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Native American Cultural Spaces on Campuses Getting Financial Short Shrift

As student culture centers continue to grow on college campuses, questions about funding them have arisen, especially in a climate where parents and students are paying higher tuition each year.

­The answer to who pays for these centers varies from campus to campus and may even vary for each culture center. While the trend for various culture centers on campuses across the nation has continued to grow, Native Americans sometimes find themselves without a culture center to call their own. Or, if they do exist, they may be underfunded.

What is a culture center?

Although culture centers can be in the same building as the campus student union, it shouldn’t be confused as such. Student unions are typically a place where students buy textbooks and participate in campus activities. Student culture centers also shouldn’t be confused with student organizations or clubs, which are usually not funded by the school.

Student culture centers have been described as “safe havens” for students of certain ethnic or cultural backgrounds to gather, discuss challenges they face and celebrate a particular cultural heritage. Although some culture centers have existed on campuses for decades (maybe under different names), culture centers really began taking root and spreading on college campuses around 2000.

Former University of Missouri student Jeffrey Beckham Jr., who is Black, described the purpose of cultural centers best in an interview with radio program Marketplace. After describing instances of cultural and racial insensitivity, he told Marketplace that the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center on campus “effectively provided a social environment and a community that allowed you to connect with other students to do the ultimate thing that we were there for, which is matriculate through college and get a degree.”

While the definition of culture centers should be universal, the way colleges and universities fund them are not. According to various sources, Black, Latino and Native American culture centers emerged on campus in the 1960s and early 1970s during the various civil rights movements. As college student populations continued to grow more diverse, larger campuses began to add more culture centers; smaller campuses may have established multicultural centers that serve all ethnic groups.

Culture centers are established and funded based on enrollment numbers of different ethnic groups or, in some cases, to attract them. For example, in 2011, Yale granted funding for the Native American Cultural Center to move from sharing space with the Asian American Cultural Center. According to Indian Country, the Native American Cultural Center was the only center that didn’t have its own space. Leaders of the center told the outlet at the time that the expansion was a result of a growing Native population on campus, which had resulted from more targeted recruitment of Native students.

Convergence of missions

California State University, San Marcos (CSUSM) is located in San Diego County, which is home to 18 federally recognized tribes, the most in the United States. The university is in the service area of a total of 35 federally recognized tribes. Three percent of the student population identifies as Native American.

Dr. Joely Proudfit is director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center (CICSC). The center’s mission is such: “Fosters collaborative research and community service relationships between the faculty, staff, and students of CSU San Marcos and members of local Tribal communities, for the purpose of developing and conducting research projects that support the maintenance of sovereignty and culture within those communities.”

While the mission is research based, the center has become the “de facto American Indian Student Center,” says Proudfit. It’s wonderful the students have a place to congregate, Proudfit says, but the center’s funding comes from grants and individual, corporate and organization donations.

“We received a tribal grant for three years and it provided us the opportunity to hire student researchers and to pay them, but we haven’t [done] that in two years,” says Proudfit. “I have given as much financial support as I can and my husband has purchased items for the center.”

According to the university, the center’s budget is about $190,000 per year, but none of that funding comes from the university.

“While the primary function of any of these centers is to create safe spaces, the CICSC is focused on research and academic scholarship in a way that the other centers are not,” says Dr. Lorena Checa, vice president of student affairs at CSUSM.

“In fact, it’s the only center that is structured under the umbrella of the Division of Academic Affairs while the others are under the Division of Student Affairs.  The model for each center varies, and thus each receives a different level/type of fiscal support.”

CICSC participates in various research projects focusing on Native American culture and sovereignty, as well as producing various reports, including the State of Native American and Alaskan Native Education in California report for the state of California.

Proudfit says the only support she receives from the college for student support is one course release from her teaching duties to act as a support director. Proudfit says she doesn’t mind the financial support she’s supplied to the “de facto” student center, which is separate from the CICSC mission, but her students have noticed the disparity between the de facto place the students call home and some of the other student centers on campus.

“I’ve visited the other centers on campus and they are furnished and have newer printers and computers,” says Maya Goodblanket, a 24-year-old who just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “We all pay tuition, so I think the fees should be split and go toward all of the centers.”

Goodblanket is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, so she says it was particularly important for her to have a place to meet with other students of Native heritage, as she was far away from her tribe.

“We have the Indian film festival and the rain dances during Native American History Month and all of the activities unite us,” says Goodblanket. “As a student, I’ve helped out financially when I can and I know some students get money from their tribes, but it would be nice if we received more support from the school.”

The university currently has five other centers with a sixth — a Black student center — being planned. All of those centers operate on budgets ranging from $147,000 to $207,000 derived from a combination of operating funds dispensed by the state and student fees. While the college seems to acknowledge the CICSC is used as the de facto Native American student center, it seems its stated mission is based in research.

Small campus centers 

The University of Washington Tacoma is a relatively small campus with approximately 4,600 students. Forty-four percent are Caucasian, 20 percent Asian American, 11 percent Latino, 10 percent African-American, 4 percent Native American or Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 7 percent international.

All of the students participate in activities and share their cultures at the Center for Equity and Inclusion. “It was formerly the Diversity Resource Center but was changed to the Center for Equity and Inclusion,” says Dr. Sharon Parker, assistant chancellor for equity and inclusion at the University of Washington Tacoma. “We aren’t a large campus so we’re not big enough to have different centers, but everyone can go there and feel comfortable.”

The center holds workshops, invites speakers and hosts other activities on diversity, equality and inclusion. The center operates with a budget of$202,000, most of which is underwritten by the university, but one staff position is covered by the Student Activities Fees Committee.

Parker says that the center is located in a converted classroom and isn’t really very visible on campus. “Most people stumble upon it or someone might bring others there,” says Parker. “It is a little harder when it is a multiethnic cultural center, but it works well and is a touchstone for people to meet and talk and they can also bring their concerns and complaints.”

Parker says she believes it’s important for even smaller campuses to create a place for students to gather. Relates Parker, “Students can come and meet, they don’t have to be a student organization, but anyone is welcome.”

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