Recommendations from A Year of Discernment: Indigenous Engagement at USF White Paper

August 2022

Discernment, a precious gift of Ignatius, is integral to our personal and corporate apostolic life…Discernment serves as the foundation for decision-making by the proper authority in our way of proceeding.

 – Degree 2: Renewed Governance for a Renewed Mission, Documents of General Congregation 36 of the Society of Jesus (pg. 22) 


At a moment when Universities across the country are examining their relationship to Indigenous communities, USF, under the leadership of Provost Chinyere Oparah, expressed interest in deepening our understanding of how USF engages with Indigenous communities and to develop recommendations for how we can move forward to strengthen our support and programming on campus, as well as to strengthen relationships with Indigenous communities. Erin Brigham, the Executive Director of the Lane Center for Catholic Social Thought and the Ignatian Tradition and USF’s Chief Mission Officer, provided an institutional and intellectual home for the work. Dean Eileen Fung, College of Arts and Sciences, provided support for the Lane Center, enabling the hiring of research and administrative personnel during the year. Associate Professor (Politics) Kouslaa Kessler-Mata allocated part of her sabbatical time to facilitate this work.


As a result of the reflective processes this year, our Project Team would like to make the following recommendations to the Provost. Taken together, these recommendations reflect University-wide decolonization efforts that target specific issues raised in our initial steps this year, but which are admittedly limited in scope and not comprehensive.  The first two recommendations aim to build an informed, responsive, and accountable structure within the University, while the subsequent recommendations are intended to support specific initiatives that faculty and staff expressed a commitment to and interest in throughout the year. They reflect the best starting places for USF to consider building our internal capabilities for engagement with Indigenous communities throughout the University. It is worth noting that AJCUs are collectively ‘behind the ball’ when it comes to historical reckoning with Indigenous communities. LeMoyne University is noteworthy for its efforts on some of these fronts, though it is safe to say that no one AJCU stands out as learning across these areas: advance Native-related research, hiring of Native faculty, supporting (financially and academically) Native students. USF has an opportunity to bring together our fellow AJCUs in this endeavor and develop a model for Indigenous engagement that can foster a more vibrant, inclusive learning community on campuses throughout the country.

1. Leadership-Driven Outreach

Ramaytush Tribal Leader Jonathon Cordero, PhD, has indicated that to build a relationship with USF, the first step is for USF leadership to reach out and initiate cordial communications. Specifically, he recommended that we work together on the construction of a land acknowledgement as a first step for relationship building. Cordero has also done similar work with other local organizations, including most recently with Hastings Law School while as an affiliated scholar for their Indigenous Law Center. Cordero has other ideas for collaboration and partnerships, but has made clear that the first step is to establish our intent first. 

As discussed by Dr. Proudfit during her presentation at USF this year, “Decolonizing the Academy,” land acknowledgements are a meaningful first step to establishing good relations with the Indigenous community on whose land the University sits. Six of the 10 AJCUs that responded to our survey regarding Indigenous Engagement at their campuses stated that they had adopted formal land acknowledgements. Because land acknowledgements are place-based efforts, it is important to ensure that the correct participants are at the table. The inclusion of tribal representatives in the development of a land acknowledgement also means that the process is likely to go beyond the performative. This is an important decision point for the University. If USF does not want to consider making additional commitments to the tribal communities and stepping into an unknown, then we should reconsider the purpose and reason for our effort. (1)

USF has not adopted an official land acknowledgement to date. The campus community has utilized alumna Calina Lawrence’s Land Recognition Statement on an ad hoc basis since approximately 2017. Lawrence was a trailblazing Indigenous (Suquamish) student and we are grateful for her contributions to priming USF to engage in the land recognition process.  However, taking seriously our commitment to the local Indigenous community, Ramaytush, requires that USF leadership engage the tribe directly to communicate our intentions and our commitments, to hear them out, and to invest time and energy in building a lasting relationship with them. As an institution, we have a responsibility to reflect internally on what we are willing and able to do and to make meaningful commitments to local Indigenous communities. The land recognition process is one part of these processes and should manifest through them. It is an articulation of our commitment to Ramaytush and must be done in concert with them to ensure it is more than merely performative. 

