Boarding school, family and opportunity: Student discourses as adaptive strategies at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute

Angelle Khachadoorian
Dept. of Anthropology, University of New Mexico
July, 2006


Students at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) strategically utilize three main discourses to adapt to the school. SIPI is a Bureau of Indian Affairs- operated community college for Native Americans located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The school's structure exhibits several internal contradictions because it is an imperfect blend of two conflicting institutional models. SIPI attempts to create a synthesis of a Tribally Controlled College/University (TCU) and a Bureau of Indian Affairs educational institution. TCUs are flexible, community based schools while the BIA organizational model imposes multiple rules and restrictions on students. In addition to these contradiction and limitations, students entering SIPI are attempting to comprehend the dynamics of their transition to college. Students' adaptive discourses include those of discipline and control, of family and haven, and of agency and self-reliance. I conducted a survey of the four campus departments and received 106 responses that provided insight into students' perceptions of place and generated the three discourses. My interviews with 24 students revealed rich narratives and discussion of specific incidents that utilized the discourses. Most students preferred to use one discourse while enlisting others to explain specific events or contexts. Students who used discourses of discipline and control compared SIPI to a BIA boarding school, a high school or a prison, and focused on the school's restrictive policies drawn from the BIA model. Those who used discourses of family and haven emphasized the emotional connections built between students and other members of the SIPI community. Speakers who used discourses of agency and self-reliance made comments such as 'SIPI is an opportunity' and 'SIPI is what you make it' to assert that students can define their experiences at the school.
Much of the literature on Native American college students supports a false dichotomy that insists that students must either assimilate in order to be academically successful or must emphasize their traditional cultures to succeed at college. My dissertation research shows that examining student discourses is an effective tool for understanding student perceptions of their own educational experiences, without falling into an easy dichotomy between traditional culture and assimilation.