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First Elder-in-Residence Serves as Native American Link to the Past

Lorene Sisquoc is passing down oral history and helping Native students succeed by serving as the first elder/scholar-in-residence at Cal Poly Pomona.

As a child, Lorene Sisquoc remembers spending summers with her grandmother and her great-aunts as they passed down stories about the feats of tribal leaders and ancient customs and traditions.

Sisquoc listened intently to the details of those narratives and absorbed this oral history. She later knew it was her responsibility to pass it down to the tribe’s next generations.

Decades later, she is upholding that tradition as the first elder/scholar-in-residence at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, California. Sisquoc was formally introduced to the campus community during a ceremony on September 30, 2015. She’ll spend her time in the Native American Student Center and also assist with the Natives Aiming to Inspire Values in Education (NATIVE) Pipeline program.

“My role is to encourage Native American students to go forward in their education but don’t forget your traditions and your ways.” Sisquoc says. “You can live in both worlds. You can get your education but you can also embrace your culture, traditions and your language.”

Sisquoc’s grandmother, Ida Gooday, was born in 1903 as a prisoner of war of the U.S. government at Fort Sill Apache in Oklahoma. She later moved to Arizona. Sisquoc’s grandmother spent her life in a boarding school in Arizona and graduated from Phoenix Indian School. After earning a teaching credential in 1927, she moved with Sisquoc’s mother, Tonita Largo Glover, from Arizona to Sherman Indian School in Riverside in 1951. Lorene Sisquoc’s life began in 1960 on the campus of Sherman Indian School.She is a member of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe and a descendant of the Mountain Cahuilla of Southern California. Sisquoc can trace her ancestry to Mangas Coloradas, the last chief of the Mimbreno Apaches; Chief Loco of the Warm Springs Apaches and Manuel Largo, a leader of the Mountain Cahuilla.

“I was raised and influenced by many elders. The first one was my grandmother and her sisters. They shared memories of our ancestors and told stories of them, our chief and leaders in our family,” Sisquoc says. “We pay attention to the elders and pass things on. That’s how our language and our songs are kept alive.”

In 1982, Sisquoc began work at Sherman Indian High School as a dormitory staff member. Three years later, she began volunteer training under the tutelage of Ramona K. Bradley, co-founder and curator of the Sherman Indian Museum.

Sisquoc co-founded the Mother Earth Clan Cultural Programs in 1986. She became volunteer curator/manager of the Sherman Indian Museum in 1991, and has taught classes in Native American traditions and basketry at Sherman Indian High School since 1995.

There are an estimated 100 tribes in California, but studies show that only 1 percent of those members will pursue higher education. The lack of outreach to Native American students and the scarcity of role models are part of the problem. However, with efforts such as the NATIVE Pipeline program, Sisquoc has seen the number of Native American students entering college rise.

“In our native community, so many are the first generation to graduate high school in the last 20 years. Now it’s changing. Now they’re the first to go to college,” Sisquoc says. “The first question we ask our seniors in high school now is, ‘Where are you planning on going to college?’ That might not have been a question that was asked 10 to 20 years ago. Now it’s a standard question and the kids have an answer.”

This evolution also extends to her family. Sisquoc says her first grandchild graduated from high school last June and is studying at UC Riverside.

Changing the mindset of high school students about achieving a higher education is one of the goals of Cal Poly Pomona’s NATIVE Pipeline program, which was initiated by Ethnic and Women’s Studies Professor Sandy Kewanhaptewa-Dixon (Hopi) and has been supported by the Kellogg Legacy grant for four years. The pipeline also received a $150,000 gift from alumnus Don Huntley. The program is the only one of its kind in the California State University system, and the elder/scholar-in-residence is an outcrop of the pipeline.

“We’re really humbled and proud that she’s here with us. She’s from the local area and can speak truly to the local tribes for us. She’s been raised in the area and that is significant to us,” says Irvin Harrison, coordinator of the Native American Student Center. “We hope that our Native American students will gravitate to her and her energy.”

Sisquoc is a basket weaver and has extensive knowledge of native plants and their uses. She is dedicated to the preservation and continuance of Native American culture, and strives to ensure that Native American history is accurately depicted in the media.

During the fall quarter, Sisquoc has led workshops and presentations for Native American students on campus.

“I want to teach students to be proud of who they are and urge them to learn their tribal traditions and maybe inspire each of them to learn more about their tribal traditions,” Sisquoc says. “I’ll share with them what I know of my tribe and encourage them to find their traditions and their tribal backgrounds. Honor it and respect it. It will keep you strong.”