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Indigenizing Higher Education: Thoughts from an American Indian Student


American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) students are underrepresented in higher education institutions, comprising only 120,000 enrolled undergraduate students in 2018, a decrease of 33% from 2010-2018 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2020). Graduate student enrollment also decreased 21% between 2010-2018, with only 13,600 AI/AN graduate students enrolled in 2018 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2020). Not only are AI/AN students underrepresented, but they have low rates of degree completion (National Center for Education Statistics, 2019).  

Despite the many challenges AI/AN students encounter in higher ed, there are ways that universities can help AI/AN students feel welcome and included, hopefully increasing enrollment and degree completion rates over time. Even in an online learning environment, steps can be taken toward creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for AI/AN students. One way that universities can make AI/AN students feel welcomed is through land acknowledgments. Land acknowledgments are when universities acknowledge the ancestral tribal lands that the university encompasses. Even though Northcentral University (NCU) is an online university, it has offices in both California and Arizona. As an American Indian doctoral student at NCU, I would feel more welcomed and included if they had a formal land acknowledgment made in partnership with tribal communities local to their California and Arizona offices. This is why at Dissertation Boot Camp in New Orleans, I approached Molly Gutterud, the Vice President of University Communications and Advancement, to ask if NCU could create a land acknowledgment honoring the tribal communities whose ancestral lands the university sits upon. To my pleasant surprise, Ms. Gutterud wanted to learn more! I could not believe that my university listened to me and my voice mattered. Since then, the university has formed a working group and is currently in the process of creating a formal land acknowledgment. This shows the university is taking that first step toward building tribal partnerships and shows that the university honors diversity and inclusion. As an American Indian student, even those small steps matter.

I’m often asked if land acknowledgments are performative. I’ve seen many Facebook debates on the topic. My response is always the same. Sure, it can seem performative, especially if it is not done in partnership with tribal communities, but I see it as a step in the right direction. I would much rather attend a university that has a land acknowledgment and strives to support and validate its AI/AN students than attend a university that does not put in any effort in supporting its AI/AN students. I would take it a step further and say that if it is made in partnership with tribal communities, then the land acknowledgment shows that the university made an effort to establish meaningful partnerships that can hopefully be the first to many more collaborations with tribal communities. With the input of tribal communities, land acknowledgments can help American Indian students like myself feel welcome and included.

What else can higher education institutions do to support AI/AN students? Universities can commit to becoming a Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institution (NASNTI). Did you know there are currently no NASNTIs in the entire state of California? Not only that, but there are only 37 total institutions across ten states that have the honor of being called NASNTIs (Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, 2021). NASNTIs must enroll at least 10% undergraduate AI/AN students (Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, 2021). One of the many benefits of being a NASNTI is that the institution will receive special grant funding to serve AI/AN students. It also shows the university’s commitment to improving educational outcomes for AI/AN students.

I am proud to attend NCU as an American Indian student, where I feel accepted for who I am and where I feel like my voice matters. I want the same for all American Indian students, including those attending online universities. So, moving forward, what will higher education institutions do? Will we continue to see a decrease in AI/AN enrollment and graduation rates? Or will we see institutions increase supports and validate their AI/AN students?

Links to additional information

More information on NASNTIs:

A Guide to Indigenous Land Acknowledgments:

Land Reparations & Indigenous Solidarity Toolkit:


National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Status and trends in the education of racial and ethnic groups 2018. U. S. Department of Education.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2020). The condition of education 2020. U.S. Department of Education.

Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. (2021). Native-serving institutions initiative.



Shaina Philpot, Doctoral Candidate

School of Education

Specialization - Leadership in Higher Education