The Fort Lewis College
campus in Durango, Colo. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
DENVER, CO Hundreds of Native American students whose ancestors
were forcibly relocated from their homelands throughout the 1800s
by the U.S. government will be allowed in-state tuition to Colorado
public colleges and universities beginning next June, after a new
bill was signed into law earlier this week.
That includes enrolled youth from 46 known tribes with ties to
the area. All but the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Ignacio, Colo.,
and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in Towaoc, Colo., were relocated, driven
out of the state, or killed during a period referred to as the "Indian
Wars." One of the most landmark massacres occurred in 1864, when
nearly 700 soldiers attacked a village of about 750 Cheyenne and
Arapaho Indians along Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado Territory,
killing 230 people.
Colorado joins a growing list
of states granting college tuition waivers or in-state tuition
to its original Native American residents, including out-of-state
students whose tribes have historical ties to the area.
But Indigenous leaders and educators remind lawmakers that the
bill, while welcome news, is simply upholding rights ensured to
tribal nations across the country, when the United States government
signed treaties and documents with tribes in exchange for their
"I think access to education is part of the obligations associated
with treaties," Cheryl Crazy Bull (Sicangu Lakota), president of
the American Indian College Fund told Native News Online. She also
attended the signing ceremony earlier this week.
"I go back to the fact that this was all the land of Indigenous
peoples and that we lived and thrived on," she said. "If you take
away people's language, then shouldn't you help them get it back
and not blame them for you taking it?"
The new legislation is expected to take aim at Native American
and Alaska Natives' historically low college attendance rates. According
to the United States Census Bureau, only 19 percent of college-aged
Indigenous youth were enrolled in college in 2016, compared to 41
percent of the total college-aged population, the lowest percentage
of all race and ethnicity groups surveyed.
To compound the issue, the bill's
language notes, census data also found that 26 percent of American
Indians live in poverty, the highest rate of any racial group surveyed.
In Colorado, three public universities already offer some sort
of tuition break to Native students: Colorado State University and
University of Colorado Boulder offer American Indian students in-state
Lewis College, a university based in Durango, Colo., has offered
tuition waivers to any federally enrolled Alaska Native or Native
American tribal member since 1910. That year, the school, whose
6,000-acre property was previously operated as a military base and
an Indian boarding school in the 1800s, changed hands from the federal
government to the state of Colorado on the condition it waive tuition
for Native students.
Today, 41 percent of Fort Lewis's student body is Native American
or Alaska Native.
Dr. Majel Boxer, Chair & Associate Professor of Native American
& Indigenous Studies at Fort Lewis College (Sisseton and Wahpeton
Dakota) said she sees Colorado's legislation as a great first step
towards reparations, one that should be accompanied by education.
"The state of Colorado has a very dark history in which it ...nearly
pushed out the Ute peoples and all other tribes from the boundaries,"
she told Native News Online. "Look at our state map and realize
there's only two Ute reservations there, and they're the furthest
south on the southern border of the state of Colorado as you can
get, because of that history."
Boxer said a large part of this legislation's learning curve will
be educating non-Native students about the tuition waiver.
"It's a great first step, but it needs to come with some education
and understanding of why the state is making these reparations,"
Boxer added that, while tuition costs help, another consideration
for institutions should be how to support Native students once they're
enrolled. "Does an institution have a Native American center?" she
said. "Does it even have a multicultural center?"
Crazy Bull agreed that tuition, while an important barrier to deconstruct,
is only one of many issues with higher education for minorities.
Others include recruiting Native students in their home communities,
and helping guide them through the college application process.
"I think when a state passes a bill like this as educational, it
has important symbolism, and it does remove barriers," Crazy Bull
said. "Those are all positive things, especially if state institutions
combine them with other efforts, like good recruitment."
In addition to signing the Native American tuition classification
bill, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis also signed a bill on Monday that
will fine public schools with
an American Indian mascot without formal approval from a tribe
$25,000 per month, beginning June 2022.
Jenna Kunze is a reporter for Native News Online and Tribal Business
News. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country
News, Indian Country Today, Smithsonian Magazine and Anchorage Daily
News. In 2020, she was one of 16 U.S. journalists selected by the
Pulitzer Center to report on the effects of climate change in the
Alaskan Arctic region. Prior to that, she served as lead reporter
at the Chilkat Valley News in Haines, Alaska. Kunze is based in