ResEdChat Ep 37: Understanding the Experiences of Indigenous Students On Campus

In this episode of Roompact’s ResEdChat, Host Crystal Lay speaks with Nate Armenta from Northern Arizona University about ways that college and university staff can support Native and Indigenous students and staff.  Nate speaks on language, culture, land acknowledgments, and the importance of access to education for Native and Indigenous students.


  • Nate Armenta (all pronouns welcome, but most commonly he), Indigenous Peoples’ Living Learning Community Coordinator, Northern Arizona University

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Crystal Lay:
Welcome back to Roompact’s ResEdChat podcast where we highlight cool people who do cool things, and talk about cool stuff in residence life at college student housing. I’m your guest host Crystal Lay, and I use the she/her series pronouns.
Today we’re talking to Nate Armenta who’s going to talk about supporting Native American and indigenous folks. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Nate here in Northern Arizona University, and I’m so excited to have him share his wisdom and knowledge with us today. I will start off by having Nate introduce himself.

Nate Armenta:
Hello. Thank you for that. And yeah, my name is Nate Armenta, and my pronouns are he/him/his. I’m a campus living community coordinator, currently, for Northern Arizona University, and I’ll shortly be shifting into a new role for the Indigenous Peoples’ Living-Learning Community Coordinator here at NAU.
And yeah, [foreign language 00:01:02]. I just introduced myself in Navajo. Those are my four clans. My first clan is the Bitter Water people. I’m born for the Mexican people. And my third clan, which I stated, is the clan my mother is born for, which is the Red House People clan. And my fourth clan is the clan that my father is born for, which is the Mexican people. And yeah, thank you for having me.

Crystal Lay:
Thank you, Nate. And thank you for sharing a little bit of your language and your culture with us and with me at this time. I’m excited even more now to learn more about who you are and what you have to share. So thank you.
Let’s really start by, can we talk about… Introduce it as supporting Native American and indigenous folks. But I’ve done some research, and I’ve seen that those cannot be or should not be used interchangeably. Can you talk about the difference between using Native American and indigenous or maybe how you would ask someone about the differences or how they would like to be addressed?

Nate Armenta:
Yeah, yeah, I think it’s just very important as you’re meeting someone, it’s important to ask them how they would like to be addressed. So if you ever come across an instance where you’re having that situation, feel free to ask the individual, “Would you prefer me use indigenous or Native?”
And honestly, indigenous, that is a term that’s been used more prevalently in the modern era or just currently. So that’s the term that we are using now. Native American is still respectful. It’s a little bit more of a dated term, but I personally don’t mind if you describe me as being Native or indigenous. So that’s my own personal preference. And also there is the term Indian that’s been circling around for a long time, and that is a very dated term, but depending on how old you are, your location and just how you personally like to be addressed, that term may be something that you deem appropriate.
But as you might notice, Indian is a word that is associated with federal government agencies. So Indian Healthcare, for example. That it uses that word in there, and that shows how dated, really, that system is. And when those departments or when those systems were established, then they used that language, and that’s the language of the past.
So I personally don’t like when non-indigenous folks use or call me Indian. So just putting that out there. And again, that’s left up to individuals. And also there’s a term, First Nations. First Nations is used to describe bands in Canada, bands and tribes in Canada. So that’s for our friends up north.

Crystal Lay:
Thank you, that was really informative. One of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you about this topic was your openness and willingness to share, and you’ve already demonstrated that so far. But also because there’s this really beautiful sense of pride that you have when you talk about your culture and the journey that you’ve been on. When you think about your culture, what are the things that bring you joy or creates a sense of pride?

