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Beyond Recognition: Fostering Genuine Connections In Public Institutions with Indigenous Communities

Updated: Jan 8

By Amanda McCallum

As we commemorate Native American Heritage Month, we are proud to see that institutions like UCLA, the County of Los Angeles, and the California Community College System have begun to acknowledge and celebrate the rich history, culture, and contributions of Native American communities. These entities have taken actions to foster a shared space that honors the past, embraces the present, and paves the way for a more inclusive future. However, there is always room for growth and institutions such as these must continue to collaborate with Native communities beyond mere acknowledgement.

UCLA's Acknowledgment and Collaboration:

UCLA, a public and land-grant institution, has demonstrated its commitment to cultural respect and collaboration by recognizing the historic culture and contemporary presence of Native Americans, particularly the Gabrieliño Tongva tribe, whose ancestral lands the campus now occupies. UCLA has integrated this acknowledgment into campus events and official communications, emphasizing the importance of understanding and awareness. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Gabrielino Tongva tribe ensures the incorporation of traditional practices into campus landscaping, creating a collaborative approach to land stewardship. This inclusivity extends to ceremonial events, workshops, and community educational opportunities, providing a space for healing and understanding. Tribal chairman Anthony Morales emphasizes the importance of this partnership, stating, "When action is taken, healing can begin."

Education Initiatives for Native Students:

UCLA has taken steps to expand access to education for Native students. In 2019, the university implemented an acknowledgment during campus events and official communications, recognizing the campus's location on the traditional, ancestral lands of the Tongva. Additionally, the university introduced the Native American and Pacific Islander Bruins Rising Initiative which works to create new faculty positions in American Indian and Pacific Islander Studies. To further support Native students, the University of California announced the Native American Opportunity Plan in April of 2019. This plan ensures that in-state systemwide tuition and service fees for California students from federally recognized Native American tribes are fully covered by grants or scholarships, promoting accessibility to higher education.

However, inclusion should never just be tokenism - it should have a lasting impact. Learning about the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe is simply part of this process. While UCLA has begun taking steps towards acknowledging native cultures, mere recognition is not enough. More has to be done to foster a genuine partnership between major institutions such as UCLA and local indigenous communities in order to make a meaningful difference. By encouraging the development of these relations, both groups can continue to learn and grow from one another.

Cultivating Cultural Spaces:

In a collaborative effort, local members of the Gabrieliño Tongva tribe designed and planted a basket-weaving garden in UCLA's Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden. This garden, home to 15 types of native plants used for basket weaving, not only preserves indigenous practices but also educates visitors about native plants, enhancing cultural awareness.

LA County's Land Acknowledgment:

The County of Los Angeles also acknowledges its responsibility and commitment to truth, healing, and reconciliation. Recognizing the land originally and still inhabited and cared for by multiple indigenous Peoples, including the Tongva, Tataviam, Serrano, Kizh, and Chumash, LA County demonstrates a dedication to elevating the stories, culture, and community of the original inhabitants. This acknowledgment is a crucial step towards working collaboratively with Native communities.

Despite these efforts, this memo alone is not enough. There are currently no federally-recognized Native American tribes in Los Angeles, Ventura, or Orange County. According to Rudy Ortega Jr., tribal president of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, gaining recognition can mean a lot for a tribe. “You can legally and actually open an account for your own tribal government to bring commerce to your tribal government, to create jobs and bring resources, bring programming, and have a path to health programs and even education programs,” he said. “But as a state or non-federally recognized tribe, we don't have those. And so we have to think of alternative and creative ways to sustain ourselves.” While LA County recognizing the indigenous history of its land is the start to change, it is not close to the end.

California Community College System's Land Acknowledgment:

The California Community College systemwide land acknowledgment further emphasizes the commitment to ongoing relationships with Native communities. Acknowledging the unceded territories of the 109 federally recognized tribes, this statement affirms the institution's intentions for collaboration and inclusion in the stewardship and protection of cultural resources and homelands.

While acknowledgement legitimizes some of the struggles faced by these communities, recognition alone is not enough. There is still a tremendous disparity between the resources allotted to white and Native communities, and education is just the start. By providing more resources such as grants, scholarships, and local initiatives to indigenous groups, the California Community College System could actively work to reduce this divide and create a more fair and equal society. After all, words mean nothing without action to back them.


As we reflect on Native American Heritage Month, we commend UCLA, LA County, and the California Community College system for their proactive steps in acknowledging, respecting, and collaborating with Native American communities. By fostering understanding, supporting education initiatives, and cultivating cultural spaces, these institutions are contributing to a legacy of respect, understanding, and equality. This month serves as a reminder to not only celebrate the historical significance of indigenous communities but also to actively participate in embracing diversity. As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, let's turn our reflections into actionable steps for a more inclusive future. Encourage institutions to go beyond acknowledgment and actively engage with Native American communities. Advocate for increased support of educational initiatives, promote the preservation of cultural spaces, and push for collaborative efforts that empower indigenous voices. Let's commit to fostering understanding, respecting diverse histories, and working together towards a society that truly values equitable practices.


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