A formal complaint was filed to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in dispute of the University of Maine scholarship programs designated for Native American students. It was submitted by an individual by the name of Justin Samuels. The thought process behind this grievance is that opportunities reserved specifically for affiliates or descendants of Native Tribes are discriminatory against those who do not identify as such.
“It’s like they’re worshiping who they believe to be the biggest victim,” said Samuels.
University of Maine System Office Native American Waiver and Educational Program Coordinator John Bear Mitchell, who participated in the program from 1992 until 1999, has chosen to respond on its behalf.
“I’ve been running the program now for over 21 years. Before that, my grandfather, Ted Mitchell, actually ran the program from 1972 until 1999, when he retired,” said Mitchell.
Ted Mitchell founded the Wabanaki Center. In his forties, he worked construction jobs on campus to financially support his 14 children. He decided to take evening classes in pursuit of his master’s degree. Dean Mark Shibles waived his senior year and encouraged Mitchell to begin employment as an educator at UMaine.
“He was 52 years old, building the Memorial Union and Lengyell Gym and Hilltop. He actually left work as a construction supervisor on a Friday, and on a Monday, when he was hired, he came in in a suit. At 52 years old, he started a second career,” said Mitchell.
The Native American Waiver and Education Program covers all tuition and various fees for those applicable. Eligibility is determined by documentation proving that you are a Maine tribal member or associated with another federally recognized one.
“The program started in 1934 at the pleasure of the Board of Governors, which is now the Board of Trustees. It was very small, starting out with one Penobscot male and female per year… They had to be accepted like everybody else and that went on until probably the 70s, when it expanded to an unlimited number of people,” said Mitchell.
The program also applies to direct descendants of tribal members or the children of direct descendants. Room and board grants are need-based, and the scholarship does not cover medical expenses, textbooks, or parking passes.
Using the fact that Native Tribes in Maine are considered separate, sovereign entities and therefore politically independent from the federal government, Samuels claims those scholarships are technically designated solely for members of political affiliation and, therefore, unconstitutional in nature.
He noted that it would be an infringement of the constitution to offer compensation to constituents of a certain political party. Since Native tribes are considered self-governing entities, the scholarships awarded to them are politically based.
Nevertheless, Native American Tribes are not limited to that practice. They are moreover known for their respective language, history and culture. In being independent of the US federal government, the parameters likely align more closely with that of an International Student program.
“Our program is based on citizenship, and citizenship is protected all over the world. So, the program that we have here is not based on membership or anything of the such. It’s based on citizenship. It’s an internal program run within the UMaine system. It’s not run by the state, it’s not run or funded by the federal government. It’s not a right, it’s a privilege,” said Mitchell.
Samuels is convinced that the ideal course of action would be to transform the program into one that waives tuition based solely on the merit or need of each individual. He believes that student backgrounds must be entirely disregarded.
“There’s no real program that is sort of like ‘If you’re this, you get this.’ When the program started in 1934, they literally have said ‘You have to get accepted like everybody else,’ and that’s why our population was so low in the beginning. It wasn’t until the 50s that we actually had a tribal graduate,” said Mitchell.
It should be recognized that UMaine, like most other universities, also provides scholarships to students in consideration of academic performance and economic necessity.
“The nation that they are a member of is more than welcome to set aside its own money for its own citizens to attend universities. I am not complaining about that,” said Samuels.
The issue with that solution is that many tribal nations lack the proper funding to cover a full education for their members. Furthermore, it would not, by any means, serve those who are descendants of members and not associated with the tribe personally.
Suppose the scholarship opportunities and those of other underrepresented peoples are rescinded. How can UMaine or other universities encourage the enrollment of marginalized groups if they do not offer them compensation in return for enrollment? Samuels responded to this inquiry by suggesting a more diverse recruitment process. That would certainly increase diversity in applicants, but it is also a moot point if those students cannot cover the cost of tuition.
Native Americans did not receive official citizenship in Maine until 1964, and it was common for tribal affiliates to join the workforce as early as 13 years old. They were generally employed by shoe shops, logging companies and sawmills. to provide for their families. Only one-third of the community graduated high school at this time, and very few within that margin could pursue higher education.
“We generally left the state where there were citizenship initiatives for Native people. We would essentially work hourly jobs. When people got up to eighth grade, they would leave school and go work to make money for their families… a very oppressed community,” said Mitchell.
According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the average Native American household attains eight cents for every dollar of wealth made in the average caucasian household. The national poverty rate for white Americans is 8%. In contrast, Indigenous people hold the highest in the country at a significant 25.4%, with a statistic of one in three living in poverty across the US.
“The sports teams have a higher population than the Native population at UMaine systemically. It’s not a very big program, unfortunately. We have about as many per capita numbers of people utilizing the Native American Waiver programs as other waiver programs that exist as well. There are 17 waiver programs that exist in the UMaine system. We’re just one of them,” said Mitchell.
Samuels is not implying that tuition waivers should be revoked entirely but that they should be open to everyone. The issue is that the enrollment process tends to work systematically against minorities. For instance, In the US, Caucasians receive 72% of college scholarships, and though a third of applicants are minorities, they receive only 28%.
If UMaine were to open its Native scholarship programs to all, many students in that demographic would be lost amidst a surplus of applicants from all walks of life. The program was designed to provide opportunities for Native American tribal affiliates, and those who do it does not apply to still have several potential scholarship and financial aid opportunities.
“Some of the reasons why I am complaining about this is that it permanently gives people victim status without having a way out. There’s not a deadline to which this problem is supposed to be fixed or addressed,” said Samuels.
If the problem in question is a lack of support and consideration by institutions, providing these opportunities serves as a means of addressing it. Similarly, if the problem is that UMaine was built upon land illegally stolen from Native Americans, scholarships for students whose ancestors were wronged could be considered appropriate in creating a welcoming environment and denouncing that side of American history.
“Notice I don’t advocate for sympathy, pity or special treatment for myself …Special programs for Natives don’t help me, and I’m not willing to stand in line and put someone else ahead of me, no matter what the tragedy in part because I have my own tragedy,” Samuels said.
Those who feel this similarly or oppose Samuel’s view should contact the University of Maine Human Resources department, where the complaint was also filed. Furthermore, the UMS Legal department, composed of five attorneys in Chadbourne Hall, is issuing a statement that can be accessed by request.