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Struggling to reopen California's only tribal college

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DAVIS, Calif. - Chris Yazzie lives alone on a quiet stretch of land where he tends to his modest corn crop, planted with blue corn seeds from his Arizona reservation.

He left his Navajo family at 19 to attend the only tribal college in California, D-Q University, formed in 1971 after young Natives occupied a parcel of land in Davis.

Yazzie, now 25, has chosen to join that tradition of resistance. As the only student left at the troubled college, which closed abruptly in January 2005 after its accreditation was revoked, he is now the unofficial caretaker of its 643 acres, living in a single dorm room and relying on food donations and visits from the local Native community.

He is the last holdout of a group of students who had resisted the administration's order to go home until the college rectified its problems. All the students eventually left, many enrolling elsewhere.

Now, as a new school year approaches for students across the country, Yazzie is still awaiting an eventual return by Native students and faculty.

''This is very important for all Native people; a lot of people sacrificed everything for this school,'' Yazzie said. ''Just because a few people messed it up, it shouldn't reflect on the whole community.''

But it has. With mention of D-Q University often comes discussion of past mismanagement, rumors and quizzical remarks including, ''Is it still there?''

When a board member recently approached a tribe for donations, she was told, ''D-Q? I don't think so.''

But a new board formed in the summer of 2005, and several former students are now working to address many of the reasons the university lost its accreditation from The Western Association of Schools and Colleges and its BIA funding - including a Native population that was below the 51 percent required. The rest of the student body was half Latino and some white. The premise of the school was to unite Indians from both sides of the U.S./Mexico border, hence the name: Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University.

Among the concerns outlined by WASC in its report was the school's lack of leadership. Students also accused the administration of embezzling financial aid funds. The administration denied the claims.

The school's seven-member board is now inviting people to submit applications to join the board. It needs nine more members according to college bylaws, although it has never met that requirement.

''We are pretty much a new board and we're trying to do everything by the book because that's why we lost accreditation,'' said new board member Calvin Hedrick, 40, a Mountain Maidu who is the youth program director of Inter-Tribal Council of California.

Among the changes the board has introduced includes a policy against ''handshake agreements,'' which has upset some who say it is behaving ''as a Western entity and not Indian,'' Hedrick said.

But it needs to be done, he said, when as recently as this summer people did not pay them after they hosted their sobriety pow wow on school grounds, he said.

In a recent meeting, board members discussed funding ideas, outstanding legal fees from a court case that determined the legitimacy of several boards that had sprung up (estimated at $70,000), and holding D-QU-sponsored workshops outside the school - ''To show we're still here,'' said board member Bernadine Whipple.

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Discussion turned briefly to past indiscretions the board has inherited.

''I'd like to go after the people who ripped off D-Q, the land, the money, whatever,'' said board member Margaret Hoaglin, an alumna of the first graduating class of D-QU. ''We have so much corruption that went on,'' added site manager Susan Reece.

Although the school remains closed, Yazzie and a few other students have continued to invite volunteer instructors to hold trade courses including agriculture and silk-screen printing. Educational programs are required to keep the school's federal trust land.

''We're just showing people how to learn a skill; a trade they can take home,'' said former student Greg Irons, 27. Their half-acre garden contains corn, beans, squash, gourds and pumpkins.

Hedrick and former students said they also hope to launch vocational and alternative energy programs that would draw more people to the college, and help make ''D-Q an entirely green campus,'' Hedrick said.

Yazzie came to D-QU in an attempt ''to get off my rez.''

''Everyone was drinking, partying, and I didn't want that,'' he said. ''I wanted to get out of there.''

He has been living alone at D-Q since December of last year, keeping occupied by maintaining the site, recording rock music, reading and hosting drum circles, sweats and gardening classes.

He left his job as an ironworker, working on Bay Area bridges and buildings in Oakland.

He and other former students have created MySpace pages about the college and are focusing their efforts on recruiting board members, meeting the requirements for accreditation and rebuilding community support.

They and the board hope a fund-raising dinner they have scheduled for Sept. 22 at the college will help reunite the community.

''All that happened in the past caused a split between people; we didn't know who to trust, and it caused fractions in the community,'' Yazzie said. ''People are afraid to work with each other and we have to rebuild that relationship.''

Interest around the college has peaked recently, since word got out that it is scheduled as a stop on the route of the 30th anniversary of the Longest Walk, Irons said. The walk will depart from Alcatraz Island in February of 2008 and end in Washington, D.C.

In the meantime, some are hoping that another accredited university, like the University of California at Berkeley or Los Angeles, will temporarily take D-Q on under its accreditation umbrella.

''It's a struggle,'' Yazzie said. ''But hopefully those people who lost faith will see that we are persevering - that young people are stepping up.''