Image from Unified Students of Humboldt’s Facebook page.

A group of Humboldt State University students protesting the firing of a beloved educator is refusing to cede ground in its ongoing standoff with the school’s administration. The group, which identifies itself as Unified Students of Humboldt, continues to occupy a campus building that protesters have unofficially renamed “Dr. Jacquelyn Bolman Forum” in honor of the woman whose abrupt firing last October sparked the ongoing protest.

“This is an act of resistance,” Unified Students of Humboldt declares in its latest open letter to HSU President Lisa Rossbacher. Last Friday Rossbacher visited the protesters and read a prepared statement addressing the list of demands the group had issued shortly after occupying the campus building.

In its latest communiqué the Unified Students of Humboldt remain boldly defiant, holding firm on their demands and putting their protest in the context of America’s historical crimes against indigenous people.

“HSU occupies Wiyot land due to the results of colonization and illegal theft,” the letter states. “Therefore, as Indigenous students, we are not ‘occupying’ the Bolman Forum, we are liberating occupied land … .”

This tone of righteous indignation permeates the letter, which goes on to say student protesters were offended during a recent event when “one of the representatives of the administration was engaged in a digital phone conversation.” This behavior, says Unified Students of Humboldt, showed disrespect for Wiyot Tribal Chairman Ted Hernandez, who was speaking at the time. And since Native tribes are sovereign governments, the students argue, “Chairman Hernandez holds a position that is similar to the President of the United States of America.” (You can read the full letter below.)

Not only does the group refuse to budge on its list of demands, it even adds a new one: “We want the Native American Studies Department to have full access to the space [in the Native American/Bolman Forum] for classes as well as having jurisdiction over what events will be booked in the forum.” 

By failing to give indigenous students such privileges, the letter says, “the university perpetuates the cycle of marginalization for their students to embody after they leave this campus and enter into the greater society.”

The protest group says it is working independently to create “a new system” for incorporating “Indigenous education” into the university’s general education classes. The letter closes with citations from the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, along with a quote from abolitionist hero/former slave Frederick Douglass.

Meanwhile. this week’s issue of the Mad River Union includes a story suggesting that Bolman was fired for her criticism of the university. While the student protesters have alleged this to be the case, the university’s administration has steadfastly refused to comment one way or another on the reasoning behind Dr. Bolman’s termination, saying it’s a confidential personnel matter.

The Union story, which is written by HSU’s former head spokesman, Paul Mann, gives some background on the sordid internal politics surrounding the university’s various Native-focused programs, and it cites internal correspondence (obtained by students through a California Public Records Act request) which suggests that administrators were indeed displeased with some statements Bolman made last year in a status report to federal officials. However there’s still no definitive proof that Bolman was fired for making these statements.

(The Union‘s original headline, which appears in the print edition, stated unequivocally, “Bolman fired for criticism of HSU.” After being contacted by an HSU official as well as the Outpost, the headline in the online edition has since been softened a bit “to reflect uncertainty over the exact cause of Bolman’s firing,” an editor’s note says.)

Below is the full open letter sent yesterday to President Rossbacher by the Unified Students of Humboldt:

January 27, 2015

Dear President Lisa Rossbacher,

We, the Unified Students of Humboldt, received your letter on Friday January 23rd at 4:30pm. The letter received was in acknowledgement “about your goals and motivations regarding our current occupation of the Native American Forum at Humboldt State University.” Part of our motivations and goals is to share our Indigenous perspectives with Humboldt State University. First, let us acknowledge that Humboldt State University sits upon Wiyot land. HSU occupies Wiyot land due to the results of colonization and illegal theft contributing to the ceding of Indigenous land. Therefore, as Indigenous students, we are not “occupying” the Bolman Forum, we are liberating occupied land by residing here. This is one example of the many gaps in our understanding of one another. We ask that together, we fill this space between us with education. Throughout this address, we will be sharing our Indigenous perspective with you.

In your letter, you stated your understanding of our concerns and that you would like to address them as soon as possible. We agree; we want our concerns to be addressed. We would like to be clear that we do not desire an arbitration but rather a negotiation with mediation. We would like to nominate Marlon Sherman as that mediator. We trust in his fair-minded attitude, academic professionalism, and qualified experience as a mediator. It is important that both of us feel mutually comfortable with our mediator, please let us know if you agree upon our nomination.

