This July, law professor Angela Riley and gender studies and anthropology professor Shannon Speed were appointed special advisors to Chancellor Gene Block on Native American and Indigenous affairs.

Speed, director of the UCLA American Indian Studies Center and a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, is an expert on legal anthropology, Indigenous rights, human rights and migration. Riley, a distinguished lawyer and jurist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, directs UCLA School of Law’s Native Nations Law and Policy Center and is an authority on Indigenous governance. Both are longtime dedicated mentors and advocates for Native and Indigenous Bruins and communities throughout the country.

As Native American Heritage Month begins, Newsroom spoke with Riley and Speed about their new role as advisors, their plans for continued relationship-building between UCLA and local Native nations, and the pivotal role they’ll play in helping to implement new UCLA and University of California initiatives aimed at boosting Native enrollment and creating a welcoming and affirming environment for Indigenous students on campus.

You were preceded in this advisory role by Professor Mishuana Goeman, who was the first to hold the position. What kind of groundwork did she lay?

Shannon Speed: Mishuana Goeman did tremendously important work, developing a broad profile for community engagement, strengthening community relations and working to address critical and complex campus issues affecting Native students, faculty and staff. Much of this was “repair” work, seeking to heal relations damaged by past oversights and wrongs. But it was also forward-thinking in terms of how to really change campus dynamics in such a way that future wrongs could be avoided. We are very fortunate to follow on her able leadership.

As scholars from different fields — law and anthropology — what different approaches will each of you bring to the role?

Angela Riley: UCLA School of Law has been a leader in Indigenous rights for decades, much of that is the legacy of Professor Carole Goldberg. We’ve taken the foundations of her work and grown the program exponentially over the last several years, including launching the Graton Scholars program and adding two soon-to-be-endowed chairs in Indian law, both made possible by the generosity of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. This builds further on our Tribal Legal Development Clinic, which is funded by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. We have also instituted the Milanovich Fellowship in Law, funded by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

So, the law school has really become a pillar of Indigenous rights at UCLA, and I come to my work as special advisor from the perspective of thinking about the role of law in advancing Indigenous rights in the U.S. and beyond. This has particular resonance on campus, with new initiatives that position UCLA to recruit even more Native students, as well as students more broadly who want to work in the field of Indigenous rights or American Indian studies. As advisors, Shannon and I will be actively engaged in ensuring that UC policy aligns with and is in support of this mission. 

Shannon Speed: Angela’s work and mine really complement each other well — it’s not as different as you might think. I am a legal anthropologist and, like Angela, have long been concerned with issues of Indigenous rights. I come to the work in part as an anthropologist, but also as a Native American and Indigenous studies scholar and social justice activist. Native studies, like the other ethnic studies, is founded on principles of social justice, and I see my special advisor work as very much in keeping with that.

We need to improve access to a UC education for Native peoples and also improve the educational experience of Native students so that it is equitable with those of other students once they arrive on campus. And we need to build relations between UCLA and Native nations in the city and region where we reside to foster mutually beneficial exchanges of knowledge.

How has the role of special advisor evolved since it was created? What new responsibilities do you foresee?

Shannon Speed: I think the basic premise remains the same: The special advisor works to foster relations with the community, particularly the land-based Native nations, while improving campus climate through various policy- and practice-related undertakings. But progress has been made! For example, Mishuana Goeman achieved a historic memorandum of understanding between UCLA and the Gabrielino/Tongva community. It guarantees tribal members a level of access to physical spaces at UCLA, as well as a role in planting, harvesting and teaching about traditional care for the land the campus sits on. That’s just one example.

But the work will also be different going forward because the context has changed. In April of this year, the UC Office of the President announced the Native American Opportunity Program, which fully covers tuition and fees for students from federally recognized tribes who are California residents. Angela is taking the lead on understanding how implementation of that program is rolling out at UCLA and working on issues that might arise.

And in June, Chancellor Block announced the Native American and Pacific Islander Bruins Rising Initiative, the product of organizing by a coalition of Native students, staff and faculty and advocacy by UCLA’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. Native Bruins Rising aims to further equity and inclusivity by diversifying and supporting our students, faculty and staff, and a big part of my work as special advisor this year will be developing the implementation plan for that initiative. So, there is new terrain to traverse, even as we continue to tend to community relations and to moving earlier campus initiatives forward.

Is UCLA seeing an impact on recruitment and retention as a result of these new initiatives? What are your hopes for these programs in the long term?

Angela Riley: The Native American Opportunity Program is still fairly embryonic, and it was not announced in time to make a significant impact on recruitment for the 2022–23 academic year. Nevertheless, it can benefit the financial situations of existing students, and we are certainly working with admissions and financial aid to highlight the program for potential incoming students. I’m optimistic that this will allow us to increase our numbers of Native students at UCLA, and we are particularly interested in ensuring that Natives from California tribes are represented on our campus. 

Shannon Speed: I think that the Native American Opportunity Program, particularly in tandem with the Native Bruins Rising Initiative, which contains a variety of measures that will significantly improve campus climate, will help to raise our long-stagnant numbers of Native students. For some time, we’ve identified the cost of a UCLA education and concerns that the campus was not Native-friendly as the top reasons we have not improved our numbers, despite our significant recruitment and retention efforts. Both of these are going to be addressed by these initiatives, which makes me very optimistic about growing our numbers.

UCLA is a premier destination for students interested in tribal law, and the American Indian Studies Center is already an important partner in cultural heritage preservation for many tribes and communities. How do you hope UCLA's work with Indigenous students and communities expands?

Angela Riley: As a land-grant institution situated on expropriated Native lands, UCLA has a particular obligation to engage with local Native communities, both in L.A. County and across the state. This commitment has been going on for many years but has grown, especially with the work of the previous special advisor and others in campus leadership positions. UCLA’s land acknowledgment — its formal statement recognizing Indigenous peoples as traditional stewards of this land — is only one manifestation of that commitment.

We see enormous potential to continue to build our the Indigenous presence at UCLA, through the Native Bruins Rising Initiative and the Native American Opportunity Plan, as we mentioned, as well as through targeted programs at the law school. We have one of the best, if not the best, American Indian studies faculties in the United States, and the American Indian studies program will soon become its own department, which is incredibly exciting — it has been decades in the making.

What do you see as the most important issues facing UCLA when it comes to its relationships with Indigenous groups?

Angela Riley: UCLA has been a strong and committed partner with Indigenous groups for many years. One very important example is UCLA’s leadership in ensuring the repatriation of Indigenous ancestors’ remains and cultural items from the campus to their proper caretakers. We have certainly been a leader in the UC system in that regard.

Nevertheless, we acknowledge that UCLA can still feel out of reach to Native communities, both geographically and theoretically. So, we are doing our best to work with sustainability programs at UCLA to “Indigenize” the campus, including holding events that welcome the Native community at the botanical gardens; supporting programs generated by the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability like Sage Hill, which is open to Indigenous groups for collaborative use and resources; and furthering our recognition of UCLA being situated on Indian land. We have a great beginning, and we know we have a long way to go, but I have faith that we will get there.