Cal State San Bernardino has created a new position – the Elder/Culture Bearer In-Residence – designed to serve as a mentor to Native American students and serve as special consultant for the college on matters of importance for tribes in the region.
Along with mentorship, the Elder/Culture Bearer In-Residence will benefit CSUSB students in a number of ways that include expertise from Inland Empire tribal elders as well as opportunities to enhance and develop positive cultural identities, said Molly Springer, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation/Osage and associate vice president, student success and educational equity in the division of Student Affairs.
Robert Levi Jr., a citizen of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians and a retired AP/CP U.S. History teacher at Upland High School, who in his 38 years of teaching includes teaching at Sherman Indian High School and Riverside’s Notre Dame High School, has been named the inaugural Elder/Culture Bearer In-Residence, Springer said.
Levi said the Elder/Culture Bearer In-Residence is very important because Indian students need to know there is somebody available for them and to help them feel a sense of belonging.
“You have the idea of family, and how are you going to fit that in terms of a university?” Levi said. “Sometimes you’re devoid of each other. American Indian students are islands within the university and there’s usually nothing to bring you together.
“So hopefully that’s what this Elder/Culture Bearer In-Residence will help them do: Help the students find a place where they can come and just talk ‘Indian,’ talk about what’s happening on the rez. What happened with your aunties and your uncles? Tell a couple of wry Indian jokes. Make fried bread,” he said.
Springer said Levi’s experience in working with students and the Native community will also help the university.
“Recently, Mr. Levi served as a mentor for Cal State Northridge’s Ethnic Studies Education Pathways Project, and this is an area that CSUSB is interested in supporting,” Springer said. “Mr. Levi’s connectivity to the desert communities will allow CSUSB to better engage and partner with tribal communities in that area, and also allow the PDC campus to extend its reach with Native communities.”
Springer added that it is through this effort that the university hopes to offer CSUSB students the richness and education of tribal Elders within the Inland Empire, build fruitful and reciprocal relationships with Tribes, and work in partnership with tribally/Native/Indigenous focused organizations within the Inland Empire, Springer said.
Culturally, the Levi family holds strong convictions to Desert Cahuilla traditions. His father, Robert J. Levi Sr., along with three other Cahuilla elders have preserved and taught Cahuilla Bird Songs. These social songs have revitalized not only the Cahuilla culture but that of other tribes throughout the Southern California, Arizona and Nevada regions.
Along with the sense of belonging, Levi said he also hopes to encourage more Indian high school students to consider higher education because of the small number of American Indian students in colleges and universities, especially those seeking to become teachers.
“Being the past chair for the American Indian Alaska native caucus for the California Teachers Association, we find that there is only 2 percent of teachers in California who are American Indian. So, there’s a void that needs to be filled,” Levi said. “So basically, coming here I hope to include more American Indian students to come to campus and become teachers, because who best to tell our stories except for us?”
He added there is also “a need for more outreach, especially in the Coachella Valley. And with our satellite campus out in Palm Desert and with the California Nations College out there, we hope to fill that gap, fill that void and also help the other universities the (University of) Redlands and UCR,” Levin said. “We hope to get more and more involvement of American Indian students within the higher education.”
The idea for the Elder/Culture Bearer In-Residence came after a discussion with Native American students, staff and faculty, and was brought to life by the divisions of Student Affairs and Advancement, and the President’s Office, said Springer.
CSUSB has had distinguished Native Elders in the faculty, including Ernest Siva, a respected elder and tribal member for the Morongo Band who has been an instructor of Serrano Cahuilla/Serrano language in the world languages and literatures department, and Hannah Kivalahula-Uddin, a tribal citizen and respected elder of the Puyallup tribe in Washington, who is an assistant professor of educational leadership and technology in the College of Education, Springer said.
But college staff thought it was important to create a position to specifically serve as a special consultant for the college on matters of importance for tribes in the region, Springer said.
The Elder can also help the university in working with the Native American community on how CSUSB can align itself with the needs of the community and be aware of the things that we could be doing better, Springer said.
“Our Elder/Culture Bearer In-Residence will be sitting on a variety of committees to support the work our campus is already invested in with regards to Native/Indigenous peoples,” Springer said. “The Elder/Culture Bearer In-Residence will support our thinking in what other initiates and partnerships must be created to grow in awareness and understanding of the needs of the regional tribal communities and urban Native communities.”
The position is not a new one to the California State University system. Cal Poly Pomona created a similar position in 2015 with the appointment of Lorene Sisquoc, a citizen of the Mountain Cahuilla/Apache, to serve as its very first Native American elder/scholar-in-residence.