University of California to Waive Tuition for Native Students – But Not for All

Native students who aren’t a member of a federally recognized tribe are dismayed that they are left out of the free tuition program

Sproul plaza at the University of California, Berkeley, the state’s flagship university.
Sproul plaza at the University of California, Berkeley, the state’s flagship university. Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP

Last week the University of California announced that the higher education system would waive tuition and student services fees for California residents who are members of federally recognized tribes.

The announcement elated some Native people in California, who viewed it as a potentially life changing initiative. But it garnered harsh criticism from many others who are members of nations that aren’t federally recognized and are deeply disappointed that an institution that stresses acknowledging historical wrongs suffered by Indigenous people can in the same breath leave so many out of such an important resource.

The UC initiative came as part of its launch of the Native American opportunity plan, which is meant to address the underrepresentation of Native students in higher education, including at the University of California. In fall 2021, of the nearly 300,000 students enrolled at University of California, only 0.5% were Native, according to the UC website.

“I am hopeful that this new program will benefit our students and continue to position the University of California as the institution of choice for Native American students,” Michael V Drake, the university system’s president, wrote in the letter announcing the initiative.

With 109 federally recognized tribes in California, it is clear the tuition funding will be beneficial to many Native people. The initiative comes as university tuition has become increasingly expensive, saddling many young Americans with student debt long after they start their professional careers. For state residents, tuition at the University of California is about $13,100, a sum that doesn’t include the many other costs associated with college, including housing and books.

For the Yurok Tribe, in northeast California, the average income is roughly $11,000. Waved tuition could remove a significant barrier to higher education for the 6,400 tribal members, according to council member Phillip Williams.

“I think this has brought so much hope to our youth; hope to our families,” he said. “We have a lot of talented young people here. We have an untapped resource of intelligence and ambition. And hopefully this can cultivate that.”

Colorado River Indian Tribes chair Amelia Flores said she was pleased to hear the news, but added her tribe already provides college tuition for members who apply and meet certain requirements, such as a 2.5 GPA. But she said UC’s program could relieve some of this expense from the tribe, which in recent years has spent almost $3m annually on tuition assistance.Advertisement

But to some of the thousands of Native people across California not enrolled in a federally recognized tribe, the announcement was disappointing or even painful.

Lim, the Stanford University student, can trace her Native ancestry at least as far back as 1850, when members of her family were massacred in northern California by the US military.

She has a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And when she was 15, she delivered a speech in front of Michelle Obama, then the first lady, to accept an award as the representative of the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center’s tribal youth ambassadors.

“I’m descended from a group of people that barely survived the colonization of California,” she told the audience in 2016.

Lim hopes to attend the University of California, Berkeley for graduate school, where a Native American research center is named after her grandfather. But because of a “family feud” within her tribe, she said, she is not enrolled in a federally recognized tribe and therefore wouldn’t qualify for a tuition grant.

“It kind of just felt like, once again, everyone who lies in this politically grey area gets swept under the rug, overlooked,” she said.

For Lim it’s a dispute within her tribe; for others it’s tribal moratoriums on enrollment, being disenrolled because of internal politics, or being a member of one of the dozens of nations that despite fighting for years, are not federally recognized.

The particular history of Indigenous people in California – including three waves of genocide that scattered and decimated communities, and land treaties never ratified and hidden for decades, leaving most Native people homeless – makes limiting funding to members of federally recognized nations especially glaring, said Joely Proudfit, director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center and American Indian Studies department chair at California State University San Marcos.

“These various waves of colonization basically almost wiped us out,” she said. “It’s led to all of these dynamic, unfortunate problems, like identity politics, and who’s in and who’s out.”

Proudfit, who is a descendant of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians, explained that there are many ways to prove someone is Native in California that goes beyond a federally recognized tribe’s enrollment, including a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, the California rolls and membership in non-federally recognized tribes.

Stett Holbrook, a spokesperson for the UC president’s office, said the university system’s decision to limit the initiative to members of federally recognized tribes stems from Proposition 209, which prohibits affirmative action based on race at California public universities.

“UC can provide financial aid to students based on their membership in federally recognized tribes because such membership is legally deemed a political classification, rather than a racial classification, due to the sovereign-to-sovereign relationship that the law recognizes between the federal government and federally recognized tribes,” Holbrook said in an email.

He added that the UC president’s Native American Advisory Council, which includes tribal leaders, provided feedback on the plan.

Proudfit suggested the university look to US Code 1679, whose eligibility requirements for California Natives to qualify for health services includes membership in a federally recognized tribe, but also such things as being a descendant of an “Indian who was residing in California on June 1, 1852” or holding a “trust interests in public domain, national forest, or reservation allotments in California.”

She said: “Being recognized by the federal government to be on the rolls for healthcare, or for blood quantum or for certificate degrees of Indian blood is federal recognition. That shows your political status.”

Louise Ramirez, chair of the Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation, said her nation has been fighting for federal recognition for decades. She described the UC’s decision as “discrimination.”

She added: It’s “causing additional trauma to be carried forward on future generations”.

In his letter, UC president Drake said that state residents from California’s non-federally recognized tribes could also receive scholarships from external organizations.

On Wednesday, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria announced a $2.5m scholarship fund for UC students from non-federally and federally recognized tribes.

Across the US, several states, including Michigan and Minnesota, also have programs offering college tuition assistance for members of federally recognized tribes attending certain colleges. Others, however, award the funding based on broader criteria. The Montana university system, for example, offers tuition waivers for those enrolled in state or federally recognized nations or who have at least “one-fourth degree Indian blood.”

Lim on Monday sent an email to the university detailing her family’s history with the school. Her grandfather was a lecturer there for nearly 30 years and her mother is a lecturer now:

“My family has worked extremely hard to increase access for California Indians and this policy, as it currently stands, will not result in that outcome,” she wrote.

She added: “I hope that you are able to revise this policy quickly in order to rightfully serve and uplift the descendants of all California Indian people.”

Original Article can be found here: University of California to waive tuition for Native students – but not for all