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Cal State LA Holds Its First-Ever Native American Graduation Ceremony This Weekend. Students Say It’s About Time

Flier reads: "1st Annual American Indian Graduation Celebration Spring 2021" on top of an image of two students, one in a graduation gown and cap, with their arms around each other.
Promotional material for CSULA's 2021 Native American graduation reception.
(Cal State L.A.)
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Last November, Cal State L.A. alumna Melissa Alcala video-conferenced with nearly a dozen Native American students on campus about her experience earning her bachelor’s degree there in 2009.

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Cal State LA Holds Its First-Ever Native American Graduation Ceremony This Weekend

Alcala remembers telling them about the excitement she and her cousin, both Navajo, felt that they would be graduating together as two proud American Indian women. They walked into the campus multi-cultural center eager for details about the Native American graduation reception.

They were told there was none.

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“What do you mean, it doesn't exist?” Alcala remembers saying, “and I remember thinking like, do I not exist, does my culture not exist?”

So they signed up for the Latino students' graduation reception and joined its planning committee. That allowed them to at least make a space in that reception to wear traditional turquoise jewelry, handmade dresses, and wear their hair in Navajo buns.

They made it work, Alcala told current students, but that hasn’t dulled the pain of feeling somewhat forgotten back then.

“I just got really emotional, because just remembering the struggle and the challenge of having a space at Cal State L.A. was so emotional to me,” she said.

The biggest challenge, Alcala said, was the absence of any Native American faculty, staff, or administrators at the time to sponsor the event.

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Melissa Alcala
Melissa Alcala grew up in Lincoln Heights and is Navajo. She earned two degrees from CSULA: a bachelor's degree in 2009 and a master's degree in 2013.
courtesy Melissa Alcala)

The First Native American Graduation Ceremony

Alcala was born and raised in Los Angeles. She graduated from Lincoln High School. She is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and is also Mexican American. She is one of the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who make L.A. County the most populous American Indian county in the nation, and California the state with the most Native Americans in the U.S.

This year, some of the Cal State L.A. students she talked to founded the American Indian Student Association with the help of CSULA Professor Kimberly Robertson. And after the November meeting that Alcala joined, those same students and Robertson set about planning the campus’ first Native American graduation ceremony, to be held via Zoom this Sunday.

Two Native graduating students are taking part along with dozens of fellow students, family, and friends. The virtual reception includes an opening prayer, announcement of the graduates, keynote speeches by Alcala and her cousin, a comedy set, and a toast.

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Alcala holds dueling emotions: joy for the students who are graduating, as well as anger towards the institution for taking so long.

“I feel very upset that…why is it barely happening? This should have happened so long ago,” she said.

Most of the 23 Cal State campuses started holding Native American graduation ceremonies long ago. Some, like the Northridge and Long Beach campuses, have been doing so for decades. These Native American graduation ceremonies are one window into a growing movement in the nation’s largest public university system to improve support for Native American students.

The campuses with robust support appear to rely more on the initiative of Native students, faculty, and tribes than on university or system-wide leaders.

Sunday’s ceremony is coming together through communal networks.

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CSULA Native American graduation
The cover page for the program for CSULA's Native American graduation celebration

“I basically just reached out to a bunch of family members and community members,” said Alexandria Yellowhair, a junior majoring in social work, “because we're all talented, we all got skills, and I wanted to give them work to put this ceremony together.”

Tassel cover
This tassel cover was created by Alexandria Yellowhair for CSULA graduate Luis Gonzalez.
courtesy Luis Gonzalez)

So her cousin, who’s a graphic designer, made the brochure. Yellowhair made a beaded tassel cover for another member of the association who’s graduating.

The cover is smaller than a quarter, but its meaning is large.

“We're both Navajos and we have (belong to) the same clans… and so we're like, technically cousins,” she said.

That “cousin” she’s making the tassel cover for is Luis Gonzalez, a business administration management major whose mother is Navajo, and whose father is an immigrant from El Salvador.

“Out of all my family, I was like, the only one that was not born on the Navajo Nation,” Gonzalez said.

Stitching a beaded tassel cover

Gonzalez and Yellowhair said the ceremony wouldn’t be happening without the advocacy of Professor Robertson, who came to Cal State L.A. in 2017. Robertson is Mvskoke, and teaches Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies classes.

Cal State’s data shows fewer than 1,000 American Indians enrolled across the system’s 23 campuses in fall of 2020. That’s .2% of all students enrolled in the CSU. But there’s a problem with the way CSU counts Native Americans: The tally does not count as Native American those who choose multiple categories, such as Native American and Latino.

According to the official tally, there are 26 Native Americans enrolled at Cal State L.A. But Robertson says that there are at least 10 times that number when taking into account mixed races and ethnicities.

