‘Always been fighting’: At UC Berkeley, Native American students determined to reconcile past, present

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Jessica Doojphibulpol/Staff

The Native American community at UC Berkeley is small, but it is determined to not be forgotten.

Native Americans students on campus represent less than 1 percent of the student body compared to 2 percent of the California population. In fall 2016, the Native American campus student population consisted of 242 individuals. There are only two Native American faculty members, who are both in the Native American studies program, according to Phenocia Bauerle, director of the UC Berkeley Native American Student Development office.

Ron Spencer, a UC Berkeley senior and member of the Pueblo of Laguna and Navajo tribes, described being a Native American student on campus as living in two worlds — a sentiment echoed by Bauerle, who added that many Native American students on campus have “layered identities,” with ties to an underrepresented history.

“You don’t really belong anywhere, even though this is your own land,” Spencer said.

‘A world of difference’

Spencer and his family moved to Oakland from the Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico in 1962. The move came six years after the enactment of the Indian Relocation Act, which encouraged Native Americans to leave reservations and assimilate into cities.

Spencer’s father, a former member of the U.S. Navy who spent time recuperating at Mare Island Naval Hospital in Vallejo, knew the Bay Area and made the decision to relocate the family there. The move was also influenced by changing government policy and systemic racism, Spencer added.

Ron Spencer, a UC Berkeley senior and member of the Pueblo of Laguna and Navajo tribes, described being a Native American student on campus as "living in two worlds." Ron Spencer/Courtesy.

Ron Spencer, a UC Berkeley senior and member of the Pueblo of Laguna and Navajo tribes, described being a Native American student on campus as “living in two worlds.” Ron Spencer/Courtesy.

In an effort to hold onto Native American familial and ceremonial ties, Spencer and his family traveled frequently between Oakland and the Navajo reservation in Arizona. It was during this back-and-forth time period that Spencer began to feel the effects of a dual life: He lived primarily in Oakland where he attended public school, but he also went to high school partly on the Navajo reservation. Spencer said that educationally, the experiences were similar, but culturally, it was a “world of difference.”

“Being around inner culture where my language, my native tongue, is the predominate language instead of English … was really one of the best learning experiences of my life,” Spencer said.

After graduating from high school, Spencer worked as a chef for 25 years in San Francisco and Seattle. Over the years, his hands became chronically worn to the point that he lost the ability to work as a chef. Shortly thereafter, he landed in UC Berkeley.

Generations of activism

A UC Berkeley education seems to run in the family: Spencer is a third-generation UC Berkeley student.

Spencer’s father attended UC Berkeley in 1968. On campus, he was actively supportive of Native American rights and was involved in Occupy Alcatraz, a 19-month-long occupation by Native Americans that aimed to urge the U.S. government to turn the island into a Native American cultural center. Spencer recalled going to Alcatraz as a child, and he credits his own passion for activism to his father.

Spencer re-entered college later in life to model the importance of higher education to his sons. His older son is a campus freshman.

“With any luck, my second son six years from now will be here. It really makes me proud,” Spencer said.

Ron Spencer went to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation twice to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. On one of the occasions, he took his sons with him. Ron Spencer/Courtesy.

Ron Spencer went to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation twice to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. On one of the occasions, he took his sons with him. Ron Spencer/Courtesy.

Spencer has gone to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation twice to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. On one of these occasions, he took his sons with him.

“I wanted them to know what it was like to be involved protesting for a cause,” Spencer said. “To know that they need to stand up for Indian rights, just as my father did with me.”

Spencer and his sons arrived a few days after police had deployed water hoses and tear gas for use against protesters. Everyone was still processing the events and recuperating from the violence, he said.

Spencer returned to the Bay Area with new insight. At the time, the campus’s Native American Student Development office and Native American Recruitment and Retention Center were collaborating to send supplies to those at Standing Rock. Back at UC Berkeley, Spencer paved a path for other students who were headed to the reservation so they would know what to expect.

A marginalized community

The Native American Student Development office’s budget, historically small, was cut from $27,000 to $14,000 for the 2017-18 academic year, according to Bauerle. The office’s funding supports undergraduate and graduate students through programs that include mentoring and orientation for new students, internships, skill development workshops and academic components of the Native American theme program.

Spencer said he has witnessed deteriorating mental health among Native Americans in the United States. Bauerle added that for the Native American community on campus, the Tang Center is “great but not enough.” Although the campus’s Multicultural Community Center offers counseling services, Bauerle added that she aims to have someone in the Native American community serve as a counselor.

Both Spencer and Bauerle emphasized their wish to see more inclusivity toward Native Americans on campus. Spencer added that there is nothing on the UC Berkeley campus recognizing that it is constructed in a city steeped in the history of the Ohlone tribe.

“You see all these homages to the bear, but what about the Natives?” Spencer said.

“We … want to make things right — to fight for our justice. … It can’t just be one month out of the year.”
—Spencer

Bauerle said she believes allies must consciously acknowledge the Native American experience. She explained that conversations about people of color tend to focus on Black and Chicanx communities and exclude Natives. Bauerle emphasized the need to be critical when the Native American narrative goes unstated.

For Native Americans in the United States, the struggle to claim their identities and cultures is an ongoing trial, Spencer said. Land, water and fishing disputes continue to exist on Native American land and cause lasting damage to communities in the form of depression, domestic violence and alcoholism.

The struggle doesn’t end after Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Spencer added.

“We … want to make things right — to fight for our justice,” Spencer said. “It’s something we’ve always been fighting for, and we’ve never stopped. … It can’t just be one month out of the year.”

Ella Jensen is the lead student life reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ellajensen_dc.