I’m going to be honest, at times your peers won’t recognize you as Native American. People will casually joke, “I thought you were Asian the first time I saw you,” or at best, “I wasn’t sure of your background.” In situations such as these, I laugh along with them, proudly declaring my Diné ancestry. Often alleviating the confusion of declaring I’m Diné with a sub explanation that I’m Native American and that my tribe is the Diné. Or more commonly known as the Navajo.
Once I declare myself as being Native, individuals are quick to ask how many Native American students there are at Princeton. The Native group at Princeton is small. You can probably count the number of Native students on one hand, but I often tell peers that there must be more. Unlike other institutions with robust Native communities and Native studies programs, Princeton is small and intimate.
When I first arrived at Princeton, I came knowing that Princeton lacked a Native American Studies program and that the Native community was small compared to other peer institutions. I knew Princeton lacked Native American faculty and that my experience here would be different than if I attended a different institution. With this in mind, I came motivated to dedicating a part of my time at Princeton to finding how I could study Native culture in a place with no formal program. I came motivated to connect with the small Native community already existing at Princeton and I wanted to connect to other Native students at other institutions.
The student group Natives at Princeton (NAP) was reinitiated by Emery Real-Bird ’17, Chance Fletcher ’18 and myself during my freshman year. The group aims to create a space for all Native people to discuss issues related to their communities and celebrate their heritage. Previously, the group was named Native Americans at Princeton. In an effort to move away from an American Indian-centric image, we choose to embrace the word 'Native,' with the attitude that there are more Native people than those located in America. Natives at Princeton is responsible for planning Native American Heritage month in November and bringing Native Artists, Academics, and Activists to speak about their activities and interests. Last November, Natives at Princeton brought the musician R. Carlos Nakai to campus.
In addition to Natives at Princeton, students have the opportunity to join a larger network of Native students through the Ivy Native Council. Twice an academic year, various Native students come together and hold a three-day weekend conference. Topics in the past have included Indigenous Feminisms, hosted by the Association of Native Americans at Yale, and Treaty’s: Looking to the Past to Move into the Future, hosted by Natives at Princeton.
Though Princeton is small and limited by a lack of a formal Native program, there are ways to negotiate studying Native culture and participating in Native communities.
Zoe Toledo is a senior in architecture from Logan, Utah and the president of Natives at Princeton. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: This piece is part of our Opinion section’s ongoing welcome series. Groups and individuals from a diverse set of backgrounds and identities are encouraged to share advice and opinions on the Princeton experience. If you are interested in submitting a guest column, please email email@example.com.