Why I need the Native Students Union

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I would like to respectfully acknowledge that this article is being written and read on unceded Lekwungen and W̱SÁNEĆ territories. By doing this, and participating in this institution, I am a part of the ongoing colonialism that exists on this land. I can only hope that this article will assist the people of these communities by bringing light to the Indigenous student experience. T’oyaxs.

My first experience at UVic was of being lonely. I made very few connections in my first year, and those that I did were superficial and ended quickly. I didn’t feel like myself on campus. I was constantly scared and alone. Leaving my home — my community, my family, my friends, everything that I knew and cared about — was the hardest thing that I have ever done. That first year was one of the darkest of my life; I remember driving back home after class to see my parents, or spending the night with my sister doing nothing but watching TV because I craved the companionship. I am so grateful that she was there for me in those days, because without those nights on the couch I don’t know what I would have done. I had to constantly leave campus because I didn’t have a family there.

I started spending time in the First Peoples House in my second year. I began beading and drumming, and for the first time in my adult life, I was making friends. I finally felt like I was in a space where I could connect authentically with people, where people genuinely cared about me and were engaged with the things that I cared about. When I became a Campus Cousin, I joined a group of Indigenous students who were kind, genuine, full of energy, and part of a community. It was easy for me to be outgoing and comfortable around them because they were that way around me. Spending time with other Indigenous students gave me the caring community I needed to focus on my mental health: I had less social anxiety, I was less stressed on campus, and my grades shot up. Moreover, I was introduced to an Indigenous Studies minor which allowed me to enter an academic world where I was able to explore what is now my passion: Indigenous feminism.

In my third year, I watched several students on Facebook attack Indigenous services on campus, and the stream of racist, bigoted, misogynistic, and ignorant comments that followed. This online trolling quickly escalated into real-life threats, with several of my peers being threatened in classrooms and on campus. I had no idea how to handle this kind of violence — and as a community, we were scared. We couldn’t walk alone in the dark because of the hateful atmosphere that was so pervasive on campus. As a Campus Cousin, I played a role in supporting Indigenous students through this harsh time — and we joined together to get through it. But I wanted to know how I could help make a difference, how I could get involved so that Indigenous students would never have to be scared on campus again. That’s when I began to actively participate in the Native Students Union (NSU).

The purpose of the NSU is to support Indigenous students at UVic in their academic, cultural, and spiritual growth, as well as their well-being.

The purpose of the NSU is to support Indigenous students at UVic in their academic, cultural, and spiritual growth, as well as their well-being. Our goal is to create physical spaces of safety, and to create a community of compassionate students to listen and respond to the needs of Indigenous students. We do this by working with students individually, maintaining positive relationships with other advocacy groups and local communities, providing an Indigenous voice within UVic administration (often lobbying on behalf of students), and by hosting events that build community and strengthen the awareness of Indigenous issues.

Some may question why Indigenous students need so much support and advocacy. Let me tell you: it’s hard being an Indigenous student at university. It’s hard being tokenized in classrooms, and being asked to speak out on issues that you have no information about. It’s hard when other students ask you ignorant and racist questions and expect you to take time and energy to educate them on something that they really should be figuring out for themselves. It’s hard being asked if you have status or how ‘much’ of an Indigenous person you are — and then being discounted because you’re “only half.” It’s hard being told that you probably only got into university because you’re Indigenous, or that you’re so lucky that everything in your life is getting paid for. It is really damn hard having to call out professors or students on the racist garbage that they spew in class. It’s even worse when you’re scared and have no one to talk to.

I don’t think it is worth my time and energy to dispel the ‘myths’ that surround Indigenous students — most of which were created to make these students feel even more ostracized on campuses. There are plenty of resources online that dismantle these myths. I will say this: I worked hard to get here. I have good grades and opportunities because I work unbelievably hard in my classes and make personal sacrifices to do so.

What I’ve described is only a small piece of the disgusting treatment that Indigenous students receive on campus. And I have the privilege of being light-skinned so I can pass as white. If I don’t want to be subject to racism I can just pretend that I don’t care, pretend that I blend in. I have never experienced what it is like to be a dark-skinned Indigenous person, or a person of colour. These are the people who need to be held up and supported the most — because they are constantly under attack. They have to be brave on campus every single day, and I am so happy that they do because they contribute beauty, strength, and wisdom to our community.

