This Independence Day most of us will be celebrating the nation's birth. But for many people of this country's First Nations - Navajo, Lakota, Sioux - independence still remains a dream. Now a unique national program to help young Native Americans get into top colleges and universities is offering new hope to Native communities. And one Ohio college has made the commitment to enroll indigenous students so they can one day give back to their tribes. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.
You may never have heard this language, but it's spoken by more than a million people in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Last month this young representative of the Navajo Nation was far from home, sharing an outdoor barbeque with 55 other Native students from across the country on the campus of Oberlin College.
Shaina Yazzie: My name is Shaina Yazzie, I'm 15 years old, I attend Holbrook High School in Arizona. And my clans are Coyote-Fox clan born for the Red Bottom people and my grandpa Mainale's clans are the Bitter Water people.
Shaina Yazzie wants to go to college - but not just any college. With her 3.0-plus GPA and standing as secretary for her sophomore class, Shaina has set her sights high. Among the universities she's considering are Harvard, Princeton and Yale, schools not normally targeted by students from the reservation.
Whitney Laughlin: I'm Dr. Whitney Laughlin and I'm the founder and executive director of College Horizons which is a non-profit program that helps Native American students go to college and graduate school.
College Horizons is a national program that teaches bright, young indigenous students everything they need to know about getting into the nation's most high-powered schools. This year Oberlin is one of three sites for this crash-course in college prep. Over the last 8 years more than 600 Native students have gone through the program and enrolled in colleges like Stanford and MIT. Laughlin says a recent study of the first two years of College Horizons students shows an 86% college graduation rate. That's compared to 6% nationwide for Native Americans according to the U.S. Census Bureau and 25% for the general population. Laughlin presents her program at 100 Indian high schools each year. But her message to college admissions offices is not one of poverty or social justice.
Whitney Laughlin: Don't look at Native students as a deficit model, like, oh, we need to fill them up, oh, those poor people - you know. They have an incredible beauty and wisdom that they bring to a campus if you just allow it to shine.
Kace Hogner: I'm from Tulsa, Oklahoma and I've been playing the flute for about two or three months.
Kace Hogner is one of more than a dozen Native students at the Oberlin program who's not afraid to get up on stage and share her talents with others. While leaving home is an adjustment for most college freshmen, for many tribal students it can be the first time they've ever left the reservation or taken an airplane ride. But for Grace Settler, an elder of the Yakima tribe in Washington state, the effort to get Native students into good schools represents the future of Native people.
Grace Settler: When I was their age, there weren't scholarships. You know I went to a private school, I got a perfect 4.0 average. I mean my goal was to outdo every White dude in that school. I was the only non-White in my class. And so when graduation came up, it's like, you can't be valedictorian, you don't really represent the school. Can you believe that? It's not going to happen to them.
Two students from the program have already been enrolled at Oberlin College by associate admissions director Tom Abeyta. He knows that to create diversity on campus, financial aid for students with limited resources is crucial.
Tom Abeyta: Some institutions practice gapping in terms of financial aid, so they will admit a student, but then they will only give so much financial aid and then the family is required to meet the rest, so they actually don't meet 100% of demonstrated need. Now Oberlin meets 100% of demonstrated need no matter what.
But for First Nation people, getting into college and graduating is only half the battle. Norbert Hill, a member of the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin, is director of the American Indian Graduate Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico which helps support the College Horizons program. He says students must make their own commitment to social responsibility.
Norbert Hill: We don't want to produce brown bodies with White degrees. We want to make sure that they have an opportunity to give back to the community, because we need a return on our investment. Or else we're brain-draining our communities and we're terminating ourselves through education.
As Norbert Hill is fond of saying, he wants graduates to land on their moccasins, not their Guccis. Shaina Yazzie's plan is to return to the reservation with what she's learned in college.
Shaina Yazzie: I want to become a veterinarian, because on the Navajo reservation there's not a lot of veterinarians and there's a lot of animals. There's like two veterinarians I know of and it's really hard for them to get to the whole Navajo Nation.
Not all the College Horizon students who make it through school will return to their tribal communities. Some will enter the corporate world or take jobs with government agencies that assist Native tribes. But program supporters believe the Native tradition of giving back to the community will mean the investment made in these students will pay lasting dividends. In Oberlin, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.