If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while, you know I’m Afro-Native, which means a person of African and Native American descent—technically, I’m of African, Cherokee, and Scottish descent, but Afro-Native for conversation’s sake—and with February being Black History Month in the States, I thought it’d be apt to feature an Afro-Native musician for this month’s Geets. One musician I’ve been jamming to a lot this month is North Carolina’s own Rhiannon Giddens (Lumbee, Occaneechi, and Seminole), whose stylings include folk, old-timey, bluegrass, country gospel, blues, jazz, soul, R&B, and Celtic Americana. Besides killing it on fiddle and viola, she’s also boss on the banjo, which, in case you didn’t know, is an African-derived instrument. See her rock out in this cover of “Georgie Buck.”
I also respect how she champions most beautifully contributions to American musical history by people who have previously been overlooked and/or shunned. Honestly, listening to her covers of old-timey classics are akin to hearing an endangered language spoken.
With that, here are the top three Rhiannon Giddens songs I’ve been listening to on repeat:
#1: “Waterbound” (with Francesco Turrisi) on They’re Calling Me Home
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:
In his 2019 book titled Fighting Invisible Enemies: Health and Medical Transitions among Southern California Indians, author and professor Clifford E. Trafzer (Wyandot), examined the gradual incorporation of Western medicine into Southern California Indian communities. In the sequel, Strong Hearts and Healing Hands: Southern California Indians and Field Nurses, 1920–1950, he delves deeper into the working relationship field nurses and Native people built during that period and the resulting decline of mortality from infectious diseases.
Trafzer writes that during the late nineteenth century, the Office of Indian Affairs first introduced Indigenous peoples of Southern California to Western medicine. Moving into the early twentieth century, more Native people used Western medicine, especially to fight infectious diseases believed to be transmitted by Westerners. During this time, public-health nurses recognized the key elements to controlling and defeating pandemics: quarantining, testing, and tracking cases and contacts—the same tactics used today to fight COVID-19, which has caused the worst pandemic since the 1918 flu pandemic.
As with Fighting Invisible Enemies, Strong Hearts and Healing Hands is one of few works with an impressive amount of integrated Native and Western historical medical research. In addition to noting contributions of Native elders, leaders, and healers, such as Martha Manuel Chacon (San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians) and Pedro Chino (Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians), Trafzer also chronicles the work of white and Native field nurses who served in the region between 1920 and 1950. Much of the nurses’ work involved providing medical treatment and educating Southern California Native communities about how to control the spread of diseases, such as tuberculosis.
Also similar to Fighting Invisible Enemies, Strong Hearts and Healing Hands utilizes historical maps and photographs, data tables, reports of Indian Service medical personnel as well as oral histories conducted with several Southern California Indian communities.
The difference, however, is that Strong Hearts and Healing Hands focuses more on the lives and work of the field nurses, both white and Indigenous, as well as on relationships between the nurses and Southern California Native families, mothers, and children.
While the book leans more toward the positive aspects of Native and non-Native medical collaboration, cultural differences and disagreements between parties are also well-documented to provide a more nuanced view:
“Field nurses instructed Indians in sanitation and public health, often sharing health literature discussing diet, nutrition, infant care, home sanitation, and prevention of infectious diseases. Nurses instructed pregnant women about prenatal and postnatal procedures through ‘Little Mother’ and ‘Well Baby’ conferences, clinics, and workshops on and off reservations. Unfortunately, nurses counseled women to use baby formula to feed their infants rather than breast milk. Of course, schools of nursing had emphasized the ‘scientific’ benefits of formula over breast milk, but many Indian mothers knew better and continued to nurse their babies.”
While it may be tempting to call Strong Hearts and Healing Hands a derivative work of Fighting Invisible Enemies due to how much they have in common and given the wider scope of the original, I would argue both are well-researched, highly readable works that succeed in their respective aims.
THE INDIGENOUS EXPERIENCE has long been absent from colonial histories, which either dismiss or rationalize the existence of and fallout from European imperialism. With An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, activist and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz examines the American settler-colonial framework and gives insight into the modern reality of Indigenous peoples’ experience.
The daughter of a Cherokee-Irish mother and a Scots-Irish tenant farmer father, Dunbar-Ortiz embraced her “fragmented” Native heritage and became politically active in California in the 1960s, joining the civil rights, anti-apartheid, anti-Vietnam War, women’s liberation, and Red Power movements, which, she writes, helped her gain the critical perspective presented in the book.
In an intelligent, comprehensible style, Dunbar-Ortiz outlines the culture of European conquest cultivated centuries before would-be settlers crossed the Atlantic. With a Christian, white supremacist zeal that justified colonialism, she writes in the chapter “Sea to Shining Sea,” a militaristic heritage developed in Western Europe during the crusades, that was later brought to the Americas with its policies of destruction and dehumanization.
