University Student Attitudes Toward American Indians


Julie R.     Ancis, Sandra K. Choney, &

William E. Sedlacek


Research Report #3-94


Computer time for this project has been provided in full through

the Computer Science Center of the University of Maryland at

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University Student Attitudes Toward American Indians


Julie R. Ancis, Sandra K. Choney, & William E. Sedlacek


Research Report #3-94



Racial attitudes of 201 students toward American Indians were measured using a version of the Situational Attitude Scale (SAS). The results indicated that students generally held positive attitudes toward American Indians in a variety of social-interpersonal and educational situations. The only situation which elicited more negative attitudes toward American Indians was one in which an American student receives free health care. Results are discussed in the context of the current socio-political climate. Further research and programmatic implications are reviewed.


Racial prejudice continues to pervade both social and political realms in the United States (Dovidio & Gaertner, 1986; Ponterotto & Pedersen, 1993; Zinn, 1980). Similarly, in the educational realm, prejudicial attitudes among college students have been clearly demonstrated (Sedlacek, 1987, Trippi & Cheatham, 1991). Much of the research on college student prejudice has focused on attitudes toward Blacks (e.g., Balenger, Hoffman, & Sedlacek, 1992; Fleming, 1984; White & Sedlacek, 1987). For example, White students have been found to hold negative attitudes toward Blacks in various educational-vocational and personal-social situations (Balenger, Hoffman, & Sedlacek, 1992; Sedlacek & Brooks, 1976). Moreover, White students have been found to view Blacks the most negatively in situations which require the most sustained intimate contact (Carter, White, & Sedlacek, 1987; Minatoya & Sedlacek, 1984).


Given the changing demographics of institutions of higher learning (American Council on Education and Education Commission of the States (ACE/ECS) (1988), it seems necessary to assess students' racial attitudes toward other ethnic minorities. These attitudes, as a component of the university climate, have significant implications for the advancement and achievement of minority students. More specifically, an inhospitable climate on most predominantly White college campuses has been implicated in the lower attrition and higher dropout rates for Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians (Bennett & Okinaka, 1990; Ponterotto, 1990).


American Indians' represent an ethnic minority who have been subject to longstanding and profound forms of racism and discrimination in the United States (Kitano, 1985; Morris, cited in Hill




& Jones; 1993; Trimble, 1988). Stereotypical and negative images of Indian people have permeated textbooks, films, research literature, and the news media (Bataille & Silet, 1980; cf. Costo, 1970; Friar & Friar, 1972; Trimble, 1988; Troy, 1975 ). These stereotypes have ranged from depictions of Indians as untamed and innocent to brutal savages and murderers. Moreover, the diversity of this population is often ignored as the unique heritage and customs of the many American Indian tribes are rarely acknowledged. Inaccurate, distorted, exaggerated, and homogenized representations of the history and culture of American Indians continue to exist (Kitano, 1985; Trimble, 1988).


It is thus likely that students, having been exposed to negative and stereotypical imagery of American Indians throughout the educational process, hold prejudicial attitudes toward them. As prejudicial attitudes are implicated in the degree to which academic environments foster the emotional, academic, and vocational achievement of American Indians, it seems necessary to assess the exact nature of student's attitudes. Sedlacek and Brooks (1976) have noted the importance of assessing racial attitudes as one step in eliminating racism in higher education. Results may be employed to develop programs which ultimately foster the retention and eventual academic and career success of American Indians. The purpose of the present study was, therefore, to examine the attitudes of university students toward American Indians in various personal and vocational situations.









A total of 201 entering freshmen (76% White, 14% African-American, 6% Asian, 3% Hispanic, and 1% Other) who were attending a summer orientation program at a large, northeastern, public university completed one of two versions of the Situational Attitude Scale (SAS). More than 90% of new freshman attend this program. Forty-two percent of the students were women and 5 8% were men. Participants ranged in age from 17 to 20, with 85% aged 18.




The SAS was originally developed to measure attitudes of Whites toward Blacks (Sedlacek & Brooks, 1970) in various interpersonal situations. The SAS has since been used to measure student attitudes toward other groups, such as women (Minatoya & Sedlacek, 1983); older people (Peabody & Sedlacek, 1982); people with physical disabilities (Stovall & Sedlacek, 1983 ); Arabs (Sergent, Woods, & Sedlacek, 1992) and Hispanics (White & Sedlacek, 1987). Reliability coefficients have ranged from.70 to.89 (Sedlacek & Brooks, 1972; Stovall & Sedlacek, 1983 ). While racial attitude measurement has often been subject to social desirability contamination, the contextual and subtle nature of the SAS decreases the likelihood of students responding in a socially desirable manner (Ponterotto & Pedersen, 1993; Sedlacek & Brooks, 1970, 1971). In addition, subjects have






been shown to "psychologically withdraw" (Sedlacek & Brooks, 1972) from racial attitude measures and intentionally ignore the race variable. The interpersonal nature of the items on the SAS makes "psychological withdrawal" from the measurement difficult.