Nate Armenta:
Yeah. So just being transparent, I’m a non-traditional native, and that’s how I view myself. So there’s a difference between traditional, non-traditional. Yeah, so traditional would be someone who grows up practicing ceremony, things like that. I didn’t have that exposure when I was growing up, so I’m just being transparent with that. But I would like to highlight that’s not the extent of culture within the indigenous community.
So for me, my connection to my culture comes from my family and through my family and through my introduction. I mean, if you were to take apart my introduction, you would see that I’m multicultural, that I come from two distinct peoples. I’m half Navajo and half Spanish, but I don’t claim one or the other. So I truly do come from a multicultural household. But, yeah, through family.
I grew up with my grandmothers. My grandmothers were alive when I was a child, and I spent a lot of time with both of them. And I was able to really have access to both of my worlds, as you would say, in a very safe way. I was able to go between my worlds within safety. And I say that because at times people realize that they’re navigating worlds whenever a uncomfortable situation comes up or they realize, “Oh, this isn’t home. This isn’t safe. And wow, I’m navigating different worlds right now.” So that experience did come, but I was fortunate enough to be able to experience my cultures under the safety of my family.
So with that, I will say being from New Mexico has its own sense of culture. Being Navajo from New Mexico, it has its own flavor, if you will, and not trying to make a pun or anything, but literally when I was growing up, I thought that all Navajo families ate chile and had chile every day, like beans, potatoes, red chile, green chile, roasting chiles throughout the summer. So essentially New Mexican food, and I thought that food was just a commonality within all Navajo households, which I learned wasn’t the case when I met Navajo folks from Utah.
And not to say that Navajo folks from Utah don’t eat chile, but that’s when I will say that’s when I was introduced to fry sauce, and we did have a cultural exchange even though we’re both Navajo. So that is something that I find a lot of pride in, just the diversity even in that, within my community.
But also, like I said, I’m from New Mexico. The metal scene in my community, from where I’m from, Bloomfield, Farmington, New Mexico, was very prevalent when I was growing up. And honestly, there wasn’t a lot of things to do growing up. So going to concerts, going to shows, metal shows was something that I very much enjoy. And what I noticed is, I’m not saying all Navajo folks love metal, but the Navajo folks I knew did. So in New Mexico, it’s just a big scene, and people come from off the reservation to watch shows at Farmington. I’ve seen a lot of great bands there. I’ve had a lot of great times.
And I really relate to metal because it’s an art form that turns a lot of the things about life that can be unpleasant, those inevitable realities. Sometimes things aren’t so great. I mean, there’s a lot of beauty on the reservation, but there’s a lot of things that aren’t the best in our communities. And so I personally relate to metal because I see it as an outlet. It turns the negative and it’s able to convey, I believe, something beautiful through art. And I’m a huge supporter of the metal scene on the reservation, in indigenous communities. There’s a band, indigenous black metal band I really like called Blackbraid. They’re on tour right now. I suggest checking them out.
But all art in general, I’m just a huge supporter of art in my community. It’s something that does also bring me a lot of pride when I see people showcasing themselves and expressing themselves, expressing their culture in such a beautiful way. And it’s bringing our past into the future, into the present now.
So that’s just something I’m proud to be part of, and that just brings me a lot of joy. And I would really like to see a connection be built between the art scene, particularly the metal scene, just my own bias, and higher education. So a relationship, a connection between those scenes and higher ed. And there’s a lot of excitement that I have for the future and hopefully being able to lend myself to build that relationship. But yeah, I’ll stop there with that.

Crystal Lay:
So what I’m hearing is it really depends on where folks grow up and how they engage with different pieces of their identity. You also shared being multicultural. You shared art pieces, food pieces, and just questions that I think can only be answered by actually talking to the individual and asking them about their experience and not lumping an entire group together. So there’s some pieces that may be signature to a particular group or clan or tribe, or you could actually say, “Hey Nate, tell me about you. What are you into?” So I heard a little bit of both in that answer.

Nate Armenta:
Yeah, absolutely.

Crystal Lay:
Yeah, okay, okay. And a band I need to check out too, apparently. Okay. So you also used the word “navigating,” and navigating culture. How does your identity factor into how you navigate a college campus? And then maybe what are some examples of how you’ve seen some of your students that you’ve met who identify with Native or indigenous culture, how have they been working to navigate a college campus? So for yourself and then maybe some students you’ve encountered?

