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Native Americans Are Almost Invisible On College Campuses, And It's Hurting Their Chances For Success

Denise Morales is a Tohono O'odham Indian. She earned her master's degree at UCLA. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)
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For Native American college students, the road to earning a college degree can be a rocky, lonely pursuit.

Only about 1,100 of the 280,000 students enrolled in the entire 10-campus University of California system in 2018 were Native Americans -- that's 0.4 percent. And the overall Native American enrollment was only about 100 students more than 20 years ago; during that same span, the UC system added 100,000 students. The relatively few Native American enrollees are 11 percent less likely than all other students to earn a degree within six years.

It's no better at the Cal State system. Out of nearly 90,000 freshmen who entered a CSU in the fall of 2018, only 166 were Native American -- that's less than 0.2 percent. Those students earned their degrees at the same rate as their UC peers.

Advocates say that lack of representation -- almost to the point of invisibility -- and a lack of support can help to explain the dire statistics of Native Americans in higher education. They say the state has a responsibility to make public higher education accessible to all students, but with Native Americans, there's a heavier debt.

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"In some ways, our right to that kind of access to education is deepened by the fact that these institutions are built on indigenous peoples' lands," said Cheryl Crazy Bull, president of the American Indian College Fund.

Earlier this year, the Fund released a set of recommendations to colleges and universities. They include review of curriculum to better represent Native Americans as well as educating campus employees about indigenous culture, history, and inclusion. College access for Native Americans is in a state of crisis, the Fund argued in its report.

UCLA undergraduate student Daniel Streamer is a Cahuilla Indian. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)


Support and visibility make a big difference for Native Americans. Just ask Denise Morales. Her life has been filled by both. She grew up with a strong Tohono O'odham heritage. She gives a lot of credit to her mother.

"I was raised only by my mom. And she is very proud to be Tohono O'odham," she said.

Morales grew up in Long Beach. Her mom would take her to meet family at the tribe's reservation in southern Arizona. But back in grade school in Long Beach, Morales said she felt like her identity had been erased. Often, it was easier to say she was Mexican because that was her father's ancestry, rather than trying to explain the nuances of identity.

"People just don't understand or they can't comprehend that native people are here and that we're not just one people, we're also smaller tribes," she said.

Her first year at Long Beach City College brought more invisibility. She said there was no talk of indigenous peoples in an American history class. And when she looked for support she didn't find any Native American staff on campus.

She failed classes her first year.

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"I was just taking classes without any direction," Morales said. "I wasn't invested in the courses like I am now."


Morales found support and visibility as an undergraduate at UCLA through an academic coordinator on campus whom she calls "auntie."

"I'm honored that Denise would call me that," said Clementine Bourdeaux, who grew up on the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation. "It's a level of responsibility which I take very seriously. And I think it also is a positive [because] we look out for each other."

Bourdeaux remembers that after Morales failed classes during her first quarter at UCLA she counseled her not to think that it meant she didn't belong on campus.

"It was really weird for me," Morales said. "I was really touched by it, honestly. Because I haven't had that type of interaction with any staff members... to feel like somebody cared for you on campus."

Six years in that job has taught Bordeaux that UCLA can be a lonely and isolating place, more so for Native American students because there are so few of them. There are fewer than 200 Native American students at UCLA out of an overall student population of about 44,000.

Adding more Native American cultural events throughout the year and hiring more staff to do student outreach and recruitment work would help, she said.

"Spending another hundred thousand dollars on programming for Native students is nothing in the grand scheme of UCLA and its budget or UC in general," she said.

UCLA says it has increased resources, but knows it has to do more for Native students.


Last year, UCLA's chancellor created an advisory position on Native American affairs at about the same time that University of California President Janet Napolitano created a UC-wide advisory group.

The California State University campuses in San Diego and San Bernardino are taking steps to increase American Indian student enrollment, while the San Marcos campus, through the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center, has some of the most wide-ranging Native American academic and cultural activity of all 23 campuses.

The goal is to give Native American students access to higher education to open the doors to better jobs that would enrich their lives and the lives of their community.

"I think we have a lot to offer as to how to live better lives," Cheryl Crazy Bull said. "We always say, as Native peoples... that we raise our children to be human beings from their spiritual self and not economic beings."

As for Denise Morales, she finally graduated and went on to earn a master's degree in Native American studies from UCLA.

She's going to use that hard-won knowledge and experience to give back. Morales said she's moving to Tucson, Arizona, where she will work as a specialist in the Tohono O'odham nation's education department, helping young members of her tribe get into college.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the percentages of Native American students in the UC and CSU systems. LAist regrets the error.