Native American Student Stands Between 2 Worlds

Nick Ross-Dick, a student at Montana State University, helps reach out to other Native American students on campus.

  • by Jess Fong
Photos by Guy Gerrard

Montana has little middle ground. The terrain is either flat as an ironed shirt or reaching up for miles, blue mountains chewing into white clouds. Thermometers rise or fall 40 degrees in one day. College town or farm, city or reservation.

Yet in between these worlds lives Nicholas Ross-Dick. Wearing a blue Cleveland Cavaliers jersey and basketball shorts, he enters Montana State University’s football stadium and pushes his ponytail -- uncut since age 4 and spaced with 7 hair elastics -- off his shoulder.

Nick spans both the distance between the typical American college student and the traditional Native American in the same way he spans the walk from the car to the stadium’s fourth floor: at an easy pace and mostly unconsciously. Walking into the elevator, Nick presses the button for the stadium club.

Most other students attending a meeting like this would be nervous, well-groomed and early. Not Nick. Like many Native Americans, his concept of time is according to priority and not agenda; he only goes to the next thing when the previous one is completed.

He wanders into the meeting in the stadium club hours late, easily greeting the university president and the Council of Elders, a group of local Native-blooded leaders who advise the school in matters relating to the Native American community.

In Montana, the topic comes up regularly. That state is home to seven reservations and 11 different Indian tribes. Recognizing the 400 Native students attending MSU, as well as a need for better cultural understanding, MSU administrators meet with the Council regularly.

Facing two rows of collared shirts, Nick is put on the spot, his sneakers stretched out in front of him.

“Why don’t you tell us what’s been going on with the Native students,” says Jim Burns, MSU’s Native American studies director and the American Indian student advisor.

Twelve heads turn to face Nick as he leans in, his tall knees grazing the bottom of the table. Nick represents many things to many people.

To some, he is the first Native American to run for student body president, and the second to be in Student Senate. To others, he is a Christian -- one of the first to accept Christ through Nations, Cru for Christ’s ministry to Native American college students. To this Council of Elders, he is a beloved grandchild who cares deeply for the oral traditions and songs of his people, the Yakama.

Nick agrees with Jim’s earlier comment that the American Indian Council student center has seen an unprecedented amount of growth this year, both in numbers and priorities. Students are opting out of Facebook to do their homework. Tribal differences, an unfortunately common situation, seem to have dropped. This year, all five of the AIC’s leaders represent different Native American tribes. “The AIC is starting to focus on being a community of hope,” says Nick, his voice soft and clear.

The AIC student center hosts two weekly meetings: Talking Circle and Nations.

On the reservation, Native Americans face many problems -- a troubled education system, teenage pregnancy, obesity and alcoholism. Although attending college, Native American students carry these burdens. Talking Circle seeks to help such individuals process and know others are listening.

“You feel the heaviness, the weightiness that they feel,” says Jeremy Stands Over Bull, a senior at MSU studying business marketing and architecture. “Their load is so heavy that they are on the brink of crying, and there’s no room for joy, no room for hope. And these are the students that are the brightest; they aren’t stuck on the ‘rez.’ These were the smart ones in school.”

Jeremy, who co-leads Nations, notes the distinction between Talking Circle meetings and Nations. “That’s the difference we have as Christians; we can give our load to Jesus Christ, but everyone else has to carry it themselves. That’s what Nations brings to the table. It brings the opportunity to switch places, to trade their sorrows for God’s joy.”

But most traditional Natives, Nick explains, stay away from the Bible, and as a result never know that the middle ground is possible to stand on.

“Christianity: it’s the white man’s. It’s their thing. Like, ‘Here comes another missionary to save the savages from demonic ways,’” says Nick, recalling how he first felt about Christians his freshman year. “And the Bible was the thing that most attacked your humanity. It was the tool used to condemn.”

The strongest paradigm Nations’ staff members stand against is that Christianity is the religion of the white man.

“White man” doesn’t refer to modern-day Caucasians, explains Nick. It’s a phrase indicating the epitome of assimilation, historical characters who forced Native American children out of moccasins and into boarding schools, people who believed humans worshipped in churches and savages danced in longhouses.

Nick chose that paradigm through his sophomore year.

Then in 2006, the grandmother who raised him passed away, and Nick became depressed. “For a couple months I wouldn’t leave my room. It hurt to acknowledge my existence,” he says. Nick became suicidal.

As a sophomore standing outside the AIC student center doorway on a Thursday night, when Nations usually holds Bible study, Nick heard laughter and thought there was no meeting. Peeking around the molding, he saw a cluster of heads turn from their Bibles to look at him.

Week after week he had avoided the Nations’ student leaders, who had been inviting him to weekly meetings. Now he had to walk in. “I felt so welcome, and I had kept dodging them,” he recalls.

He began scheduling Nations into his week: “I wouldn’t talk. I would just come and sit.” Nick guardedly started inching toward middle ground: a space where people are both Native American and Christian.

There was something different about these Natives that, initially, he didn’t understand.

“They would always have their Bibles with them,” he says. “They would point out David or Moses and say that they were really flawed people. You think of the Bible -- you think it’s a way of correcting you or condemning you.”

The Nations students were careful with Nick. “They would never force me to read it,” he says. “They would read it to me and ask me to interpret what I thought it meant.”

Eventually the Nations leaders gave him a Bible -- blue, with his name embossed on the cover -- the night he ran for Student Senate. He flipped through it and read Matthew 9:12,13: “On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners’” (New International Version).

In Nick’s eyes, the Bible changed from a book of rules to a story of healing. “It made sense all of a sudden.”

Pointing to the passage, he taps the Bible, saying, “This is what Jesus is about. Stuff I harbored against Christianity wasn’t worth it.”

He prayed and received Christ that night.

He has met few traditional Native Americans who have done the same. Most Native American Christians come from reservations with church plants.

Traditional Natives who later indicate decisions to receive Christ are rare outside of these reservations.

Unlike much of America, spirituality and belief in a creator is intrinsic to Native American culture. However, the idea of Christ as the only way to God is often abhorrent. Many Natives believe that the historical church used Christianity as an excuse to wipe out their culture.

Now as co-leader of the weekly Nations meeting and president of the AIC, Nick is still in the middle. It isn’t an easy place to live, between two perceived worlds.

Being a Christian doesn’t mean Nick turns his back on Native traditions, and being Native doesn’t mean he can’t worship under a steeple. But he feels this conflict of identity.

He knows there are other traditional Natives at MSU who have barely heard of Jesus, hate the Bible and believe Christianity conflicts with their culture.

Nick’s new question is, “Could I bring this Jesus to my people?”

After addressing those in the meeting at the stadium club, Nick rises from his chair. He apologizes to the Council of Elders and the university president that he won’t be able to join them for dinner, then leaves. Students, some with Bibles and some without, will soon be gathering in the AIC student center.

It’s a Thursday night, and his priority is for Nations.