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California Tribal Nations and the University: Examining Institutional Relationships, Responsibility and Reciprocity


There is an educational attainment crisis among American Indian students in California’s public colleges and universities, who continue to have the lowest college completion compared to any underrepresented group. California tribes believe that higher education can assist in the achievement of nation-building goals. However, close examination of how tribes and postsecondary institutions work together to ensure the success of American Indian students and their communities is necessary. This study examined contemporary relationships between tribal nations and public postsecondary universities in California. This nested, multiple case study used Tribal Critical Race Theory and community-campus partnership frameworks to understand how institutional agents articulate formal and informal relationships with local tribes. Case study sites consisted of two University of California campuses, non-federally recognized tribes, and proximally located federally recognized tribes. Documents and interviews with senior administrators, American Indian unit heads, and tribal representatives were collected and analyzed to understand different perspectives on relationships with, responsibility to, and educational needs of tribes within and across sites.

Several findings emerged related to the limited knowledge university administrators had regarding American Indians broadly and the state of relations with California tribes. Findings demonstrate that formal relationships focused on federally recognized tribes and were dictated by federal, state or system-wide policies, educational resources, and economic opportunities. Conversely, informal relationships with non-federally recognized tribes were primarily maintained by university-based American Indian programs or departments. Representatives from American Indian units expressed the responsibility of universities to include and serve American Indian students and communities for democratic, reconciliatory, and ethical reasons. Last, participants identified current tribal needs for academic preparation, educational resources to support nation-building, and assistance with federal recognition applications, but also stressed the importance of consulting with tribes to address evolving needs.

Overall, this study offers significant recommendations for the case study sites, as well as public universities in California and nationally. From a substantive standpoint, this analysis adds to our understanding of factors that are important to advancing tribal-university relationships and partnerships. This study also expands on existing community-campus partnership frameworks, introducing a cultural-specific approach for incorporating tribes into university government and community relations activities.

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