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(cover picture) Newman, Chris
2010 Finding D-QU: The Lonely Struggle of California's only Tribal College. New York: Third World Newsreel.

Notes: DVD, 26 minutes
Reviewed 21 Oct 2011 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
In 2005, D-Q University, California’s only tribal college, was shut down after a 35-year struggle. Since then, the school’s board of trustees, past students, and community members have tried to reopen the school against all odds. This 30-minute video documentary is structured around a group of occupants who illegally live at the closed D-QU campus amid threats of arrest by the school’s board of trustees. FINDING D-QU looks at the often-conflictive relationship between the board and the occupants. This current struggle frames the history of the school, beginning with D-QU’s establishment in the midst of civil rights activism in the late 1960s. The documentary outlines the original vision of D-QU as a space for self-determined higher education and the hope this dream brought to its many students. The film illustrates the ways in which D-QU’s ongoing struggles reflect pressing issues in other American Indian communities.

ABSTRACT:    This short film raises some complex questions about D-Q University, a (former) tribal college in California that is officially closed but whose die-hard students struggle to keep it alive.

The history of tribal education is a mixed and checkered one in the United States, as evidenced by the film “Our Spirits Don’t Speak English” (recently reviewed on ARD). In the late 20th century, Native Americans increasingly took it upon themselves to advance their cause, even if this meant ‘illegal’ occupation of land and other facilities, as evidenced by the film “A Good Day to Die” (also recently reviewed on ARD). One of the untold stories of tribal education and occupation is D-Q University, finally revealed in the short but meaningful film “Finding D-QU.”

According to Dave Risling, the chairman of D-Q University, the institution “is a symbol of 20th century Indian self-determination and remains an example to Indians around the country as to what we can do if we believe in ourselves.” The film begins by interviewing several young people who are currently at the school, as well as some former students and graduates—people who sought better lives than what they faced on the reservation. The problem is that, as of 2011, the college is closed and has been for some three years. D-QU, we learn, was one of the first tribal colleges in the United States. The D stands for the name of Iroquois prophet (Deganawidah) whose name, may feel, must not be spoken except in ritual contexts, while the Q stands for Quetzalcoatl. Those are august and honorable ancestors for a tribal college, but as for now, the place has no propane, no hot water, and no electricity and survives on donated food and water carted to campus for drinking, washing, and flushing. Effectively and officially, there is no D-QU: the school lost its accreditation several years ago, yet some students remained on campus to teach themselves. Some were arrested as trespassers.

The film recounts the interesting history of the place, emerging out of the Alcatraz movement and the desire for an American Indian university. As Alcatraz itself illustrates, this was during an era of Indian occupations and sit-ins. “Jack Forbes applied for the land, a former army communications facility, but the federal government awarded it to UC-Davis. In protest, Art Apodaca and other students jumped the fence of the army base to attempt a takeover.” So began the D-QU occupation of 1971, a little-known episode in the Indian struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. Chicanos and other activists joined the occupation, and federal government soon granted the land for an Indian/Chicano institution. It was accredited in 1978, and by 1990 enrollment reached 500 students per year. During its height, it boasted excellent teachers, prominent guests, Aztec dancers, a sweat lodge, and a large powwow. However, like many idealistic institutions, it was laid low by money problems and internecine bickering. D-QU lost its accreditation in 2005; most students naturally left, but a few stayed and remain there today. In fact, some ‘students’ (for, again, there is no actual college to be a student of at present) actively oppose the board or trustees, and the film shows a number of them protesting the board—first on the street, then at a meeting. The board meeting of August 2008, which was postponed and ultimately held off-campus, highlighted the power struggles and nepotism that wrecked the school in the first place.

The film closes with some passionate and idealistic comments about how D-QU could change the lives of reservation Indians. Many, including Forbes and Apodaca (who appear in the movie) lament what D-QU could be and what it has become. At its best, it was and could be a means of promoting modern education as well as traditional culture. The final caption reads, “In 2011, officials of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation have begun preliminary talks about the possibility of offering fiscal and organizational support to help reopen the school. The federal government has also expressed interest in using the land as a drug rehab center for native youth. However, the board and the student occupants have mixed feelings about both proposals and cannot come to a consensus with the Winton Nation or the federal government. D-Q University remains closed.”

“Finding D-QU” is an important short piece about a significant subject. Even more, it raises more thorny questions than it can answer. Does a college exist when it has lost its accreditation—and when its board says that it does not? Can small idealistic institutions survive in a time of big (and tight) money? Are good intentions, or palpable needs, enough to keep a college afloat? And do students have a right to protest the closing of their school—and to carry on as if that school is still in business? The film takes a rather unashamedly positive view of the college and its defenders, but at some point good intentions and ideals are not enough. Will California and its native peoples eventually find D-QU? And should they? The question is too big to answer here, but it should certainly spark some lively debate among students, scholars, and policymakers.

Level/Use: Suitable for some mature high school classes and for college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of education, and American Indian studies, as well as general audiences.