Nate Armenta:
So just for myself, I mean really, I found a great connection at the Native American Center at San Juan College there in Farmington, New Mexico. It was ran by Michele Peterson at that time. And I just remember she was one of the first individuals who just really talked to me like I was important. And talked to me, took an interest in who I was, my interests, and just made me feel welcome and that I was somebody. And just having that connection really opened a lot of doors for me because having that person see me in a different light allowed me to see myself in a different light.
But with that, it gave me a lot of confidence to continue my education there at Fort Lewis College, and I was able to access education there through a tuition waiver. I’ll be transparent there. I would not have been able to access education had it not been for a tuition waiver. So I’m very thankful that that was something that was in place.
But also something very special that I experienced at Fort Lewis College was their family housing apartments, and just the relationships that I was able to form there with other Native families, having other families, children over for dinner. Oh, well I’m a father. I don’t know if that came out. I’m a single father. I’m an indigenous father. That’s part of my identity. So I navigated campuses also as an indigenous parent. But having the close bonds with other families was something hugely important to help me connect with the community, to help me feel part of it and wanting to strive to do better.
So having that connection was huge. And I can’t underline that enough. Just being able to see my son play with other children, with other indigenous families from across the country. So not just Navajo families, but Hawaiian families from California, families from Arizona, East Coast.
Yeah, also I will say that it helped me find childcare. I mean, I believe I would’ve found it anyway, but just because other folks and other families had already navigated those pieces, I was able to plug into their streamlined process, and they shared what they did to be successful. And in turn, when I became the returning family or whatever, I was able to pay that forward, and eventually I did become the RA of that community. And that’s just something that I take a lot of pride in, and being able to pay what I learned forward, the welcoming, the hospitality that I received, being able to show that to new families, to other parents as they’re coming in and give them, hopefully, that experience.
And that’s also something that I’ve tried to do in my practice with students here. And so navigating the institution is something that’s different for each individual. But even though we’re indigenous, we do share that identity piece, how we go about navigating that is different. And how I’m learning a lot from my students as far as the things that they’re doing and how they’re thinking about their experience.
And it’s so unique to view the picture of what home is and how you’re creating home for yourself and how you view the institution as a smaller version of your home. And that’s something that’s beautiful. That idea that your institution is an extension of your home because then you’re bringing your culture to your home, to your home in the institution. You’re feeling comfortable enough to be yourself, to practice pieces of your culture that would otherwise, you wouldn’t feel welcome if you didn’t have that connection that you’re making like, “This is my home. The community members that I’m in, almost like another family.”
And that’s something that I’m seeing here happen in the Indigenous Peoples’ Living-Learning Community over the past year, is that a sense of family and community really taking shape and guiding students in how they’re connecting with each other. And honestly, it’s something so unique that I’ve seen. I’ve seen friend groups form in apartment communities and resident hall communities, things like campus communities, but I’ve not seen whole floors come together to form community with each other like I’ve seen in the IPLLC. I’ve said this before, it’s very much a community that’s ready to build itself, that needs a place and a home to start building itself the way that it has been. And as far as support goes, all the support that it can be given is absolutely necessary, but it’s also something that is strong on its own as it’s going, but those support pieces are absolutely necessary, regardless of resilience.

Crystal Lay:
You said the words “home, a community.” You named a staff person that you said saw you, paid and helped you maybe realize your potential. And then getting connected with other folks from similar cultures or backgrounds. And those are things that are really important as we strive to help students find or feel a sense of belonging at our campuses.
I remember as an undergrad, and even times now, being a person with marginalized identities trying to feel connection and purpose. So the home and family piece really resonates with me.
And I think there’s the other side. There are moments when we don’t feel like we belong. And so can you talk about the things in your experience where, as colleges or universities, we just don’t get it right as we think about our Native or indigenous folks, things that we may be doing that do not help foster a sense of belonging or this idea of home and community?

