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David Risling: Walking in two worlds

By Amy Agronis on February 4, 2005 in University

David Risling, the 'father of Indian education,' spent his career opening the doors of higher education to Native American students, ensuring them the opportunity to define their own histories and destinies.

By Bryant Furlow

When his father first learned that David Risling had sold his pigs and was leaving the Hoopa Reservation in Northern California to attend college, he showed up at his son's bedroom door with a stick in hand and invited him out to the woodshed. Remembering that moment 65 years later in the living room of his Davis home, the retired co-founder of Native American Studies at UC Davis grins and shakes his head.

"Boy, I thought I was really in trouble," he laughs, his eyes dancing.

In the woodshed, his father asked Risling what he intended to study. Having seen how important lawyers were to his father's lobbying efforts for the tribe, he said that he thought he might like to study law. At that, his father reached out with the stick and touched the dirt floor. "He made a dot in the center of a big circle on the ground," the 83-year-old Risling says. The dot was the Indian people, his father had explained, and the circle the larger society. Drawing lines between the circle's periphery and the center dot, his father spoke in turns of Indian spirituality, of education, of history.

"He went on about how you have to write your own history, because the history that's written is false," Risling recalls. After a while, there was a spoked wheel on the woodshed floor between them.

"What he was getting at was that you have to learn how to put all the spokes together for the wheel to turn," Risling says. His father said that he would have to learn to walk in two worlds, never forgetting who he is as an Indian--but also learning about the dominant culture and its political system in order to ensure that Indian ways would not be relegated to the dominant culture's caricatured histories.

Risling took his father's lesson to heart and has ever since walked successfully in both worlds as an effective champion of Indian rights and education and as a teacher who has passed along the wisdom of his father to the generations of Native Americans who have come after.

Prepared in his youth

When Risling's father spoke to him in the woodshed, David Risling already knew something about walking in two worlds. A Karuk-Yurok boy from the Hoopa Reservation in California's far north, where his family ran a sawmill, he was captain of the high school football team, student body president, Future Farmers of America leader and a championship boxer. His father had taught the traditional songs and dances to David and his seven siblings, along with farming and auto mechanics.

After graduating from Hoopa Valley High School, Risling enrolled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, but his college education was interrupted by war; he commanded a U.S. Navy patrol craft in the Pacific during World War II. And when he returned to college, it was to study science, not law. After receiving a bachelor's degree in animal science from Cal Poly, he went on to earn a master's in education. Risling worked as a teacher at Caruthers High School in Fresno County while earning his advanced degree, then joined the Modesto Junior College agriculture department.

Recalling that the Indian school of his youth had failed to convey anything about his local culture or history, Risling recognized that the need for Native American education was pressing. Invited by Jack Forbes to help establish UC Davis' Native American Studies program, Risling came to Davis in 1970.

Originally, Native American studies was part of the applied behavioral sciences department; classes were held in an old two-story barracks where Borders bookstore now stands. "I think they hoped we'd fade away," Risling says.

But they did not fade away. The Native American Studies program eventually moved to the College of Letters and Science and, with the help of then-Chancellor Ted Hullar, became its own full-fledged, nationally recognized university department in 1993. The program has continued to grow in strength and reputation. It is now one of the few nationwide to offer a doctoral degree in Native American studies.

This fall, Risling's life of walking in two worlds culminated in his leading a contingent of California Indians down the length of the Mall in Washington, D.C., in a march of tens of thousands that celebrated the opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. The museum owes its existence partly to Risling's lobbying efforts throughout the 1980s and '90s. Risling was invited to represent Native American tribes from the western United States and wore a traditional Hoopa headdress of red woodpecker's feathers, proudly announcing his tribe to the crowds.

Paving the way behind the scenes

None of this would have been possible, Risling is quick to point out, had his father not lobbied hard when he was a boy to get the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs to replace the Hoopa Valley's vocational boarding school with a full-fledged 12-year school system. Without his dad's efforts, there would have been no high school diploma, Risling says, no college, no career of opening doors for subsequent generations of American Indian students. "My dad went only to the second grade, but he befriended congressmen and taught me how to get our rights."

His father had confronted power when necessary -- but only after carefully laying the groundwork, establishing friendships and connections that could help him triumph in his fights. Risling went on to adopt the same approach. While others confronted authority during the contentious early days of Indian political consciousness--back in the late '60s and early '70s, when Native American activists seized Alcatraz Island and the American Indian Movement was making headlines -- he worked diligently behind the scenes, building relationships in Congress and lobbying for recognition of Indian rights and educational opportunities.

