New Oregon college scholarships leave some Indigenous students out –


Rachel Cushman was on the cusp of what she thought was financial security for college when the floor fell from underneath her.

The year was 2005 and Cushman, 18, had set her sights on becoming the first person in her family to attend college. Cushman was in the final stages of securing a scholarship through the Gates Millennium Scholars program for minority students. That’s when she says things went south.

After sending in her Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood to prove she was a member of the Chinook Indian Nation, she received a rejection letter. Cushman learned she was ineligible, she says, because the Chinook tribe is not recognized by the federal government.

She cried for days.

“No matter how much [I worked], if I was the leading student in the school, had worked for all of these Native organizations, in the eyes of this scholarship, I wasn’t an Indian. I was really, really devastated,” Cushman said. She ultimately found other ways to fund her undergraduate degree and is fighting to help her tribe earn federal acknowledgement and gain access to more opportunities, including college aid.

Seventeen years later, similar barriers still exist in Oregon for thousands of members of the Chinook Nation or other non-federally recognized tribes and for Indigenous students who don’t qualify for tribal enrollment.

Following a national trend, the state and several of its public universities rolled out new financial aid programs for Indigenous students this year, intended to dismantle historic barriers to higher education. But the funding is largely earmarked for enrolled members of federally recognized tribes, a distinction that excludes students with Indigenous heritage who fall outside of that specific criteria.

Students and advocates say the funding is a step in the right direction. Programs are helping more than 500 Indigenous students pay for college this fall, according to state and college numbers.

But the eligibility requirements raise challenging questions of who gets to define which students are Indigenous enough to benefit.

Many argue the aid programs should be expanded to include Indigenous students who are currently left out.

A spokesman for Gov. Kate Brown, who pushed for a $19 million grant for Oregon tribal members, said limiting eligibility to members of Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes allowed the state to launch the scholarships in 2022 without potentially delaying the program. Lawmakers could expand eligibility in future Legislative sessions, he said.

Terry Cross, chair of Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, would like to see that happen.

“You can always build on a good foundation once it’s established,” Cross said.

Tashina “Bear” Cunningham talks with a community member at an event she helped organize at Portland State University’s Native American Student and Community Center to mark the end of Native American Heritage Month. Sami Edge


Colleges around the country are moving to discount tuition for Indigenous students, and Oregon’s new Tribal Student Grant is more generous than most, offering not just free tuition but covering the average cost of attendance including things like books and housing for members of the state’s nine recognized tribes who attend an in-state school.

Portland State University, Southern Oregon University, Oregon State University and other state universities also announced this year that members of federally recognized tribes based anywhere in the country can qualify for in-state tuition. The University of Oregon went a step further and waived tuition and fee costs for undergraduates who live in Oregon but belong to a tribe in other states. It’s common, for example, for Indigenous Oregon residents to be enrolled in one of Alaska’s 228 recognized tribes.

“It’s a really important step towards educational justice for communities that traditionally have been excluded from higher education,” said Kali Simmons, an assistant professor of Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State. “But I do think that more could be done to make these opportunities more broadly accessible to more Native students.”

The current eligibility criteria raise two interrelated challenges, Simmons said. First is the requirement that students belong to a federally recognized tribe, which leaves out tribes like the Chinook Nation.

The U.S. government recognizes 574 tribes, but according to NPR, tens of thousands of tribal members belong to another 200 tribes without federal recognition. The Chinook Nation, which has over 3,000 members in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington, obtained federal recognition in 2001 only to have it rescinded 18 months later. The tribe is in an ongoing fight to reestablish federal acknowledgement.

The other challenge, Simmons said, is the question of tribal enrollment. Each tribe determines enrollment in its own way, using qualifications like where potential members live, who they’re related to and how much tribal blood flows through their veins, a “blood quantum” system that Simmons calls a colonial measure imposed on Native nations.

“There are a whole bunch of reasons that you might not be enrolled in your tribe,” Simmons said.

Simmons’ mother was an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, but Simmons herself is not enrolled, in part because she grew up away from the South Dakota reservation and the tribe used to require residency for enrollment, Simmons said.

Cross, head of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, is an enrolled citizen of the Seneca Nation, which determines enrollment based on maternal lineage, he said. Because his mother was Seneca, Cross is enrolled – but he has first cousins whose father is Seneca and they are not eligible for enrollment.

“It’s important to remember that tribal membership is a political relationship, it’s not a racial distinction,” Cross said.

Tashina “Bear” Cunningham, an Indigenous Nations Studies and biology student at Portland State University, is descended from the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians and the Hunkpapa Band of the Standing Rock Sioux. But Cunningham, 19, isn’t eligible for enrollment in either tribe. Combined, Cunningham has enough Indigenous heritage to qualify for both tribes’ blood quantums, they said, but they fall short of meeting the threshold for either one individually.

“According to either of the tribe’s rules I am Native enough to be enrolled, but because it’s not from one tribe, it doesn’t count,” Cunningham said.

That means Cunningham, who does marketing and events planning for Portland State’s Native American Student & Community Center, doesn’t qualify for the state’s tribal student grant. Cunningham doesn’t need the financial aid to finish school, they said. But they feel conflicted about state institutions defining what it means to be Indigenous.

