Courtesy Morongo Band of Mission Indians
The Morongo Band of Mission Indians moot court competition team, from left, Neptwis Toro, Malia Horsman, Levi Norte, Cecilia Martin.

Fake Courts for Real Learning with Morongo Tribe


The Morongo Band of Mission Indians remains a strong advocate for education, according to tribal chairman Robert Martin. That devotion could be seen in the moot court competition held at the Morongo Tribal Administrative Center on December 5.

American Indian students from Southern and Central California participated in UCLA Law School’s competition, during which they learned about the legal system and earned college credits.

Morongo is thought to be the first Indian reservation to host a moot court competition like this that involves dozens of students, law students and professors as the final exercise in an introductory UCLA course about tribal law.

The Morongo team of Malia Horsman, Cecilia Martin, Levi Norte, Neptwis Toro and Joseph Waters, won both its competitions where “students appeared in courtroom settings and presented arguments related to the landmark 1987 United States Supreme Court decision secured by Morongo and the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians that confirmed tribal sovereignty and the rights of tribes to establish gaming operations,” according to a tribal press release.

“This was a good opportunity for us because you never know – in the future, we might become a lawyer and we got a chance to see what that would be like,” said Horsman.

The tribe’s commitment to education starts at the top as Martin, who was serving as chairman 28 years ago when the tribe secured the Supreme Court victory, encourages tribal students to pursue a university education.

“From the operations at our tribally-funded Morongo School here on the reservation to our college scholarship programs, our tribe remains a strong advocate for education. It’s great to be working with UCLA to help inspire the youth who will be the tribal leaders of tomorrow,” Martin said.

The Native students who participate in the program earn university course credits, but also gain knowledge in leadership skills while working as part of a team according to Dwight K. Lomayesva, director of UCLA’s Tribal Learning Community & Educational Exchange (TLCEE). All of which can be used when the youth apply to UCLA or other top universities.

“No one else in the country is doing anything like this,” Lomayesva said. “This pipeline program improves accessibility by providing the types of experience that top universities are looking for in applicants. Ultimately, our goal is to reverse the trends that have left Native American students as the most underrepresented group in higher education.”

The statistics show the uphill fight tribes have in education. American Indians and Alaska Natives comprise less than one percent of the college students within the U.S. – lowest college enrollment rate of any ethnic group – according to the U.S. Department of Education. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs those statistics continue throughout secondary schooling as well as only 15 percent of American Indians hold bachelor’s degrees – fewer than any ethnic group in the U.S.

The moot court competition also saw students from the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians, Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel, Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians, the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, the Fernandeno Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation and others.

Lisa Tabarez, Morongo Education Administrator, compared the UCLA TLCEE program to the Morongo School with how it integrates American Indian culture and issues into the curriculum in an effort to promote learning and show relevance.

“The TLCEE is accessible and pertinent, and we’re very excited to have tribal students participating in a program that embraces the same core elements as our own education programs here at Morongo,” Tabarez said.

A certificate of completion from UCLA is given to the students who complete four courses. The TLCEE program is the result of an endowment from the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.

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