"Dave always insisted that we know the rules, the processes of the systems in which we have to work," says Inés Hernández-Ávila, UC Davis professor of Native American studies. "He taught us to pick our battles carefully and to fight only battles we already know we'll win. He taught us to lay the groundwork ahead of time."

Risling's approach has led to many successes. He co-founded California Indian Legal Services and the Native American Rights Fund, whose lawyers fought for long-ignored treaty rights all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 1970s, Risling was appointed by three U.S. presidents to serve on the National Advisory Council on Indian Education and was integral to the passage of the Indian Education Act and Indian Tribal Community College Act -- legislation that led to the founding of 31 Indian community colleges and dozens of K-12 reservation education programs across the nation.

Among the institutions Risling has helped to found, and the one of which he seems most proud, is D-Q University -- which has been the only private American Indian college in California. Built at an old WWII-era communications station outside of Davis, D-QU has been dedicated to teaching American Indian culture and history and to helping all native peoples remember their past and determine for themselves its meanings. And though, unfortunately, the school has been facing serious financial difficulties and recently had to shut its doors after losing its accreditation, D-QU is not at an end, Risling says. He notes that the school has been teaching a diverse population, even offering shops for state employees and officials about the history of gaming tribes.

Risling's achievements are many, and they have not gone unrecognized. At the 2001 California Indian Conference and Gathering, a special session was devoted to honoring his myriad accomplishments and recognizing him as a valued elder in the community. In 2002 UC Davis named one of the La Rue student residential buildings in his honor.

Risling is humble about the recognition. When a person gets old and gray, he laughs, they give him awards. The plaques and commendations -- including six from U.S. presidents and California governors -- are mostly filed away out of sight.

More important than the plaques and proclamations are the many lives that he has touched. "Dave was integral to my success in college," says Annette Reed, M.A. '92, director of California State University, Sacramento's Native American studies program. "Back when I was thinking about whether or not to go to graduate school, he took about four hours out of his day when I came to UC Davis, just to walk me around campus. He introduced me to other professors, other students--he really personalized the campus for me. He's one of the main reasons I went on to graduate studies."

Later, when Reed was preparing for her doctorate exams, Risling helped again. "I was nervous. Dave talked with me; we burned medicine root and prayed about it in a native way. It calmed me -- just completely calmed me, and gave me focus." She went on to pass with distinction.

Debunking seeming contradictions

As Risling sits in his living room with his wife, Barbara -- his high school sweetheart, a Northern California girl -- he recounts the past without any of the bitterness or resentment one might expect to see after a lifelong campaign against misrepresentation and disempowerment. Old tensions and confrontations do surface now and then, but they are voiced more with amusement or mild disbelief than lingering anger.

Some ethnologists and traditional historians on campus were not always happy to see Indians seeking to define themselves, he recalls. Back when he started out at Davis, a lot of people "thought they knew everything" about California Indians, but much about those cultures hadn't been written down.

"They didn't have any of the facts," he says without malice -- and he has sought over the years to remedy that. "The Native American studies classes are not just for Indian students," he says, emphasizing the need for all students, not just Indians, to know Native American history and cultures.

By reaching out to opponents with humor and respect, others say, Risling forged better relationships across the campus. "Dave was absolutely integral to reaching out to other departments," says Hernández-Ávila. "He can talk to anybody, and if something went wrong, he would take the blame."

Back when she first met Risling in 1971, Hernández-Ávila says, he was sitting on a Ford Foundation graduate fellowship selection committee, and she was a finalist. One of the other panelists was very tough with her, demanding to know why she identified with both her Mexican-American and her American Indian heritage. "He told me, 'One of these days, you'll have to choose,'" Hernández-Ávila recounts.

But Risling defended her. "He said, 'One day she may be one of those who brings us all back together.'" He never saw a contradiction in her walking in both worlds -- embracing both her Indian and Mexican-American identities.

Risling has always been heartened to see students embrace their heritage, picking up the disrupted streams of tradition and identity. "Indians are moving up nowadays," Risling says. "Indian people now realize that they can expand their destinies positively and recognize that they can live successfully in two worlds." •

Freelance writer Bryant Furlow is a frequent contributor to UC Davis Magazine.

Media contact(s)

Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,