UC Berkeley’s Indigenous organizations continue fight for visibility

Indigenous People's Day
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On UC Berkeley’s campus, Indigenous students continue to fight for their voices to be heard through organizations that work to speak out against injustices and create meaningful change.

UC Berkeley was built on the land of the Ohlone people and currently possesses ancestral remains and tribal artifacts that have not yet been returned to Native Americans. Patrick Naranjo, executive director of the UC Berkeley American Indian Graduate Program, said in an email that the organization is working to create awareness for the campus to “better repatriate Native American human remains and artifacts.” The state of California’s audit of UC campuses revealed that only 20% of the artifacts in UC Berkeley’s possession were returned.

Organizations such as UC Berkeley’s Native American Law Students Association, or NALSA, are working to remedy the campus’s past treatment of Indigenous students and forge new means of uplifting the community’s voices.

“Indigenous activism means the active pursuit of dismantling racism and colonialism in our communities, institutions, and personal lives,” said NALSA co-chairs Alyssa Kewenvoyouma and Wyatt Williams in an email.

Indigenous students in higher education face a multitude of obstacles, according to a study from the Indigenous Higher Education Equity Initiative. The study cites the lack of visibility, resources and representation on campuses as factors in limiting Indigenous students’ abilities to succeed in higher education.

According to UC Berkeley fall 2019 enrollment data, students self-identifying as being of Native American or Alaska Native descent made up 0.4% of the campus’s freshman population and 0.7% of the incoming transfer students.

“We would like to see more Native students at Berkeley,” Kewenvoyouma and Williams said in their email. “Three years ago there was only one Native student out of 900 students. Berkeley Law now has around 15 identifying students.”

While they said they were “proud of the progress,” Kewenvoyouma and Willams want to see campus focus on allocating resources for Indigenous students. Their group hopes to see permanent scholarships focused on Indigenous students, as well as “academic and financial support, a commitment to recruiting and retaining Native students, and further faculty and staff representation.”

NALSA is centered on providing support for Indigenous students through a series of events aimed at increasing the visibility of Native students on campus. According to Kewenvoyouma and Williams, the group has hosted panels in which tribal officials, such as the governor of the Gila River Indian Community and the president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, discussed the evolving political and economic state within Native communities.

The group has stressed the importance of advocating for and ensuring proper education is in place to discontinue the law’s pattern of discriminatory policies.

“We want to create a space where Native students feel they can achieve anything and will be supported in doing so,” Kewenvoyouma and Williams said in their email.

Their organization is working to empower Native narratives and amend the UC Berkeley School of Law’s curriculum to recognize the laws that have failed Indigenous societies in the past and continue to fail them today.

The American Indian Graduate Program is also working to challenge current education and research surrounding Native communities and supports elevating Indigenous “histories, environments, cultures, economies, literature and aspects of professional career development at UC Berkeley,” Naranjo said in an email.

Indigenous groups on campus want to see further acknowledgments made by UC Berkeley regarding the campus’s history of displacing the Ohlone people. Sharon Marcos, the medicinal society lead of the Indigenous and Native Coalition Recruitment and Retention Center, or INC-RCC, said in an email that the INC-RCC wants more people to know the history of UC Berkeley displacing the Ohlone people’s land and for land acknowledgments to be made.

The INC-RCC is focused on uplifting Indigenous groups’ concerns through activism, serving as a “safe space for Indigenous students.” Marcos said the organization advocates for students in multiple spaces.

A project the organization is currently tackling is a care package program for Indigenous communities.

“We had a first round of care packages given in the beginning of shelter in place due to COVID-19,” Marcos said in her email.

The group also regularly works on retention and recruitment programs and creates events with the goal of fostering a sense of community among campus’s Indigenous students.

Naranjo discussed the issues Indigenous communities are currently facing. 

“Murdered and missing Indigenous women, and also police brutality represent alarming issues within Indigenous communities,” Naranjo said in his email.

He also stressed the prevalence of Indigenous activism and the significance of Indigenous visibility in today’s society.

“Our people have resisted these colonial systems that continually attempt to annihilate our people,” Marcos said in her email. “Having Indigenous activism in many platforms, whether it be environmental activism or educational activism etc, means being able to continue living as an Indigenous person.”

Contact Kelly Nguyen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @KellyNguyen_DC.