Students and faculty from DQU, a tiny two-year college 25 miles northwest of Sacramento, stood quietly by the fire in the star-filled night. Suddenly, Darrel Standing Elk, the son of a South Dakota Sioux medicine man, started calling out in his native language.
"Let's go into the sweatbox," translated one of the students, and the men and women, dressed only in towels, enter their separate huts. Hot rocks were brought in, the huts were closed. Then the rocks were placed in the middle, causing the half-dozen DQU personnel inside to begin to sweat profusely in the stuffy atmosphere.
"I pray for this school," said Standing Elk, a 37-year-old dour religion reacher, "to give our youth guidance in these times." Dennis Banks, former national director of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and an instructor in Indian law, banged slowly on a drum.
At most colleges around the country orientation includes such things as picking a fraternity or getting to know the names of the lcoal football stars. But at DQU, a federally backed, accredited, predominantly Native American-Hispanic college, students and faculty go through ancient Indian rituals like entering "the sweatbox" in order to purify themselves for the new school year.
Deganawidah-Quetzalcoatl University, named after the founder of the old Iroquois federation and the Aztec god of life, was established in 1971 on the site of an abandoned 640-acre miltary base The stated purpose of DQU, as the school is commonly referred to because, as one official said "you white people couldn't pronounce it," is to prepare Native American and Mexican-American students for entering a white dominated society. It aims to accomplish this by teaching themself confidence in their own history, culture and religion as well as basic learning skills.
The school began in a storm of controversy after a handful of Indian militants occupied the site in late 1970. Both the Indians and the University of California at Davis, seven miles to the east, were petitioning the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which controls the land, for the 640 acres. After three months of occupation the university and HEW agreed to let the Indians remain on the site.
At its inception DQU had around 150 students, predominantly Indians and Mexican-Americans who painted the drab Army installation with colorful murals and turned the barracks into classrooms. This fall, according to university president Steve Baldy, a 27-year-old Native American from the Hoopa reservation 300 miles north of San Francisco, about 325 students are expected to register for classes.
During the first few years of its existence, DQU scared many local residents in the predominantly rural area. Bombs exploded on the campus and some shooting incidents were recorded. One local newspaper, the Lake Berryessa News, reported them with such blazing headlines as "Extra - Pro-enemy Revolutionists Operations in Progress Right on our Doorstep."
These days the local papers mention DQU infrequently and only then to announce such things as Latin festivals or Indian handicraft classes. "The local redneck farmers were pretty leery of us in the beginning," said Steve Baldy. "But now they're a little more friendly. I don't think the local white farmers really know us - but they don't bother us and we don't bother them."
Baldy and other DQU officials believe part of their growing acceptability derives from their increasing disciplinarian approach to education - a sign outside the school's front gate warns people not to carry alcohol, drugs or firearms onto campus.
In addition, on July 1, DQU became a fully accredited two-year school, granting A.A. and A.S. degrees in such things as general agriculture, Native American or Hispanic studies, social science, community development and education.
With a 30-year lease from HEW, the school has been able to subsist on a $500,000 annual budget. Most of the funds come from federally financed student aid programs, the rest from tuition and private donations. In addition, crops - wheat, corn, tomatoes - are all grown on the land and are used both to feed students and raise cash for the school.
Among those working the fields daily is AIM's Banks. Wanted by South Dakota on 1973 riot and assault charges, Banks' extradition has been blocked by California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. In April a state court ordered Brown to extradite Banks and an appeal on that ruling is expected to be heard within the month.
Once a well-known political firebrand. Banks has settled down to a quieter, more introspective lifestyle at DQU. He spend much of his time working atop an old 1943 Catepillar tractor plowing the flat, rich Sacramento Valley dirt and teaching classes on such topics as Indian law and religion.
"We want to help him (the student) live off the reservation and still be an Indian when he dies - and have a medicine man conducting the burial ceremony, not a representative of the Pope," says the 55-year-old Ojibwa from Minnesota.
The study of Native American religions has become of increasing importance to Banks and many others around DQU. During the full moon in summer. Native Americans and a few whites from throughout the West gathered under starry skies above Davis for the sundance ritual - an ancient ceremony which includes four days of fasting singing, praying to ancestors and self-inflicting wounds.
Throughout the year Banks and others at DQU performed "sweats," a Midwestern Indian purification rite.
"These ceremonies have broadened my whole world to the possibilities of life," Banks said. "I've become a much deeper man, I've gained 1,000 per cent over what I was before in my understanding of Indians and Mother Earth. I know not only Dennis Banks, the political man, but Dennis Banks, the Ojibwa."
Inside the steamy hut, Standing Elk and the others prayed - for their ancestors, for Indians in hospitals, in prisons and on reservations. They also prayed for DQU which they believe has become a necessary part of the struggle to keep their culture alive.
"I know, dear grandfather," Standing Elk prays slowly, "that people say the Indian has lost his religion, but here, we know, it's not true. We may be down but we still believe in this hut. As long as there are Indians, there will be our religion. When there is no religion, there will be nor more Indians."