People dedicated to the good and proper development of the young are still
too rare. There are more than a few superlative educators in Indian
country, but always there is great need for more. Never before have Indian
youth (and all youth) needed more guidance in reaffirming their core
identities in a positive and overwhelming manner.
American Indian people across the Western Hemisphere recognize that a
Native intelligence must guide the education of their young people.
Grounded in traditional cultural values, this education would be expansive
of the knowledge incorporated, studying everything, debating everything
that humanity has conceived and produced.
This week we ponder the beginning of a new Indian university in Mexico, the
seeming demise of a classic Indian college in California and words spoken
on the life of David Risling Jr., whose example in gentle persuasion is
worthy of emulation.
In the center of the Mazahua region of Mexico, a university was founded
recently that has become the first such institution for Indian people
sponsored by the federal Education Secretariat of Mexico. This is great
news for a country where not 20 years ago, the notion of an exclusively
"mestizo" nation, countenancing little to no survival for indigenous
people, was the dominant concept for society.
The new "Intercultural University of the State of Mexico" is dedicated to
the education of Mazahuas, Ottomi, Matlazincas and Tlahuica tribal
Mexicans. The first-year class is comprised of 70 percent women and 30
percent men; most of the Native students are primarily monolingual in their
indigenous languages. The first-year courses concentrate in adaptation to
Spanish and other languages and in improving science and math proficiency.
The Indian university, which offers the equivalent of bachelor's and
master's degrees, will matriculate 270 students in three main fields:
sustainable development, languages and culture (interpreters) and
As always with these trend-setting projects, special people provide
inspiration. In Mexico, widely revered historian and professor Miguel Leon
Portilla is a major player in the inspiration for an Indian-guided
education. Portilla has for many decades led the fight for more respectful
understanding and recognition of Mexico's indigenous populations, which
number over 10 million (monolingual speakers of Native languages), and the
cultural and linguistic legacy they provide for the country. Local doctor
Jose Garduo and bilingual educator Sylvia Schmelkes are also among those
credited with helping the successful campaign to launch the university.
Schmelkes announced last September that the new institution is the first of
eight indigenous universities that will be built throughout Mexico.
Throughout the 20th century, Indian people of the Western Hemisphere have
fought to gain control of their own education and to fulfill the aspiration
to base their curricula for Native students upon their own languages and
cultural values. However, many such schools have come and gone. Certainly
there are those in Mexico who would call Schmelkes unduly optimistic;
nevertheless, the quality of those who sustain this most heartfelt of
Native aspirations is to create new opportunities, regardless of temporary
Northward to the U.S., a vanguard Indian school seems to have folded in
California during a time of mourning for one of its luminary founders and
major individual spirits. That school is D-Q University, a venerable and
trend-setting college named after two American Indian mytho-historical
characters, the Aztec hero, Quetzalcoatl and the Iroquois Peacemaker, whose
name is generally spoken only in ceremony.
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, after warnings last year,
withdrew accreditation for DQU in January. The loss of accreditation came
as the second semester was slated to begin and left many students in a
lurch. A new 13-member board of American Indian professionals, including
five of the original board members, joined to tackle the issues last year,
but these proved insurmountable.
Among the numerous problems confronting the college is maintaining the
necessary 51 percent American Indian enrollment to satisfy BIA funding
requirements - a particular challenge in California, where many tribes
don't have federal recognition. Accusations of fiscal mismanagement, a lack
of qualified administrators and diminishment of educational standards have
surfaced, and apparently even the university's land is in jeopardy as a
result of loans. Largely the moves of desperation as budgets dwindled, the
fiscal mismanagement issues loom large and this long-struggling and
pioneering Indian educational institution appears to be in terminal
Doubly sad for this demise is that it comes among days of mourning for a
California Indian elder who consensus indicates was a man of great wisdom
and dedication, among many superlative characteristics.
This was David Risling Jr., California educator and leader of many decades,
whom Delaware professor Jack Forbes called "a giant for two millennia" at
an honoring just three years ago. Risling was a founder of DQU and several
other important Indian organizations, including the California Indian Legal
Association, the California Indian Education Association, the Native
American Rights Fund and the Native American Studies Department at
UC-Davis, among others.
In the same tribute to Risling in October 2001, Forbes eloquently praised
the beloved educator, who he said "learned how to pace himself, how to aim
for the long-haul not for the quick knock-out" and who taught that although
"victory does not come quickly," we must learn "how to be tenacious without
being bitter, to be tough without being angry."
It was Risling's possession of "a very broad vision," Forbes emphasized,
that made the beloved educator "able to see into the past and from that
into the future, so as to be able to create, or help to create."
While the closure of promising institutions such as D-Q University becomes
seriously traumatic, in the example of exceptional lives of educational
leaders such as Miguel Leon Portilla (79) in Mexico and of David Risling
Jr. in the United States, we are reminded that the great legacies of
Quetzalcoatl and of the Haudenosaunee Peacemaker remain alive and active in
those who have made substantial contributions. This is why we can believe
that whatever our temporary setbacks, in the long run, the truth of the
Native people will prevail.