The below interview conducted with phenomenal Native activist Morning Star Gali (Pit River Nation) was featured in the Spring 2021 issue of News from Native California.
The first time I met Morning Star was in November 2008 at Mills College. I was still fresh to Oakland, to graduate school, and to the Native American Sisterhood Alliance, a student organization now known as the Indigenous Women’s Alliance. Morning Star agreed to provide opening prayer for the group’s inaugural event for Native American Heritage Month.
On the day of the event, Morning Star arrived and greeted everyone in the meadow behind Mills Hall. It was an overcast day with a hint of rain, which was probably why not many students had come. After a time, we all gathered closer for the prayer. All background noise fell away as Morning Star spoke. Her tone was earnest and resolute. I could tell each word was from her heart.
Before then, I had only heard her name mentioned excitedly within our group meetings and thought: Wow, this Morning Star must be a great person. From every moment since, I can honestly say it’s been a pleasure and an honor to be in her company. The last time I saw her in person was a few years ago at the Sunrise Gathering at Alacatraz Island. I was fortunate enough to talk to her recently by phone and e-mail to see what she’s been up to.
Ishmael Alikhan: For readers who may not be aware, could you tell me more about the annual Sunrise gathering, your role in it, and your work with the International Indian Treaty Council?
Morning Star Gali: I’ve been attending the sunrise gatherings my entire life, and continue to bring my four children every year just as I was brought by my parents. The gathering was started by Bill Wahpehpah (Kickapoo/Sac and Fox) who started the AIM for Freedom Survival School/Oakland AIM house in East Oakland. Bill was holding sunrise ceremonies daily at the Oakland AIM house, and would comment at the time that we were the only ones lighting a sacred fire daily on the western side of Mississippi. My mom was in the sunrise ceremony when her water broke so it is also the origin of how I was named.
My parents were living at the Oakland AIM house when I was born. Over the four days while my mom was in labor was a continuous ceremony held outside. This was in the late 1970’s as Native women were being sterilized through Indian Health Services and Alameda County had the 2nd highest infant mortality rate in the nation. So, I was the first of many AIM House/Women of All Red Nations home births. The decision of my mom and aunties was that it was safer and necessary to utilize Indigenous birthing practices. Within minutes of being born at 4:00 AM, I was introduced to the sacred fire and brought into the sacred circle of our relatives. So, that is how I received my name, and a path was forged in the commitment to my Tribal communities and the ongoing sunrise gatherings is a part of that continued prayer. After attending the gatherings for many years, I was asked to help coordinate them back in 2008. Since then, I’ve helped as an organizer and in different capacities to support the continuation of the gatherings. I first started with IITC as a community liaison coordinator. When I moved out of the Bay Area in 2010, I still volunteered and offered my support, and that has now transitioned into a consultant position as a California Tribal/Community Liaison for IITC.
IA: I remember reading an opinion piece in 2008 you wrote for the Campanil, the Mills College student newspaper, about Honoring Native American Heritage Month. In it, you discuss the meaning of being a minority as well historic and contemporary Indigenous struggles against “dominant Eurocentric hetero-patriarchal norms.” This brings to mind your work with the Decolonize Oakland movement. Could you tell me more about that?
MSG: The Decolonize Oakland movement is one that was very emotionally heavy, but it is beautiful to witness all that grew out of it. Here we are a decade later, after a heavy push for acknowledgement that Oakland is Ohlone land. There was such a battle for visibility, for truth-telling, and here we finally are. I feel fortunate to have built some long-lasting friendships from the experience, but it was a brutal one for sure. I appreciate the outcomes, that we collectively were able to address the hypocrisy of social movements such as “Occupy” and the importance of the context in language as a form of erasure. Especially in Oakland and the greater Bay Area where Ohlone peoples are not afforded federal recognition and all the complexities of California Indian history and how that is translated today. Here we are 10 years later, and although land acknowledgements are a step forward, it is one step within the much-needed visibility of California Tribal peoples and land stewardship. It’s been an ongoing battle against erasure, and for more than acknowledgement, for visibility and truth-telling.
IA: Last week, Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. What are your thoughts on that event in regard to how white folk in this country are viewed and treated when they protest versus how people of color are viewed and treated when protesting?
MSG: January 6th was so telling. Watching how law enforcement opened the gates to allow the insurgency to unfold was exactly how white supremacy is upheld in this country. There are so many fallacies that uphold the so-called democracy of this country. For me personally, it was a reminder of being jabbed in the stomach with batons when I was pregnant and protesting Bush Jr. and the Iraq war back in 2003, of being on backwater bridge during standing rock and being tear gassed as the sacred waters that we were there fighting to protect was being weaponized against us in freezing conditions. Of the excessive use of force every time that I’m out protesting with my fellow community members from the Oscar Grant to George Floyd uprisings, and so many more instances. The National Guard was called to militarize downtown Sacramento this past summer, and yet we witness how law enforcement was taking selfies with these folks that are clearly so dangerous and much more of a threat in their actions.
