How Tribal College Education Became My Medicine

By: Robin Máxkii

I spent my childhood tightrope-walking an invisible wire between two cultures, always “too Native; not Native enough”. When my middle-school test scores secured admission into a high school located on the other side of town, I was suddenly transported to a dimension of options and privilege. A school filled with computers in every classroom, shiny labs with brand new textbooks, and a wealth of resources. Yet, issues like how the school’s mascot was the ‘redsk**s’ and how offensive caricatures of my culture lined the halls in the name of ‘school spirit’ or matters like the disturbing lack of socioeconomic diversity or even acknowledgement of the world existing beyond this very privileged bubble seemingly confirmed I wasn’t really part of the general student body. Even simple details, such as how the freshman class was larger than the entire population of my reservation, or how it took me three buses and and an hour and a half to get to a school so far removed from my reality seemed to mentally verify my outlier status. It was confusing, isolating, and frustrating, to say the least.

Public libraries provided me with an escape from the stress and discomfort of never quite fitting in. Reading books and blogging afforded me glimpses into new worlds and an outlet for expressing my frustrations with the invisibility I felt as a Native woman in society. I started to learn code initially as just a way to just make my blog ‘pretty’ — I wanted that sparkle text. HTML led me to CSS, which introduced me to PHP and so on. Eventually, I gained a readership and even comments! Granted it was probably the same three people, but nonetheless it was exciting to receive feedback. It felt like I was being heard. It felt like I mattered.

“I remember googling “How to get into college”, and feeling intimidated by the results.”

Blogging and participating in various online forums also gave me a sense of community I couldn’t seem to find elsewhere. I continued to blog as my life unfolded, as I ran away from home, as I shuffled from odd job to odd job, and as I navigated through strange living situations ranging from hostels to buses. I wanted more. I wanted something permanent. “You should go to college if you are serious about changing things,” was an anonymous blog comment that stuck out to me. I remember googling “How to get into college”, and feeling intimidated by the results. I also came up with a series of excuses — that I was too removed from school, that I was too poor, I was too this, I was too that. It finally clicked one day that I just needed to do it.

“Nobody pushed me to leave the reservation for ‘opportunity’. Instead people encouraged me to create opportunity on the reservation.”

In the winter of 2012, I sold my car to pay for my first semester at Dine College — a tribal college located on the Navajo Nation. At Dine College, it was the first time someone had told me I was more than smart, that I was actually a good person. I had a bed and a room and I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to sleep for the next few months. I could just focus on the tasks at hand and I was free to pursue my interests and actually figure out what I wanted. I could ask questions and people didn’t chide me for not knowing how to fill out the FAFSA. Nobody tried to touch my hair or referred to me as Pocahontas. Nobody pushed me to leave the reservation for ‘opportunity’. Instead people encouraged me to create opportunity on the reservation. I went to school with students who understood, with a community that understood.

School provides us with the environment and tools, while students provide the effort. I became involved on campus, in my community, and eventually on a national level with other Tribal Colleges. Soon opportunities I never thought possible started to trickle in, from internships on Capitol Hill, to conducting research in New Zealand, invitations to the White House, living with roommates from all over the world, introducing the Second Lady of the United States, and even an opportunity to participate in a national PBS series; these were just a handful of the many opportunities that I received because of school. More importantly, I also realized that I could leverage my experiences to create opportunities for others.

Last year, I created a proposal for an American-Indian focused hackathon. I ran into a lot of ‘no’s’ in the process, but it just took one ‘yes’ to make it happen. This fall, I just directed (with the help of so many others) the first National American Indian College Hackathon and I am still plotting ways to get others in my community involved in technology! Now that it is my senior year, I am applying to graduate schools to further explore my passion in the intersection of Indigenous Science and Technology and continue to create opportunities for others. It been an exciting ride and I can’t wait to see what is next!