“The establishment of the missions and presidios…traces the colonization of California’s Indigenous nations. The five-hundred-mile road that connected the missions was called El Camino Real, the Royal Highway. These California Franciscan missions and their founder, Junipero Serra, are extravagantly romanticized by modern California residents and remain popular tourist sites. Very few visitors notice, however, that in the middle of the plaza of each mission is a whipping post.”
Dunbar-Ortiz explains that not only were warfare and forced removal exercised with the intent to erase Indigenous peoples from the Americas, but effective use of terminology also aided in the conquest of the continent. She illustrates how popular culture perpetuates and justifies the disappearance and conquest of Indigenous peoples through the Columbus Myth, the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the concept of “firsting and lasting” ― which directs the national narrative to speak of civilized Euro-American founders on one hand and “Ishi, the last Indian” on the other ― and popular songs, such as Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
Dunbar-Ortiz decolonizes the American founding myth by examining how early Anglo-American literature worked to justify the uprooting and elimination of Native peoples, and why authors, such as James Fennimore Cooper, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville remain revered and studied today as national and nationalist writers instead of colonialist.
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States challenges readers to rethink the national narrative of Manifest Destiny and ponder how society would be transformed if the reality of U.S. history were to be acknowledged on a wider scale.
In roughly three hundred pages, spanning more than four hundred years of history, the book offers a new periodization of U.S. history and demonstrates the active nature of Indigenous survival through organizing and storytelling.
A version of this review originally appeared in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of News from Native California.
The following review appeared in the Winter 2019/2020 edition of News from Native California.
With An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, activist and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Cherokee/Scots-Irish) examines U.S. settler-colonial framework and gives insight into the modern reality of Indigenous peoples’ experiences. A recent adaptation, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People, provides a similar critical lens for middle- and high school students.
Curriculum experts Debbie Reese (Nambe Owingeh) and Jean Mendoza maintain the overall scholarly essence of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States while reformatting its structure to include chapter subheadings, discussion topics, activity prompts, maps, informational text blocks, and bullet points.
These additions serve the modified structure well, providing context and opportunities for critical thinking. For example, in the subchapter titled “Indigenous Peoples of What is Now California,” Reese and Mendoza briefly chronicle Spanish colonization of the state from 1769 to 1823 with a focus on California missions. The “Did You Know?” section of this subchapter highlights the discrepancy between the sanitized version of California mission material usually taught, versus a more historically accurate approach the Native community pushes schools to teach.
A “Consider This” section in the chapter titled “A Critical Look at Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson” asks readers to unpack the term ethnic cleansing. A portion of the section reads:
“Bringing a critical lens to words we use is important. Generally speaking, people think of cleansing as a good [sic]; the removal of something bad or dirty. But people are not bad, dirty objects that can be moved or done away with, without regard for their humanity. The term cleansing hides the motives and actions of powerful governments or groups who are deliberately harming many people. What other terms can you think of that might be more accurate?”
In these increasingly divisive times replete with echo chambers and “alternative facts,” An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People is a reminder of the importance of critical thinking. Even though the title references an “Indigenous Peoples’ History,” the material encourages readers to think, consider, and investigate for themselves in order to come to a well-rounded view of United States history. In this spirit, the closing chapters “For Further Reading” and “Some Books We Recommend” provide readers with respective lists of Indigenous women and Indigenous writers as starting points to address historical inaccuracies and underrepresentation.
As with the original, the adaptation offers a periodization of U.S. history in roughly 230 pages and demonstrates the active nature of Indigenous survival through organizing and storytelling. While the level of analysis in the adapted version is not as academically dense as the original, critical content remains and is presented in an engaging style.
Back in July, I wrote a piece for News from Native California about the battle over development of the West Berkeley Shellmound. Although the developer’s application for a 260-unit complex was officially denied in September by the City of Berkeley, the site remains under threat of development.
Curious to know any happenings between September and now, I searched a few of my usual news outlets and came across a recent episode of KQED’s Bay Curious podcast, which answers listener questions about the San Francisco Bay Area. The relative inquiry reads:
“There Were Once More Than 425 Shellmounds in the Bay Area. Where Did They Go?”
While it surprises me that people who frequent the Emeryville shoreline area don’t know who the Ohlone people are or have never heard of shellmounds, I’m happy that some are curious enough to find out. That said, the episode is definitely worth a listen.
With its perpetual focus on community building and traditional healing, East Oakland’s Intertribal Friendship House (IFH) has been green long before wellness and sustainability became buzzwords. The “Urban Rez” is now literally green, technically “Sweet Grass” green, after volunteers spent several summer days last year painting the facility as a part of routine upkeep and beautification.
