students. Rather than taking the name change as the end-all solution to a problem, we must use it to remind ourselves of the forces that perpetuate the use of racist iconography and the existence of those forces on Georgetown’s campus.