SOUTHERN COLORADO — To help Native American students whose families were forced out of their homelands decades ago, Colorado lawmakers are proposing a new bill. SB21-029 would provide in-state tuition to Native American students living outside the state whose tribal nations are historically tied to the state’s land.
While the bill would allow these students to pay in-state tuition, they won't be considered permanent residents but will be eligible for state-funded and private financial aid programs. In order to qualify for the bill, students would have to be registered members of one of the 48 American Indian tribes with historical ties to the state.
Long before Colorado Springs was founded as a resort town in 1871, it was inhabited by American Indian Tribes.
"I know this place mainly consisted of the Utes, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Apache, and Shoshone. The Navajos, we are living on a reservation in the four corners area which is New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado," said Antonia Medina, Pikes Peak Ingenious Alliance.
Through the years, Medina says Native Americans were forced out of their homelands as the land became more valuable.
"I know it had a lot to do with money, tourism, and land use because I know the Utes had a lot of rich lands here," said Medina. "The Navajos were taken on a long walk to Fort Sumner, the United States government wanted to take their lands to sell for agricultural uses," said Medina.
"A lot of groups were just told to leave under threats. Groups certainly fought back and there was the treaty-making period in which the strategy of the United States government became well let's try to establish some agreements in order to gain ownership of the territories without having to lose so many lives," said Christina Leza, Linguistic Anthropologist, Chair of Anthropology at Colorado College. "Whether it was through warfare or other mechanisms, various groups were pushed out."
Now decades later, state lawmakers are hoping to heal the wounds of the past with a bill aimed at helping children whose families were forced out of their ancestral land.
"This bill is directed at the 48 tribes who have historical ties to Colorado. These were part or all of their homelands and the land was taken from there or very little was given in exchange and they were forced out. That doesn't mean that historical ties to their homelands don't exist," said Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, Colorado State House of Representatives.
"The bill is written right now to make it so every higher education institution provides in-state tuition to Native Americans who have historical ties to tribes that call Colorado home with the exception of Fort Lewis because they already provide a waiver for tuition to Native American students," said Sen. Stephen Fenberg, Colorado State House of Representatives. "
With the bill, lawmakers hope it will help to remedy past wrongdoings and encourage those families who were forced out to return back to their homelands.
"It will help those students who come here and those tribes living out of state a recognition that these were their homelands and to feel more comfortable in coming here. You never know if they'll stay or go back, but this is a minimum that we the state owe to these people," said Benavidez.
"If you were to offer Native Americans in-state tuition that would be a way to repair the historical rifts that have been created between the first peoples of this region and what could be known as today as white settlers. This particular bill could be a way to say we recognize we historically pushed out the people that were native to this region and this is one way we can welcome you back in," said Leza.
According to the bill, approximately 19 percent of college-aged American Indian tribe members are enrolled in college, compared to approximately 41 percent of the total college-aged population. The lowest percentage of all race and ethnicity groups surveyed.
"It's hard to start businesses on the reservations because not that many people have the education to start one. We lack a lot of resources and poverty affects starting a business also because it takes money. It's tough to get out of poverty and find jobs, and it's even harder to move off of the reservation because you need money and education," said Medina.
She says poverty is a big barrier for Native Americans. The bill states in 2016, over 20 percent of American Indians lived in poverty, the highest rate of any race group surveyed, with 32 percent of American Indian children under 18-years-old living in poverty.
"Almost half of the Navajo Nation live in poverty, and almost half of the Navajo Nation don't have running water. I know a lot of people that have to hold their houses together with cardboard boxes, it's very hard" said Medina.
Lawmakers say the bill is a good first step, but with the cost of state colleges, there is still much work to be done to help bridge the gap.
"I've always thought of education as an equalizer and I think this is a great opportunity for us to fill a gap that's existed for too long," said Alec Garnett, Colorado State House of Representatives
The bill will cost over $3 million with a loss of revenue to state colleges, but lawmakers say universities still support the legislation. If passed, it would take effect next fall.