The Unified Students of Humboldt, a group of Native students and allies at Humboldt State University, has taken over a building on campus to protest treatment of the indigenous population.
The group, a diverse mix of both Native and non-Native students at this northern California university, was formed in October after respected Lakota administrator Jacquelyn Bolman was fired.
On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day—and following a two-day conference on American Indian activism—the group took residency of the Native American Forum, renaming the building the Jacquelyn Bolman Forum and refusing to budge until a list of demands is met.
“HSU is not living up to their own mission statement to support and celebrate diversity,” the group said in a statement. “Nationwide, Native American students continue to be overlooked by the educational system, and HSU is no exception. At one time, HSU was the premier destination for Native students in the state. However, in the past decade there has been a regular assault on our student programs and community.”
Topping the group’s list of demands is the reinstatement of Bolman as director of the Indian Natural Resources Science and Engineering Program (INRSEP). The group also wants transparent hiring, promotion and tenure processes to ensure greater diversity; at least $40,000 for the INRSEP to fund diversity programs; and an end to what it calls retaliation against staff and faculty who support students of color.
Residency of the building has continued for more than a week, with the number of students inside fluctuating between a couple dozen to more than 300, said Andrew Perera, a junior studying wildlife management.
“We are representing students, community members, faculty, staff and the 11 tribes in this area,” said Perera, who is Lakota. “We have attempted to communicate and resolve issues with administration, but to no avail, so we announced that we would reside in the forum until the administration met the demands that we explicitly listed.”
University President Lisa Rossbacher on Friday, January 23 visited the forum and hand-delivered a note acknowledging the students’ sacrifices for their beliefs and encouraging cooperation.
“We are all part of a larger community,” Rossbacher’s letter states. “Our focus needs to be how we work together, rather than against each other.” She declined to discuss personnel issues, including the university’s decision to fire Bolman.
In her letter, Rossbacher proposed a February 4 meeting to “discuss next steps,” and advised that her letter should be viewed as “evidence of my commitment, and that of other administrators, to working with Native American students and tribal nations regarding definitions of student success, the characteristics of appropriate student support programs, the historical and future plans for program funding, the utilization of space in the Native American Forum and clear plans for how this space will be used in the future.”
Rossbacher also asked the Unified Students of Humboldt to end the occupation as staying inside the building after official closure is against university policy.
Perera said the letter was “a lot of pleasantries” and that the group has no intention of leaving. A transfer student to HSU, Perera said Bolman made a lasting impact on his life—both personally and academically.
“She was the first person to tell me to stand up taller and hold my head higher because I am a Lakota man,” he said. “She was the first person to expect me to go to graduate school, and she gave me a sense of identity.”
Conor Handley, a junior studying range and research science, looked to Bolman as an academic mentor and friend. A member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, Handley said he struggled as a student far from home.
Bolman “gave me, as a Native student here at a predominantly non-Native town a place to feel at home, a place to be Indian,” Handley said.
This affinity for Bolman—a nationally recognized scholar and mentor who served as INRSEP director for nine years—is shared by many members of the Unified Students of Humboldt.
Naomi Waters, a junior studying political science, is president of the Black Student Union. She joined the protest even though she was not personally acquainted with Bolman.
“I knew what she did for students,” Waters said. “I’m here because I can identify with the rage and anger. And also I have the enduring belief in the potential of the university to be something better than it is. But people have to stand here today, stand up for what is right, what they believe in.”
When reached by phone, Bolman said she is “overwhelmed and extraordinarily taken aback” by the students’ support, but that long-standing issues of discrimination and unfair treatment in California and at Humboldt State University stretch way beyond her situation.
“My heart hurts when I think about these young people,” she said of the Unified Students of Humboldt. “My spirit hurts that it has come to this, but I believe strongly in self-determination and that these students were left with no other options.”
California is home to more than 120 federally recognized tribes, and Bolman said the state and its universities should set an example in their treatment of indigenous people. Bolman, a doctoral-level environmental scientist whose home is on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation of South Dakota and who was once told she wasn’t “college material,” said she will continue to champion for indigenous students.
“I’m going to keep fighting,” she said. “I’m going to keep standing up. There’s nothing I won’t do for the next generation.”
Part of the California State University system, Humboldt offers undergraduate and graduate degrees to about 8,000 students. About 1.1 percent of students and 2.5 percent of insstructional faculty are Native.