In this study, students' prejudice toward American Indians in various social-interpersonal/educational situations was measured using the SAS-American Indian. The students were asked to rate their responses to 10 social-interpersonal and educational situations on 10, 5-point bipolar semantic differential scales (Osgood, Suci, & Tannenbaum, 1957). More specifically, students were asked to select, for each descriptive scale, the rating which best described their feeling toward the item. Two forms of the questionnaire were constructed. In Form A, the 10 situations involved an individual whose race was unspecified. In Form B, the situations involved an individual identified as "American Indian."


The researchers decided to use the term "American Indian," rather than "Native American," for several reasons. First, partly as a result of the movement toward more culturally sensitive language usage, the term Native American is increasingly replacing the term American Indian. As such, the term Native American may be associated with the movement of "political correctness" and thus yield a socially desirable response set. Relatedly, Sedlacek (in press) noted that in constructing racial attitude measurement it was important to use the stimulus term most commonly used by the respondents rather than that preferred by the researchers. It was therefore expected that the use of "American Indian" would more likely elicit existing prejudicial attitudes. In addition, despite the




changing terminology, many students may be confused by the term Native American and assume that it referred to individuals born in the United States rather than those of American Indian descent.




Form A or Form B of the SAS was administered to randomly selected groups of students as part of an orientation program. Forms were randomly distributed and required approximately 15 minutes to complete. Demographic items, such as race and ethnic group, were included on the final page of the SAS. The responses of students of American Indian descent were eliminated from data analysis because of their presumed identification with the target word "American Indian."




Data were analyzed using a 2 (Form) x 2 (Gender) multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) with responses to the 10 Situations as dependent variables. The overall MANOVA showed a significant main effect due to Form, F(10, 188) = 14.76, p< .05, but not due to Gender, F(10, 188) = 1.44, p> .05, and not due to the Form X Gender interaction, F(10, 188) = .81, p> .05.. These results suggest that students responded differently, depending on whether they had completed the race neutral or American Indian form. However, males and females responded similarly.




Responses to S of the 10 situations on the SAS were significantly different when compared across Forms A and B (see Table 1). Students responded more favorably in Situation N (new roommate), Situation V (compete for grades in an Art class), Situation VI (assigned a lab partner in a lab class where you share the grade), and Situation IX (professor delivers a lecture on spiritualism) when the targets) was American Indian than when the targets) was racially unspecified. In Situation N (new roommate), students expressed feeling significantly less concern, more trusting, calmer, more fair, and delighted when the new roommate was American Indian than when the new roommate's race was unspecified. In Situation V (compete for grades in an art class), students completing the American Indian form described feeling less jealous, more accepting, more positive, more trusting, more understanding, more fair, more tolerant, more pleased, and less threatened than students completing the neutral form. In Situation VI (assigned a lab partner in a lab class where you share the grade), students completing the American Indian form expressed feeling more approving, more fair, less concerned, less frustrated, more calm, less disturbed, more accepting, and more pleased than students completing the neutral form. In Situation IX (professor delivers a lecture on spiritualism), students expressed feeling less harassed, more calm, more trusting, more believing, and more understanding when the professor was American Indian than when the professor's race was unspecified.


The only situation which elicited more negative attitudes toward American Indians than other situations was Situation VIII (student gets free health care). In this case, students completing the





American Indian form indicated feeling more disturbed, more angered, more resentful, less understanding, more threatened, more repelled, and more upset.




The results suggest, overall, positive attitudes toward American Indian students in social-interpersonal and educational situations. This is consistent with other research on racial attitudes and stereotypes of Americans indicating favorable changes over the last 25 years (Bobo, 1988; Pettigrew, 1985).


The present findings may be indicative of the increased attention given to the historical and present conditions of American Indians, as well as other persons of color. For example, Trimble (1988) conducted a series of studies in Oklahoma from 1970 to 1976 in which both American Indian and non American Indian students were asked to list and rank traits according to the degree to which they were "typical" of American Indians. Findings revealed that students' stereotypes changed over the 6-year period. More specifically, the 1976 samples were found to select less negatively slanted words than the 1970 and 1973 samples. Trimble suggested that social conditions, such as increased media attention given to the needs of American Indians in Oklahoma in 1976, may have influenced student perceptions.


One must be cautious, however, about interpreting the findings as suggestive of an absence of prejudicial attitudes toward American




Indians. Since the late 1980's, there has been an effort to reverse the negative stereotyping of American Indians, and the concurrent misrepresentation of historical events. While recent "pro-Indian" depictions of historical events in the United States and characterizations of American Indians are superficially more accurate and sensitive, they remain one-sided and simplified. For example, movies such as "Dances With Wolves", are characterized by sentimental and romantic images of American Indians (Seals, 1991). Portrayals of American Indians as naive, passive, and non­competitive compared to their White counterparts have predominated in the media. Thus, while images of American Indians have changed, stereotyping continues. The more positive attitudes toward American Indians as new roommate, competitor for grades, and lab partner may therefore reflect exposure to these images. As American Indians are numerically underrepresented in academic institutions, student's attitudes may be particularly influenced by media portrayals.


