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David Risling, Father of Indian Education, Dies

March 15, 2005

Photo: man's portrait

David Risling championed Indian rights and education for more than 50 years. (Debbie Aldridge/UC Davis photo)

David Risling, the "father of Indian education" who spent his career opening the doors of higher education to Native American students, died Sunday, March 13, in Woodland Memorial Hospital. He was 83.

Throughout his career, Mr. Risling was an effective champion of Indian rights and education -- and a teacher who passed along the wisdom of his father to the generations of Native Americans who came after.

He arrived at UC Davis in 1970 to help develop Native American studies as an academic discipline and then taught as a senior lecturer for 21 years in the program until he retired in 1991. He remained active on campus and at DQ University until shortly before his death.

Although his original focus was tackling injustices on behalf of California Indians at the state level, by the mid '70s, Mr. Risling had gained national renown. He was appointed by three U.S. presidents to serve on the National Advisory Council on Indian Education and later was instrumental in the creation of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

He also co-founded California Indian Legal Services and the Native American Rights Fund, whose lawyers fought for long-ignored treaty rights to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Risling was integrally involved in passage of the federal Indian Education and Indian Tribal Community College acts. That legislation led to the founding of 31 Indian community colleges and dozens of K-12 reservation education programs across the nation.

In California, he was respected by Native Americans for his instrumental role in co-founding DQ University in rural Davis and for his leadership in the establishment of UC Davis' own full-fledged, nationally recognized Native American studies department in 1993. It remains one of only three such departments awarding doctoral degrees in North America.

"He was a person of absolute personal integrity, honesty and courage," said Jack Forbes, UC Davis professor emeritus of Native American studies and anthropology, and a friend of nearly 40 years. "He embodied in his life all of the attributes of a Native American leader: warrior, compassionate father, host, pathfinder, caretaker, facilitator, friend and counselor."

Mr. Risling counted his family as his greatest accomplishment, said his daughter, Peg Murray. "He was proud of our talents and our own accomplishments, and those of our children." He was also a second father to many in the Indian community. Known for his absolute honesty and warmth, Mr. Risling took into his home a number of youngsters to give them a better chance at life.

Born on April 10, 1921, near Weitchpec in Northern California on the Klamath River near its junction with the Trinity, Mr. Risling was one of eight children of David Risling Sr. (Chief Su-Wohrom) and Mary Geneva Orcutt. A member of the Hoopa tribe, Mr. Risling was also of Yurok and Karuk ancestry.

He was inducted early into the life of northwestern Indians, participating in a cycle of river fishing, hunting, ceremonies, agriculture and forestry. A very athletic youth, Mr. Risling excelled at every sport offered by Hoopa High School and went into Golden Gloves boxing with great success.

During World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy to become a lieutenant commander of a patrol craft that escorted larger ships full of supplies to war zones in the South Pacific.

When he returned, he married his high school sweetheart, Barbara Phelps, and with her support graduated from California Polytechnic College, San Luis Obispo, with bachelor's and master's degrees in vocational agriculture. He was hired as an agricultural teacher at Modesto Junior College in 1950, where he taught for 20 years. During his tenure in Modesto, Mr. Risling became a much desired judge of livestock.

During the 1950s and early '60s, Mr. Risling helped his father travel throughout the state, reviving Native American dances and bringing people together on key California Indian issues.

While others confronted authority during the contentious early days of Indian political consciousness in the late '60s and early '70s when Native American activists seized Alcatraz Island and the American Indian Movement was making headlines, Mr. Risling worked behind the scenes, building relationships in Congress and lobbying for recognition of Indian rights and educational opportunities.

"He was the 'E.F. Hutton' of the Native American community," added Micki Eagle, business officer for the UC Davis Department of Political Science. "When he spoke, everyone listened. Our native community has lost a revered elder, proud of his heritage, an accomplished story teller and someone who never forgot who he was or where he came from."

Among the institutions Risling helped found, and the one of which he was most proud, is DQ University, the only private American Indian college in California. The school now faces serious financial difficulties but continues to function.

"It was a dream that the late Carl Gorman and I had worked on from 1961-1962, but it was Dave's organizing skill and patience that came to the fore in 1971 when DQU finally acquired flesh and bones," Forbes said.

Mr. Risling was heartened to see students embrace their heritage, picking up the disrupted streams of tradition and identity. "Indians are moving up nowadays," he said last fall in an interview for the UC Davis Magazine. "Indian people now realize that they can expand their destinies positively and recognize that they can live successfully in two worlds."

Mr. Risling is survived by his wife, Barbara, of Davis; children Kathy Wallace of Fairfield, Peg Murray of Forestville, Lyn Risling of McKinleyville and Ken Risling of Santa Rosa; and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held 1 p.m. Saturday in the Hoopa Neighborhood Facility, Hoopa.

Donations in Risling's name may be made out to the UC Regents for the David Risling Award, a scholarship given to UC Davis students of California Native American descent. Send checks to Judy La Deaux, Department of Native American Studies, One Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616.

Media contact(s):

  • Kathy Wallace, David Risling's daughter, (707) 688-1891
  • Susanne Rockwell, UC Davis News Service, (530) 752-2542, sgrockwell@ucdavis.edu

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