Similarly, the ASUSF Senate proposed a resolution (20-21-13) that was passed in April 2021, seeking to establish the use of Lawrence’s Land Recognition Statement across all manner of events on campus, from athletic events to student orientation, to Greek events and mock trial meetings. Again, this student-led effort is laudable. The initial effort to create this resolution, however, created challenges as the existing Native Student (informal) organization on campus was not consulted in its development and were taken aback when it appeared to move forward. At the time, Kessler-Mata was the de facto advisor for the group and discussed how to slow down the process such that it was done in a proper way that included the Native students on campus (some of whom were California Indian, though none of whom were Ramaytush). Because of the isolating nature of being Native on a non-Native campus, students expressed feelings of invisibility and frustration. While the resolution as adopted was modified since that time, it remains unclear whether Native student voices were actively included in the process. More to the point, the resolution relies on Lawrence’s Statement which, as noted above, is an excellent starting point, but neither reflects the commitments of the University as such or the interests and voice of Ramaytush.  For all these reasons and to ensure USF Leadership is actively engaged and committed to a meaningful relationship with Ramaytush, we recommend reaching out to Ramaytush and proceeding to develop a proper land acknowledgement process with Jonathon Cordero (the Executive Director of the tribe’s organization).

 2. Establishing a Native Advisory Committee

Universities active in Indigenous engagement, whether through faculty research, teaching, or community work, have one thing in common: they form advisory committees composed of Indigenous community representatives to advise the University on both internal development of programs (e.g. Native studies, Indigenous research protocols for faculty and community engaged learning), and external partnerships (e.g. organizational/NGO, tribal/governmental collaborations regarding land use and access). Advisory groups operate through an MOU or MOA to formalize the relationship. 

There is no single model for Native Advisory Committees. Some include former University Native Alumni, local tribal leadership, regional tribal leadership (with or without branch campus considerations), or local Indigenous leadership of NGOs. Advisory Committees also vary in their location within Universities. Some directly advise the University President, while others engage the Provost or Trustees. Regardless, a coalition of Native participants can be brought together to advise the University on emerging issues that implicate both communities and which build reciprocal, restorative, and collaborative programs. 

Of our survey of the AJCUs, Gonzaga University and LeMoyne have more robust relationships with the local tribal communities and, importantly, both institutionally located in their Mission-related offices (e.g. Office of Mission Integration). A (Native) faculty member at another AJCU also mentioned that they are trying to build an institutional home for tribal relations in their Mission office as well. In conversations with two Native faculty from the AJCUs, it was made clear that this location was preferred as it reflects and fosters the distinctive responsibility for and commitment to local Indigenous communities. Providing a designated home for engagements between tribes and the University is key to ensuring meaningful  and responsive relationships.  

A few regional examples of the variance in Advisory committees include:

CSU San Marcos’ Native Advisory Council

Gonzaga University’s Office of Tribal Relations

UC Office of the President (which would be akin to an AJCU-wide body): President’s Native American Advisory Council  

Cal-Poly Humboldt’s Joint Native American Advisory Council 

and, Hasting’s Restorative Justice Advisory Board

3. USF Historical Accounting Research

USF was born during the most violent period in California history. As former University Historian Alan Ziajka wrote in his piece, “The Jesuits and Native Communities” (Pierless Bridges, Vol. 3, 2022; this work was commissioned for our Indigenous Engagement project), USF’s founding Jesuits arrived in San Francisco after extensive work with tribal communities during the Rocky Mountain Mission (Montana) and the Jesuit Mission in Willamette, Oregon.  The founding of USF is intimately tied with the founding of Santa Clara University (1851). SCU’s first board of trustees included Peter Burnett, a slave-holder who would go on to become the state’s first elected governor and a vocal advocate for the eradication and enslavement of California Indians. As Ziajka writes, while we do not yet know for certain what the Jesuit’s thoughts were regarding Burnett’s positions, we do know that Burnett was a celebrated and recognized member of the Catholic community and was honored at St. Ignatius upon his death. 

Along with Ziajka’s work, our Project Team met with the Gleeson Library’s University Archivist, Annie Reid, and Matthew Collins, the Reference Librarian. Individually, Kessler-Mata met with Nicola Andrews (Maori), Open Education Librarian, who has developed an extensive collection of Indigenous Research-related publications over the past two years. Reid and Collins began researching two key areas of inquiry (2) with us and we met several times to discuss the mounting information, resources, and questions that emerged. It quickly became clear that pursuing these lines of inquiry will require a more resourced and robust commitment. UC Hastings provides a strong model for considering how to approach this kind of multi-year historical project. Initiated in 2017, Hastings convened the Hastings Legacy Review Committee to grapple with and document the actions of the University’s founder. The Committee’s recommendations were handed down in 2020 and the University has since moved to act on them. (3) The committee consisted of over a dozen individuals and was supported by the University to do its work. (4)