Conversely, students' more positive responses to American Indians may represent a defense against expressing their own prejudices. Due in part to the current social-political climate, it has become less socially acceptable to express one's prejudices than it has been previously (Sears, 1988; Sedlacek & Brooks, 1971; Sigall & Page, 1970). Prejudicial attitudes may therefore be less blatantly manifest and thus difficult to measure accurately.


Situation VIII in which an American Indian student gets free health care generated the only negative response. These findings are consistent with the continued opposition of many to programs which




advance the cause of racial equality, such as affirmative action, despite rejection of old-fashioned doctrines of racial inferiority, formal discrimination, and legalized segregation (Blanchard, 1988; Bobo, 1988; Sears, 1988). Resistance to free health care for American Indians may reveal racial prejudice masquerading "as a socially acceptable interest in impartial and universal justice" (Crosby & Clayton, 1990; p. 67).


Similarly, several authors have discussed the widespread resistance to affirmative action policies (Blanchard, 1988; Clayton & Tangri, 1988; Crosby & Clayton, 1990). Affirmative action "policies are perceived to violate two basic principles underlying individual achievement in American society: equal access to opportunities and equitable assignment of rewards based on individual merit rather than on immutable status characteristics" (Clayton & Tangri, 1988, p. 177). Relatedly, Situation VIII may have highlighted the salience of the racial identity of American Indians as it focused on differential benefits and thus increased the probability that race was used in responding to the instrument (Crosby & Clayton, 1990). Interestingly, no significant differences by Form were found for Situation VII (student living on your residence hall is on a nonacademic/nonathletic scholarship). Respondents may not have interpreted this situation as race-based due to its ambiguous meaning relative to Situation VIII.






Additional research on racial attitudes toward American Indians is needed as this is a group that has been subject to a multitude of distorted and inaccurate representations throughout history. One question sparked from the present study is whether students' negative attitudes toward free health care for American Indians generalizes to other social programs. As American Indians continue to experience barriers to their participation in academia (Blanchard, 1988), manifest in their low matriculation and high dropout rate in colleges and universities (ACE/ECS, 1988; Ponterotto & Casas, 1991), proactive social policies are warranted. Future research may more closely examine attitudes toward programs and policies aimed at improving American Indians' access and progress in higher education. Negative attitudes toward such proactive efforts may perpetuate a climate where inequities are unacknowledged and efforts to reverse them are not pursued.


Moreover, student attitudes toward American Indians may be assessed in other social-interpersonal/educational situations. It would be interesting to investigate whether positive attitudes persist in situations requiring more intimate contact. Research on White students' attitudes toward Blacks reveals that Blacks are viewed most negatively in situations which require more sustained intimate contact (Carter, White, & Sedlacek, 1987; Minatoya & Sedlacek, 1984; Triandis, 1964). Moreover, as the present study was conducted in a northeastern university with an American Indian enrollment of 1%, and the participants were entering freshman, one may question




whether students overall positive attitudes generalize to settings providing a greater exposure to American Indians.


The present results may be indicative of a one-sided perception of American Indians. While one may argue that more positive attitudes toward American Indians are beneficial, it must be recognized that stereotypical characterizations, whether seemingly positive or negative, negate individuals complexity and thus perpetuate a less than human conceptualization of others. Educators have a responsibility to challenge the prevailing simplified and inaccurate representations of American Indians as found in history books, movies, story books, and television.


Curriculum reform represents one venue in which to explore and modify these attitudes. Readings about the history and culture of American Indians may be incorporated into the curriculum. This could include information regarding American Indians' particular geopolitical history and experience of discrimination in the United States, as well as information regarding the diverse customs, culture, and heritage of American Indian tribes. In addition, a discussion of how social, economic, and political conditions influence the development of stereotypes would encourage a closer examination of one's own racial attitudes. Such awareness and knowledge is essential to promoting a positive and supportive climate for American Indian students (Sedlacek, 1988) .






1. The term American Indian(s), Indian(s), and Native American (s),

will be used interchangeably to refer to the indigenous people of the

United States.




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Table 1: Means and Standard Deviations for Items by Form on the SAS American Indian (Am. In)


Form A (Neutral)


Form B(Am. In.)










F Value

I. An (Am. In.) professor chooses to hold class outside.








II. An (Am. In.) student is brought before the Judicial Hall because of having alcohol in a residence hall.








III. An (Am. In.) student asks you to visit his/her home for the weekend.








IV. You are assigned to a new roommate who is an (Am. In.).








V. You find that you must compete for grades with (Am. In.) students in an art class.








VI. In a lab class where partners share the grade, you are assigned to an (Am. In.) lab partner.








VII. You discover that an (Am. In.) living in your residence hall is on a nonacademic/nonathletic scholarship.








VIII. An (Am. In.) student gets free health care.








IX. An (Am. In.) professor delivers a lecture on spiritualism.








X. In one of your classes, an (Am. In.) student is always late.









Note: Form B included words in parentheses, abbreviated here for American Indian; Form A (Neutral) did not.


Scale ranges: 50 = most positive attitudes; 10 = most negative attitudes.


*p < .05 (MANOVA)