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'We Don't Want To Lose This Generation' -- The Push To Get Native American Students To SoCal Colleges

Vincent Whipple is the tribal liaison at California State University, San Bernardino (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)
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Walk the campus of California State University, San Bernardino and you'll see the name of a 19th century Native American leader who fought off genocide against his tribe. Tribal donations helped build the Santos Manuel Student Union.

In the hills to the north is the campus observatory, named after two contemporary benefactors who were also San Manuel tribal leaders. Donations also helped build the Murillo Family Observatory,

But what's harder to find on the 20,000-student campus is Native American students.

Only about 45 are enrolled this year.

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The campus's first tribal liaison, Vincent Whipple, was hired last January to turn those numbers around.

"To have true diversity you really need to have everybody at the table," he said. "Our partners have told us in the past that because they didn't know who to contact here, they didn't feel comfortable, you know, encouraging their students to come to this campus."

Whipple is one of a handful of tribal liaisons on Cal State campuses who are charged with making Native American students feel welcome in settings where they have few peers. Lack of mentoring and support is among the factors cited for the low college attendance and graduation rates for native students in the state.

Currently, there are three tribal liaisons among Cal State's 23 campuses, with a fourth coming soon. Other universities outside the Cal State system, like UCLA, also employ tribal liaisons.

Increasing Native student enrollment in the Cal State system is important, Whipple said, because along with the University of California, Riverside campus Cal State San Bernardino is the largest higher education institution in the Inland Empire.

"During my undergraduate at Harvard," Whipple said, "there were no resources for me as a Native student. I had to go through my whole college career as an undergraduate without having Native staff, Native faculty, or a Native program."

He and his fellow tribal liaisons are working to bolster Cal State's Native enrollment with the help of California Indian tribes, like the San Manuel, Agua Caliente, and Pechanga tribes, among others.

There are about 800,000 Native Americans in California, about 200,000 of them live in Los Angeles County, according to 2018 Census estimates. An estimated 80,000 American Indians live in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and tribal leaders there are pushing schools and colleges to do a better job educating the population. -- enrollment in public colleges and universities remains far below its percentage of the population.

Additionally, in the Cal State system, the six-year graduation rate for Native Americans is 50 percent. That's 11 percentage points lower than the student body as a whole.


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About 14 years ago, Native American advocates within and outside colleges and universities began to sound an alarm to improve education for Native communities.

A group called the UC/CSU American Indian Higher Education Consortium issued a set of recommendations for community colleges, the University of California, and California State University: infuse more truthful Indian history into teacher training programs, re-consider how bans on affirmative action affect Native Americans, require administrators to visit reservations and tribal communities, and create tribal liaison offices in all three California higher education systems.

Cal State San Marcoswas the first in the Cal State system to appoint a tribal liaison.

"I'm responsible for helping build and steward relationships, and bridg(ing) the university with tribal communities and tribes and organizations in the region," said Tishmall Turner, who's been the San Marcos liaison for 13 years. "I also advise the President on working with tribal communities, as well as faculty and staff, working with tribal communities, and making sure that we develop relationships that are mutually beneficial."

Turner is also a vice-chair of the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians.

During her tenure, the San Marcos campus has created a Native Studies major and established the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center, which has published reports on Native American higher education. Native student enrollment at San Marcos has doubled since her arrival..

The Cal State Chico campus also employs a tribal liaison and San Diego State University is recruiting one.

California State University, San Bernardino (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)


Native American students who grew up with a strong identification with their culture talk about arriving on campus and being enveloped by individualist values that clash with their communal values and tight-knit family relationships at home.

"We've been here for thousands of years," said fourth-year UCLA student Daniel Streamer, who grew up on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation in San Diego County. "We've just wanted to stay here and live the life we've been given. This is essentially why I'm going to school, not necessarily go further in this United States society. But just to know I have protection for my community and myself."

Streamer said it's been difficult on the UCLA campus to find the values he grew up with. That situation led to a very difficult time when he learned a relative on the reservation had died days before his first year at UCLA.

"I felt pretty alienated... because my family was at home dealing with our loss. And my siblings and I were up here at school," he said. He made it with the support of his siblings and other Native students on campus.

It's the kind of situation that can lead Native American students to drop out -- or not enroll in the first place.

"We don't want to lose this generation, like we did generations ago," said Cindra Weber, who oversees Native American support programs for the San Bernardino public school district.

Weber guides high school students to universities like U.C. Riverside and UCLA, campuses with strong American Indian studies programs, student clubs, and good counseling.

She said Cal State San Bernardino had been at the bottom of her list until Whipple became tribal liaison. Whipple's office attends Native parent events in the school districts and college information nights.

James Fenelon is director of the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)


While some campuses are improving their outreach and support of Native American students, advocates say that there's too little support at the vast majority of higher education institutions. That's leading many Native students to stop their higher education in community college, where many enroll, while those who are bound for a four-year university side-step California altogether.

Weber and others point to Native-only schools in the Inland Empire such as Noli Indian School and Sherman Indian High School that are graduating college-ready students each year.

"I think that the native communities are starting to look at other options and alternatives like tribal colleges and going out of state," said Ricardo Torres, a retired professor of counseling at Cal State Sacramento. Some of those campuses include Arizona State University and Diné College and three other tribal colleges in New Mexico.


Among the many challenges Native students face is a legacy of destructive U.S. government policies on their communities. One of them is the federal boarding school program that separated Native American youth from their families and their culture.

"I think that experience left many generations of Native people just a little bit shy and a little bit suspicious about education generally," said Jacob Coin, the vice president of public affairs at the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.

Coin said his tribe has donated millions of dollars over the years to area universities which has led the tribe to now push campuses to match funds.

But, "it shouldn't just be tribes funding Native initiatives at universities, it should go way beyond that," he said.