IA: On the topic of law enforcement and policing, part of your work deals with the disproportionate impact of the criminal and juvenile justice systems on California’s Indigenous Peoples. Could you tell the readers more about your work with Restoring Justice for Indigenous Peoples?
MSG: RJIP was created out of my personal and collective experiences in how Indigenous peoples are treated by a biased and unfair so-called justice system. As a California Tribal woman, I also have experienced the double marginalization within a justice system that criminalizes Native peoples, and simultaneously provides little to zero resources when we are victims of violence ourselves.
Through community organizing, advocacy and a cultural lens, we are organizing our Tribal communities to address the disparities of over-incarceration, and the way that Women, girls and two-spirit relatives are largely ignored. As our next generations are the sovereign nation builders and Indigenous Justice warriors, we are providing them with the tools and resources to be successful leaders and warriors for all of our communities that are impacted. Even the term restorative justice has been co-opted and largely ignores the origins of Indigenous practices, as there is an impossibility of justice for Native women and girls within patriarchal court systems. As California Native peoples we are inextricably linked to mass criminalization and genocide with current patterns of police violence. Through RJIP we are committed to working for structural change and transformation, to challenge the narratives held in victim blaming and that further marginalize us as system-impacted. We are building a powerful movement of system-involved Native peoples inside and outside institutions working to end the centuries-long imprisonment of our people, ancestors, relatives, and land. We are working to end the incarceration of living Native peoples in jails, prisons, and group homes across the state, to end the incarceration of our Salmon relatives impacted by dams on our rivers, and to end the incarceration of our ancestors’ skeletons locked away in basements of universities such as the UC System. We are doing this through developing powerful Indigenous leaders and communities and organizing with them to transform the systems, structures, and stories that keep us all imprisoned both physically and spiritually.
IA: I recently read the feature written by you and Vanessa and Maya Esquivido in the Fall 2020 issue of News from Native California about the Native Community’s solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. As a person of African, Native, and European ancestry, I can say it warmed my heart to know that people are thinking about the well-being of Afro-Indigenous people. Growing up, I often felt like a perpetual outsider—never Native enough, Black enough, and certainly not white enough to fit in.
I mention all of that to ask you what you think can be done to address anti-Blackness and the othering of mixed people in Native communities?
MSG: It was really an honor to work on that article with Vanessa and Maya. There is so much that is necessary in addressing anti-Blackness within our communities, and it is both a personal and collective responsibility. I organize under Black leadership with the Anti Police-Terror Project of Sacramento. As one of the core committee members, I co-lead the healing justice committee that provides support to families impacted by police terrorism. Families in Sacramento that have had their loved one killed by police violence. For me personally, it’s a personal responsibility to address the ongoing crisis of our Afro-Indigenous/Black relatives being murdered through state-sanctioned violence. There is so much to be said and so many necessary conversations to be had. As a child that benefited from The Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program, while growing up in Oakland to the organization that I do now under APTP, this is a shared and sacred relationship of how to be in solidarity between our communities in a way that is intentional. I see a lot of our California Indigenous relatives that feel slighted that stories are not as uplifted, or using hashtags about Native lives. It can be uncomfortable to dive into these conversations, but it is also necessary. Under the hashtag #NativeJusticeNow and #indigenousjustice, is an opportunity to educate that as vocal as we are about cultural appropriation, we are not exempt from it. As Indigenous peoples, we have a responsibility not to appropriate cultural practices that our not our own.
In terms of the perpetual outsider myth, that narrative is a result of white supremacy. The lateral oppression that our peoples have used against one another as a way of othering through messaging that we don’t belong or that we aren’t ever “Native” enough both within our rural and urban Tribal communities. I have personally experienced it my entire life as well. I was born in an urban community to parents that were raised outside of their homelands due to displacement and economic survival experiences. I moved back to Pit River as a teenager after my father passed away. After attending Mills, I moved back to Pit River for seven years. I will always consider both the Bay Area Native community and my Tribal lands as home, and there are individuals that will always treat me and my children as outsiders. When I moved back home, I was teased and called a city girl, and when I would go back to the bay, they would tell me I have been on the rez for too long. I remember during a heated meeting with my Ajumawi band, I was told to go back to Half Moon Bay. I’ve never lived there, but that’s where my grandmother moved to with my Ilocano (Filipino) grandfather back in the 1930’s and my father and uncles were raised there.
All of these experiences are a reminder of when I lived in Flagstaff, AZ for a short time in my early 20’s. I remember friends commenting on Tribal members that lived in the town, and how those that lived on the rez didn’t know anything and would go on being ignorant and those on the rez commenting, go back to town and be just as dumb as everyone detached from their culture. It was the same messaging from Tribal peoples that had very similar and diverse experiences. That always stuck with me. My oldest daughter just spent some time in Red Lake, MN where they didn’t see her as Native because they weren’t familiar with Tribes in California. If you’re not Native, then what are you, I asked her in response? And in a way there will always be people that will have their opinions and, in the end, it doesn’t necessarily affect us unless we allow it to. I’m just as much Illocano from Agoo La Union, Philippines as I am Pit River. I was raised as Pit River for the entirety of my life, and my children have been raised as Pit River. One of the most ignorant comments that has been said directly is people slandering me as “that Filipino; she’s just Filipino” used as a way to insult me and my family. This comment is not only ignorant, but also dismissive of our Indigenous Illocano Tribalism and culture.
