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UC's Initiative for Free Tuition to Members of Recognized California Tribes Opens Difficult Questions about Native Identity

Phenocia Bauerle’s job as the director of Native American student development at the University of California at Berkeley is extensive. For the campus’s Native students, she coordinates programing on navigating campus life, provides personalized course advising and career planning, and tends to the campus’s 2000-square-foot community-learning garden.

When the University of California system announced this spring that it would provide free tuition to any Native American student who belongs to a federally recognized tribe in California, Bauerle’s job became more complicated.

Bauerle was now faced with helping the financial-aid department figure out who among UC Berkeley’s 300 self-identified Native American students belong to a federally recognized tribe, an emotionally fraught process wrapped up in bureaucracy, paperwork, and some activists say, a racist history.

She had three months to do it.

Limiting the scholarship program to members of federally recognized tribes is the only way the UC system can waive tuition for Native Americans without violating the state’s Proposition 209 law, which bars universities from providing special benefits to students based on their race, sex, or ethnicity.

But by taking such a restrictive approach, the university system is effectively excluding thousands of adults who belong to one of the state’s many tribes without federal recognition, are mixed race, belong to multiple tribes, or whose family members have been disenrolled from a tribe.

In the weeks after the announcement, Bauerle was bombarded with emails and phone calls from confused students, parents, and prospective students. There was animosity.

“What about the non-federally recognized tribes?” they asked her.

As administrators struggle to help historically disenfranchised students afford rapidly increasing tuition costs, Bauerle’s experience shows that waiving tuition for a category of racial minorities can be more complicated than it looks, even when universities are explicit about who they’re trying to help.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education