Native American Students Feel Invisible. A New SoCal College Hopes To Change That

Afton Johnson is a member of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians. She enrolled in a business class at California Indian Nations College. (book)

Education advocates in California say one of the biggest problems facing Native American college students is that they feel invisible.

Savana Saubel is one of those students. A member of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians from Palm Springs, she found her experience at College of the Desert isolating.

"What was missing was just that camaraderie, having someone you know" and who knows Native culture, she said.

With a few exceptions — she attended a tribal high school for two years — Saubel didn't have any Native American instructors or classmates in public school or at her community college, which she quit after two years, in part because she didn't feel like campus staff cared about issues that were important to her.

Then, this summer, friends on social media began talking about a new public college founded to serve Native Americans.

"They posted the upcoming classes and I thought, 'You know, I'm going to give it a try, and see what this California Indian Nations College is about,'" she said.

As California's American Indian population grows, graduation rates show that many California public colleges and universities are falling short in their efforts to put more degrees in the hands of American Indians. With its Native faculty, smaller classes, and mostly Native American student body, California Indian Nations College, in Palm Desert, is trying to create a higher education experience in which Native students thrive.

Aaron Thomas uses his years of experience in tribal casino marketing and tribal government when teaching a business class at California Indian Nations College (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

DOUBLED STUDENT ENROLLMENT AND CLASS OFFERINGS

CINC opened in the fall of 2018 with 40 students and seven classes over the course of two semesters. One year later, 82 students enrolled for the fall semester, and the school plans to offer 13 classes over the course of the year.

According to the 2010 Census, California has the largest population of American Indian and Alaska Natives of any state, including members of in-state and out-of-state tribes. The state's 723,225 tally was much higher than second place Oklahoma's 482,760.

"The state that has the most Native Americans in the United States definitely needs to have a tribal college," said Robert Przeklasa, CINC's vice president of academic affairs.

But CINC isn't a full-fledged, accredited, self-sustaining tribal college like dozens around the country.

Przeklasa said CINC began with $3 million in seed funds from the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians. That money is used to pay the salaries of its 16 faculty and staff, and to rent offices and classrooms at the University of California, Riverside's Palm Desert building. CINC's classes are accredited by the local community college, College of the Desert. The only other tribal-focused college in Southern California, Kumeyaay College, east of San Diego, has operated in a similar way since 2004.

CINC's goal is to grow to 200 students in five years, move into its own building, and to gain college accreditation on its own instead of depending on College of the Desert. The goal is to give Native students the higher education they're entitled to as California residents and members of sovereign nations, Przeklasa said.

A banner at California Indian Nations College shows some of the tribes where its students come from. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

TRADITIONAL INDIGENOUS AND WESTERN SYSTEMS OF KNOWLEDGE

A recent visit to CINC's Introduction to Business class put the college's approach in full view.

Professor Aaron Thomas, who teaches the course, holds a Masters of Business Administration degree from Washington State University and is a member of the Lummi Nation in Washington.

Even though he didn't grow up in the Coachella Valley, he's very familiar with the tribes that surround the campus and uses that knowledge to welcome students a few minutes before class starts.

"Cabazon's in the house, all rise. Torres Martinez," he said in a sing-song voice, pointing out students from those local tribes.

He asks who wants to start the class prayer, which invokes spiritual guidance to learn and have a safe journey home. Once class begins, Thomas melds his experience working in tribal casino marketing and tribal government with traditional business concepts.

"If your tribe has been into hospitality and they've been a great host for thousands of years for whoever came through your territory, wouldn't you use that in your business? Heck yeah, man!" he said.

The point, he said later, is to empower them to embrace both cultures in which they live.

"To be able to have the knowledge on the traditional side of who they are, and also the non-traditional side, can only make them a stronger leader," Thomas said.

It's been a dream of Native ancestors, he said, for this generation to be strong in both.

It's also a practical consideration as Native Americans grow in population and influence, Przeklasa said.

"They have tribal governments that hold equal position to that of states, and a number of them operate multi-million and even multi-billion dollar business enterprises mostly centered on gaming, but with increasing diversification," he said.

For some students, this is one of the first times they've been in a supportive educational environment.

"I feel more valued," Sofia Lopez said.

Lopez stopped attending nearby College of the Desert in 2011 after feeling that faculty and staff weren't doing enough to help her navigate things like class technology. Thomas, she said, has lessened her reluctance to ask questions by praising her when she does take part in discussions.

"I'm understanding, if I want to [start] a business I need to be able to speak up," she said.

Savana Saubel is a member of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. She enrolled in a class at California Indian Nations College. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

FEW ROLE MODELS IN HIGHER EDUCATION

Thriving in mainstream culture without a college degree is proving more and more difficult - and that's where Native Americans as a whole face a large gap. Compared to other races and ethnic groups, California Native Americans are among the least likely to earn a degree from a California public university or community college.

California State University data shows that 62% of the fall 2012 freshman class system-wide earned their bachelor's degrees within six years. Only 50% of Native Americans in that class reached that goal. The two groups with lower degree rates were African Americans (48.4%) and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders (49%)

At the University of California, 75% of American Indian students who entered college as freshmen in 2012 earned their bachelor's within six years, nearly nine percentage points lower than students as a whole and the second lowest of any ethnic or racial group.

The numbers are worse in California's community college system, where the vast majority of California Native college students are enrolled. In that system, 35% of American Indian/Alaska Native students earned an associate degree or transferred to a four-year institution, the lowest rate of any ethnic or racial group.

The State of American Indian & Alaska Native Education in California, a 2016 report issued by California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center at Cal State San Marcos, highlights some of these problems, but also includes good news and lays a path forward.

According to the report, while the number of CSU undergraduate degrees awarded to American Indians/Alaska Natives fell from 470 in 2012 to 310 in 2015, it increased at the smaller UC system. In 2011, UC awarded 277 bachelors' degrees to Native students. That rose to 366 in 2015.

AN INCUBATOR FOR ROLE MODELS

California Indian Nations College graduates are spreading the word.

"I would love to see CINC as a four-year [college]," said Roseanne Rosenthal, a graduate student in behavioral neuroscience at UC Riverside. She took a psychology class at CINC last year and appreciated the teaching style, which mirrored the collaborative style of Native American cultures.

"I would love to be part of the faculty" at some point, she said.

CINC has also led current students to see more possibilities for employment and leadership in their tribes.

"Once you have your [associate degree], you can sign up and you get to do a rotation in different departments. And then hopefully you can land a job or go on to something else," Savana Saubel said.

That something else is a dream, she said. After earning a four-year degree, she wants to run for the Agua Caliente band's tribal council. There are no women serving on it now.