When Claire Alford ‘25 looked around the St. Ignatius Lawn during Santa Clara University’s second annual powwow last April, she was overcome with immense joy. There, on the ancestral land of the Muwekma Ohlone and Ohlone people, were dozens of tribal members from across the Bay Area in California, leading ceremonial dances, prayers and songs. There, amongst the many vendors selling crafts and the attendees who stopped to chat with Alford about the significance of the powwow, she felt at home. She felt seen.
Months of planning had led to that moment, the first powwow held on campus since the pandemic hit in March 2020. For Alford, it marked a unique opportunity to celebrate her heritage, while educating peers and community members on treasured Native traditions, and the sacred land that once belonged to Native people.
“Though we are a Mission campus, there is sometimes a lack of knowledge about what that means, or what Native communities are,” says Alford. “Sometimes, it’s not enough to simply explain things with words—it’s better to show people. I think the powwow did a really great job of that.”
As a descendent of the Absentee Shawnee tribe and president of Santa Clara’s Native American Coalition for Change (NACC), these are the meaningful moments that Alford hopes to celebrate and support on campus. Like many Jesuit campuses across California and beyond, Santa Clara has a complex and painful history with the Native peoples who once occupied the land on which the University sits today. For thousands of years, the Muwekma Ohlone and Ohlone tribes thrived on the land that is now Santa Clara and beyond. That ended with the arrival of Spanish explorers and missionaries in the 1700s, who forced them to labor long hours, without pay, to build the University’s Mission Santa Clara de Asís and confined them to crowded, disease-ridden living quarters, ultimately resulting in their death.
In an era where many institutions are working toward acceptance and reconciliation, Santa Clara has made strides to mend those wounds. Much work remains to be done, and students like Alford are helping the University move forward by strengthening its relationship with Native students and local tribes.
“As an institution of higher learning located on a Mission site on ancestral land, this is our legacy,” says Lauren Baines, interim director of the de Saisset Museum and co-coordinator of Ohlone Implementation at Santa Clara, which focuses on how the University can better honor Ohlone heritage and support Native students. “This is how we came to be and to ignore or not address it is to deny part of who we are. It’s our responsibility to do so. As a University, we have an incredible environment to have those really complicated conversations and be very transparent about our history.”
University administrators created the Ohlone History Working Group in 2019 after students challenged leadership to support Indigenous students in more significant ways. Santa Clara’s efforts needed to go beyond reading a land acknowledgement at University-wide events, they argued. The working group’s objective was to examine Santa Clara’s existing historical monuments and create deeper, more genuine and accurate ways to depict Ohlone heritage and mission colonization. As a result, the University removed a statue of Junipero Serra from campus in 2020. The Spanish priest had established some of the first Catholic missions across California and colonized thousands of Indigenous peoples who occupied the land on which the missions were built. If the statue is someday reinstated, it will be better contextualized and paired with greater Native interpretation and representation, according to the working group.
The group expanded its work to include several recommendations beyond physical markers, including establishing a scholarship for Native students and partnering with Ohlone community members in major University events and programs. Though the working group has since concluded, Baines and Ray Plaza, co-coordinator of Ohlone Implementation and director of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, are continuing this work, and hope that the establishment of an Indigenous Advisory Council will help move the needle further in the years to come.
Other educational efforts on campus include annual programing marking Indigenous Peoples’ Day; a library resource guide focused on the study and research of the Ohlone in Santa Clara; the Native History Tour (a virtual walking tour that details Santa Clara’s Indigenous history on Google Earth); and historical exhibits at the de Saisset Museum depicting Native culture at Santa Clara. These educational opportunities that help educate students on the ancestral land that they stand on today are critical, says Shá Duncan Smith, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion at Santa Clara.
“It can be difficult for students from minoritized and marginalized populations to come into institutions of higher learning because they sometimes feel isolated, or a bit of erasure when they’re stepping into these spaces,” says Duncan Smith. “Carving out a space where they can find community, where they feel affirmed and like their culture is uplifted—not just in a single space, but infusing and integrating it throughout our campus culture—is extremely important.”
Also critical to the success of Native students on Jesuit campuses is providing financial support, e.g., through scholarships, says Catherine Moore ‘20, a former NACC president who was instrumental to the creation of the University’s powwows. “A lot of times, I think Native students, specifically, if they’re coming from a reservation life, don’t know the opportunities that they could have,” says Moore. “Scholarships really show Native students that they can come to a university like Santa Clara and be part of a supportive community. Providing them funds would speak volumes to their educational aspirations and abilities.”
In addition to her work with NACC, Alford, a public health major, says she celebrates her ancestors each day by pursuing her aspirations and educating her peers. She recently spent a grueling two weeks in Arizona for EMT training in hopes of serving on campus this year. After graduation, she hopes to go to medical school to become a doctor and help reduce health disparities in Latinx and Indigenous communities.
“There are definitely a lot of feelings and thoughts that go along with being on a mission campus,” says Alford. “Walking by the mission every day, there’s not a day where I don’t think about what happened here. But the best thing for me has been turning that sadness into something positive and using this as an opportunity to grow and increase visibility for Native populations. I want to do the best I can to turn this into something positive without losing respect and acknowledgement: to take back the campus and use it to further Indigenous people.”
By Tatiana Sanchez, Assistant Director of Storytelling, Santa Clara University