D-Q University, born in protest, dying of dysfunction

Searching for hope at California’s only tribal college

Visitors to D-Q University pray during an indigenous Mother’s Day celebration held in May.

Visitors to D-Q University pray during an indigenous Mother’s Day celebration held in May.

Photo By S. Howard Bransford

Old grudges aren’t welcome in the sweat lodge at D-Q University.

Two times a week, visitors flock to this American Indian college, located in the farmland between Davis and Winters, to honor their ancestors and to cure afflictions.

Inside the lodge, ceremony leader Darrell Standing Elk treats resentments just like cancer and addiction, a poison to be purged through ancient rituals of steam and song.

“It opens your pores,” said Standing Elk, a 73-year-old Sicangu Lakota elder who has been holding sweats at D-Q since the school opened in the early 1970s. “You get rid of old stuff.”

But down below the hill where the sweat lodge stands, disagreement is wracking D-Q like an illness, and Standing Elk is worried.

Conflict has plagued the school since 2005, when D-Q stopped holding regular courses after losing its accreditation due to financial woes and concerns about the quality of instruction.

Today, the school’s board of trustees is pitted against a group of protesters, former students and sympathetic activists, now occupying the 643-acre campus. The sides seem unable to work together, even in the face of such pressing issues as the school’s considerable debt to banks, utility companies and government agencies. A January financial report, the latest available, shows D-Q $281,846 in the red.

The power is also off, and campus buildings are falling into a state of disrepair, further tarnishing the image of a place already misunderstood by outsiders.

“I wish I knew the future of that place,” Standing Elk told SN&R. “I feel like both sides are not doing anything to make a change.”

Like the winds that sweep D-Q’s open fields, distrust is a powerful, nearly omnipresent force on campus.

Often, it’s hard to see that both sides in the battle over D-Q still share a belief in the vision of founders such as Jack D. Forbes and David Risling Jr., who built the school as a haven for native cultures from all the Americas. Both sides hope for a revival of D-Q’s unique mixture of mainstream academics and indigenous teachings.

The school was born out of protest. American Indian and Latino activists claimed the former Army base in 1970 during an occupation and established one of the first tribal colleges in the nation.

Their eclecticism is still enshrined in the school name—the “D” stands for Deganawidah, the name of an Iroquois leader, and the “Q” pays homage to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.

As longtime school leaders such as Standing Elk can attest, upholding such cosmic ideals has never been a harmonious undertaking. There have always been challenges from skeptical federal agencies, which frequently have tried to shut the school down, and internal struggles between competing idealists.

In the school’s initial years, Standing Elk said, school officials managed to overcome their differences. But the climate on campus began to change in the 1980s, as core leaders such as Risling began to fade from the scene.

Leading up to the school’s closure, a string of presidents began to take the school off course, Standing Elk said, by mismanaging finances and sometimes stoking conflicts between American Indian students and their Latino peers.

“With people like that, we weren’t going to go anyplace,” said Standing Elk.

Calvin Hedrick, chairman of the current board of trustees, said D-Q still suffers from debt and gossip left behind during that turbulent era.

“We inherited 30 years of problems,” said Hedrick, 40, who works as a consultant on American Indian health and education projects. “It’s a very frustrating place to be.”

Whenever protesters gather around the sacred fire at the center of campus, gossip and conspiracy theories are a common thread of conversation.

But most often, protesters talk about the current board of trustees, a five-member group whose often secretive behavior leaves much to the imagination.

The trustees are known to hold meetings in private and without notice at off-campus locations such as restaurants and hotels. When they do hold public discussions, they sometimes refuse to pass out minutes, agendas and financial reports. Four of the five members live more than an hour away from campus. Hedrick is the only Sacramento resident.

Protesters are concerned this board is too cozy with moneyed interests. Much of the criticism concerns the school’s dealings with Yolo County Supervisor Duane Chamberlain, who farms hay and straw on 450 acres of campus, paying D-Q $54,000 per year for the land. Chamberlain’s use of fertilizers and pesticides is a sore point with protesters, who want the land used for classes on organic farming and indigenous cultivation methods.

The lease has also drawn concern from the federal government’s General Services Administration. Under the GSA agreement that transformed D-Q from an Army base to a tribal college, the land must be used for educational purposes, and Chamberlain’s lease is out of compliance, said GSA spokesperson Gene Gibson.

In May, the board introduced a custom-farming arrangement, which would require Chamberlain to incorporate agricultural teaching into his operation, and would hopefully satisfy the feds.

Chamberlain says he’s willing to teach students about farming and compromise with the school on his methods. “All I want to do is farm the place,” Chamberlain told SN&R. He has farmed the ground for more than two decades, he says, often loaning money to D-Q in times of need. “They leave me alone, and I’ll leave them alone.”

Protesters also worry about the interest of out-of-state energy companies. Texas oil corporation Output Exploration bought a Bureau of Land Management lease for drilling oil and gas at D-Q in 2003.

The lease later went to Rosetta Resources, which purchased Output Exploration in 2007. But Rosetta spokesperson Bob Davis said the company has no immediate plans to drill on the property. “This is a low-priority area,” Davis said. “I don’t think it’s even being actively looked at right now.”

And D-Q trustee Bernadine Whipple insisted at the May 17 meeting that there are no plans to sell any part of D-Q. “We’re not selling the land,” Whipple said. “We don’t want to sell it, and we can’t sell it.”

While the trustees suffer from a lack of trust, the protesters are struggling with an image problem of their own.

In keeping with D-Q’s eclectic spirit, leaders of the campus protest movement tend to welcome anyone into their midst, often with the offer of food and a place to sleep. Transients drift in and out of their ranks, and that causes even more friction with the trustees.

“I think there are people out there taking advantage of D-Q, the board and the students,” said Hedrick. In what they said was an effort to make the campus safe, the trustees have sought to remove the protesters from the campus dormitories and other buildings.

On three occasions this year, they enlisted the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department to arrest protesters for trespassing. On March 30, for example, 26 deputies descended on the campus, sweeping the grounds and breaking down dormitory doors with battering rams.

The sweep resulted in 18 arrests, but the Yolo County district attorney’s office has refused to prosecute the cases. The protesters may have had some tenant rights, and there was not enough legal evidence to turn the matter into a criminal case, said Deputy District Attorney Ann Hurd. “I don’t know whether the board actually had the legal right to have them ejected or not,” Hurd added.

Trustees have since expressed regrets that they ordered the arrests, but insist protesters have no right to live on the campus.

“Those dorms are not for them to come and live in as if it was their own,” said board secretary Margaret Hoaglen, a social worker who works on the Round Valley Indian Reservation near Willits. “There’s no authority given to them to stay like they were staying.”

Caught in the middle of the fight are people who want to devise a compromise and move the school forward.

Hedrick, for example, regularly tries to find common ground with the protesters, talking with them one-on-one whenever possible. He’s tried starting projects that could build better relationships between the opposing sides, such as a native-plant restoration project, with the help of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.

But such projects are often difficult to carry out, he said, when participants—both on campus and off—view them with pessimism or disinterest.

“I’m in the middle, and everyone is sitting around and throwing rocks,” Hedrick said.

Standing Elk, who has seen his share of conflicts over the years, sometimes thinks the school needs a fresh start, a catharsis similar to a sweat. He’d like to see new buildings, for example, and a fresh generation of leaders.

For now, though, he’s hopeful that the school will persist, if not in the form of a mainstream college, then at least in places such as the sweat lodge, where native traditions remain untouched by time and trifling.

“We all want the same thing,” Standing Elk said. “We want to re-establish the school, and make it a place of pride and dignity.”