Editor’s note: On Aug. 5, the D-Q University Board of Trustees ordered the sweat lodge at D-Q to be closed and sent police to interrupt the Inipi ceremony that was already in progress. Those gathered for prayer were ordered off the premises and forced to leave the Inipi fire burning.
A letter addressed to the D-Q Board of Trustees has recently been circulated throughout the community. The letter was written by Pat Wright in support of her husband, Bill Wright (Wintun/Patwin) and his perceived role as an “Indian doctor” at D-Q University.
Mrs. Wright states that she and her husband have invested a great deal of “time and energy” at D-Q over the past 25 years. She goes on to infer that since the school is situated on land within the historic territory of the Wintun/Patwin tribes, that Mr. Wright should have religious oversight at the institution – an authority Mrs. Wright refers to in the letter as the “hierarchy of territory.”
While I respect Mr. Wright and support his dedication to the spiritual needs of members of the California Indian community, I must take issue with Mrs. Wright’s assessment of any so-called religious “hierarchy” at D-Q University.
Mrs. Wright does not seem to understand D-Q’s complicated history, or the initial guidelines and objectives set in place during the institution’s founding. D-Q was not established solely as an institution for California Indians, but for Indians of all nations. This is an important fact that can easily be found in the school’s charter. I know this to be true because I have been working at D-Q since 1974 – some 10 years before Mr. Wright ever appeared on the scene.
D-Q University was founded in 1971 to provide a more appropriate, culturally-sensitive method of education for Native American students. It was one of the first six American Indian colleges in the United States. Among its educational objectives, the preservation of traditional Native religious values and practices was a major priority.
The story of Native Americans in California began with the indigenous people who lived here in harmony for thousands of years before Europeans and Americans disrupted the balanced system within which these people lived. But the story did not end there. In the 20th century, it came to include members of other tribes sent into the region as well. Being compelled to share territory is not a phenomenon exclusive to California Indians – it is just one part of the removal and relocation of Native people from ancestral homelands that has taken place on a nationwide basis.
D-Q University was founded during the Era of Termination and Relocation in the wake of the BIA’s Urban Indian Relocation Program. Under the auspices of this program, over 100,000 American Indians were relocated from their homes on rural reservations and in tribal communities to urban areas across the United States. A few cities within the state of California, specifically Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose, were designated as new home sites for thousands of these displaced, intertribal Native people.
It was these Indians, from tribally-diverse backgrounds, who sought out a special place where they would be able to establish a more valuable form of culturally-based education – one that included Native history, language, culture and spirituality in order to help prepare Indian students for the multi-cultural world, while at the same time, supporting their distinctive tribal identities. As such, D-Q became part of the first American Indian Higher Education Consortium in 1972.
These new urban Indians utilized the same strategy to obtain the site upon which D-Q stands as they did in their quest to bring attention to the treaty violations of the federal government during the occupation of Alcatraz Island. They used the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie between the U.S. and the Sioux Nation, which mandates that any federal property initially taken from Indian people must be returned to them if the government ceases to use it or abandons the property. D-Q is the decommissioned site of the U.S. Army West Coast Relay and Radio Transmitting Station. Native American access to the site was initially denied, but our people conducted a series of protests before access was finally granted in 1970. The school opened in 1971, obtaining accreditation in 1977.
Mr. and Mrs. Wright state that, in their opinion, sweats should be “conducted by a competent leader, because what happens in the sweat lodge reflects back on all aspects of D-Q.” I was raised traditionally and have conducted Inipi ceremonies since I was a very young man. It is a responsibility that I take very seriously. I guard the proceedings at the sweat lodge very carefully, protecting the rite from any inappropriate influences.
For that reason, under the administration of Dave Risling, I was asked to fill the position of cultural advisor at D-Q. In fulfillment of that request, I presided over sweat lodge activities at the school for over three decades. I was also employed as a traditional councilor by Oakland IHS, and ran sweats there for many years.
While it is true that Inipi has been adopted as a method of prayer for a number of intertribal purposes, I am deeply offended by Mr. and Mrs. Wright’s description of it as a “generic ceremony.” There is nothing generic in the spiritual and physical healing that occurs as a result of participation in an Inipi. For many American Indians in California, the Inipi also represents cultural persistence and empowerment – a chance to practice their religious traditions away from home. Many of these people need the continued stability and spiritual outlet the sweat lodge provides. Now, that option – the most successful operation D-Q has ever known – has been taken from the people. Taking this from them is tantamount to denying them religious freedom.
Finally, I want to point to Mr. and Mrs. Wright’s statement that, as a part of the larger community of California Indians, they “hold the dream of one day seeing a university that celebrates the tribes of California,” and that, “D-Q could become a model for the preservation of California tribal languages and cultures.”
While I agree that this is a beautiful and worthwhile dream, I must reiterate the fact that D-Q University was not created for the purpose of serving California Indians alone. It was not only California Indians who worked to establish the institution in the first place, or who struggled to support and maintain the school over the past 30 years. D-Q has always been a place for Indians of all tribes, and must continue to be so. Any attempt to initiate any sort of tribal hierarchy, or to specify one tribal tradition over another, defeats the institution’s entire founding purposes. In my opinion, doing so will bring about the final downfall of D-Q University.