The other day I had a news interview and talked about what lead me to my area of research, Native higher education. There are plenty of reasons why I research what I do. One reason is my Mom’s story, another is because I want to contribute to tribal nation building, but another big reason is the interaction I had with Native college students since birth.
My Dad was dean of students for some years, and my Mom was a faculty member. Every year we took short and extended visits to reservations in the White Mountains, Pacific Northwest, woodlands, plains, etc. Watching my parents recruit, subsequently enroll and work with Native college students to earn a degree was always captivating. I liked hanging out with the Native students.
After visiting and recruiting Native college students, many times in their living rooms. My parents would host student gatherings at our house. They would play games like mingle mingle, the orange relay (hold an orange in your neck and pass it to the next person’s neck), musical chairs, and break my few toys in the meantime. But I remember those gatherings and what it meant to have students at the house to their support. And I remember the events at the college. There is an area on American Indian College’s campus named after my Dad. It’s called, “Lake Lopez.” The college students gave it that name, and a previous administrator felt that naming that particular area was disrespectful to my father because of how it got the name; but my Dad loves it.
In the beginning of the semester during the early 90s, the campus had a large hill of green grass and immaculate trees on the west side of campus, where Ramsey cafeteria is now. During each fall the end of monsoon rains would plummet, and you could watch the rush of water combing through the green grass to a drainage area downhill east of the trees. The vast quantities of rain would cause 3 to 4 feet of stagnant water to form. My Dad was famous for jumping into the water and convincing the Native students to join (not that they needed much convincing). They would be floating in rafts, playing volleyball and wrestling. I guess when your college is severely underfunded, you get creative with campus-wide activities. But those events often took my Dad away, but I understood.
I remember my Dad would sit with me and say, “JD, I hope you don’t mind these students coming over, a lot of them never had role models, and it’s important for your Mom and me to be there for them.” I had this understanding from a young age that I would have to share my parents. Out of necessity, not out of abandonment. My Dad always took time to talk with students. He never hesitated and would let me tag along as he walked with students to the circle k near the 6th drive house for drinks or an Icee. When I was little, my Dad explained why he helped students using a circle concept. He said, “Some peoples’ circles encompass just themselves, others encompass their families, and then others have bigger circles that encompass a people. No circles are better than others, but they come with different responsibilities.” I remembered that each time my Dad was taken away for work, and I remember that when I’m called away. I hope my kids will understand why I chose this career and the responsibility that comes with the circle I was given.