There are fewer Native American resources at CSULA than other local CSU campuses. There’s no Native Student Center like at San Diego State, CSU Dominguez Hills and Cal Poly Pomona, no official liaison with local tribes such as at CSU San Bernardino and CSU San Marcos, and no American Indian studies program such as the ones at the Northridge and Long Beach campuses.

CSULA’s recently founded College of Ethnic Studies did not include American Indian studies, even though the discipline is widely seen as one of the four components of ethnic studies’ focus on race and ethnicity.

CSULA does hold regular Native American heritage celebrations.

This absence of programs leaves some Native students feeling invisible.

“The institution itself, I don't think they care. They don't really make space for us,” Yellowhair said.

“The university has provided some funding for the reception through our Cross Cultural Centers,” said Jocelyn Stewart, a CSULA spokesperson, by email in response to a query about how the campus supports Native students.

But the university has done little to nothing, Professor Robertson said, to support the graduation reception, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Cal State LA is its own place… the land speaks to it in different ways and supports those people there differently than it supports people here.
— Craig Stone, director of the American Indian studies program at CSULB

“All of the surrounding campuses, Pomona, Northridge, Long Beach, they all have American Indian Studies programs… student associations,” Robertson said, “we have none of that. We do not have any recruitment, retention…student services. We do not have a physical space…we're literally invisible.”

What that future of Native student support at CSULA looks like may likely depend on the campus Indian community itself.

Listen To What The Land Is Saying

Healthy support and class programming for Native American students, which educators say benefits all students on campus, doesn’t happen through the university administration alone.

Cal State Long Beach has been hosting a campus Pow Wow for over 50 years that’s funded by the associated students and by vendors who attend. Pow Wow organizers took an important step in 1994 by commissioning two traditional honoring songs, one from Kiowa composer Leonard Cozad, who is based in Oklahoma, to honor alumni, and the second a student encouragement song composed by the Elk Whistle Singers in Canada.

“The people who have been consistently supportive of American Indian students at Cal State Long Beach are the other students at Cal State Long Beach,” said Craig Stone, director of the American Indian studies program at CSULB.

Stone has been following Robertson’s advocacy for Native programs at CSULA. There are campuses with more support for Native students than CSULA, he said, but that doesn’t mean that CSULA should follow Long Beach or other campuses.

“Cal State LA is its own place… the land speaks to it in different ways and supports those people there differently than it supports people here,” Stone said.

At Cal State Fullerton, the student Intertribal Council sounded an alarm in 2019 as Native American enrollment dropped. The university’s Associated Students agreed and adopted the council’s call to action as a set of resolutions to improve Native American recruitment, retention, and support. Students recommended hiring more Native American faculty, stronger recruitment of Native students from area high schools, and stronger relations with local tribes.

The university’s vice president of student affairs, Tonantzin Oseguera, said she’s crafting a Native American student support initiative in consultation with local American Indian leaders.

In 2006, Cal State University Chancellor Tim White convened a summit attended by representatives of 40 California Indian tribes. The upshot of the gathering was the creation of the CSU Chancellor’s Native American Initiative.

Some Native American campus leaders said the initiative gives modest grants and provides a regular setting for campus staff to talk about progress.

Many campuses are also adopting land acknowledgements, statements that university events are held on land that was once American Indian land and was not given up willingly.

“One of the problems with land acknowledgements is they tend to just be some words that officials say at given moments,” said Cal State Northridge Director of American Indian Studies Scott Andrews, “but they don't really alter the relationship of the university to the Native nation that's nearby or whose land they occupy.”

I think it's important that these systems, like higher education, recognize Native students and give us the resources that we need to thrive.
— Alexandria Yellowhair, CSULA student

So CSUN’s American Indian programs have established relationships with the Fernandeño Tataviam tribe based in nearby San Fernando. The goal is to establish a pipeline of college-bound students. Andrews has proposed to CSUN to waive tuition for students who are part of that tribe. If that happens, he said, it would add to that campus’ relationships with Native students.

At Cal State L.A., the relationship with Native American students has fewer elements. But one of those elements, the Native graduation reception, will tap into the strong ties the students feel toward each other.

“I think it's important that these systems, like higher education, recognize Native students and give us the resources that we need to thrive,” said student Alexandria Yellowhair, “just recognize that we exist, and that we survived your institution because these spaces were not made for us.”

For now, she’s focused on Sunday’s online-only ceremony.

“I think I'm gonna feel joy,” Yellowhair said. “ Joy for my fellow students, joy for our small community, and accomplished because I put this together, and I put love and art into it.”

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Adolfo Guzman-Lopez focuses on the stories of students trying to overcome academic and other challenges to stay in college — with the goal of creating a path to a better life.