Located in the heart of Indian country, UC Riverside’s programs in Native American studies rise above others nationwide. UCR reaches out to Native communities, exposing the youth to university life and encouraging them to go to college. Indian perspectives are central to UCR research. Through scholarly work, UCR is helping Native communities write their histories on their own terms.
Night after night, Michelle Raheja watched cigarette smoke curl toward the ceiling as her mother turned the television dial to an episode of “The Lone Ranger” or a Western in which few Indians would fare well. As Raheja grew older, she found it increasingly difficult to reconcile what she knew about the victimization of Native Americans in film with the fascination for Hollywood Westerns she observed in her mother, a Seneca Indian.
Curiosity eventually led to extensive reading, archival research and the discovery that depictions of Native Americans in film were complicated. While some Native actors and directors perpetuated stereotypes, others worked to change them. For some, such as Raheja’s mother, even stereotypical portrayals could be viewed positively: American Indians were not invisible.
For scholars in Native American Studies at UC Riverside, Indian perspectives are central to research that challenges conventional wisdom and illuminates the richness of cultures previously characterized as primitive, or ignored altogether.
“What we do as faculty is to give a different dimensional lens to our students to see their communities in a different way and to challenge ideas of assimilation,” explained Raheja, an associate professor of English. “Whether it’s challenging stereotypes, gathering oral narratives or conducting archival research, faculty here are not afraid to go out on a limb with their ideas.”
Collaboration with Native communities also provides a more complete and nuanced understanding of Indian cultures and sets UC Riverside apart from other U.S. universities. There are many other points of pride: UCR’s Ph.D. in Native American history is one of only three such doctoral programs in the country. And the scholars of Native descent in UCR’s programs — a rarity in American academe — are “the rock stars of Indian Country,” according to an Indian Country Today journalist.
In the Heart of Indian Country
Located in the heart of Southern California Indian Country — a region that is home to 30 federally recognized tribes — UCR is built on Cahuilla ancestral land. Rupert Costo, a Cahuilla, and Jeannette Henry Costo, a Cherokee, were instrumental in persuading University of California regents to locate a campus in Riverside.
In 1986, the couple created the Costo Chair of American Indian Affairs, the first faculty chair in the nation endowed by American Indians. They also established UCR’s Costo Library of the American Indian and Costo Archives, and inspired the creation in 2000 of the California Center for Native Nations, which is dedicated to preserving the history, culture, language and sovereignty of California tribes.
In the past quarter-century, the university has launched programs and initiatives that support scholarship about Native American culture and history and address issues of concern to area tribes. The annual Medicine Ways Conference and UCR Pow Wow are even older.
“Indian Time,” a weekly radio program airing on KUCR-FM, talks about issues such as federal recognition of tribes and religious freedom. Robert Perez, a Lipan Apache and associate professor of Native American Studies, has hosted the show since 1994. The “Red Rhythms” conference in 2004 was the first major gathering in the U.S. to bring together dance scholars, Native Studies scholars and American Indian dancers, and introduced a decade of workshops, guest-artist residencies and performances by traditional and contemporary Native American dancers.
Especially significant are efforts through the Native American Education Program to encourage Native families to prepare for a college education.
The biggest of these efforts is the successful Gathering of the Tribes Summer Residential Program, which began in 2005 through Native American Student Programs and is the longest-running program of its kind in Southern California.
The weeklong program brings 30 Native American high school students to the campus, where they live in a residence hall, attend various workshops on culture, skill development, empowerment and self-esteem, and learn how to apply for college admission and financial aid.
A majority of the summer program students come from Southern California, said Joshua Gonzales, director of Native American Student Programs, and more than 70 percent of them go on to college. Since the program began, enrollment of students at UCR who self-identify as Native American has grown by 129 percent to a total of 135 in fall 2013.
Preparing the next generation of Indian youth to assume leadership roles in their communities is critical, and a college degree makes a difference, noted Cliff Trafzer, who is of Wyandot descent and holds the Costo Chair in American Indian Affairs. “We need more Native children in college,” he said. “We need Native Americans as professional people in business, engineering, Native American history, law and medicine.”
Three of Sean Milanovich’s children have participated in the summer program, and two enrolled in Southern California universities as a result.
“My daughters would never have gone to college without this program,” said Milanovich, cultural specialist in the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in the Palm Springs area. A UCR alumnus who is enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Native American history, he said the summer program is the first time many Native students are away from home. “It builds confidence that they can be away from home, that they’re smart enough to do this.”
Joshua Thunder Little, a freshman Honors student who graduated from Palm Springs High School, said he always planned to attend college. He chose UCR because of its Native American Studies programs, an active Native American student community and proximity to home.
An Oglala Lakota, he wants to change popular misconceptions about Native Americans in ways that will help his community. “Not all Native Americans have casinos,” he said. “It’s important to make sure that our traditions don’t disappear and that we have a voice
Research From an Indian Perspective
“Native American history is a living history,” said Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert, a Hopi who earned master’s and doctoral degrees from UCR. Now a professor of American Indian Studies and history at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Gilbert says, “Over the years many scholars have conducted their work without involving Native people in the process. They have looked at Native people as subjects to be studied. When you put Native people at the center of their narratives, it honors those people and their history.”
