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Tribal College Struggles to Survive


Among the specialized schools in the United States are the tribal colleges, set up to meet the special academic and cultural needs that many Native American students have. Most of the 30 or so tribal colleges are thriving, but one of the original schools, born out of the Native American civil rights movement of the late 60s and early 1970s, is struggling to survive.

California's only tribal college, DQ University, has graduated nearly 3,000 students over the past 35 years. Many went on to other, 4-year institutions. Some are now doctors and lawyers. The college is named for Deganawidah, the American Indian chief who formed the Iroquois Federation. His full name, symbolized by the letter D, is used only in a religious context. The Q stands for Quetzalcoatl, an Aztec leader later deified by his people.

Like most tribal colleges, DQ is set up as a 2-year institution, part community college basic curriculum, part cultural education. According to Susan Reese, a former board member, "Our responsibility is more than to just educate them." She says the goal of all tribal schools is to provide a transition from the Native American community into mainstream college life. "We want them to continue on the red road and we don't want them to forget who they are." Reese adds the hope is that students will "return to their communities whole and complete and serve as an example of those who will come after them."

But right now, that's not an option for DQ. After years of instability, ineffective leadership, financial mismanagement and sagging enrollment, the school lost its accreditation last year. Now, it's in debt. It doesn't have students, or professors or even a president.

DQ's peach and white buildings, surrounded by farm fields in California's Yolo County, are totally vacant now; weeds are gaining the upper hand. Calvin Hedrick, who has been a member of the DQ University Board for about a year, points to what were the residence halls. "This is the women's dorm, and this back here is the men's dorm. We closed it down a few months ago to save money."

Standing near some abandoned cars parked in the middle of campus, Hedrick says he and other board members are dedicated to making DQ a real university again. "The board's here, the land's here, these buildings are here, so we're starting a tribal college from the remains of a tribal college in a sense. What it is now, it's in the planning stages, it's in the rebuilding stage."

For Hedrick, whose grandmother was active in the Indian Education movement, DQ's current situation is a disappointment. "Something that has bothered me for years," he admits, "is that in the state of California we have more Indian people than any other state. But when you look at smaller states South Dakota, Montana, Arizona, they have numerous tribal colleges and we only have one, and it's struggling."

Nationwide, there are more than 30 tribal colleges and most of them are thriving, according to Deborah Cavett, head of the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities. "We have a very viable program with the tribal colleges and universities. I'm sorry of what happened to DQ University - whatever that was - because I think they did serve a useful role. But the rest of the schools are flourishing very well; others are getting on their feet and just starting to move forward." Cavett says at this point she can't step in to help DQ, because her organization is only allowed to work with accredited colleges.

And DQ isn't getting help from what might seem like an obvious source, the handful of California tribes that have money to invest from their casinos. But Board member Calvin Hedrick says DQ has lost credibility with these gaming tribes. "I don't blame a tribe for not wanting to be involved at the point where we're at. But I would hope that somewhere down the line, in the hopefully very near future, they will be able to trust us not only with their money but with their youth."

Hedrick says he's working to team up with a local community college so DQ can begin the process of earning back its accreditation. He says California should have a tribal college. "You know when I think about DQ, I think about this is the first place for Indian kids to come to get that start out of high school and then move on to a bigger school, and so I want this to be here." Hedrick says he hopes DQ University will be able to start offering classes again by the spring, or maybe next fall.