When youth advocate Mikela Jones, Pomo of Little River Band, earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from California State University at Sacramento in 2004, he was the first man from his tribe to obtain a four-year college degree.
“How come I’m the first?” he asked himself. Other Native American students he talked to were also the first from their tribes to get college degrees.
“It really sends us a message that there needs to be more tribal people getting their college education,” he said, speaking at a fundraising reception at SNR Denton law firm in downtown San Francisco on December 14, 2011. The people listening to him were there because they share the same vision: a tribal college in California that will train future Native leaders of the state.
That vision is about to become a reality.
Since it began to take shape in 2009, the California Tribal College initiative has grown to include the backing of 25 of the 109 federally recognized California tribes, who hope to enroll their first students as early as fall 2012, with most classes starting in 2013.
The college doesn’t have a permanent home yet, and its permanent name is yet to be determined. But it does have momentum.
“We are looking at the Internet, and carrying on a virtual campus and getting things started right away,” said Marshall McKay, tribal chairman of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation.
Project Coordinator Della Warrior, also of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, and a former president of the Institute of American Indian Arts, said the immediate goal is to find a main campus in California with housing for 150 students. Eventually, the plan will be to have satellite campuses throughout the state.
“The tribes now are beginning to take control of their own institutions. And now it’s time for California,” she said.
Tribes who are currently participating in the formation of the college include the Hoopa, the Morongo, the Miwok, Pomo, and others, with a concentration of tribes around the northern California counties of Yolo Lake and Sonoma. But the founding members, who have been working with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, are eager to collaborate with other California tribes to solidify their advisory and leadership council, and select a board of regents and instructional staff.
Tribal administration and language revitalization will be core components of the curriculum, McKay said. “The traditional way of training was through the grandparents. We are lacking that component these days, so now we’ve got to have another way to train and teach our people the complicated and complex issues that they’ll have to be dealing with.”
The college will also eventually offer bachelor’s degrees and advanced degrees in subjects like law, medicine and architecture, Mckay said.
There are currently no accredited tribal colleges in California, despite the fact that the state is home to 450,000 Native American people. Of those, “less than one percent are going to college, and less than half that are graduating,” said Warrior.
The only other Native-run college in California was the intertribal DQ University on the University of California, Davis campus, offered courses for 35 years before it lost its college accreditation in 2005 amidst declining student enrollment and alleged financial mismanagement. Though no longer offering college courses, it does continue to host workshops and pow-wows.
The new college will be geared towards the uniqueness of the California Native experience, said Warrior. Historically, Native people in California hid and tried to become invisible after the ravages of the 1849 Gold Rush. But California not only has the largest number of tribes of any state, it has the largest and most diverse Native population, which includes members of other tribes who moved to California from other parts of the U.S. during the Urban Indian Relocation program of the 1950s.
With 66 California tribes currently involved in gaming, the state has recently become the single largest Indian gaming market in the country, bringing in new funds that could help make the tribal college a reality. Warrior said the college would be looking to gaming tribes, foundations, and government grants as well as corporations and individuals to help get the program off the ground.
“We welcome anyone who might want to join us and help us because it’s going to take a lot of people to make this happen, and a lot of resources, people and dollars,” she said.
The ultimate goal, said McKay, is a tribally controlled and tribally funded university system that will benefit not only the tribes but all of California.
“If you have educated a group, whatever that group is, it’s going to flow out to the community, and it’s going to make a difference to the community,” he said. “It’s going to make sure that people start to look at Native tribes as leaders again.”
Jones, who now has his master’s in school counseling and works as vice principal of a tribal school, is looking forward to the day when Native students will be receiving degrees from the California tribal college.
“They’re not going to be the first ones, they’re going to be the third ones, the fourth ones; they’re going to be the ones that continue a new cycle for our people.”
To find out more about the California Tribal College initiative, contact Cathy Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation supports the establishment of a tribal college in California: