Playing in the Ivy: 1

Playing in the Ivy: American Indian Ivy League College Graduates attainment, creation, and use of Capital for individual and/or community Empowerment and Liberation

Bryan Brayboy

Paper presented at the Higher Education Close Up Conference 2, Lancaster University, 16-18 July 2001

Introduction: American Indian students in Ivy League places

“I have always been told that I am the descendent of a people who would not die…That means that I have to find ways to adapt and adjust and maintain the strength of my people…I have to work hard to make this work, because I have a lot of people counting on me.”


“I have always wanted to be a lawyer; my father and mother and my elders told me that’s what I was going to be, so I wanted it…I do this because it will mean a better life for my people, my siblings, my cousins and nieces and nephews…I can handle anything for those reasons; and I have.”


These quotes were made by two American Indians during their time attending Ivy League universities. Each originally chose to attend and Ivy League university in order to assist their tribal communities with political, social, financial, and cultural issues that were pressing. Along the way, both Heather and John displayed resiliency in meeting the demands of the elite educational institutions from which they graduated while also maintaining strong and lasting cultural connections to their home communities.

John is a member of a tribe located east of the Mississippi River. He is tall and thin, his skin is a rich, brown color and his hair is cut short. Most often he wore blue jeans, t-shirts, and running sneakers. The sneakers were an indication of his love for running and his efforts to be relaxed in an environment that he often referred to as “uptight and out-of-control stuffy.” The environment was a university that I call Prospect, and it prides itself in “being one of the best.” Admission to this institution is highly competitive and many of its incoming students attended private college preparatory schools. Many of John’s classmates’ parents also paid the tuition, fees, books, room, and board bills of over thirty thousand dollars from savings and checking accounts. John relied on financial aid packages and various scholarships from national and local organizations.

John was raised in an area with members of several different tribes and has consistently participated in cultural and political activities directly related to his tribal nation. Although he did not live on the reservation, John made trips “home” for celebration, festivals, and ceremonies several times a year. He attended a private college preparatory high school on a scholarship. He refers to himself as “semi-literate” in his tribal language. John has traveled the world performing dances, singing, and drumming in the style of his tribal community; he has found ways to support his education through such performances and summer institutes. Almost every weekend in college John participated in pow-wows by dancing, singing, or drumming. He told me that these experiences “help me stay grounded and understand what I’m doing, why, and for whom…This is not an easy place to be, but I can do this.” His reasons for attending Prospect were directly oriented toward assisting his tribe in its continuing legal and cultural affairs with the local, state and federal governments. John’s quote at the start of this paper also clearly indicates a man focused on his goals and determined to “succeed.”

Heather is a member of a tribe located west of the Mississippi River. She is medium height and has dark hair, dark eyes, and skin. In college, Heather wore shorts in the fall and spring and blue jeans in the winter accompanied by a t-shirt, sweatshirt, or jacket emblazoned with the name of her college. Her expereinces at Sherwood, the Ivy League university she attended, were full of inconsistencies and contradictions; she was both attached to and removed from her surroundings. Heather found the environment “exciting and stimulating” but also a “place full of rich, spoiled jerks who think their family name should count for everything.” Later, she would say to me about her peers’ reliance on family names, “My family is important where I come from too, but I don’t expect to have someone think I’m cool because of it, or expect to get special treatment for it.” After graduating from Sherwood, Heather would wear a dark suit and shined pumps while carrying a briefcase that clearly suited her chosen profession—an attorney. In a recent interview, Heather told me, “I’m doing all that I can do to help [my community]. This is why I went to [Sherwood].”

Heather was born and raised in an area that was just on the border of her family’s reservation and near a town that was predominately white. She attended a local, public high school whose population consisted of white, middle class students from the neighboring community and members of her tribal nation. She was grounded in her home community’s cultural, political, and economic ways of being. Of her tribal language, she told me, “I understand more than I speak.” Heather was actively involved in the Indigenous student community at Sherwood. As can be seen from her quote at the beginning of the article, she has wanted to be an attorney in order to work for her tribe for many years.

This article focuses on my interpretations of Heather and John’s lives as American Indian college students and graduates. Their stories reveal commonalities in their experiences and my interpretations of those experiences, and they send messages of hope, strength, focus, adjustment, and adaptation that are centuries old. As individuals, John and Heather are excellent students. As members of communities, they are the future of illustrating how culture, knowledge, and power intersect and inform each other in institutions of higher education, tribal nations, and larger U.S. societal institutions.