But the fact of the matter is that I don’t want to abandon who I am — nor should I have to. It’s awful that I have to pretend to be something that I am not just so that I won’t be subject to racism. I’ll give you an example: I was giving a presentation in class about gender discrimination in band membership codes. I was getting ready to stand up in front of a class and present on a topic that I felt passionate about, and I was terrified. More than just nervous, I could literally feel the eyes of some of the men in the class on me, and knew that they would not hesitate to attack me for standing up for an Indigenous issue — god forbid a feminist one. I got through the question period with the help of several of my Indigenous friends who were also in the class, but the whole process was deeply disturbing. Some people might say it was my fault because I spoke on a ‘controversial topic’ and opened myself up to criticism. I am open and eager to accept criticism — but not hate speech. When some guy tells me that it’s a waste of time to talk about gender issues, that’s not a well-reasoned critique of my argument. That’s a personal attack.

I don’t want to abandon who I am — nor should I have to.

Classrooms are violent places for Indigenous students. I’ve sat in classrooms where professors have told me things that were factually wrong about Indigenous people, completely ignored colonialism — or worst of all, told me the history of my people as if we were all long dead and I wasn’t sitting right there in front of them. There are some professors who include Indigenous knowledges and perspectives, but often only in such a way that serves their needs, and doesn’t give back to the communities that the knowledge was taken from. A small pocket of professors are working hard to genuinely include Indigenous knowledges by challenging the dominant styles of teaching in the university. I have so much gratitude towards these professors, because they are not only making the classroom safer for Indigenous students, but making the content more reflective of our needs and perspectives.

The same hard work that Indigenous and allied professors are doing in classrooms is the work that the Native Students Union takes up in the broader campus community. Recently, UVic has seen a rise in online violence and discrimination, causing me and my Indigenous peers to experience more fear on campus than usual. It is next to impossible to have a public online presence as an Indigenous student because of the pervasive violence. Moreover, it makes the public figures who do advocacy work on campus even more vulnerable to personal attacks — and makes their job that much harder. When I decided that I would take a position on the NSU council, I knew that it meant opening myself up to public attacks. Fortunately, I have yet to experience any online call-outs. But it has happened to people around me. It’s the worst feeling to watch vicious lies being spread about the people that you care about. No one, Indigenous or not, should ever be treated like that.

So at this point you may be thinking, “if Indigenous students have to put up with so much discrimination and violence, why even come to university?” There are some days when it’s hard to step foot in the ring because of what I have experienced in classrooms. I think most Indigenous students have considered dropping out at one point or another. The thing that keeps me going is that I am honestly passionate about my education. I love learning, and I love challenging myself to explore different forms of knowledge and understandings of the world. We all have our reasons for being here, and it is awful that discrimination should cause Indigenous students to question their right to be here.

You might also be thinking, “is there any way that I can make the lives of Indigenous students any easier?” Yes! As a member of the UVic community, you can take an active role in making campus a safer space for Indigenous students.

  • Respect that Indigenous students need space that is just for them. The creation and protection of safer spaces on campus is essential for our well-being. Sometimes we just need a space where we feel safe and can be surrounded by people like us. The Native Students Union provides this through our room in the SUB basement, and there are also spaces within the First Peoples House.
  • Don’t assume anything about Indigenous students. Just because I am Indigenous does not mean I am lazy, drunk, easy, stupid, etc. It does not also mean that I am fully funded, here because of my heritage, or have only had a certain set of experiences. Don’t stereotype me and don’t tokenize me.
  • Actively challenge your own privilege and perspective. I have a lot of privilege in my life. I am light-skinned, cis-gendered, able-bodied, and heterosexual. I am always grateful when a person in the community calls me out for causing harm, because it makes me more aware and calls me to be conscious of my actions. I am still learning, and while it is hard to be called out for causing harm, it is even harder to be the person to step forward. Be open and receptive to the perspectives of people with different identities than yours.
  • Recognize that Indigenous students — and other marginalized folx on campus — need advocacy and representation. This is because we experience discrimination on campus, and because our voice is not heard in the administration, which affects our on-campus experience. I need organizations like the NSU to speak for me within the institution and to argue on behalf of my right to be safe here.
  • Stop being such a troll. Seriously. Engage in friendly conversation and ask genuine questions about things that confuse you or that you are uncomfortable with! But stop harassing people based on their identity.
  • It is really hard being an Indigenous student in university. It is an institution based on colonial knowledge, founded on lands which were stolen. It is a site of discrimination and violence, on campus, in class, and online. Yet I and all of my Indigenous peers have a right to be here. We have a right to be educated with relevant materials in a safe space. Slowly, we are transforming small spaces into places that are welcoming for Indigenous students. That is why I need the Native Students Union, to fight for my right to be here and my right to be safe and happy.

    Richel Donaldson is Tsimshian, English, and Scottish, a fourth-year Political Science and Indigenous Studies student at UVic, and an NSU Councillor-at-Large.

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    • Dana-Leigh Tomada

      fantastic Richel!

    • Prof. Aragon

      A powerful article! Thank you for sharing, Richel.