A campus and a culture

Sole tribal college in state battles for survival

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

DAVIS - The lanky man wearing dusty boots, a gray suit and large-framed glasses stands impatiently by a freshly painted flagpole, waiting for his brothers to finish their ceremonial chant.

Methodical drumbeats slice the surrounding silence, which somehow seems to wash the presence of turmoil and bedlam from the splintered road and scattered dirt. And Arthur Apodaca, interim president at D-Q University, looks on.

The nine months of struggle to save D-Q from permanently shutting its doors have given birth to a new beginning for the only tribal college in California. And on this fall morning, the school is raising its flag once more, inaugurated by a mesmerizing mantra.

”We hereby dedicate today, a long, long future to the youth of the Native American people!“ 66-year-old Apodaca says in a cracked voice with tears that frame his deep-lined face. ”The news of the demise of D-Q University is highly exaggerated. We will not die!“

The flag, an old banner with the words ”D-Q University“ stitched on, rises slowly from the ground to soar without fear or favor above the school.

”We will not be made undone,“ Apodaca continues. ”Not only will it survive, it is going to thrive!“

Generous claps from more than 25 Native Americans, Chicanos and friends of the university echo throughout the campus, halting strife that began when the school lost its accreditation on Jan. 19.

The students were given a three-hour eviction notice by then-school president Victor Gabriel, instead of an expected welcome speech on the first day of school. Most left the premises, but some, against the advice of others, stayed and fought to keep their university and its culture alive.

It was a battle where tribal and trustee members were pitted against one another, where chains attempted to prohibit students from entering the campus and where restraining orders trailed the steps of students who refused to leave the dorm.

”It will be a long process to build the integrity of our school, but we have no intention of ever losing it again,“ Apodaca says.

The smoke rises

The moist coolness on an April day surrounds a group of D-Q students as they stand around a fire pit directly before the dorms. Their hands move swiftly over the red and yellow flames that quietly lick the murky air.

Occasionally, a student tosses a piece of wood into the fire. It's important to keep this fire alive, they say, as it has been since January. It's a symbol of hope.

Around them, buildings that once thrived with vitality now ache for some type of restitution while the broken roads show obvious signs of abandonment.

Only 24 of the 150 or so students at D-Q remain on campus, sleeping in dorms devoid of food and limited heat, fighting to keep their culture alive.

”We're not here for the hell of it. We could have been gone a long time ago,“ says 19-year-old Salvador Martinez of the Pomo Tribe. Martinez came to the school in August 2004 to learn of his culture and to follow a tradition among Native Americans.

”Living in both worlds is difficult. Other people have places to learn of their background. Mexicans can go back to Mexico. Africans can go back to Africa. But we're here, there's no place to go back to and see who we are. We don't have a really good place to go,“ says Martinez, who ultimately attended classes at Solano Community College during the spring semester.

Some would say they were fighting a lost cause, considering the school board, comprised of Native Americans, failed to maintain accreditation even though they had been sent several warnings from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

”It seemed like they were trying to downplay everything native and everything that was indigenous that meant something to us, or things that gave the men some type of manhood and women some type of teaching,“ says Gregory Iron, D-Q student trustee.

Others, such as Jack Forbes, professor at the University of California, Davis and author of ”Native Americans of California and Nevada,“ believed that students were allowing outsiders to influence their way of thinking and that the board truly held the student's best interest.

”It is a tragedy when Indians attack other Indians, especially elders, and do not say one negative word about the white agencies responsible for a lot of D-Q's problems . . . the D-Q Board and staff have put up with a tremendous amount of abuse from all of the invaders of the campus,“ he writes in an e-mail to Martinez in March.

Once, some 50 years ago, Forbes originated the idea of an American Indian program and helped implement D-Q University. Today, he continues to teach and finds that students should support their elders instead of fighting them.

Eliminating the Board would be like ”the murder of Sitting Bull, or the murder of Crazy Horse,“ he writes in a following e-mail dated April 7. ”Or other sad examples of our own history of in-fighting.“

Tipping the scales

The moment his fingers hit the skin of the drum the sun burst through the dark clouds.

More than 20 Native American and Chicano D-Q supporters gather on the steps of the state's capitol during a damp morning in late April for a peace rally. Some hold signs that read, ”Tipping the Scales“ while others stand around for a powwow.

Gertrude Lynn Brown, D-Q associated student body president bearing a soft voice, is angry with the situation at the university and cannot stand it anymore.

”Someone asked me the other day why we're still there, what are we fighting for? We're fighting for our rights, a cultural and a spiritual education and an academic education because that's our right!“ Brown says passionately as she speaks behind a podium to the crowd.

”We're not doing this in vain, we have a purpose,“ Brown continues, her voice fluctuating to accommodate her sobbing. ”It's for an education, not about us. We're here right now but this school is for generations to come. We need to stand up for what's right.“

Applause follows her weeping words and she steps away. And Iron, who has been staying at the dorm since August 2004 and is considered a leader for the remaining students, speaks next.

”The conditions at the university are pretty rough. The administration hasn't made it easy for us, they're putting us under strenuous circumstances,“ Iron informs the crowd.

