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There Aren't Any Fully Accredited Tribal Colleges In California, But A Palm Desert School Might Change That

Eight men and women wearing graduation caps, face masks and wrapped in colorful blankets stand next to each other on stage. Above and behind them hangs a banner that reads California Indian Nations College.
The first graduation at California Indian Nations College, class of 2020 and 2021.
(Courtesy: California Indian Nations College)
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California's recently passed budget includes $5 million toward what could be Southern California's first fully accredited tribal college.

The one-time funding for California Indian Nations College (CINC) will come out of the state's general fund. It's intended to support the school's quest for accreditation from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. Accrediting organizations vouch for schools' integrity and educational quality in a process backed by the U.S. Department of Education.

The school hopes to eventually become an officially recognized Tribal College and University (TCU). Currently, there are 35 TCUs across the country, none in California.

"This is something that is historic for us, actually for the state of California," said Celeste Townsend, president and CEO of CINC and a member of the Gidutikad Band of Paiute in Fort Bidwell. "Our people continue to be misrepresented, underrepresented ... we're aiming to help close the gap," Townsend said.

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More than 630,000 Californians identify as American Indian or Native Alaskan, according to the 2020 Census. The state has more than 110 federally recognized tribes, and dozens more tribes seeking recognition.

California Indian Nations College started offering classes in Palm Desert in the fall of 2018. But it relies on University of California, Riverside to house its offices and on College of the Desert for classroom space and for accrediting its class offerings.

The Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians has provided seed funding for the college, but becoming fully accredited on its own would give CINC access to state and federal funding for higher education.

"A lot of the grants that were out there because of the pandemic, you had to be an accredited institution," Townsend said. "To get funding, you had to be accredited, but it's like, how do you become accredited without funding?"

California's Three Tribal Colleges And One That's No More  

CINC is one of three tribe-affiliated colleges in California, along with California Tribal College in Northern California and Kumeyaay Community College in San Diego. All three partner with community colleges to offer accredited classes. California Tribal College is also seeking independent accreditation.

California had one accredited tribal college, D-Q University in Davis, for nearly three decades. But it lost its accreditation in 2005.

Joely Proudfit, who directs the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center at California State University, San Marcos, called the state funding for CINC "a robust investment for accreditation."

"That gives me some hope that the state recognizes the importance of Native American education in California," said Proudfit, who is Luiseño. She said she also hoped the state government would consider boosting funding for Native American students and programs at California's public colleges and universities, like the American Indian Studies program she directs at Cal State San Marcos. "We're sorely underfunded," she said.

'It's Safe To Go Back To School'

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Native American students made up less than 0.2% of students on California State University campuses in fall 2021. Their numbers have dropped 72% since 2000, according to CSU data. Native American enrollment at California's community colleges has also plummeted.

California's public colleges and universities are making some efforts to reverse that trend. The University of California recently announced free tuition for students who are members of federally recognized California tribes.

Townsend said the history of forced American Indian boarding schools and other abuses have left a deep-seated mistrust of education in the Native American community. She and other backers of CINC want to change that.

"We need an action to continue to build our people up, to really put it out there: where we came from, that we're still here, that we're stronger than ever, and that lets our people know, 'It's OK and it's safe to go back to school.'"

Becoming an independent, accredited college, Townsend said, is important for carrying out the vision of a campus that embodies Native American culture and values and provides a "personalized service."

"We don't give up on our people," Townsend said. "They drop out and we don't hear from them, we go and find out, 'Are you OK?' What's going on?' I have single mothers who are working two, three jobs and we check on them. Because everybody has the right to higher education."

CINC hopes to submit its application for accreditation by the end of this year.

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