Repairing and Re-centering NASPA’s Work with the Indigenous Peoples Community

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Indigenous Peoples
November 12, 2020 Kevin Kruger NASPA

Dear NASPA Members,

In February 2019, 12 current and former leaders of the Indigenous Peoples Knowledge Community (IPKC) gathered with representatives from the NASPA staff in our Washington, D.C., office for a two-day meeting to move forward a process of reckoning with some significant ways in which NASPA had not lived its own core values of inclusion in our work with leaders and members from the Indigenous Peoples (IP) community in student affairs.

During this gathering and the stories that were shared by leaders from the IP community, it became clear that too often, NASPA had failed to do our best work in trying to engage and support our IP leaders and members. It is important for me as the president that all members feel valued, heard, and empowered through their involvement with NASPA. And that was clearly not the case for so many of our IP leaders. This was also not a recent occurrence- these negative experiences have persisted for many years. The Indigenous People’s community has been harmed and hurt by a persistent lack of visibility and acknowledgement over the years. These stories are not easy to hear and were painful and difficult to reconcile with my own experiences and aspirations for this association I love so deeply. I am grateful to the participants for trusting me and my colleagues with their stories, because several reflections have stayed with me as our work to advance Indigenous inclusion has continued. 

We have important and valuable work to do to repair and re-center our work with the Indigenous Peoples community with NASPA. But before we begin to outline that work, I feel it is important to acknowledge our failures in this work and to apologize to the IP leadership and their members for falling short of our stated values of inclusion and integrity. 

Since that meeting and in subsequent meetings with the IPKC and other IP leaders, there are several reflections that have come to the surface and that frame the work we need to do going forward. It is my hope that these conversations and the work we will do together, will help rebuild trust with the IP community and together make NASPA a more inclusive association. 

Reflection 1: Equity and inclusion aren’t universal or monolithic

One of the most glaring observations shared at our meeting in Washington, DC, was the realization that there had never been an Indigenous member on the NASPA Board of Directors and that the last Indigenous keynote speaker at a NASPA Annual Conference was ten years ago. I want to emphasize that this “a-ha” realization wasn’t a new one for our Indigenous members, who shared accounts of extreme invisibility and the experience of getting lost in larger efforts aimed at including People of Color. For example, we have worked for several decades to diversify the demographic composition of the Board, but by not focusing specifically on Indigenous representation, we lost the opportunity to be fully inclusive. Our work to become a more equitable association must take into account histories of oppression that are both shared and divergent, and our efforts to change should be nuanced enough to address particular needs.

This past spring, Pam Agoyo, Ohkay Owingeh, Cochiti, & Kewa Pueblos, joined the Board of Directors for a two-year term. Pam, who serves as Director of American Indian Student Services and Special Assistant to the President for American Indian Affairs at the University of New Mexico, has worked with Board Chair Angela Batista to lay out a plan for NASPA’s Indigenous engagement. I am committed to supporting Pam Agoyo’s leadership on the Board and, moving forward, to working with the IPKC to build a pool of future candidates. 

Reflection 2: An imperative to work with, rather than speak or fix on behalf of, Indigenous members

About five years ago, the then-chairs of the IPKC advocated to the Board that NASPA should commit to including land acknowledgments at our programs. The IPKC and the Board agreed to guidelines called the Indigenous Protocol and Practice Policy (IPPP), which stipulated that where possible, annual national and regional conference planning committees should work with local Indigenous communities to write and deliver land acknowledgments. Coming out of this dialogue with the IPKC, I felt proud to report immediate compliance with implementation of the IPPP at our major events. In fact, NASPA was one of the first higher education associations to begin their conference with a land-acknowledgement. But quickly, we started to hear from the IPKC and other members that presentation of a land acknowledgment during regional conferences and other NASPA events didn’t feel adequate, that it sometimes seemed perfunctory, and that the text and delivery were not always developed in collaboration with local tribal communities. In spite of good intentions and, at times, good work, the IPPP became a task and, if there were missteps, were framed as situations that we could “fix.” What started as a mutual commitment to honor the contributions of Indigenous Peoples and to acknowledge that we were meeting on sacred and historic lands had too often turned into a conference planning checklist item, which serves only to further marginalize the IP community. 

The lesson for me is that Indigenous engagement should be an ongoing, integrative way of proceeding that happens in relationship with our Indigenous members and communities. The IPKC gathering surfaced a number of ongoing concerns and issues, including involvement of tribal colleges and universities (TCUs), representation of Indigenous scholars and research in our publications, and Indigenous engagement in planning national and regional annual events. These concerns weren’t raised as items for NASPA to fix, nor should we presume to be able to do so. We must work in community and relationship with our Indigenous members, institutions, and partner organizations. 

We are putting into place two structures to facilitate collaborative work with our Indigenous communities in NASPA: 

  • First, Pam Agoyo and Monica Nixon, NASPA’s assistant vice president for equity, inclusion, and social justice, will co-lead an Indigenous Engagement Working Group to guide NASPA’s ongoing work to sustain the visibility and inclusion of Indigenous members. This group will begin its work this fall. 
  • Second, I have appointed IPKC co-chair Charlotte Davidson, Diné/Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, & Arikara), to serve as the NASPA Indigenous Relations Advisor for the coming year beginning in November 2020, to contribute to Indigenous peoples research and scholarship efforts, serve on the Indigenous Engagement Working Group, assist with planning regional and national events, and document the history and contributions of the IPKC.  

Reflection 3: Reconciliation requires accountability, acknowledgment, and authenticity 

At the top of this message you’ll find NASPA’s diamond-shaped logo. Some of our constituent groups, including the IPKC, also use their own logos. The IPKC worked with a Native artist to develop a circular logo with hands facing in each of the compass directions. During the gathering with IPKC leaders, one of the participants noted the metaphorical challenge of fitting the IPKC circle into the NASPA square (a “round peg, square hole” dynamic). This imagery has remained with me. 

For many of our Indigenous members, NASPA as a whole has felt exclusionary and oppressive, with the IPKC carving out an intentional and safe counterspace for leadership, engagement, and advocacy. I know we can do better than this and am thankful to the IPKC for remaining committed to NASPA and for deepening Indigenous content and engagement across our programs, scholarship, and communities. I am particularly energized by the IPKC’s involvement in efforts to engage Tribal Colleges and Universities and to contribute to research and scholarship, including the forthcoming winter special issue of Leadership Exchange, co-edited by Charlotte Davidson. 

With the collective leadership of the Indigenous Engagement Working Group, the IPKC, the NASPA Board and staff, I hope we can build an association where our Indigenous members and groups don’t feel that they have to fit into a predetermined shape or space, but instead are invited to shape NASPA together. I look forward to building our relationships, restoring trust and ensuring accountability as we do this work together. 

With gratitude,

Kevin Kruger
NASPA President