Over 1,000 students, parents, educators, and vendors from 30 tribes nationwide gathered at the University of Southern California’s Town and Gown ballroom Saturday, Feb. 1 for the Inter-Tribal Education Collaborative’s sixth annual college exploration day, its largest ever.
Considering the National Center for Education Statistics’ 2019 report, Native American students ages 18 to 24 consistently made up the smallest percentage of college students from the year 2000 to 2017. The Inter-Tribal Education Collaborative and its events aim to inspire Native students and open their eyes to the opportunities of higher education so that those numbers grow.
“ITEC (Inter-Tribal Education Collaborative) is devoted to creating pathways to higher education for Native Americans,” USC’s Director of Native American Students Karras Wilson, Quechan/Cocopah, said.
The festivities kicked off with a complimentary breakfast as the guests checked in and took their seats in the Town and Gown Ballroom. English professor and the event’s MC, David Treuer, Ojibwe, shared his joy at how many people were present.
"We are, as Native people, the most visible invisible minority in this country," Treuer said. Treuer then introduced Tongva Elder Julia Bogany for a land acknowledgment.
Wilson then welcomed anthropology professor Tok Thompson to the stage, who honored the late Joseph Medicine Crow.
Joseph Medicine Crow, who earned his master’s in anthropology in 1939, was the first Native American student at USC. Crow was an acclaimed Native American historian and last surviving war chief of Montana’s Crow Tribe. He earned the title of war chief following his service in WWII and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2009. Crow’s family was then presented with a copy of Crow’s dissertation from Thompson and gifted handmade necklaces by Wilson.
“We need to continue the legacy that our elders set for us at USC,” Wilson said. “It’s our traditional responsibility to honor Joseph Medicine Crow academically.”
As Joseph Medicine Crow’s family left the stage, Treuer introduced the Quechan bird singers led by Faron Owl, Quechan/Paiute. As the singers performed, women in the crowd gathered up front to dance, including keynote speaker Judge Claudette White, Quechan, chief judge for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.
During her speech, White told the crowd about her childhood, growing up on her reservation, and the family struggles she endured. She shared how she stayed committed to becoming educated as a way to help not only herself, but her family and tribal community.
While finishing up her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at Northern Arizona University, at just 23-years-old, White became the youngest elected leader her tribe had ever had. She went on to manage a multi-million dollar casino operation for her tribe and to obtain her juris doctorate in federal Indian law at Arizona State University College of Law. She was named chief judge of her tribe, serving the Quechan Indian Tribe for 11 years, and in January 2018 became chief judge for the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.
“Recently, scientists said that Indigenous people are born with trauma in their DNA. But we are also born with the blood of warriors, fighters, healers and amazing ancestors that survived every effort at termination,” White said. “Let that be a prevailing thought when you think about the blood that flows within you and the power and strength you have to meet every challenge that you face. Especially in education, because that path will not be easy.”
White discussed the way that Indigenous people succeed: “By acting as one.” She encouraged students to lean on their families and friends when they are struggling, and to not forget their tribe when they succeed.
“We stand as giants on the shoulders of our tribes and ancestors who have paved the way for us to be here. Less than 10 percent of our people survived early US federal policy. But from that small remaining number, here we are today, existing as Indigenous people, thriving and excelling, just as our ancestors had intended,” she said.
White invited her son Zion to the stage to sing two songs of power and healing before breakout sessions started.
Representatives from USC, UCLA, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, Cal Poly Pomona, Cal State LA, San Diego State, Humboldt, Fresno State, San Jose State, Arizona State, University of Northern Arizona, Tohono O’odham Community College, Los Angeles Valley College and tribal colleges lined the long road that bisects USC’s campus. Parents and students could get free information about colleges, scholarship opportunities, and free dental screenings.
In 2017, USC dentistry and Cal State L.A. were awarded $16.6 million to provide dental treatment to underserved children and teens. The team was at the event, providing free dental screenings and educating attendees.
While the college fair, campus tours and lacrosse games went on outdoors, breakout sessions went on inside USC’s Taper Hall. Students could choose from science demonstrations, cultural workshops and college informational seminars.
In conjunction with USC science students and Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS), students could watch plankton under a microscope, eat food grown by aquaponics, turn water into fuel, and watch as liquid nitrogen freezes fruit and flowers. Out at the Leavey Library fountain, students could build and drive their own remotely operated underwater vehicle.
Bridghid “Birdie” Pulskamp, Navajo, led cultural workshops indoors with Brandy Rodriguez, a representative from the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Title IV Indian Education Program. Together, they taught a room jam-packed with students how to make baskets, rugs and pinch pots. One future Trojan made a USC logo design in his pot. He shared that it was inspired by his dream to get into the accounting program, which he will be applying to soon.
When the breakout sessions ended, guests enjoyed a complimentary lunch as they were serenaded by the Spirit of Troy, USC’s world-famous marching band. As lunch came to a close, the crowd cheered for an encore, to which the band obliged.
In the final hour of the event, guests were free to roam the campus, go back to the college informational booths, go on a campus tour, play lacrosse or watch the documentary “Tribal Justice,” featuring Judge White.
USC’s Native American Student Union then raffled off prizes including an iPad Air, iHome, USC merchandise, swag donated from other colleges, a quilted blanket, and two coveted hand-beaded USC hats.
The club has been working since August to help co-host the event and have the club recognized by USC’s student government.
“ITEC (Inter-Tribal Education Collaborative) was a very monumental event for USC and NASU (Native American Student Union) was very proud to host it,” NASU President Maracea ‘Mesa’ Chase, Navajo/Hopi/Lakota Sioux, said.
“It was amazing to see the halls, where I’ve had many classes in, filled with Native faces. It made my heart feel very full to know that all of the hard work really paid off as NASU works to make a bigger platform for Native voices.”
Natasha Brennan, Cahuilla, is a journalist and photographer from Southern California covering the surrounding Native communities. Follow her on Twitter- @Natasha_Marie_B or Instagram- @Natasha_Marie_B.