Despite the fact that the University of Wisconsin-Madison acknowledges its place on Ho-Chunk (Hooçak) land, UW enrolls relatively few Indigenous students each year.
As of this semester, UW-Madison enrolled 46,059 students in total. This year’s freshman class — the largest in the university's history — was reported to be the most racially and ethnically diverse class yet, with 7% more African American students, 22% more Asian students and 34% more Hispanic students than 2020.
The university’s Indigenous enrollment numbers were not a part of its press release on the freshman class’ demographics.
Grace Licausi is a first-year student at UW-Madison and a citizen of the Menominee Nation. She emphasized the complex history of oppression and genocide that pervades Native history, and how that can influence students’ choice to pursue higher education.
“The tragedies felt throughout generations have had an impact on all Native American lives — past, present and future,” Licausi stated.
Licausi cited systems of oppression such as relocation, residential schools and a lack of access to resources on reservations as factors in the university’s struggle to enroll Indigenous students.
This is not a phenomenon unique to the student body, though. Of the university’s 2,319 faculty members, only nine identified as Native. Furthermore, over the last 10 years, the turnover rate among faculty members of color has been almost double that of white faculty.
Those of Native origin often struggle to access higher education due to a convergence of historical and modern factors, including colonialism, poverty, the breakage of treaties and societal discrimination. These factors have pervaded Native history since the arrival of European colonists on the continent.
As of 2020, the United States Census estimates that approximately 50,000 residents of Wisconsin are Indigenous, comprising around 1.2% of the state’s population. Nationwide, the median age of Native Americans is over six years lower than the general population’s average, suggesting that a larger proportion of Indigenous people are of college age.
But at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, only two-tenths of a percent of students are Indigenous. The university lists its “grand total” of Native students as 112; this figure can be broken down into 72 undergraduate students, 36 graduate students and four who are non-degree seeking.
Ezra Manzer, another first-year student, is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Ojibwe. They are of Ojibwe and Celtic origin, and identify as Métis. Of these statistics, they expressed concern about what this meant for Native visibility on campus.
“How are [our] people to be seen as anything other than ‘other’ when we are so few in number?” Manzer asked.
Manzer also stated that Native faculty should find homes in all departments, not just American Indian Studies. They referenced the pressure Indigenous people often feel to fit into a certain “Native” role and associate with certain groups in order to maintain their culture and community.
Not to mention, due to their family’s financial situation, Manzer works to pay for college. Between work and school, they struggle to find time for community events.
“[It is] an unfair extra stress to be expected to maintain these cultural connections outside of our daily lives,” Manzer emphasized. “Where in all of my troubled youth am I supposed to find the time to attend the occasional Native-based event?”
One factor in the low enrollment levels among Natives is likely financial. According to the 2017 Census, the poverty rate among white Wisconsinites is 9.2% and 26.3% among Natives. The UW-Madison, even with financial aid, can be prohibitively expensive to those who fall below the poverty line.
There are numerous programs offered by the university that provide an avenue to education for Indigenous and low-income students. For instance, Badger Promise allows first-generation Wisconsin residents to transfer from various two-year institutions in the state, including two tribal colleges; once at UW-Madison, they are provided with grants for two to four semesters of in-state tuition.
UW’s partnership with the Native nations of Wisconsin also provides valuable resources and information to prospective Indigenous students.
According to Manzer, there is a common misconception that Native Americans attend college for free. In reality, regardless of a student’s academic merit, they will not always receive the aid necessary to afford higher education; furthermore, they added, “the amount of [financial aid] applications and hoops you have to jump through is confusing and exhausting.”
The process of applying to college and for financial aid is especially difficult if the applicant’s parents did not attend college. A Native individual being a first-generation college student is statistically likely. Per a 2019 study by the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, only 17% of Native students continue their education after high school, in contrast to 60% of the overall United States population.
Manzer also indicated that Natives may be reluctant to leave their reservations to attend the university due to the strong familial and cultural ties they would be leaving behind. However, the lack of economic opportunities present on reservations create a self-perpetuating cycle.
This often forces Native individuals into a choice between material stability and their communities and traditions. Manzer described reservations as “colonial constructs engineered to destroy culture, expertly so,” and noted that it is by design that they “perpetuate poverty and lack of education in Native communities.”
But once an Indigenous person has made their way to Madison, they face a new set of challenges. If an individual was raised on a reservation, they grew up in community with their culture and people; at a large and predominantly white institution like the University of Wisconsin, they find themselves isolated.
“The majority can’t understand the isolation of losing sight of your people, your culture,” Manzer said.
Manzer recalled the strong community and family bonds present on a reservation, and the comfort of being surrounded by one’s culture and tradition.
“At home there was always traditional foods, sage and sweetgrass was burned and stories were told,” said Manzer. “A powwow was done on open ground, so as to feel the great spirit on our skin and the earth on our feet, not stuffed into a gym, becoming some exhibit.”
Both Licausi and Manzer highlighted that Native students have to seek out specific events in order to find others like them. Manzer stated that although the university’s Indigenous student group, Wunk Sheek, is “more than welcoming and active,” they would like to see a campus where Indigenous students can find community both inside and outside of specifically-Indigenous spaces.
“I am not immediately akin to another person simply because they share my culture,” said Manzer. “I wish to see people like me in every aspect of campus I want to pursue … to have bonds with Native students for reasons other than being Native.”
Licausi stated that she is often the first Native person that someone meets, and has even had people say that they “didn’t think [Native Americans] were real anymore.”
She said that this is representative of an education system that fails to teach history through a multicultural, multifaceted lens.
Not providing a Native perspective on American history “creates barriers and misunderstanding that leads to prejudice and lack of knowledge,” said Licausi. She stated that this issue runs too deep to be rectified by just hiring Native faculty — it is a “systemic injustice” that pervades all facets of education.
The confluence of systemic issues that make UW-Madison somewhat inaccessible to Native students, and those that render it an uncomfortable environment at times, do not have a simple solution; they are also not problems unique to any specific university or institution. Even so, both Licausi and Manzer believe there are steps that can be taken by administration, faculty and students alike to address these things.
Licausi detailed an experience she had with an American Indian Studies professor who made harmful comments and shared misinformation about Native people. She stated that this was not representative of the department as a whole, as evidenced by the support she received when she spoke up about it. But despite her efforts to address this with administrators, and past complaints from other Indigenous students, no action was taken.
Incidents like this demonstrate an area in which the university can make concrete improvements. When a student of Native origin raises concerns about bias in instruction, Licausi emphasized the responsibility the university has to take them seriously; she also gave this incident as evidence that it is crucial to “incorporate Native educators and [Indigenous-based curriculum] throughout all levels of education, especially [at a] higher level.”
Manzer thinks that these pervasive issues cannot and will not be easily solved, and that countless small steps must be taken before the larger systemic problems can be addressed. In sharing their experiences, they hope simply that their words will open minds, broaden perspectives and encourage individuals to come together in solidarity and take action.
“My experience is one of many voices that platforms such as [The Daily Cardinal] must work to make heard, and to build with them a platform to higher education based on systems of equity,” Manzer concluded.