The importance of being part of a larger community goes both ways. If we are to work together - we are to respect our larger community. It was very apparent to many Indigenous students that during Chairman Hernandez’s address to Unified Students of Humboldt at our community event last weekend, one of the representatives of the administration was engaged in a digital phone conversation. This was perceived as disrespectful to our larger community and reflects the lack of understanding in the relationship which HSU has with the Wiyot Tribe.

Here is a short brief on Federal Indian Law. Indian Tribes have inherent right to sovereignty; however the case, Worcester vs. Georgia in 1832, determined that Indian Tribes have legal acknowledgement to retain their sovereignty. Indian Tribes have a government to government relationship with the United States. Their desire to negotiate with the State, County or Humboldt State University is a willingness on their part to participate and build with their local community. Chairman Hernandez holds a position that is similar to the President of the United States of America. This is a legal and Indigenous perspective. There is no justification for a representative of the University to be on their phone while this very important member of our larger community is speaking. We are not targeting the administration’s representative, or trying to discount their good efforts in attempting to create a deeper understanding between our parties. This is why we are not revealing their name publicly. We understand that it takes time to adapt to cultural norms. However, we are raising awareness to the importance of HSU representatives respecting our local Tribal leaders.

We are glad to hear you would like to start focusing on the definition of student success for Native American students. For decades, the Native American community has attempted to initiate dialogue on this campus around the importance of Native American recruitment, Native American educational outreach to local Tribes, and making general education classes more relatable to Indigenous students. In order to achieve relevant education, attention must be given to our Native faculty, staff and mentors. They hold the discernment to discuss the many attempts and failures they have initiated to define their program needs. We acknowledge their valuable intellect and commitment to conscious education; please take the time to engage them. We would like to speak with you further about Native American Student Success, but please remember the student-led activism on campus is not solely a Native American movement. Many students of color have collaborated their knowledge, power, campus and community to enable student learning with student activism, in and for community, society and the world. By self-defining our student success, we are fulfilling our obligation to serve the next generation. We hope to discuss the university’s issues around funding and programming to recreate a rich, resourceful model of excellence.

The Native American Forum is now the Dr. Jacquelyn Bolman Forum. In correlation with various other buildings on campus i.e., Harry Griffith, Kate Buchanan, Siemens Hall, Goodwin Forum, Nelson Hall, Founders Hall etc. we have given this space a name. As Indigenous Peoples we acknowledge that everything has life and at the beginning of life, we receive names. This building never received a name until recently. We have created a Sacred space and we have named the building Dr. Jacquelyn Bolman Forum.

This space should be used for what it was designed for - Indigenous use. Thank you for acknowledging that over time this space has increasingly been used for instructions on campus. This does not mean that Indigenous Peoples can not share the space with the community. Indigenous Peoples historically are really good at sharing.

We are adding a new demand. We want the Native American Studies Department to have full access to the space for classes as well as having jurisdiction over what events will be booked in the forum. This space was originally intended to be used as an Indigenous culture sharing center. The function of this space should be decided by the Native community. We hear your point of clarification about the technical lack of name change. The Bolman Forum (previously referred to as the Native American Forum) did not technically receive a name change to the BSS Forum. However, when you look at campus maps and class schedules - the way the building was being referred to did change. This is a perfect example of the chipping away and the continuous eroding of Indigenous space and relatable cultural experiences on campus.  This sentiment is not only found at Humboldt State University, but throughout dominant society. Universities are a microcosm of society in terms of race, class and power. By Humboldt State University marginalizing the Native Community by not prioritizing Indigenous Peoples to reserve their Indigenous space, the university perpetuates the cycle of marginalization for their students to embody after they leave this campus and enter into the greater society.

