University of California, Riverside

California Center for the Native Nations

Clifford Trafzer

Clifford Trafzer, Costo Professor of American Indian Affairs History, California Center for Native Nations Director

Clifford Trafzer is helping UCR create future scholars of Native American history through his endowment and research.

Native American historian Clifford Trafzer came to UCR in 1991 to create the curriculum for a bachelor’s degree in American Indian Studies in the Ethnic Studies Department. Later, Professor Rebecca Kugel and Trafzer created a master’s and Ph.D. program in the Department of History, where Trafzer now holds the Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian Affairs. Trafzer talks about what the chair has meant, UCR’s new effort to steer Native American youth to higher education, and his upcoming book on how Western and Native American medicine intersected in Southern California.

How often are you mistakenly called the “Costco” chair?
Often. I have to explain to people who Rupert Costo—not “Costco”—was. He was a local Cahuilla Indian; he and his wife, Jeanette, endowed the chair because they were interested in people delving deeper into Native American history than simply using documents. Rupert always was a supporter of doing oral histories and learning about Native American communities, culture, music, dance, art and storytelling.

What has the chair allowed you to do?
I earned my Ph.D. in 1973 and never had research funding to the degree that the chair has provided. It allows me to travel to Native American communities and learn from tribal elders. I was doing that, but on a more limited basis. But equally as important, I use the funds to help students with fellowships, paying their fees of about $6,000 per quarter. The Costo funds have allowed us to recruit Native American students at a higher level, not just the bachelor’s degree. Anthony Madrigal, for example, is the first Cahuilla person to earn a Ph.D. in Native American history. I know that Rupert Costo would be so thrilled to know that local Cahuilla people and other Southern California Indians are earning the Ph.D.

What is your Indian background?
I am Wyandot from Ohio through my mom and her father. I am German on my father’s side of the family. I’ve always been interested in Native American history and our family’s history. Our family moved to Yuma, Ariz., when I was 11, and I played sports with Native Americans from the Fort Yuma reservation.  Later, I conducted oral histories there.  Last year, I started a project with the Army, which has a huge military base at the Yuma Proving Ground. They hired me to interact with the Quechan tribe to site their sacred places on the base, places the Army ought to avoid and not destroy.

In April 2012, former Chancellor Timothy P. White announced that he would commit $70,000 a year for three years to shepherd more Native American youth toward higher education. Were you involved in that?
It was a surprise to everyone. It was at the chancellor’s Native American Education Summit, and Inland-area tribes had been invited to talk about Indian education. People had lots of ideas about how we could have more contact between universities and Native Americans. The chancellor heard what was being said and said, “We can do better,” and made the unexpected announcement.

What was your reaction?
Jubilation. How wonderful that the administration will provide money for outreach without being asked.  The chancellor saw the need and decided this is the right thing to do. Higher education is foreign to most Native American communities. It is something somebody else does. How can we convey the excitement of coming to college, any college? We’re going to do it the modern way, through websites, Facebook and videos.

How did you get interested in studying the intersection of Western and Native medicine?
I’ve been researching [the subject] since 1996, when I wrote a book called “Death Stalks the Yakama,” about a confederated tribe in Washington state of 14 tribes and bands. I had wanted to do something other than a tribal history, and in the Pacific Northwest branch of the National Archives in Seattle, I found 4,000 death certificates from the Yakama reservation from 1886 through 1964. I knew that no one had ever researched and written a study on mortality over time on any reservation, so I quantified all the information in the death certificates on age, gender, cause of death and where they died.

More Information 

General Campus Information

University of California, Riverside
900 University Ave.
Riverside, CA 92521
Tel: (951) 827-1012

Contact Information

California Center for the Native Nations

Tammy Ho
Director, CCNN

Tel: (951) 827-4843

Clyde D Derrick
Assistant Dean, Development

Tel: (951) 827-4365

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