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On the first day of history class at Texas A&M, I took a seat in an empty row, placed my books on my desk, and watched the other students trickle into the classroom. One student in particular caught my attention. He appeared slightly uncomfortable and self-conscious as he scanned the room for a vacant seat. Eventually he sat down at the desk adjacent to mine, introduced himself as Tristan, and shook my hand. We filled the last awkward minutes before class started with small talk. I asked him where he was from and received an unexpected answer — he told me that he grew up on the Sioux Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Tristan and I continued to chat before and after the next several classes, and as the semester progressed we became better acquainted with one another. One day I ran into him outside of the MSC and we decided to have lunch. As we ate, I asked him about his life on the reservation. Once again, his response surprised me. He described a place of terrible poverty that I would have associated only with a third-world country, and he confessed to me that he had grown up with an alcoholic father who struggled to find employment. He also told me about his high school, where most of his friends had dropped out before graduating. Of those who managed to graduate, he said, very few attended college. Tristan himself was the first person in his family to get any sort of higher education. As I spent more time with him, I began to understand that the life Tristan described was not unique to him or to his family; instead, it was common to almost all who live on Indian reservations.
Over the course of our freshman year, Tristan made lots of new friends. Like me, most of his other classmates were eager to hear about his life at Pine Ridge. Many of them were captivated by his vivid descriptions of life on the reservation. Their nervous laughter revealed that Tristan was only partially wrong when he complained that many people seemed to believe that Native Americans still live in teepees and wear braids. Since I was Tristan’s best friend, he confided in me about serious personal matters, such as his brother’s attempted suicide. The more time I spent with Tristan, the more I began to realize that Native Americans are an overlooked minority group. Most of my fellow Aggies had never even met a Native American, knew nothing about the serious problems they face, and even harbored negative stereotypes about them. As a Latino I had thought I was relatively informed about minorities, but meeting Tristan revealed to me that I was wrong.
Meeting Tristan helped launch my own voyage of self-discovery. With each passing day, my interest in his people intensified, particularly since I realized that, as a Mexican American, I too could claim Native American heritage. In my spare time I began to research Native American history. I learned that, in pursuit of Manifest Destiny, the United States forced most Native Americans off their land and violated nearly every treaty the country had ever made with the various tribal groups. I read about how, when the tribes tried to defend their land, they were labeled as “savages.” They were attacked using every weapon from guns to early forms of biological warfare, and when they finally succumbed their children were placed in “Indian Schools” that denigrated their way of life and attempted to forcibly assimilate them into American culture. In talking over the matter with Tristan, I learned about the difficult choice faced by modern Native Americans. If they wish to retain their culture and uphold their traditions on their ancestral lands, Tristan said, then they must live on reservations. But as his own story made clear, the conditions on these reservations are far from ideal: poor education, extreme poverty, rampant alcoholism, and low life expectancy are just a few of the problems reservation dwellers face today.
Befriending Tristan was an invaluable experience for me as well as for his other friends and classmates. College is a time to expand students’ views of the world both academically and socially. A college curriculum provides the foundation on which students can develop their knowledge academically; however, diversity among the student body is equally vital to their education. College campuses must be diverse in order for students to confront prejudice and question their assumptions. I have no doubt that more students like Tristan would broaden the horizons of many in the Texas A&M community.
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