We feel that the administration has been hiding behind these personnel issues to save face. We have access by means of the California Public Records Act request to elements of the written dialogue leading up to Dr. Jacquelyn Bolman’s termination. These records have been circulated widely throughout the community. The interest in talking about personnel issues has been completely exhausted. Our demands do not reflect personnel issues. It is actually very simple. As university president, you have the power and authority to reinstate Dr. Jacquelyn Bolman. Dismissing Radha Webley is also not a confidential personnel issue. We realize that Radha is a scapegoat for the administration’s desire to dismiss Dr. Jacquelyn Bolman. She is also a part of the systems in place at the university that supports of people of color on campus. Since the implementation of RISS (Retention & Inclusion for Student Success) the university has seen staff and faculty of color denied tenure, terminated, and forced into early retirement. The retention of students of color includes the retention of faculty of color. You will retain students and guide them into higher education by retaining faculty of color. We will see the use of the argument of confidential personnel issues as illegitimate from this point forward.

The following statements are direct responses to your proposals:

  1. We are glad that you are aware of our presence here. Once again, this is a residency, not an occupation. Indigenous Peoples and their relatives can not occupy. We are reconnecting with this land. Please understand that a more engaged interaction would have been appropriate that did not include an escorted visit to the Dr. Bolman Forum, by the Chief of Police on a Friday afternoon during the 5th day of peaceful residency.

  2. We have spoken with multiple Tribal leaders, professors, and staff members who have not been contacted by you or university administration to discuss student success. Look to our elders and mentors for intellectual wisdom and discernment in order to redirect our education with adequacy.

  3. A fruitful negotiation will seed the concept of addressing relevant academic and social concerns. If you agree with the suggested nominee, Marlon Sherman to mediate, please confirm. Your suggestion to have a negotiation on the evening of Wednesday, February 4th at 4:30 pm is in conflict with many of our class schedules. The Unified Students of Humboldt have a commitment to our academic success which is facilitated by strong attendance. The last time we met on November 7, 2014, our mediator told us that we needed to meet for multiple four hour increments and be prepared to give our Saturdays to negotiations. Both the students and you, President Rossbacher, agreed to this amount of dialogue. Please consider a four increment during Saturday, January 31st or February the 7th to begin our negotiation. This will maximize the amount of time to work through our mediation process. The Unified Students of Humboldt will provide food and refreshments to ensure an efficient use of our time.

  4. The Unified Students of Humboldt will continue to peacefully reside in the Bolman Forum. On the first evening of our residency there were 15 students prepared to undergo arrest. Indigenous students being arrested and forced out of an Indigenous space would be a distraught picture for our community to witness.We are aware that by residing in this space, we are going against University policy. This is an act of resistance, a protest, we are aware of the disruption of your “business as usual” mode. Contrary to what you state, we are not interfering with the academic experience of students. We are contributing to the education of students and continue to strive to enrich the educational experience of students of color and our allies. To brief you, we held our first day of classes here in the Dr. Bolman Forum with support from the faculty and students. We read aloud a statement to the class. If the professors were willing to weave Indigenous studies into their curriculum to make their general education classes more relatable to Indigenous students while holding their class in an Indigenous space, they were more than welcomed to have their classes here in Dr. Bolman Forum. Both professors not only agreed, they gave us an opportunity to speak to the classroom, include our points of view during group discussions and we received a round of applause from the students after our statement was read. Our interactions have been inviting and well received. It is the administration who has re-routed classes and confused students to the whereabouts of their classrooms. We have also received notice that the professors and students who want to continue to hold classes here are not allowed to do so. We received a letter from a student who told us about her current classroom condition. The lack of computer and projector access is inadequate for their class. We have been asked by many professors to come as guests to their classrooms and to share our experience. We are eager to give an Indigenous perspective to all general education classes. However, this is now a public desire that we are having a challenging time fulfilling. We are looking at creating a new system to bring Indigenous education to general education classes. We are currently working directly with faculty members from Native American Studies and other cooperative faculty in order to incorporate Indigenous perspective into this semester’s curriculum. We would like to see further development in this direction.

We had been residing for 5 days before administration established contact. We would like to have forward movement to resolve our differences and to create change within our larger community here at HSU and also outside of HSU.

These are Articles from United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is a United Nations Declaration that the whole world has acknowledged as right and just. Please review them and apply them to our current situation for a deeper perspective.

Article 14: Section 1

Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.

Article 18:

Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institution. 

Article 19:

States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.

We look forward to entering into a mediation process directly with the Administration.

Thank you,

Unified Students of Humboldt

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground…  The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both.  But it must be a struggle.  Power concedes nothing without a demand;  it never has and it never will.

~ Frederick Douglass