There was a rare sight on the UCLA campus this weekend: Dozens of Native American men and women dressed in full traditional regalia in and around the northern corner of the campus.
The UCLA American Indian Student Association organized the powwow to remind non-native students that American Indians are indeed on campus. The group’s members said the celebration of native culture was meant to build a bridge between American Indians and UCLA students.
They want to challenge stereotypes, like the recent controversial portrayals of Native Americans in a Netflix project currently in production that depicted them as drunks.
“[Visitors will] meet Native Americans and see that we’re not what the media makes us out to be—Indians with a bow and arrow or a stupid drunk on the reservation,” said Kenneth Ramos, project director of the Retention of American Indians Now! program, a university-funded initiative that works to keep Native American students at UCLA.
“The way that media presents Native Americans and perpetuate stereotypes, it’s really damaging to our community, and this event helps demystify those stereotypes,” said Ramos, who graduated from UCLA in 2013.
The student-led group estimates the powwow saw some 5,000 visitors throughout the weekend. And by inviting outside Native American dancers the students say they hope young people that attend the event on campus can envision themselves as UCLA students one day.
There are about 43,000 students at UCLA, but only 221 of them are Native Americans—and half of them enrolled last year, according to the UCLA office of Academic Planning and Budget.
UCLA receives more freshman admission applications than any other school in the U.S., more than 100,000 last year alone. But only 110 incoming freshmen that year identified as American Indian or Alaskan Natives enrolled in 2014.
According to the 2010 Census, 5.2 million people in the United States identified as American Indian and Alaska Native.
Enrollment rates for Native Americans in post-secondary institutions have gone up in the past decades, but it’s been a slow path. There were 102,800 Native American enrolled in degree granting institution in 1990; that number increased to 172,900 in 2012. African-Americans more than doubled their enrollment rates in the same period, according to the according to the Digest of Education Statistics.
UCLA, along with the American Indian Student Association (AISA), is trying to change that by offering a number of resources including tutoring in high schools and inviting every single student accepted to the university to visit the campus.
AISA also organizes the 2015 Ms. UCLA Powwow pageant contest each year. Contestants have to be enrolled in a university and be able to represent the UCLA powwow at other Native American events across the country.