In my use of the term cultural capital in this article, I refer to the “institutionalized” state (Bourdieu, 1986). This state refers specifically to the credentials of an educational institution. In the case of this article, Sherwood and Prospect are both “elite” institutions whose credentials are often viewed by the larger U.S. society as more valuable and more difficult to attain. Parents, and in this case tribal communities, invest tremendous amounts of time, money, and energy in assisting their children and peers in gaining access to these institutions in order to have direct access to the credentials (or cultural capital) associated with the credentials.

Interestingly, this form of capital that is eventually empowering comes from an institution that has been a colonizer of American Indians for almost three hundred years: schooling. How do students make the leap from the oppressive colonizing forces of institutions of education to the employing of its teachings for empowerment? Or, how do students obtain credentials given by the historically oppressive institutions and use them to assist their tribes and other Indigenous people?[2] By examining these questions, I attempt to begin to explore the experiences of two students who maintain their cultural/ethnic sense of self while managing to acquire some of the necessary tools to fight the institutional structures that have been oppressive to Indigenous people.

Complicating this further is Bourdieu’s (1986) notion of the “embodied” state of cultural capital. The embodied state is that form of capital into which an individual is born. S/he acquires certain habits and ways of being in the world that allow her/him to function in meaningful ways. In Ivy League universities, embodied states of capital are associated with a “high” culture or the ways of being that belong to upper classed people. In the caseof Heather and John, however, their embodied state of capital is tied to reservation areas and the ways of being and functioning in the world that are directly associated with being “Indian” or more specifically with being a member of their tribal nation.

My extension of the embodied state in this article directly relates to knowledge, power, and culture. As John and Heather interact in the world, it becomes apparent that their Indigenous embodied state (or culture) closely interacts with their skills and credentials (or knowledge) to create empowered, powerful beings guided toward projects of social justice. The connections between different forms of capital, combine with knowledge to create powerful individuals and potentially lead to empowered tribal nations and later to liberation for these groups.

Background and methodological approaches: Fancy dancing at the theoretical pow wow

It is important to note that my role as a researcher—and an Indigenous person—is complicated in the reporting of Heather and John’s experiences. As an Indigenous person and a researcher, I will insert my analysis from both viewpoints in this text. I am also a product of an Ivy League university so that my analysis is professional, cultural and experiential. The analysis in this article, then, is multi-layered and has a range and variation in its conclusions.

In this article, based on a two-year ethnography and subsequent follow-up interviews, observations, and document analysis, I aim to examine the ways that American Indian Ivy League college graduates utilize skills and credentials, or what Bourdieu has called the institutionalized form of cultural capital, for individual and/or community empowerment and liberation. I focus, in particular, on the experiences of two of the original seven college students who graduated from college in 1996. Utilizing data from the original study (conducted from 1994-96) and building on recent interviews and observations, I discuss the decisions made by two individuals and the consequences of their life choices.

A couple of questions guided the follow-up interviews and will serve to frame this article. First, How do students who attend institutions of higher education which are considered to be assimilatory by many educational researchers, utilize the knowledge or skills gained while attending those institutions after graduation? Also, I ask the question how, and in what ways, are credentials similar to and different from skills and knowledge, and how are they related to each other when used for individual and/or tribal empowerment? In other words, I investigate through follow-up interviews the ways that credentials, skills, and knowledge gained during undergraduate experiences were later used to enact social justice in Indigenous American communities.

These questions directly address several important issues currently facing Indigenous tribal nations in the U.S. Because of the complicated relationship between the federal government and these tribal nations—one based on quasi-sovereignty by tribal nations—now is an important time for individuals representing these nations to be credentialed and skilled in addressing legal issues. Land claims suits and acts are being processed and United States President Bush has publicly stated that state governments should deal directly with individual tribal nations. This statement is a clear breach of the U.S. constitution.[3] American Indian graduates, like Heather and John, who are skilled and credentialed are taking up the mantle to assist in the fight for self-determination and tribal autonomy. Inherent in the above questions is a theoretical framework that focuses on the relationship between knowledge, culture, and power. I attempt to address what this triumvirate means to two individuals in a larger study by focusing on the specific stories they have told about their experiences as college students and as graduates who work for their tribal national communities.[4]

