For Kaelene Ashmore, staying at UC Riverside for an entire week was a way to make new friends — and embrace her Navajo culture.
Ashmore was one of 35 students admitted into the eight-day Gathering of the Tribes Summer Residential Program from June 19-26. This annual program, created by UCR's Native American Student Programs, or NASP, welcomes Native American youth from California and around the United States. The program is the longest running Native American youth summer program in the UC system.
“Being with other Native students my age is fun,” said Ashmore, a 16-year-old student from Highland High School in Palmdale, before walking into a robotics workshop. “I really like being in this type of community. We can laugh and make jokes and we don’t have to explain why it’s funny.”
Since 2005, Gathering of the Tribes has offered Indigenous youth a free weeklong stay at UCR’s residence halls. This immersive summer experience is designed to expose students to university life and provide academic, cultural, and social activities. Gathering of the Tribes is partially funded with the support of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and the Gray Charitable Trust.
Allowing students to create new friendships while envisioning themselves in a higher education setting is the overarching goal, said Joshua Gonzales, NASP director.
“We would love for them to come to UCR, but we primarily just want them to go off and pursue higher education,” Gonzales said.
The past two years, Gathering of the Tribes was offered only online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The week included a writing and goal-setting workshop taught by Elena Pérez, UCR academic intervention and tutorial assistance programs coordinator; a lecture and visit to UCR’s Rupert Costo Library of the American Indian, led by William Madrigal, Jr., a current UCR doctoral student; and building robots with Danielle Boyer, a 21-year-old Indigenous robotics designer and founder of The STEAM Connection, based in Troy, Michigan. The hands-on workshop allowed Boyer, along with her colleague, Daniel Villanueva, to chat with students and offer support as they built a tricycle-type robot.
Cultural and social events were integrated, as well. One evening, students gathered on a grassy knoll to weave baskets. Another day involved making traditional rope or twine known as cordage, a workshop taught by artist and professor of ethnic studies, Gerald L. Clarke, Jr.
This program design, along with extracurricular activities such as a trip to the beach, is what makes it unique, Gonzales said. More than 90% of participants pursue a higher education, and those prospects are boosted by UC President Michael V. Drake’s announcement in April of the UC Native American Opportunity Plan, a UC systemwide initiative that ensures California’s Native students will have in-state tuition and student service fees fully paid.
In a couple years, Ashmore plans to apply to UCR’s entomology program to research bees. She loves bees so much that her Diné regalia is yellow and includes beaded beehives.
“My parents taught me to respect all living creatures and I’ve loved insects and bees since I was a little girl,” Ashmore said. “I have done all my research for the best entomology programs in the country and I only see UCR, so I hope this is where I’ll come for college.”
Hemet High School student Cody Morgan, 17, said this was the first residential summer program he has participated in and the first time visiting UCR. The opportunity to live on campus, learn new skills such as creating a resumé and weave a basket, were all firsts for him, he said.
“It’s been my first time staying on a campus, in the dorms, experiencing what my life will be like when I got to college,” said Morgan, who is Luiseño and Pima. “At Hemet High, there are people who are Native, but it’s not like this where there are so many that I can talk to. Seeing people from Arizona or other California tribes is honestly amazing.”
UCR student Mario Zaragoza-Castellano, 18, will start his second year this fall. For the week he served as a residential advisor, but also attended all sessions and workshops. The lecture by William Madrigal, Jr. ended with Zaragoza-Castellano joining him in bird singing, Native rhythmic, traditional songs accompanied by handmade gourd rattles.
“I chose to come to UCR because of NASP,” said Zaragoza-Castellano, who attended Noli Indian School in San Jacinto and is part of the Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeño Indians. He is considering majoring in Native American studies and anthropology, which is why he appreciated learning about Native history found at UCR’s Rupert Costo Library of the American Indian at the Tomás Rivera Library.
“One session that really stands out to me is William Madrigal’s session on the Costos… I really enjoyed that one because we bird sang for it,” Zaragoza-Castellano said. “I really enjoyed learning from the students too. The backgrounds they come from, what their life is like, and also the takeaway I have is knowing where they come from will also teach us how to better help our communities.”
Header image: Katianna Warren, UCR's former Pow Wow Princess and current UCR student, answers questions for Native American youth during an activity in Bear Cave as part of Gathering of the Tribes Summer Residential Program on Thursday, June 23, 2022 at UC Riverside. (UCR/Stan Lim)