Olivia Chilcote '11, gender, ethnic and multicultural studies


Olivia ChilcoteAlmost one year after joining San Diego State University as an assistant professor of American Indian studies, alumna Olivia Chilcote is currently working on a book about the federal process for recognizing Indian tribes.

The book project is a first for Chilcote (’11, gender, ethnicity and multicultural studies), a member of the San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians. 

“I wanted to give back to my tribe,” says Chilcote, who also has a master’s degree and a doctorate from UC Berkeley. “My mom, in particular, inspired my commitment to my tribe and taught me the importance of honoring my ancestors.” 

Her mother served as a tribal council member for about a decade, so Chilcote was well versed on the issues, the hopes and the happenings of her tribe. The San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians are the only unrecognized tribe in San Diego County, according to Chilcote. 

“I knew we were an unrecognized tribe, and that meant we were different from other tribes,” she says. “But I didn’t fully understand what that meant, why we were different or how we got that way. These fundamental questions about my tribe always stayed with me. 

“What began as personal intrigue eventually developed into a much larger research project about the complex history and political status of my tribe (and many other unrecognized tribes in California) that centers settler colonialism in California, the connections between identity and federal law and the dynamics of contemporary tribal politics,” she says.

In addition to her book project, she is also working on a series of articles that she plans to submit to peer-reviewed journals for publication. 

As a faculty member, Chilcote is passionate about exposing her students to Native American cultures and Native contemporary issues while also introducing them to community-based research methods. Her goal is to break down power dynamics in the classroom and encourage learning reciprocity. She adds that she returns to some of the concepts and theoretical frameworks that she learned in the College of Education & Integrative Studies’ ethnic and women’s studies department. 

“EWS faculty influenced my decision to pursue academia through their support of my research goals,” Chilcote says. “It was through their mentorship that I believed my ideas could have relevance to others and make an intervention in academia.” 

In celebration of Women’s History Month, Chilcote returned to the university in March to speak about “honoring women who fight all forms of discrimination against women.”  

Olivia Chilcote and some of her students

“I felt like my path through higher education came full circle,” she says. “The best part about my visit was connecting with the GEMS students and 10 young Native American women students from Sherman Indian High School who attended my presentation. I was humbled by the number of young women who told me that my story inspired and empowered them — some even saying they want to change their major to GEMS.” 

Chilcote is excited to share her research and culture with others and hopes to inspire Native American youth to pursue higher education and academia. 

“There is a critical need for more Native American representation in academia since education has historically been used as a tool of colonization and assimilation against Native American peoples,” Chilcote says. “Native Americans were often forced to attend boarding schools and similar institutions where they were punished for speaking their languages, practicing their cultures and expressing their world views. After decades of silencing and misrepresentation, I think it is crucial for universities to employ Native American faculty because they can enrich the classroom and academia as a whole through their unique perspectives.” 

Chilcote is the first member of her tribe to earn a doctorate degree and hopes other Natives will follow suit. 

“As a professor, I am excited to mentor Native students who would otherwise have few role models or advocates within the university setting,” she says. “Just as EWS faculty strive to help their students succeed, my goal is to help Native American students navigate higher education and empower them to pursue an educational path that will fulfill their own interests and desires.”