First, I will describe the findings of the original study. Then, I will explore connections between these findings and subsequent interviews and research questions. The original study focused on the academic, social, cultural, political, financial, and emotional costs and benefits of being an academically successful American Indian student. Initially, I believed that the students’ “real stories” would emerge in their classroom experiences. Instead, what emerged were the social and cultural influences on student experiences. In particular, the politics surrounding who was or was not a “real Indian,” what the roles of being at an elite institution of higher education meant for these individuals, and their tribal nations, and how students managed to be both “good Indians” and “good students” simultaneously. Interestingly, these students created and built on strategies of both accommodation and resistance to manage the structural barriers in order to be academically successful. Unlike Willis’ lads, these individuals displayed resistance by staying in school and being good at it. Mac an Ghaill (1988) has used the term “resistance within accommodation” to describe the ways that individuals can accommodate and resist larger institutional structures simultaneously. Giroux (1992) also uses the term resistance to describe conscious acts of resistance that are political in nature. Resistance, however, has traditionally been used to describe why students leave school; this paper examines resistance among individuals who stay in school. Education, and receiving a degree from an elite institution of higher education is a form of resistance and a way of building resistant tribal nations.

Using education and its by-products as forms of resistance is not a new concept. Tecumseh, the great Shawnee chief used his abilities as an orator to build a coalition of Indigenous tribal nations to resist encroaching whites. Robert Yellowtail, a leader of the Crow, taught himself law as a young man and engaged the U.S. government in battles over land and treaty rights. He won many of these battles. The experiences of Indigenous students in boarding schools during the late nineteenth century and in the twentieth century were also forms of resistance through schooling. The original purpose of these schools was for the assimilation or “civilization” of savage individuals (Haig-Brown, 1988; Hultgren and Molin, 1988; Lomawaima, 1995). Many of the Indigenous students in the boarding schools, however, used the experience to gain a fuller understanding of pan-Indian issues and to become culturally, politically, and socially active upon graduation (Lomawaima, 1995). As a result, the schools served to strengthen some students’ Indigenous identities and ties to tribal ways rather than assimilating the students in the ways they had hoped.

Little has been written regarding American Indian resistance in higher education. As previously mentioned, Lomawaima’s work (1993, 1996) has highlighted forms of resistance for American Indians in boarding schools that led to the maintenance of cultural ties. Other scholars have researched and written about additional forms of resistance for other non-white or low-income groups to education and its canons. Willis (1977) and Weis (1986) both highlight the struggles of working class boys and girls respectively toward education. Others have addressed issues regarding African Americans’ struggles with the educational structure in both high schools and college (Feagin, Vera & Imani, 1996; Fine 1989; Fordham, 1996; Ogbu, 1987, 1993). Solorzano and Villalpando (1999) and Villalpando (1996) have also addressed issues of resistance among Latino/as in higher education reaching the conclusion that resistance has both positive and negative influences on the lives of individuals and on their communities. In this article, I intend to extend these notions of resistance by focusing, like Solorzano and Villalpando (1999) on the resistance of success. Rather than focusing on why students fail or the personal costs of their having to resist, I propose to examine success and the acquisition of credentials and skills as a form of resistance and adaptation.

Students in my prior study knowingly endured harsh, oppressive and marginalizing situations in order to gain skills and credentials that they believed would assist them in aiding their own tribal nations and/or larger Indigenous groups. Gillborn (1997) refers to the process of being academically successful without denying or rejecting one’s ethnic heritage as a strategy of “resistance within accommodation.” The students in this study, through their actions, motives, and willingness to sacrifice their personal, psychic selves for the larger goals of tribal liberation and empowerment are educationally successful and maintain strong connections to their home culture. Their actions are oriented directly toward a project of individual and community empowerment and liberation through the use of skills and credentials gained and earned while students at elite institutions of higher education. I refer to these actions and strategies as strategic accommodation. This concept clearly builds on Gibson’s (1988) concept of accommodation without assimilation in which she discussed the ways that Punjabi Sikhs were able to essentially leave their cultural beliefs at home in order to be academically successful. Heather and John never left their cultural beliefs and ways of being at home; however, they did endure tremendous pain and grief in order to meet the demands of school and schooling.

This article focuses on the experiences of two individuals from the original study in order to extend and complicate traditional notions of resistance. Although the two students seemingly play by the rules, what their actions achieve is very complex. Their actions, for example, show that at least some of these individuals are using credentials and skills to assist their tribal nations in their quests for tribal self-determination and autonomy. This unique form of resistance, attaining an Ivy League degree—as opposed to “dropping out” of school—clearly illustrates the political and complicated nature of resistance that Giroux (1983, 1992) has highlighted in his work.