Based on the preliminary evidence of Jesuit history and presence in California during the Gold Rush period, we believe that USF should consider a comprehensive research project to examine the history and founding of the University in relation to California Indians. Understanding our role in and relationship to local efforts to remove, eradicate, enslave, and otherwise subdue California Indians would shine new light on hidden histories in the State and help us chart our way forward in making commitments to local Indigenous communities. There are several ways to approach this work, though all will require a research team and resources. For larger, deeper projects, a reasonable timeline is 4-5 years with a minimum of 3-5 affiliated faculty and library staff. Smaller scale projects may take 2 years and result in an edited volume with a narrow focus. There are also collaborative projects with other AJCUs that we may consider that chart how to go about this work. It is worth noting that the bulk of the relevant historical documents have been relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, and many require translations from Latin.  

 4. Establishing CEL and Faculty Research Protocols

USF faculty are known across the country for their exceptional research output and are, simultaneously, highly active in Community Engaged Learning (CEL) programs. Research and CEL course development are the most likely touchpoints for faculty-engagement with Indigenous communities. In speaking with the McCarthy Center’s Dr. Star Moore this year, it came to our attention that there are several faculty whose CEL courses utilize partnerships with Indigenous communities or tribes. Significantly, we also learned that in working with individual faculty interested in building relationships with tribes, it had become clear that the absence of an institutional-relationship with Indigenous communities was hindering the successful development of additional CEL-courses. When faculty think about how to build reciprocal relationships, they have found that they lack the resources and ability to make meaningful commitments to the organizations and tribes absent a broader University commitment to these communities. Moreover, without a firm understanding of Indigenous Research practices and protocols for understanding what proper engagement practices look like when engaging Native communities, faculty hold the potential for unknowingly doing harm to the communities they are attempting to work with.  

For this reason, we recommend USF bring together faculty and staff interested in better understanding Indigenous research methods and/or CEL-relevant practices and protocols. Some Jesuit Universities utilize the IRB process to make sure subject matter experts are in place to review research proposals that engage Native communities. This, however, often falls on one or two Native faculty members who may or may not have the relevant expertise. At USF, however, our IRB processes are not particularly robust and while an IRB-flagging process may be appropriate, we should ensure we avoid relying on individual Native faculty or staff to serve this purpose. It is possible that CRASE or CARD would be open to creating an Indigenous Research Methods workshop or series of workshops for interested faculty. Dr. Moore was open to and interested in convening a working group to consider protocols for engaging Native communities.  These processes are most effective after the University has initiated formal relationships with tribes in the region. 

5. Support for Native Students and Faculty

USF does not have a robust Native student or faculty population. In the case of students, this issue is compounded by challenges in data collection and differences in definitions between IPEDS and USF’s internal definition. Both are highly problematic and ought to be the subject of additional conversation and discussion to ensure we are accurately capturing distinctive categories, including: California Indians, American Indians, Indigenous South American, Indigenous Central American, and so forth. We also rely on self-identification for both students and faculty which, as we note below, can be problematic for several reasons. In the case of students, there is reason to believe that some may self-identify as Native in order to procure special consideration and scholarships by Colleges and Universities.

It will be increasingly difficult to recruit well-qualified Native students given that - like many state funded public Universities across the country - the UC system has announced a plan for tuition-free education for American Indians. However, the UCs also experience their share of challenges in ensuring California’s Native population is being served. While there are 109 federally recognized tribes in the state, there are upwards of 50+ unrecognized tribal communities as well. In spite of UC’s stated intent to repair past harms related to the UC system’s origin as land grant institutions, the tuition-free plan will likely benefit out-of-state Native Americans at a substantially higher rate than it does California Indians. As Lim and Proudfit argued in their presentations this past year, place-based justice requires centering the needs and demands of the local Indigenous population. Prescriptions then that do not center California Indian students, but rather aim to serve equally all “Indigenous” or all “American Indian” students will inherently fall short.

We have not yet identified the total number of American Indian faculty on campus (or Indigenous), though we will continue to inquire through Data Assist. That said, there are likely not more than 5 Native American Indian faculty. Should the University wish to recruit Native faculty, cluster hires appear to be the best tool for ensuring successful recruitment and retention. Prospective hires see clusters as indicating a broader commitment to the issue area and to their success. 

A Few Cautionary Notes on Recommendation 5

Faculty Hiring and Student Recruitment

Universities in the United States and Canada have recently found themselves in the middle of controversial hiring decisions wherein efforts to recruit American Indian or First Nations faculty resulted in the hiring of individuals with fraudulent identity claims. Among others, UC Riverside hired Andrea Smith, who became the subject of much contention and numerous articles, such as this one featured in the New York Times. UC Berkeley appears to have similarly erred, along with many other Universities.  Some Universities are beginning to devise ways to prevent this phenomenon from continuing to harm Native and University communities. Indigenous Verification processes are being developed at the University of Saskatchewan, while others are initiating investigations into unsubstantiated claims of Indigeneity. 

