Largest Native American Student Population in Southwest Wears Culture with Pride

Feb. 5, 2013

This community – over 1,100 strong – comprises students who identify as Diné or Navajo, Tohono O’odham, Pascua Yaqui, Hopi, Cherokee and others. All told, people from over 75 Native American tribes count themselves as Wildcats.

Brought together through the office of Native American Student Affairs, part of the office of the Dean of Students, this community has become a strong, contemporary student voice both on campus and online.

“These students are very self-aware, very active, and highly involved in the online world,” says Program Director Kyle Ethelbah. “They are using social media to connect with family and friends, and to stay in touch with the reservation.”

Culture Not a Costume

Such connections showed their power and reach last year.

It was approaching Halloween-time. Students Carol Seanez (sophomore, pre-physiology/public health), Vince Redhouse (junior, philosophy/politics/economics/law) and Jerrin Ben (senior, American Indian studies/psychology) had seen one too many advertisements for costumes that caricatured people from various cultures, including Native Americans.

They decided that it was high time someone speak out and let the public know that “playing dress-up” as a cultural stereotype – any cultural stereotype – was only serving to reinforce non-truths about very real people.

Working with Ethelbah and NASA, they took to the Web.

In October 2012, the office posted their first “Culture Not a Costume” photo on the NASA Facebook page. It was a simple black-and-white shot of Redhouse holding a card. In red lettering, the card states, “My name is Vince Redhouse. I am a proud: Navajo. Student.  American. My culture is NOT a costume.”

For him, it was a strong statement. “It gave students a chance to show how they are,” he says. “That this is what I am, that it’s not a costume. It gave students an opportunity to do that in pictures and in words.”

Other students followed suit, posting their own images and “culture not a costume” messages to the page.

Taking it to the Web

Eventually, the effort gained so much momentum that it was picked up by Indian Country Today, the primary online news source for American Indians in the US. The publication featured the story on October 31, 2012.

“This became a whole Facebook campaign,” says Ethelbah. Many of the images were not only widely “liked” and “shared”, but they sparked online conversations and served to build pride across online communities…which was precisely the intention.

“We are really focused on using social media more and more in our center,” says Ethelbah.

With everything the office is striving to accomplish, from developing new programs to distributing information to creating community, social media represents the perfect communications platform.

“In fall 2012, we were at 1,200 likes as opposed to 850 the previous semester,” he says. “We have more likes on our page than we have students on campus.”

Redhouse is also hoping the campaign will continue – and expand to include all campus cultural groups.

“I would like for it to be annual, combining all the different groups, and even people around the world,” he says. “It’s not just for people of color. It’s for everyone.”

Visit Native American Student Affairs at the UA.

And check out the NASA Facebook page where "Culture Not a Costume" played out.