“I don’t think a lot of institutions understand the standards they’re setting when they have something that pertains specifically to federally recognized tribes, or even just enrollment,” Cunningham said. “It’s kind of a double-edged sword. If you go one way, you can have people taking advantage of the system. If you go the other way, there are people who should be benefiting from it that aren’t.”

Tania Sanchez, associate director of multicultural recruitment at Portland State, said the school is taking direction from state, federal and tribal governments to determine who should be eligible for its in-state tuition extension. That includes honoring enrollment requirements that tribes have established for their members.

“If we take those guidelines away, it becomes really difficult to determine what is Native enough and what isn’t, or how do you prove that,” Sanchez said.

Yazzie Chee is struggling to find documentation to prove his connection to the Navajo Nation.

Chee, 22, is in his final year at the University of Oregon and plans to graduate this spring with a degree in general social science and a minor in Native American studies. He’s on scholarship and has the funds he needs to finish his final year. But if Chee needed Oregon’s Home Flight program, which waives tuition for Oregon residents who belong to an out-of-state tribe, Chee doesn’t think he’d qualify.

Chee’s father is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. But Chee, who spent years in the foster care system, has a tenuous relationship with his father, and worked for years to learn his father’s tribal enrollment number. Chee has that number now, but recently discovered his father isn’t listed on his birth certificate, further complicating his path to proving his Native heritage.

“I understand why people are strict about that, but at the same time, that concept is inherently classist and racist, because not all of us who identify with this have the structure and ability to have contact with our parents where we get our Indigenous roots,” Chee said.

Yazzie Chee, a University of Oregon student, doesn’t believe he’d be able to qualify for the university’s program to waive tuition and fees for Oregon residents who belong to out-of-state tribes. Chee is Navajo but not enrolled in the tribe and has struggled to document his tribal connections. “I don’t think a piece of paper is enough to say somebody’s Indigenous or not,” Chee said.Sami Edge


Brown’s office worked directly with representatives of the state’s recognized tribes to shape the Oregon Tribal Student grant prior to proposing it in the 2022 Legislative session, deputy communications director Charles Boyle said.

The question of eligibility for Indigenous students who are not members of federally recognized tribes came up during the session, Boyle said, and raised a number of legal, logistical and financial questions. The program was designed to cover students’ full cost of college attendance, and the governor’s office thought it important to define eligibility in a way that the $19 million in one-time funds could cover that cost, Boyle said.

The Higher Education Coordinating Commission launched applications for the grant this summer, only months after legislative approval. As of last week 519 students had been approved for the grant for this school year, commission spokesperson Endi Hartigan said.

The program has money left over. The commission sends newsletters each week announcing that it’s still taking applications from Indigenous students who want to attend college almost for free.

Lawmakers could take more steps to expand the program, Boyle said, but making more students eligible would likely require increasing the funding. The Tribal Student Grant is only funded for one year at this point, but commission has said one of its top priorities for the 2023 legislative session is getting the grant funded long-term.

If Cross, the commission chair, could wave a magic wand and secure all the funding and political willpower he could muster, he’d make eligibility criteria for the Tribal Student Grant grant more closely match federal requirements for the Indian Education Act, which supports Indigenous students in K-12 schools.

To be eligible for that program, students can show that a parent or grandparent is enrolled in a tribe recognized by the state or federal governments, or a tribe considered “terminated” by the federal government.

“The approach is to try and be inclusive rather than exclusive with those boundaries,” Cross said. “From an aspirational point of view, to have a program that conformed with the language of the Indian Education program would be the gold standard in terms of inclusivity.”

The University of Oregon offers another example for expanding enrollment criteria. Because the Chinook Nation has traditional tribal boundaries in Oregon, the school already offers members in-state tuition under a premise called Residency by Aboriginal Right. The university will extend the Home Flight tuition waiver to Chinook’s Oregon residents as well, spokeswoman Kay Jarvis said.

“I am really excited that the University of Oregon is affording this opportunity to Chinook people,” said Cushman, who is today a tribal council member for the Chinook Nation.

Cushman thinks the financial help will make a difference for students in her community. Because the University of Oregon has historically recognized her tribe, several Chinook students have enrolled, Cushman said. But the last four Chinook members to start school at the University of Oregon before Home Flight dropped out because of financial hardship, Cushman said.

She knows that struggle personally. After losing the Gates Millennium opportunity in 2005, Cushman put herself through an undergraduate program at Oregon, at times homeless and hungry. She lost 30 pounds her freshman year because she couldn’t afford to eat well.

Now, as a tribal council member, parent and doctoral student studying Indigenous, Race and Ethnic studies at Oregon, Cushman is continuing the tribe’s fight to restore federal recognition. Achieving that would make her kids and her community members automatically eligible for more opportunities for financial aid.

“The whole point of these programs is that they’re supposed to be equity programs to undo all of the harms that have been committed against Indian Country. Chinook has experienced all of those same harms, but we can’t benefit from them,” Cushman said. “Instead of healing, we’re left in a perpetual hurt.”

This story was brought to you through a partnership between The Oregonian/OregonLive and Report for America.

Sami Edge covers higher education for The Oregonian. You can reach her at or (503) 260-3430.