In California, organizations such as the California Indian Studies and Scholars Association (Kessler-Mata is a member), and tribes such as the Graton Rancheria are creating criteria and processes for establishing identity claims. Graton’s criteria are particularly relevant as they were created to ensure California Indians were able to access tuition-free educational programs within the UC system (if admitted). While there are many ways to substantiate such claims, one thing we can confidently say is that self-identification is not sufficient for institutions seeking to recruit Native or Indigenous faculty, staff, and students. This point is central to any discussion related to student admission, financial aid, faculty or staff hiring, and so forth. 

Additionally, conversations with Native faculty and staff throughout the AJCU indicated that efforts at the recruitment and retention of Native students are best done after there are more Native faculty and staff present on campus. There is a larger discussion to have here, though for the purposes of this report, we are simply indicating that recruitment of Indigenous faculty, staff, and students should be considered together and not in isolation from one another.  We did not take up Native student support services this year and have not spoken with Native alumni either. This is an important area, but one which we did not feel we could adequately cover at this time. 

Summary and Moving Forward

Perhaps the most important finding from our investigation is that going forward this effort must first be a University leadership-driven project with buy-in and support from the top. Faculty and staff at USF and other universities we spoke with reported feeling limited in their ability to adequately respond to the needs of American Indian students, faculty, and communities absent any concrete leadership and guidance. Internally, USF should realistically consider what it is willing and able to commit to doing in building bridges with Native communities. As Professor Proudfit pointed out, “budget documents are moral documents” and our interest in pursuing relationships with California Indians must be authentic. Creating land acknowledgements and increasing our Native student and faculty numbers cannot alone yield positive results without adequate budgetary support. 

Picking up on the tremendous interest at USF in thinking about all things Indigenous, this fall, Kessler-Mata will facilitate a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) through the Center for Teaching Excellence to guide faculty and staff in thinking about what it means to decolonize the curriculum and Universities more broadly. (5) Nicola Andrews will participate and support in order to raise awareness amongst faculty about the broad resources on Indigenous research methods available to instructors. Additionally, the Politics Department Spring event series will feature Native authors and thinkers to advance the theme of the FLC. It is our hope that the University will move forward with a more comprehensive plan for increasing collaborations with California Indians and Indigenous communities to advance the recommendations put forth.

In gratitude for your support and consideration,

Kouslaa & Erin

The Project Team

In addition to Professor Kessler-Mata and Dr. Brigham, support for this project was provided during the Spring 22 from the following individuals:

Fian Sweeney, MA ‘22, Student Researcher, Masters in International Studies 

Keanna Patague-Ward, BA ‘22, Indigenous Undergraduate Student Researcher, Sociology Capstone Course (Professor Evelyn Rodriguez)

Stephanie Felton, Program Coordinator, Lane Center for Catholic Social Thought and the Ignatian Tradition

AY 21-22 Meetings, Convenings, Conversations

The following is a partial list highlighting individual meetings, formal convenings, and other conversations that took place during the Academic Year to inform this report. During this year of reflection, we reached out to Native faculty and staff at other Jesuit Universities to see what kinds of work and programs their institutions were engaged in with Indigenous communities. We administered a survey to approximately 12 of these individuals and spoke one-on-one in-depth with several others.  These meetings listed below are not complete as some of the respondents from the interviews preferred to remain anonymous. This list also does not include standing weekly Project Team related meetings.

  • Star Moore, PhD, Director, Community Engaged Learning, McCarthy Center (Mar. 2, 2022)
  • Nicole Myers-Lim, JD, Director, Pomo, California Indian Museum and Cultural center (Nov. 2, 2021)
  • Joely Proudfit, PhD, Director, Luiseno, California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center (Mar. 23, 2022)
  • Ryan Booth, PhD, Skagit, Postdoctoral Fellow and former Jesuit, Washington State University (March 4, 2022)
  • Jonathon Cordero, PhD, Chumash and Raymatush, Visiting Fellow at Hastings Law School, Executive Director, Raymatush Ohlone (February – May 2022). 
  • Seth Wachtel, Program Direction & Associate Professor, Architecture and Community Design, Department of Art + Architecture, USF (March 9, 2022)
  • Matthew Collins, Gleeson Library, Reference Librarian (March 2022)
  • Annie Reid, Gleeson Library, University Archivist (March 2022)
  • Shelbi Nahwilet, Cahuilla, Assistant Professor, Philosophy, Georgetown University (Jan-Feb 2022)
  • Wendy Thompson, Director of Tribal Relations, Mission Integration, Gonzaga University (Spring 22)
  • Kahanu Salavea, Program Assistant, Office of Community Living; Chair, Indigenous People’s of Oceana Graduation Committee, USF (April 2022)
  • Nicola Andrews, Maori, Open Education Librarian, Gleeson Library, USF; Specialist in Indigenous Data Sovereignty and Indigenous Studies Collections (April 2022)

