City College Makes Good on Its Promise to Create a Native American Studies Program

Logo for American Indian Cultural District of San Francisco. Image courtesy of the American Indian Cultural District.

By Gabrielle Chagniot

City College is finally making some headway in serving the educational needs of Native American students.

The recent approval of a Native American studies course titled NAIS 38 “Introduction to Native American Studies” is scheduled to be taught during the Spring semester in 2025. Future plans also include the creation of other courses to be taught by Native American professors, as well as a certificate and a transfer degree in Native American Studies by the 2025-2026 semester.

Presently, the college curriculum harbors three courses, including Anthropology 12 “Indigenous People of North America,” History 15A “History of the American Indian: Eastern Tribes,” and History 15B “History of the American Indian: Western Tribes,” but the latter two are inactive.

The college begins every public meeting with a land acknowledgment recognizing the Ramaytush Ohlone people as the proprietors of the land the college currently occupies, making this development especially fitting.

Map of the Ramaytush Ohlone Land Acknowledgment. Image courtesy of American Indian Cultural District

According to the college’s 2022 fact sheet on student demographics, Native American students comprise 1% of the 25,349 campus population. As far as direct services to Native American students, none currently exist.

Nationally, only 24% of Native Americans ages 18-24 are enrolled in college, compared to 41% percent of the overall U.S. population, according to a 2021 Postsecondary National Policy Institute. Additionally, undergrad enrollment among Native Americans in that same age group decreased from 128,600 in 2016-17 to 13,400 in 2019-20.

There are many obstacles that stand in the way of Native Americans who are seeking higher education. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, poverty is one of the biggest impediments for Native Americans earning a college degree. More than 27% of the American Indian and Alaskan Native population were living in poverty in 2022. That is the highest rate of any group, compared to 12.4% of the nation as a whole according to a new 2022 data from the U.S. Census. This is an increase from 7.4% in 2021.

Locally, the American Indian Culture District of San Francisco (AICD) is particularly concerned about City College’s efforts to meet the higher educational needs of Native Americans. Founded on Mar. 31, 2020, the AICD is the first established cultural district of its size in the U.S. dedicated to recognizing, honoring, and celebrating the American Indian legacy, people, and contributions Native Americans have made.

A brainstorming session hosted by AICD on Nov. 29, 2023, at Sanchez Elementary School in San Francisco’s Mission District covered issues in higher education for Native Americans. The 100 attendees from throughout the Bay Area were able to raise their concerns and come up with ideas to tackle and work around problems.

Those in attendance included Anita Martinez, Vice President of the City College Board of Trustees, and Leslie Simon, a member of the Interdisciplinary Studies faculty, who agreed that getting Native American students to seek higher education needs to start early with the help of advocates. 

Anita Martinez, Vice President of the City College Board of Trustees.
Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/The Aperturist

Other conclusions from the meeting were that parents need to be kept informed about educational opportunities for their children and that specific mentors for Native American students are needed to inspire and guide them toward enrolling in college courses.

“The first step in making City College accountable to the Native American community is getting final course approval for an introduction to Native American Studies, and then offering it,” said Martinez.

Simon shared Martinez’s reaction. “An introduction to a Native American Studies course will be the start to a Native American Studies certificate and major.”

Simon also wanted to acknowledge the role of Lauren Muller who recently passed away.

“As beloved long-time chair of the Interdisciplinary Studies Department which houses the ‘Introduction to Ethnic Studies’ course, and as a scholar of Native American Studies herself, Muller headed up the team that worked to develop NAIS 38.” Simon continued to say, “After she passed, the other members of the team carried on in her memory, knowing how devoted she was to the establishment of the course and a certificate and program in Native American and Indigenous Studies.”

In 2007 the San Francisco Human Rights Commission published a report entitled “Discrimination by Omission: Issues of Concern for Native Americans in San Francisco.” Among its findings, the Commission found that “the curriculum at CCSF regarding Native American cultural recognition, cultural history, and factual accuracy needs improvement.” It recommended that the college create a Native American Studies Department.

“When you don’t feel you belong, it’s hard to succeed.” said Adolfo Velasquez, a former City College EOPS counselor/chair. Velasquez also noted that “the Native American community oftentimes feels left out of meetings, which impacts their future.”

“By creating a Native American Studies program at City, it will give a sense of belonging, pride, and hope to Native American students,” Velasquez said. “There are higher rates of poverty, alcoholism, and hopelessness. Ethnic Studies fulfills the demand for relevant education.” 

In the 1960’s a student strike at San Francisco State University (SFSU) led to the creation of the College of Ethnic Studies, and the first Native American Studies Department.

“Fifty-five years after the creation of the College of Ethnic Studies and the first American Indian Studies program at SFSU, and 17 years after the San Francisco Human Rights Commission report on Native Americans (‘”Discrimination By Omission”) it has been an honor to have worked with a team of dedicated faculty at CCSF to launch the beginning of a Native American Indigenous Studies (NAIS) program,” Velasquez said. “It’s a program long overdue with the hope of bringing pride to the San Francisco Bay Area Native American community.”

One important figure who influenced Native American studies was Richard Oakes. He was a Mohawk Native American activist and an SFSU student who successfully introduced Native American studies into university curricula with the help of one of the professors, Dr. Beatrice Medicine. He also encouraged Native American students to enroll in SFSU.

Elsewhere, San Diego City College (SDCC) will offer Native American and Indigenous Studies courses for the first time in its nearly 110-year history.

Intro to Native American and Indigenous Studies, Federal Indian Law, and Indigenous Spirituality are among the courses being developed, which are intended to fulfill the undergraduate requirements for an associate’s degree in Native American Studies, with which a student can then transfer to a four-year college.

SDCC has plans to launch the Native American and Indigenous Studies department and intro courses in the fall of 2025. Both are pending formal approval from the Board of Trustees.

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