”As Indian people, we don't treat each other like that. We're supposed to take care of our youth and people. I'm proud to be a Native American, proud to be here with my brothers and sisters, what they need to do, what they are and what we stand for,“ he continues.

But Iron, a long-haired student whose words are like whispers, would trade these peaceful protests for an education, as long as the Board of Trustees changes its members.

”We're here to make sure this school goes in the right direction,“ he says. ”And that means with the right people.“

Clash with the cops

Apodaca is not merely a talker, he's a doer.

Only a short time ago, Apodaca was campaigning for the defense of agricultural workers' rights, but tense issues at D-Q, the very school he helped to coordinate during its inception, pulled him away.

Today, April 20, he stands before a large crowd inside the cafeteria of the girl's dorm building and discusses the future of D-Q.

But the school would build on its own image. In 1970, Apodaca and several other tribal and Chicano members fought and established a claim on the 643-acre land, once occupied by the Wintun Peoples and later used by the U.S. Army as a communications relay station.

In 1971, the federal government awarded D-Q title to the land and it became a school controlled by indigenous peoples.

”Thirty-five years ago, on Nov. 4, myself and others came over to the school to address the issues and support the university,“ Apodaca says to the assembly. ”And I'm back here today because Victor told the students they had to leave in January and that they had no money for fuel to stay.“

Outside the frayed walls, Gabriel stands by his office, several hundred feet away from the crowd, watching and talking on his cell phone as five Yolo County Sheriff Department officers approach the building.

”Were any of you served with papers?“ asks one officer. The crowd nods in denial.

”They (board members) have a copy of a temporary restraining order from keeping people from their property,“ he continues.

”We have not been served. We're having a community meeting. We're trying to decide if we will accept the mediation offer tomorrow or if we will have to fight in May on who's governing this board,“ Apodaca responds. ”It's peaceful.“

A dialogue continues for several minutes and the police appear hesitant, although they turn and walk away toward Gabriel. It seems like effortless police work, but it speaks volumes to the members at the cafeteria, who shake their heads in disgust.

”Do we look like we're trying to do something wrong?“ Apodaca asks rhetorically. And the meeting ensues.

The court date

To say the months-long protest was done in vain is to bring shame to the tribal community.

On May 15, Yolo County Superior Court Judge David Rosenberg rules that board members elected and appointed from January through March were invalid - meaning Gabriel and his board members were officially dismissed.

”The case is made very difficult because minutes are missing and bylaws were not followed,“ Rosenberg tells the packed courtroom, with Apodaca listening intently from the back of the room. ”D-Q was and is apparently in a crisis. The ship was drawing water faster than anyone could bail it.“

A large wave of clapping swallows the silence from the Board of Trustee members seated in the first row. Meanwhile, smiles and hugs leak into the hall while Apodaca, dressed in a tan suit, yells ”The school is saved!“ down the court corridor.

But for Gabriel, who steered the helm at D-Q for months and crashed, defeat is apparent. And for a moment, a very brief moment, Gabriel is left with his thoughts in Justice Hall, where echoes of laughter and whisper envelop him.

He drops his head despondently, perhaps realizing he is no longer president of D-Q.

The roundtable

It's a warm September day at D-Q University, where Apodaca is now the interim president. He intends to reacquire the school's accreditation.

But he appears a bit frazzled, given the responsibility now bestowed upon him. Old board members don't feel it can be done as others just wait and watch. People are quick to blame others for problems, but no one will ever know what would have happened if the students never protested.

At the core of a conference room where he sits, Native American paintings and a clock set one hour behind surround him and a group of professors willing to teach the fall semester. Among them are Dr. E. Roger Apodaca and Dr. Carol Joyce.

”Are we going to develop a core of humanistic qualities? We don't have sociology or psychology in the catalog?“ asks Joyce.

”No,“ replies Art Apodaca. ”Our task right now is to get accreditation. We need to recapture that first and foremost.“

”But those core classes are missing,“ says Roger Apodaca to his brother.

”And that's why we're here, to introduce all these things for next semester,“ Art Apodaca says. ”We need to enhance this education and that's what I intend to do.“

And the lessons continue.



D-Q University is a private, independent, non-profit, accredited, open access, multi-campus, two-year college, dedicated to the progress of indigenous peoples through education. It is designated as a tribally-controlled community college and is governed by an Indian Board of Trustees.

Native peoples gained the first and only indigenous-controlled institution of higher learning located outside a reservation in July 1971. It also represented the first time that the diverse groups of Native races on the American continent successfully worked together on a project, despite vast language barriers, geographical differences and outside pressures. On Nov. 4, 1978, D-Q University became Indian-controlled.

Source: D-Q University Web Site at www.dqu.cc.ca.us

The official name of the institution is D-Q University. The ”D“ stands for the name of the Great Peacemaker who inspired the founding of the Iroquois Confederacy; the full name symbolized by the ”D“ is used only in a religious context. The ”Q“ represents Quetzalcoatl, an Aztec prophet, who symbolizes the principles of wisdom and self-discipline.