Nate Armenta:
Yeah, I would say if there’s lacking knowledge or comfortability in working with another culture that people in the room who belong to that culture, we’ll pick up on that.
So that’s just something that I’ve experienced. I don’t want to name specific instances or individuals, but during undergrad… It is something that I’ve experienced at every level, at community college, at undergrad, at grad school, and even in my professional role.
Some moments are surprising. I will say that throughout my time at different institutions that I have had moments that have felt scathing for me, having to navigate gatekeeping, for example. Gatekeeping within my own community because of how I present, and also me not being traditional. And that has been something that for a while, it actually kept me from reconnecting with my own culture. Because there was a moment, there was a little while that I felt like, “Oh, I’m not enough. I’m not Native enough to take part in my own culture. If I introduce myself in this way, people are going to look at me and be like, ‘Oh, you’re not full Navajo.”
So there was a bit, and that unfortunately came from my own community. But those individuals, those are individuals. That wasn’t something that was shared across… That didn’t encompass the feeling of my experience. Those are just moments that had happened that are reality, and those are moments that also have informed me on how to support indigenous students. Because even though I’m half, and even though I present as maybe non-indigenous, that doesn’t mean that I can’t support and that I can’t help students and that I can’t speak to being half-Navajo and own that, and own my indigenousness and claim, essentially, my birthright and claim my sovereignty. There is not an individual out there who has the right to keep anyone from that or keep me from that.
And that’s a message that I share with my students. “You have a right to be who you are. You have a right to own your birthright.” And that’s something that I also role model. So I speak to it, I role model it, but I speak to it because I want to give others the courage who may share my sort of experience, who may be a quarter indigenous, half indigenous or reconnecting with their culture. I guess, the courage to do so. And because it is like you’re standing up in front of your community and you’re making yourself vulnerable.
So that’s just something that it has taught me. Yes, there has been unwelcoming instances, but that’s made it better all around, essentially, for me, because I learned from those things and I learned how to now challenge those things in a way that’s productive, that isn’t coming from a place of anger or resentment, but rather, “Okay, how can we learn from this moment? What is something that we can move forward together? Or what is something that I can at least take away to inform my practice or to a lesson that I can learn down the road and share?” So those are things that I’m always trying to look out for. I hope that answered that.

Crystal Lay:
It did. It was so powerful because of what I hear you saying is our work is to help our students and our staff understand they have the right to be themselves.

Nate Armenta:

Crystal Lay:
And how powerful is that to create spaces, opportunities, resources. Say, here at this place that you’re going to be calling home, if the institution is an extension of home, we want you to be the best version of yourself. And that’s not easy, but the more we can try to create a container for that, the better.
I want to shift a little bit. So in my experience, I found that there are words and phrases and even costumes that non-Native or non-indigenous folks will use in daily language or around Halloween, for instance. And typically we would say, “The folks who know better,” for better phrasing, it’s like, “Okay, that’s cultural appropriation. It’s culturally offensive.” Can you talk about the importance of language and culture as you think about it as it relates to your community? Or just maybe what could a message be is folks are using language or addressing in ways that are not respectful of Native or indigenous culture.

