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Tribal Membership Initiative

The Tribal Membership Initiative is a new endeavor by UC San Diego's Graduate Division to increase diversity, by providing fellowships to incoming graduate students from Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian ancestry.


Tribal membership in government-recognized tribes can be employed as a priority factor in the admissions decisions of public universities. Proposition 209 prohibits consideration of race ethnicity, gender and national origin, and the designations of American Indian, Native American, and Alaska Native are generally considered racial/ethnic classifications. However, tribal membership also describes a political category due to the unique political relationship between tribes and the federal government which acknowledges federally recognized tribes as political entities. Setting admission priorities in order to educate members of recognized Native American and Alaska Native political entities represents a legitimate responsibility of the University of California, San Diego.

In 1975 Congress enacted policies establishing self-determination for federally recognized tribes. This was based on the understanding that tribes have functioning governments that have inherent sovereign powers. Courts have recognized the importance of leadership training to the government policy goals of tribal self-sufficiency and sovereignty. Cultivation of a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry is necessary. The path to leadership must be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals. Educating children and future leaders is crucial to the effective management of complex tribal affairs. Without this, tribes will be impeded in exercising their sovereign authority and the federal government's policy of self-determination will be undermined.

With 17 tribes in San Diego County, the University of California, San Diego has an affirmative obligation to educate tribal members. The following is a summary of the attached legal paper, “Tribal Membership and State Law Affirmative Action Bans” by Cruz Reynoso and William Kidder. The outline for this proposal for graduate studies admissions priority policy is also included.


Native American and Alaska Native federal and state recognition depends not on their racial or ethnic designation, but on the political designation as enrolled members of a community to which the state has a political arrangement that includes responsibilities and obligations. Tribes have an overriding interest in developing skills in each generation that will allow for the realization of tribal sovereignty, which includes education in order to prosper politically, economically, and culturally.

The group at the statistical bottom of all the scales thought to measure lack of opportunity is American Indians. A line of viable Supreme Court authority holds that equal protection of the law does not require strict scrutiny of laws singling out Indians for advantage or disadvantage, when “Indians” is understood to mean members of federally recognized tribes rather than Indians by ethnicity. -Judge Steve Russell

As California now approaches the ten-year anniversary of Proposition 209, an important legal and educational question has heretofore been largely ignored at the policymaking level: Can tribal membership, particularly membership in a federally recognized tribe, be a plus factor in public university admissions despite Proposition 209's prohibition on consideration of race, color, ethnicity, and national origin? Within the UC system, the UCLA Law School and an affiliated graduate student program at the UCLA American Indian Studies Center allow tribal membership as an admissions factor.

A body of federal cases, dating back to the landmark 1974 Supreme Court ruling in Morton v. Mancari, treat membership in a federally recognized American Indian tribe as a political classification, distinct from classifications based on race, ethnicity and national origin. Whereas federal courts reserve strict scrutiny for classifications based on race, ethnicity and national origin (including affirmative action programs), classifications based on membership in a federally recognized tribe are subject to the rational basis test, a far less stringent standard of review. Generally the federal government and related court cases recognize American Indians or Native Americans as all persons having origin in any of the original peoples of North America or the Hawaiian Islands, in particular American Indians, Eskimos, Aleut or Native Hawaiians. This is based on their membership in what were originally independent sovereign nations.


An admitted candidate must be able to document affiliation as follows:

  • Native Americans and Alaska Natives must be able to document membership in a federally recognized tribe. This can be done through ID cards, certificates of membership, letters from governing councils, or other valid documentation. See the attached site for a list of federally recognized tribes.
  • To verify Native Hawaiian ancestry candidates must be able to provide a copy of a certified birth certificate stating Hawaiian race which can then link a person to his/her Hawaiian ancestry. Original birth documents may be obtained from the Hawai'i State Department of Health (DOH), or through the state vital statistics office wherever the birth took place. For more information on establishing Hawaiian ancestry see the Office of Hawaiian Affairs site.


All tribal members admitted under this initiative and enrolling in a UCSD MA, MEng, MEd, MBA, MFA, MIA, MPP, MS, PhD, DMA, or EdD degree program will be eligible to receive a two year fellowship.

  • MBA, MIA, and MPP participants will receive a $20,000 per year stipend and a maximum of $25,000 per year for tuition and fees.
  • All other participants will receive a $20,000 per year stipend, full coverage of tuition and fees for the first year including nonresident supplemental tuition, if applicable, and coverage of all resident tuition and fees for the second year.


The procedures to participate in the Tribal Membership Initiative are described below.

  • Applicants who wish to be considered for admission under the Tribal Membership Initiative must complete the standard UCSD Graduate Studies application which includes providing letters of recommendation, test scores, and academic records/transcripts.
  • The UCSD Graduate Application contains a section on the personal information page that asks applicants if they would like to receive consideration under the initiative. If yes, they must indicate their tribal affiliation on the application and provide verfication of their affiliation. 
  • The verification of affiliation may be in the form of a valid tribal identification card, a letter of verification from the tribal chair, or chair of the tribal educational committee. Native Hawaiians should provide a copy of a certified birth certificate stating Hawaiian race.
  • Applicants should submit this documentation to the department/program, along with academic records/transcripts, test scores, and any other required application materials. 
  • If nominated for admission, departments will forward the documentation of affiliation to the Graduate Admissions Office as part of the applicant's admissions file.