This Native-centric research is a paradigm shift from previous research methods that exploited Native Americans to one that respects their oral traditions, a change that benefits scholars and tribes, said William Madrigal Jr., cultural heritage program coordinator for the Morongo Band of Mission Indians near Cabazon. “What was written about Native people early on is the tip of the iceberg,” said the 2010 UCR graduate. “Anthropologists couldn’t fathom the extent of Native knowledge. What they described as a primitive culture could cure any ailment, even do
Madrigal said he discovered a different view of American Indian history while an anthropology student at UCR. “We were taught in school that Indians would kill each other off,” he recalled. “I came to UCR and found that not only did we get along, we formed strategic alliances that paved the way for Indian sovereignty today.”
Oral tradition, which is the way Native people tell stories of their past and culture, is not the game of “telephone” that people believe it to be, Perez, “Indian Time” host, explained. “It is a rigid, complex encyclopedia of human knowledge. It takes much more to be an elder in the traditional way than to be a Ph.D.”
Challenging the Past
Consulting Native people about their oral traditions can help scholars verify or discount interpretations drawn from archival research, said UCR history professor Rebecca “Monte” Kugel, who is of Ojibwe descent.
“It becomes a dialog over what the documents tell us and how tribal cultural knowledge can inform that,” explained Kugel, who studies treaties and tribal leadership. “We are trying to train students to write history from the perspective of Native people whose histories they are researching, not from the interpretation of outsiders like the Spanish, French and British, which is the way Native history was taught for many years. It allows non-Native people to know there is another side of the story, and allows Native people to know their ancestors mattered and did important things, like domesticating corn, which feeds much of the world today, and knew how to live in challenging environments. That is as much a part of their history as land loss that led to being impoverished.”
UCR faculty encourage students to do research that is important to local Native Americans, Trafzer said. “All research doesn’t have to do that,” he said, “but we’re in the middle of Indian Country, they are citizens of California, and they have been overlooked.”
A Connection to the Present
Six dissertations have resulted from research conducted in the archives of Sherman Indian Museum at what is now Sherman Indian High School in Riverside. The government boarding school was established in Riverside as Sherman Institute in 1902 as part of a nationwide effort to force assimilation of American Indians by removing children from their homes, stripping them of their culture and converting them to Christianity. Today Sherman is a four-year high school run by Native Americans teaching their own culture and history, and is one of four off-reservation government boarding schools remaining.
Lorene Sisquoc, whose job as culture traditions leader at Sherman Indian High School includes serving as curator of the museum, says the first UCR dissertation that resulted from the Sherman collaboration began 15 years ago.
That dissertation — an investigation of student health at the boarding school in the early 20th century — led to a 2012 book about the history of Sherman Institute, co-edited by Sisquoc, Trafzer and Gilbert.
Curiosity about how Native communities viewed boarding schools led Ph.D. candidate Kevin Whalen to the Sherman museum archives. He was surprised to find that while the work programs were supposed to Anglicize the students and turn them into workers who wouldn’t cause problems, some students saw value in these programs. One Navajo student he learned about worked for three years, made a lot of money, then went home and bought sheep. “He used the experience to live more in the Navajo way,” he said. Whalen recently was awarded the prestigious University of Illinois Postdoctoral Fellowship in American Indian Studies, the first recipient from a California university.
Sisquoc, who has served on UCR master’s thesis committees, said students like Whalen are uncovering a chapter in Native American history that has gone largely unreported. “For so long the research has been one-sided. These were human beings whose lives were impacted by these schools,” she said.
And while the archival research is invaluable, UCR students’ collaboration with local tribal communities is even more welcome and necessary. “Every UCR student who has come through here has gone above and beyond,” she said. “They have helped with archives protection and management, and have showed our high school students the importance of their histories. They just join the Sherman family.”
Training and Empowerment
Training students in community-based research gives new knowledge and tools to Inland tribes, and helps them protect cultural resources amid growing pressure from development on ancestral lands.
“When you collaborate with Indian people, you gain knowledge of how the landscape is historical and spiritual, and that remains very strong today,” Trafzer said. “They believe that if you harm these places you can harm their health as well.”
Milanovich, who works in the Agua Caliente historic preservation office, said he returned to graduate school at UCR to learn how to protect and manage tribal lands and cultural resources.
“The land is all we have left that is tangible,” he explained. “We have songs and stories, but the land we see every day, and we can see what’s happening to it. That is our mother, and she gives us everything we need. We don’t see land as a way to make some money. We have a very strong spiritual connection to the land. We want to nurture her and protect her.”
For William Madrigal, the training he received at UC Riverside instilled confidence and enabled him to become an effective guardian of tribal cultural resources.
“UCR directly influenced how I shaped my career,” he said. “A lot of students who grow up on reservations see issues that they want to learn how to deal with. UCR empowered me. Native American Studies classes lifted my spirits and strengthened my sense of pride in who we are.”