Nate Armenta:
So for me, a big thing is the origin of stuff. And that comes from me having a history degree from Fort Lewis College. So when I see that, or when I hear that, and I’m seeing these costumes and hearing these phrases, what I’m witnessing is a culture of war, of how our society has been immersed in violence. And those words and those outfits and what have you, really, is it reveals that connection that this society has to that violent past.
So I’ll explain a little bit further. So those words that are offensive for indigenous communities, those words come from a military organization that has since then used dehumanizing words to describe the people whose lands that they’re occupying. So wars since the Indian Wars of the 19th century. There’s examples of those types of language being used to describe populations even into our current context.
So that comes from that, essentially. And then when you have the costumes and the appropriation of symbols, that also goes back to that culture of war. Because there’s the trophies of war after the battle, and there’s no good sportsmanship on the battlefield. And our society, our Western society, comes from that kind of medieval mindset of taking trophies of war from your enemy and parading them and having that hero’s triumph, if you will. And parading before your enemy or before your society what you’ve earned on the battlefield or what you’ve earned through violence.
And so people don’t know where those things come from or why that’s there. And what’s happening is there’s just a repeating of that. And that just goes to show how if violence has shaped non-indigenous society and immersed itself in such a way that it reveals itself almost unintentionally, or intentionally in these cases, how has that same sort of violence shaped indigenous society and our memory?
So I will say that it does bring up a lot of pain. And it’s not just because, “Oh, it’s because we’re sensitive or we don’t like these words.” There’s a very deep reason and origin of why we find these things hurtful.
And going on, we talk about language and how it does shape culture. I want to talk about just words that are coming up that I’m seeing that’s shaping culture within the institution. So “Resilient,” that word in itself, resilience, it’s such a good word. However, I’m finding that it’s not always used to describe indigenous people in inside of an institution, but in an institutional setting, when you are using the word resilience to describe a large group of students and whatnot, and you’re describing indigenous students, that has been something that has occurred while I’ve been in the institution for the years that I’ve been here.
And having that word be thrown around, I want to highlight that there’s a reason why students have to be resilient. And by calling a student resilient and not doing anything about why they’re having to be resilient or what the issue is, that’s not helping the student. That’s like going up to somebody who’s holding a great burden and being like, “Oh, you’re good at holding that. Good job.” And then just going down your path and leaving that person there to carry that burden still.
So really, when we’re using the word resilience, we need to also think about, “Okay, what’s causing our students to be resilient, to have to be resilient in the first place?” And if that’s something that it that’s coming from home or from the communities off-campus, then what can we do here at campus to relieve some of that burden so folks don’t have to be so resilient? That’s just something I wanted to point out when we’re talking about language and culture with indigenous folks in the institution.
I would also like to bring up something that’s become prevalent in institutions and synonymous with indigenous communities is the land acknowledgement. And the land acknowledgement has, in a way, become an extension of… I don’t know if it ever was meant to be this, but it has become almost an extension of indigenous culture in the institution.
Because what it is is a land acknowledgement becomes a ceremony, and it has its own proceedings, has the way that it’s conducted. So it is a ceremony. It is something that has a relationship with an indigenous community. What I’m seeing now is the development of institutional culture as an extension of indigenous culture from our homes. Because we don’t have land acknowledgements at home. That’s something that’s institutional, that’s something that happens here, being talked about, being told, “I’m so resilient.” That doesn’t happen outside of the walls of the institution. That’s what I’m talking about.
So I think it’s important to think about the words that we use when we’re working with indigenous communities and the work that we do. How is that forming culture? How is it churning into culture? Because if it’s an annual thing that we’re doing every year, it becomes a ceremony and it has its own protocol, that’s beginning to form a culture, an institutional culture. So I just find that highly fascinating and I wanted to point that out.

Crystal Lay:
That makes it into something that… It’s more meaningful, and it sounds like we need to be more intentional. And words means something. These land acknowledgements, it feels like shouldn’t be something that’s just read. It should be something that’s meaningful, intentional, and there’s action, like, “Okay, what are you going to do about it? You’re naming that you’re on stolen land. Well what does that mean and what’s the next step? Maybe there’s a call to action that we’re not rising up to meet,” is a little bit of what I’m hearing in that.
Or I liked your example of when you talked about, “Hey, you’re carrying this burden. Good job,” and you pat someone on the back. And I never thought about our use of the word resilient that way. And you, oh my gosh, I really want to chew on language and the words that we say and putting action into it.
And one of my questions was about land acknowledgement. So thank you for talking about that, Nate. So if you could narrow down or maybe leave with three things. And I know that’s not a lot, but I know it’s going to be powerful, whatever you share, but what are three things that you want folks to understand or really think about as they try to get an understanding or learn more about indigenous culture? If you have Nate’s three things.

