■ By Mike Hiles / Contributed
For nearly 40 years, California State University, Long Beach has held its American Indian Leaders of Today and Tomorrow (AILOTT) conference. This year the inaugural California Indian Cultural Awareness Day component was added.
“This was a way to highlight and educate folks on our California Native populations as they sometimes tend to be invisible in the larger Native context, “said Anna Nazarian-Peters, associate director of Student Life and Development and coordinator of American Indian Student Services at CSULB, who helped organize the event.
More than 100 people attended the conference, which included about 90 young students. Soboba Tribal TANF took 16 youth to the all-day event, held on Nov. 18. Program Specialist Crystal Ruiz said the staff tries to take a group to the event each year.
“Participation in the activities was open to both adults and youth so I was able to make a bracelet and participate in rabbit stick throwing, plus a traditional hoop and spear game,” said Ruiz. “I enjoyed listening to keynote speaker Mati Waiya (Chumash) speak on the need to fight for tribal rights and to hear him encourage youth to keep pursuing education in order to be powerful with their voices in the future.”
Andrew Vallejos, the Higher Education coordinator for the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians, said he was glad to see so many local tribal members attend.
“Any opportunity for our youth to learn about colleges that understand their culture and offer services to help them reach their academic goals is wonderful,” he said.
Nazarian-Peters said the campus is fortunate to attract many Native American students, partly due to its programs for American Indian Studies and American Indian Student Services and partly due to the reputation and academic excellence of the university in general.
“Our campus has recruited Native students to our campus since the fall 1968 through the Educational Opportunity Program and Johnson O’Malley grants,” she said. “Currently, we have 143 self-identified Native students enrolled this fall semester and around 690 students who state Native American heritage as one of their ethnicities.”
The conference is designed to bring together students to provide them with an awareness of culture, career and educational opportunities. The event enhances the opportunity for the community and campus to unite and work toward a better future for American Indians as a whole.
A series of workshops focused on college admission and financial aid qualifications as well as California Indian culture with storytelling, bird singing and traditional games.
“The event is organized by our American Indian Student Council, which is our student club on campus, along with Native faculty and staff,” said Nazarian-Peters, who has been at the college for almost 19 years. “The breakout session workshop topics were decided by the students, faculty and staff based on personal connections with the presenters.”
She said feedback on the event was very positive with students enjoying the workshops and Jacqueline Nunez’s storytelling presentation.
“We’ve learned through the years that the students’ interests are piqued when the workshops are interactive,” said Nazarian-Peters. “I would say the program has shrunk considerably in budget, scope and size. Many universities today host similar motivational day events to encourage Native youth to attend higher institutions, which is great.”
Soboba tribal member and eighth-grader Caitlyn Briones liked hearing Nunez’s stories and learning how to weave baskets.
“I shared with my family how much fun it was and how easy it was making baskets,” said Caitlyn, 13.
High school freshman, Adriana Briones, enjoyed being outside and going to the different workshops.
“I learned how to weave a basket and gave it away to my grandma,” said Adriana, 14.
Twelve-year-old Ciara Ramos and 13-year-old Jeremiah Ramos also attended the AILOTT conference for the first time and thought the workshops were very enjoyable.
“The Native American game workshop was fun,” said Jeremiah, 13.
California Indian workshops took place at Puvunga, which means “The Gathering Place’ when roughly translated from the Tongva language.
“It refers to the general geographic location of our campus and surrounding community in Long Beach, and more specifically to the open, natural space where we had our workshops,” said Nazarian-Peters. “There is cultural and religious significance of the area for the Tongva as it is the birthplace of their religious ‘prophet’ and religion. In addition, the location is where various Native peoples would gather to practice their religion historically.”
She said that people from as far north as what is now Monterey Bay and south to portions of Baja California travelled to Puvungna annually. Today, it continues to be a gathering place for the Tongva and local Native communities.
“About 10 years ago, the American Indian Student Council decided to call CSU Long Beach, ‘CSU Puvungna’ to honor the land and people of where our campus is situated,” said Nazarian-Peters.