IA: I’ve read some of your writing about how this settler-colonial system contributes to the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Could you tell the readers more about the issue and the work you do in that regard?
MSG: There was initial visibility to the ongoing crisis of MMIW which has now expanded to MMIR—Missing & Murdered Indigenous Relatives across all genders including our two-spirit and trans relatives. When Khadijah Britton went missing in 2019, I reached out to my sister-friend Jessica Alva asking for her help. Fourteen months later we are visiting Jessica in SF General ICU. She was killed by her partner, and because he called it in as a suicide he was never charged. And a year after that my friend/relative Yogi was killed by his partner back on our Tribal lands in Pit River and that was shortly after the disappearance of Nick Patterson. It’s an ongoing systemic issue that dates back to the invasion of our Tribal lands, and the violent ways in which our lands were acquired through theft, that women and children were trafficked, and the continuation of that violence today. The advocacy is supporting families that are navigating this nightmare they are experiencing, and utilizing healing methods that are going to vary for each family member and community that experiences this. There have been small wins, but it’s not enough by far. We were able to advocate for a City/County resolution addressing the MMIW crisis in Jessica’s case, but statement movement is needed far beyond review committees and task forces.
IA: President-elect Joe Biden has chosen Representative Deb Haaland to lead the Department of Interior, making her the first Indigenous person to hold the position. This could potentially be a game -changer for tribal nations in the U.S. What are your thoughts on her nomination and what it could mean for California’s Indigenous peoples?
MSG: I had the honor of Meeting Rep. Haaland two years ago during the Indigenous Peoples March in DC. She’s such a strong leader at this time that needs the visibility of Indigenous Women in office. There is so much that is needed to move forward in regards to Sacred Places protections. Back in 2016 during Standing Rock, I was a part of an ad-hoc group that was proposing a Sacred Sites Executive Order, but it did not gain much traction. I’m hearing that there is once again an organized effort for an EO now that Haaland is in office. Especially in CA, there have been decades-long struggles for protection of our sacred Medicine Lake Highlands, Rattlesnake Island, Shellmounds, and so many more places. This is a significant moment to advocate for further protections, along with so many issues that are unique to California Tribes and lands such as our water rights, traditional gathering, access within marine protected areas, and the complexities of non-federally recognized, terminated, and [federally-recognized tribes].
IA: As you know, four dams on the Klamath River are scheduled to be removed. You are on the advisory board of Save California Salmon. Could you tell me more about the organization, what the dam removals mean to you, and what you would like to see happen beyond the dam removals?
MSG: I’ve been working with Save CA Salmon over the past few years as a Tribal water organizer and as an advisory board member. Back home in Pit River, we haven’t had salmon in our river for close to 100 years now. So many people are upset with PG&E with the recent fires, but California Tribes have been battling it out with PG&E for over 50 years. I’ve heard many stories from our Tribal members during the Pit River Land Claims and of how PG&E was calling for our Tribal members to be arrested on the basis that they were trespassing on their ancestral lands.
IA: The COVID-19 pandemic is still surging, with California second to Arizona in case numbers this week, according to the CDC. How has the pandemic affected the way you work? Have you come to any new or different realizations due to the pandemic?
MSG: Being home again with four children ages 7-17 is the major change. In a way it’s been a much-needed break, just in terms of getting back into a routine where I am co-teaching in the AM and spend the afternoons working. My 7-year-old has the most amount of coursework, up to 70 pages a week with three hours of zoom classes on top of online classwork. So that takes up 4-5 hours every day and I just can’t manage those 12-hour, day-long zoom meetings. I have learned to say no a lot more, and everything seems to take longer, but I just have to be okay with that.
The changes in not feeling overcommitted to be in so many places—it’s a lot to navigate, but the reward is the amount of time I’ve had at home. Over the past 10 months I’ve had the time to revisit relationships with family members, and have spent a lot of time with my children hiking, swimming, and reflecting. It has been difficult to witness the loss of so many elders. Just this week was the funeral services of our 90-year old Grandma Doris (Wailaki), and that’s five elders that have passed on just in the past few weeks. It’s heartbreaking, and at the same time, it’s a reminder to be present, and that for all of us that are surviving this pandemic, that we have a shared responsibility to continue their work for all of our Tribal communities.
IA: Would you like to add anything else?
MSG: Thank you for taking the time to work on this piece!
For more information on some of the organizations mentioned above, visit:
Save CA Salmon: https://www.californiasalmon.org/