Negotiating cultural identity: Conceptualizing American Indian college student experiences in a communication course

Nanci M. Burk
School of Human & Organizational Development, Fielding Graduate University
August, 2006


American Indian college students may perceive the need to assimilate to the dominant culture's values, beliefs, and ways of knowing depicted in college textbooks, activities, and applications in order to acquire a degree in higher education. This study investigated American Indian community college students' experiences in a basic, oral communication course. Self-identifying American Indian students from Scottsdale Community College participated in the study. Data were analyzed first thematically, then narratively. Particular attention was paid to narrative evidence of subconscious assimilation and internalized oppression.

Jackson's (2004) cultural contracts paradigm provided a theoretical lens through which to view cultural negotiation between instructors and American Indian students. Two research questions guided the study: (1) How do American Indian college students conceptualize the experience in which they are situated? That is, what stories do they tell to make sense of it? (2) How do American Indian college students negotiate their cultural identities with their instructors and the requirements of the course? Data analysis revealed answers to the first research question depicting students' awareness of, and appreciation for, knowledge gained in the communication courses. Student participants perceived academic success in the classes discussed. The analysis of data addressing the second question showed that the American Indian participants negotiated their cultural identity in the communication classroom by assimilating to instructor and course requirements, rather than contesting or expressing opposition to requirements. Implications are discussed relative to communication pedagogy and a call to reassess curriculum materials as a means to more clearly represent the heterogeneous student populations in community colleges.