Nate Armenta:
Yeah. So internet is something that we use and we don’t really think about when we are logging in and we just going about our day. We don’t have a second thought about it. But the internet is not in the hands of a lot of indigenous communities. Indigenous communities are largely disconnected. And really the internet now in the modern era is a natural resource. It is such a natural resource that you can’t live your life as you live it without it. So imagine not having that access for years, or growing up without it. And what would that do to you, your community, your psyche, the way you even think about yourself and the universe? It does have an impact. So there’s that impact.
But I want people to know that internet is a natural resource, and the way that the internet is transferred through the radio waves. Well, the radio waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is naturally occurring on indigenous lands. And part of treaty law is that indigenous peoples are entitled to have so complete sovereignty over all naturally occurring resources on their lands. This should include internet. So the fact that indigenous communities are among the most disconnected really highlights something that needs to be changed, and that knowledge needs to be known. That this resource is naturally occurring and by law should be in the hands of the tribes where connectivity is needed.
So there’s a person who’s done a lot of great work in this field. Her name is Darrah Blackwater, and she’s Dine from Farmington, New Mexico. She’s done a lot of great work in this area. So if you want to dig further, look this person up. Just a lot of great work in this area.
So I want to also talk just quickly about tuition waivers. I think people think about, “Oh.” The thought may occur like, “Oh, why does this group get a tuition waiver? Or why does this group get granted this?” Well, there’s many reasons, but historical, if you look at history, non-indigenous society, White society has also largely benefited from free things, from free land, from farmland, housing, housing that was only reserved for White folks, for the White community. And that housing and that land, what it does is provides generational wealth. So if all those thousands of families who benefited and generationally benefited from that, I don’t think there were many people who were raising an eyebrow then. So I want to highlight that. That was never in place. In fact, the land and those benefits are something that was being taken away from indigenous communities.
It’s a reality in our communities that we come from households, not myself, but my grandmother didn’t get electricity until the 90s. I have friends whose families, whose grandparents are still living without running water or electricity. So if you think about communities that are coming from a place where that’s the reality, the only way to break this cycle that’s occurring in our communities is through education.
And I mentioned there’s a lot of beauty in our community, but there’s also a lot of things that aren’t the best. There’s also a lot of data, statistics that point to we’re among the highest numbers of just things that aren’t great. I’ll just leave it at that. So the only way to break out of those cycles that exist and that the cycles that are reality for us as a people is through access to education. We need that free tuition because otherwise, like I said, I would not have been able to attain an education. So that’s just highly important. Any sort of benefit like that.
And also housing, getting free housing, if that’s a possibility for an institution, that’s something that really needs to happen. And a small thing, I think it’s a misconception that indigenous people just get a lot of free things, free money or whatever. I mean, that’s not the case. I’ll say that. And I’ll say from my tribe, we don’t get per capita, that’s what that’s called. We don’t get money from our tribe or from the government. That’s just not a thing. So I just want to break that stereotype and put that out there.

Crystal Lay:
Nate, I am sitting here knowing that there’s so much more I need to learn, and that’s not your responsibility is to teach me those things. But I can tell you that the things that you share with me and with our listeners, I am hoping, and I know for myself, are really pushing me to do some additional work to learn more about how to be a support and a resource to our students and our staff who are from Native and indigenous communities.
This was so great, and thank you for sharing so many pieces about yourself, your journey. Thanks for joining me, Nate. I appreciate it so much.

Nate Armenta:
Thank you for having me.

Crystal Lay:
Yes. Oh my gosh. Wow. I have chills.
And to all of you, thanks so much for joining us on this episode of ResEdChat. We have some great show notes we will add with some resources that Nate provided to us. And if you have an idea of a topic or person that you’ll like us to have here on the show, please let us know by reaching out to Roompact. Take care.

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