A good Deed Day at DQU, a good act in California

Suzan Shown Harjo
4/25/01

The main thing you notice at D-Q University is that the people are confident and enjoy working together. Students and faculty alike use the word "we" more often than "I" - an appropriate tribute to the school's namesakes, Haudenosaunee peacemaker Deganawidah and the Aztec winged serpent Quetzalcoatl.

The California Indian community college, 14 miles from Sacramento in original Wintun territory, is celebrating 30 years of cross-cultural education and collaboration.

In keeping with the school's spirit of cooperation, DQU was host to American Indian, state and federal educators and policymakers who gathered to address the standing of California Indians in the state's educational curriculum. The April 4-5 symposium was part of DQU's civics project with Humboldt State University, promoting accurate portrayals of Native Californians in the state's schools.

California has more than 100 Native nations and a larger American Indian population than any other state, 2000 census figures show. Yet, California Indians are all but ignored in the state's classrooms.

The state Senate is considering legislation to do something about the problem. SB41 would set up a committee to make recommendations to the state on standards for teaching K-12 students about California Indians. The act is sponsored by Senator Dede Alpert, D-San Diego, chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Democrat Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a similar measure last year. SB41 stands a better chance, say its advocates, because the bill is being redrafted to overcome his procedural objections.

Radley Davis, Pit River, drafted legislative findings for SB41. "I never wrote findings before, but I was happy to try it," he said. "We need to get information to teachers to get to their students - not just about yesterday's people, but Indians in the here and now."

After the symposium, Davis joined others associated with DQU and spoke of his alma mater in this way: "D-Q prepared me to tackle anything to help Indian people. D-Q gave me a life and now I'm trying to give back." He works in his home territory in northern California and serves on his tribal and statewide health boards and the national board for Haskell Indian Nations University.

"Radley is doing what we hope our students will do," said David Risling Jr., Hoopa, a DQU founder and longtime chairman of its board of trustees. "We have a very high percentage of students who take their education home to their tribes and communities, and we're really proud of that."

"I didn't know for a long time that Mr. Risling was the D-Q chairman," Davis said. "I thought he was the janitor, because I always saw him cleaning. It was a good lesson, seeing someone in a high position being that humble."

"All that cleaning got me through the rough days," said Risling. He still winces at the memory of one House member who screamed insults at him for the better part of an hour's meeting. "I was really angry and I would talk back to that congressman as I cleaned the toilets," Risling said. "I'd flush him and the anger away, and that would make me smile."

In 1970, Risling was teaching in Davis, not far from a 640-acre communications relay station that the U.S. Army had decommissioned. He and other DQU founders applied for the surplus federal property and were awaiting a decision, when word leaked out that the fix was in for another school to win the bid.

On Nov. 3, Indians and Chicanos scaled the fence of the nearly abandoned military base, declaring to the sentry that they were claiming the land for DQU. The startled soldier is said to have responded, "Indians! Far out!"

"It got harder as they went up the chain of command," said Steve Baldy, Hoopa, who worked at DQU for nine years, seven of them as its president. He was a college student at the time of the takeover.

"The organizers told me and my friends we were too young to go over the fence," Baldy said, "so we kicked in later with press and food and whatever they needed. It was nerve-wracking, with the Army helicopters flying around, but it was very well organized and strategized."

"Some of us went through the front gate," Risling recalled. "Then we filed our lawsuit and won."

He and other educators - including DQU's president of the past three years, Dr. Morgan G. Otis Jr., Kiowa-Cheyenne-Arapaho, - sued the federal government for the property and set about converting the sound-proofed, bomb-sheltered facilities into classrooms, dorms, offices and gathering places.

On April 2, 1971, DQU received a conditional deed encumbered with 30 years of federal and state requirements to meet by 2001.

"The conditions were real, but 2001 didn't seem real at all," said Lois Risling, Hoopa, Yurok and Karuk, who is the elder Risling's niece. She worked on DQU's food committee and later taught there and served as its academic vice president. She also became engaged to her husband, Baldy, at DQU.

Today, she directs Humboldt's Center for Indian Community Development and its civics project with DQU.

"There was a Justice Department lawyer in Washington who told us we would never, ever get the deed," she remembered. "I wonder if he knows how wrong he was."

Baldy is a tribal business development consultant who brought in DQU's single largest donation to date - $78,000 from a 1977 Willie Nelson concert in San Francisco. He hopes that California gaming tribes will help to endow the school for the benefit of American Indians statewide.

"D-Q played an important role in strengthening tribes and building economic capabilities through its extension programs and on-site education," he said. "Some of those places are the most successful ones today."

The night before the 30th anniversary celebration, Risling and Otis recognized their co-founders who were present - Norma Knight, Pomo and Maidu, Tom Merino, Mountain Maidu, Genevieve Seeley, Wiyot, and Leola Woods, Chemehueuvi and Maidu, - and myriad others who were dedicated to the institution.

Risling vowed to "go back to the foundations and everyone else who said they would help us, just as soon as we owned the land."

On April 6, California officials ceremonially turned over the deed to DQU.

It was a good Deed Day at DQU. Gov. Davis can do another good deed, for American Indians and for all the state's students and teachers, by signing SB41 into law. That would be a good act in California.

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