Respondents to our Indigenous Engagement Across the AJCUs survey included individuals (staff and faculty) from: Le Moyne College, Santa Clara University, Fordham University, Georgetown University, Fairfield University, Saint Louis University, Canisius College, and Loyola Marymount University. The survey and responses are in the appendix.

Additional Events at USF during 2021-22 that ran independently of this Project

Genocide and Reconciliation: Native Americans and a Potential Path Toward Restorative Justice, with David Truer for the Davies Seminar, hosted by Aaron Hahn Tapper, February  1, 2022 (facilitated by Kessler-Mata)

Restorative Justice & The Environment: The Future is Indigenous Rematriation, with Corrina Gould for the Davies Seminar, March 22, 2022 (facilitated by Kessler-Mata)


  1. Owning our Colonial Past and Present: Commitments and Responsibilities of AJCUs to American Indians,” as submitted to Pierless Bridges, Kouslaa Kessler-Mata
  2. The Jesuits and Native Communities,” a work submitted to the Lane Center for the Indigenous Engagement Project, Alan Ziajka
  3. “Reflections on Indigenous Engagement,” by project assistant Fian Sweeney
  4. Survey - Indigenous Engagement Across the AJCUs
  5. Responses - Indigenous Engagement Across the AJCUs
  6. General Reference Bibliography - Sweeney
  7. Nicole Lim, Place-Based Social Justice: California Indian Experiences (Presentation)
  8. Hasting’s Legacy Review Final (White Paper)
  9. Hasting’s Recommendations (HLRC Recommendations)
  10. Yuki Tribal Members_Hastings
  11. Data Assist Request on USF American Indian Population
  12. Index - Identifying AJCU Land Acknowledgements


1. Kessler-Mata notes that in the past, some San Francisco-based organizations and political entities have identified the Muwekma Ohlone tribe as the relevant tribe in developing land acknowledgements and partnerships. However, according to the tribe’s own submissions to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, their ancestral homeland is limited to villages in the East Bay, and they are not from the San Francisco Peninsula. There are important considerations to make when determining who to work with in this process and, at the end of the day, place-based social justice and Indigenous relationship building practices center on ensuring authentic relationships are made with the correct community to best minimize ongoing harms and settler practices of picking and choosing convenient communities.  

2.Initial Inquiries: 1. Jesuit history in California with a focus on - when did Jesuits first arrive, under what pretense, and how/where did they move throughout the state? Did they establish any particular settlements or play a role in the earlier period of Spanish colonization? What were their encounters with Native people like in the state? How early and where did Jesuits begin to "own" land in the state? What, if any, conversations took place within the Church between Jesuits and the Franciscans regarding American Indians? We'd be particularly interested in any theological arguments/assessments of Native Americans that took place in the Church, and  2. USF history - how did USF come to occupy the land that it is on? What has the relationship of USF to local California Indian tribes been, if there has been any direct relationship at all? For this last question, we are hoping to dig through past USF administration/Presidential statements, if there are any, on American Indians, etc. We are aware that the first President of Georgetown, for example, started the first Jesuit Residential School in the US for American Indians. We would be interested to see if any of the past USF Presidents have had any relationship to or role in building Jesuit-Native institutions, etc. 

3. Historical reports and recommendations are in the appendix.

4. Importantly, the HLRC project is not without its challenges. The appendix includes an article that highlights a perspective from tribal members who do not feel included in the process, among other things. 

5. Specific description: “What does it mean to integrate or incorporate Indigenous knowledge into University instruction? How can we do this responsibly and respectfully in a way that does not replicate inequitable, extractive practices that harm communities? What is data sovereignty and what are Indigenous research methods? In this FLC, faculty will consider questions that push us to think about the challenges in decolonizing university teaching and learning. We will read works from Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors about decolonial and anticolonial research practices and discuss whether and how to employ these practices and considerations to develop our department’s courses and curriculum.”