As the only university resource that exists solely for the American Indigenous student community, UC Santa Barbara’s American Indian and Indigenous Cultural Resource Center is striving to create a safe space and consistent support for Indigenous students on campus.
The American Indian and Indigenous Cultural Resource Center (AIICRC) was one of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) Cultural Resource Centers created in the late 1990s, when student activists petitioned the university to dedicate safe spaces on campus for historically excluded groups, according to the AIICRC website.
Fifth-year environmental studies major and AIICRC Peer Mentor Cameran Bahnsen, a member of the Assiniboine tribe, discussed the resource center’s mission of providing a supportive space for Indigenous students and promoting cultural awareness in tandem with social and civic engagement on campus.
“That’s the main thing — being a safe space and a strong community for our Indigenous students, especially when they’re away from home,” Bahnsen said. “We also engage a lot with promoting more awareness about our center and Indigenous communities and efforts and issues as a whole.”
The AIICRC hosted a variety of events this year for UCSB’s Indigenous student community, including a harvest brunch, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People Day die-in, a Cultural Exchange Luncheon and cultural identity talks that occured early fall quarter.
“We collaborated with Collective of Pueblos Originarios in Diaspora and the Chicanx/Latinx Cultural Resource Center … to embrace Indigeneity across different regions,” Bahnsen said of the Cultural Exchange Luncheon, which occured on May 13. “The point of that event is to connect with our Indigenous relatives, and that’s what we did. We got to exchange and celebrate our different cultures as we are.”
Third-year environmental studies major and AIICRC Peer Mentor Jeanine Lomaintewa — a member of the Bishop Paiute and Hopi tribes — also said the luncheon created an opportunity for Indigenous students from different tribes and nations to gather and celebrate their identity, collectivity and diversity.
“Our main goals for that event [were] cultural acceptance, cultural identity and diversity in the American Indian and Indigenous communities and really just accepting the fact that we’re all relatives in that space,” Lomaintewa said.
The AIICRC’s operations came amid unpredictable circumstances of transitioning between remote and in-person learning, which Bahnsen and Lomaintewa said required actively listening to the Indigenous student community and their needs amidst the pandemic.
“At first, it was, ‘What can we do? What can we not do? What are the limits and regulations for the COVID protocols?’” Lomaintewa said. “[We were] just really trying to figure out what’s best for our community in that aspect and trying to protect everyone and their health moving forward.”
Bahnsen said supporting Indigenous students and their families and communities was of utmost importance during the transition back to in-person learning and grappling with COVID-19.
“I think part of transitioning back to in-person has also been trying to bring our community back together because COVID-19 was hard on a lot of us and a lot of our communities and families back home,” she said. “Everyone got hit really hard, so I think a part of what we’ve been trying to do is just bringing students back together again, how it was before COVID.”
Bahnsen spoke to the importance of creating a community for Indigenous students at UCSB because the Indigenous student population is the smallest race/ethnicity group of all of the student demographics on campus. This year, only 53 of 26,179 UCSB students are American Indigenous.
“Community is really important, as it’s a safe space for us to embrace our cultural identities and embrace who we are without being questioned,” she said. “It’s a way for our Indigenous students to feel uplifted and supported while they’re here because we are one of the smallest, if not the smallest, student populations on campus, and we need to make sure that we’re giving attention to our community.”
Lomaintewa echoed Bahnsen’s sentiment, saying that especially for incoming freshmen and transfer students, it’s essential to create a place on campus for Indigenous students to “gain a sense of self.”
“Community-building is the most important as we’re transitioning from high school to college life,” Lomaintewa said. “It’s really important to find your niche and find your place on campus where you feel comfortable being yourself.”
Lomaintewa said that the AIICRC is currently the only resource from the university available for Indigenous students, which speaks to the significance and necessity of creating such spaces for Indigenous students on campus.
“It’s a place where we were allowed to be ourselves, to have a space to do our cultural events and our different practices and so forth, and that in itself is a big reason why it’s really important to have these safe spaces for our students,” she said.
Bahnsen said that creating places for Indigenous students to come together as they go on independent journeys of self-discovery is at the core of the AIICRC’s mission.
Beyond the AIICRC, Bahnsen spoke to UCSB’s duty to support Indigenous students as a university built on Chumash land.
“We are on their land … and UCSB is a land-grant university, which means that in order for it to be formed, the land was violently stolen from our relatives, including our Chumash relatives, so everyone here is benefiting from that because they get to receive an education on Chumash lands,” Bahnsen continued.
“So the center does its best in uplifting Indigenous people, uplifting education and awareness about our Chumash relatives because it’s what needs to be done.”
As Indigenous students themselves, Bahnsen and Lomaintewa’s work as peer mentors hits close to home.
“I was a first-year, and it was during winter quarter when I actually came to the AIICRC … and it was the first time I got that community engagement and sense of self,” Lomaintewa said. “Having that sense of community and cultural identity really helped me gain a sense of friendship and family, in a sense.”
As a transfer student during the height of remote learning last year, Bahnsen said that connecting with fellow indigenous students through the AIICRC gave her a space in which she felt truly accepted.
“It was really hard being a transfer student and coming in during the pandemic … but the American Indian and Indigenous community was the community that welcomed me with open arms and made me feel like UCSB was a good place to be for me,” she said.
Bahnsen emphasized that the AIICRC is built on the love of the peer mentors with EOP Counselor and AIICRC Coordinator Luther Richmond. Both of their passion have ensured that Indigenous students have a place in their campus community to grow, foster and thrive as students.
“It’s all about the love for our community and our school and wanting to embrace the culture and support and uplift each other,” she said. “We have so many students who have so many different interests … and the AII community’s really special because it allows us to take our interests and indigenize it, and the center and our community as a whole helps with that as we go along our life journey here and when we leave UCSB.”
A version of this article appeared on p. 4 of the May 19, 2022, print edition of the Daily Nexus.