By Nani Lawrence
Almost every week, a New Mexico State University student organization gathers at a corner-house on Bellamah Drive for a home-cooked meal, socializing, and to discuss Bible passages. After the hour or so it takes to prepare the potatoes, the corn, the meat, the squash, and the from-scratch tortillas, the group gathers in the living room. Jacob Reta, also known as Bearfoot, asks them to bow their heads as he thanks God for the food they are about to eat and the people who expended the effort to make it.
As a Native American student, Reta has not had an easy life, in his village of Tortugas or in college.
“A lot of Native students (at New Mexico State University) are probably the first generation to attempt to go to college, or even graduate high school for that matter,” Reta says. “It’s a huge culture shock.”
Statistics from the National Indian Education Association indicate that the high school dropout rate for these students is at seven percent.
“Native people don’t participate effectively in the American educational system at all levels,” says Native scholar and New Mexico State University anthropology professor Donald Pepion. He specializes in the Blackfoot Nation of Montana, consisting of four tribes.
Across the country, university retention efforts have focused on negative things, such as dropout rates. Pepion feels they should focus more on positive aspects of having students from these Native cultures on their campus.
“It hasn’t been said, but I know in our hearts we want to change (the dropout rate),” Bearfoot says.
Nations was founded in 2004 by Donnie and Renee Begay, former members of Crusade for Christ and Destino. They really wanted to create something tailored to their Native culture, Donnie Begay says.
“We began the group in hopes of helping Native students, and do so through learning about faith,” Begay says. “(My wife and I wanted a) space for Native American students to be who they are, to speak their languages, eat foods they miss from home, and learn about faith from a Native world view/perspective.”
During the biblical discussions, each member of Nations is able to share his or her own interpretation of passages.
An anthropological term Pepion mentioned was acculturation. It occurs when a dominant culture attempts to tailor a minority to its own ways, erasing the minority’s way of life. This group seems to be one way in which that effect is prevented.
Nations tries to provide a safe and loving home away from home for Native students.
“Not just Native students, but freshmen in general are to themselves, in Garcia (Hall). We’re here for you, let us show you how we can love you,” Bearfoot said.
Reta says there is also a bit of a catch-22 about seeking out higher education as a Native person. Their families do want them to receive an education, to come back and better the reservation. But sometimes, these same people get the idea that, since they left, these students are “too good” for them, “city slicker,” “urban Indian,” he says.
There are many other things that affect Native Americans in higher numbers, from certain health conditions to police brutality, but one of the things that really upsets Reta was ignorance about the Native struggle.
One theory Pepion has about why this ignorance exists is because the history of the Native encounter with white, European settlers was not written from the Native perspective.
“For example, we want to celebrate (Christopher Columbus) as Americans, that he discovered this place. But that discovery brought a lot of things to North America,” including religious wars, he says.
The members of Nations, mostly Navajo and Pueblo, share a common background. They can understand each other.
Nations adviser Ashen Schumpelt grew up in the Four Corners area, so she had many Native friends. This put her in a good position to help these students.
“Leading others helps me grow in my own faith,” she says.
Begay says he feels Schumpelt is a great asset to the group. Not only does she add something they really needed with her own leadership, but she’s also been very helpful in finding Native student leaders to help sustain and grow this organization.
The most important thing Bearfoot credits Nations for, and Schumpelt in particular, is leading him on the best journey of his life.
This past summer, Reta was presented with the opportunity to volunteer in a village in Mongolia. Schumpelt really felt he should, but he wasn’t so sure. Raised both Catholic and ‘traditional’ Native, Bearfoot sought spiritual advice from her, and was told to follow God’s calling. Instead, God called on Reta to volunteer at the Boys and Girls Clubs’ Gates Camp in Denver.
Interacting with kids all day in an influential way felt great, he says. There was one child in particular who really grabbed his affections, a Native boy named Dominic. After receiving permission from both Dominic’s grandmother and the camp itself, they exchanged contact information, and talk on the phone every day.
“If I care about you, you’re family. And that kid is my little brother,” Bearfoot says.