Established in 1955 as one of the first community centers for Indigenous people in the nation, IFH was founded by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to serve as a hub for Indigenous people displaced by the Indian Relocation Act, which was designed to relocate American Indians from reservations to urban cities, such as San Francisco.
IFH from white to green. The “Intertribal Friendship House” lettering had yet to be added at the time this image was taken in 2017.
Carol Wahpepah (Ojibwe) has worked with San Francisco Bay Area non-profits for decades and has been IFH’s executive director for over nine years. She said IFH owns and maintains the building thanks to volunteers and donations. “When relocation first happened, the Native community worked with them (AFSC) to start this place,” she said, sitting in the front hall of the Friendship House amid three large murals, each on its own wall, telling its own story of cultural survival, “and they donated the building. We own the building because they gave it to us.” She noted that AFSC San Francisco had been active in the local Native community for a long time and would soon celebrate its centennial. As she spoke, Lakota artist and educator Janeen Antoine highlighted how fortunate the center is to own a building of its size given the rising Bay Area rental costs. “I know what it means to be without a space because we had a gallery in San Francisco for 20 years—a Native non-profit art gallery—and then we got ‘Dot-comed.’ We were one of the only urban galleries in the country that worked with Native artists. That’s my swear word: Dot-commit! But that’s been the experience for so many Native non-profits and art non-profits. It’s displacement with the rising costs. And I feel that this place is really important and it’s so important to keep it financially solvent.” She mentioned long-time AFSC staff member Wes Huss, who had recently passed away. Wahpepah recalled how Huss was instrumental in the success of IFH and his decades-long service to the Bay Area Indian community.
The House expanded its programs over the years to counter the continual cultural displacement caused by the relocation program, and now serves over 8,000 community members per year from more than 100 tribes. One recent program is an occupational training program for Native youth between ages 18 to 24. Working with organizations such as United Indian Nations, an American-Indian managed non-profit providing job placement for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives living in the Bay Area, IFH employs about six Native youths per year through the program, Wahpepah said.
IFH Youth Development Coordinator Javier Patty (Muscogee Creek / Seminole) actively manages the youth trainees, the most recent being Boyce Duncan (Shuswap). “He really wanted to work in the garden,” Wahpepah said of Duncan. “He’s worked with me, Javier, and Janeen—she did some sage harvesting with him.” Nearly a week before helping to paint the Friendship House, Duncan dismantled the raised wooden planting beds along the House’s small, fenced-in parking lot. The impact of Duncan’s hammer against the wooden planks echoed into the neighborhood, competing with the cacophony of weekday morning International Boulevard traffic. As Duncan works, Patty explains why the beds are being removed. “This is what happens,” Patty said as he pointed to one of the beds with planks that had shifted out of place. Patty said he attended a meeting at City Slicker Farms, a West-Oakland-based non-profit urban farm, where he learned the significance of having metal incorporated into the gardening boxes. “We love their boxes,” he said, adding that it was nice to see another urban garden in Oakland. Wahpepah said the IFH job training program is important because it provides confidence and experience to young people who never had an official job. “You get to know the person good enough and find out what their goal is and what they would like to do. We had one [trainee] that really liked to cook, so he was cooking a lot. And when he left here, the staff helped him with an application to go to the Bread Project in Berkeley.”
IFH offers other programs to Native youth, including summer cultural programs and gatherings. From late June through early July last year, the center hosted “Rooted in Tradition,” in which demonstrators instructed participants from ages four to eleven in a variety of cultural workshops. The House also offers leadership opportunity within its annual youth council, which Patty said is managed completely by its members, who help with other IFH programs, as well as organize their own events. Wahpepah said youth council membership was determined through an application / interview process in the past, but members have been recently chosen from promising youth who attend or volunteer for IFH programs.
Other IFH programs include Family Movie Night, Family Gardening Day, Pow Wow Drum and Dance, Zumba, yoga, Four Directions AA Meeting, parenting workshops, community garden harvesting, traditional food classes, art exhibits, nationally known musical and comedy performances, community healing ceremonies, annual harvest dinners and holiday parties, and monthly elders’ gatherings with food distribution.
Patty said the annual harvest dinner is twofold, one for community and one for the elders. “So, we have two each for Harvest and Christmas,” he continued. “For the Harvest dinner, we feed about two roomfuls, like 300 people. We have a lot of volunteers who help us out with that too. The Elders’ Harvest Dinner is for about 45 people.
Wahpepah said she is happy about the continued community support and reiterated the importance of volunteers and donations to the House. She mentioned several donated items around the hall and in the kitchen and office before gesturing behind her, “This back room here—all the windows that are in it got replaced about four years ago. We used to have these windows that wound open and the people that walked outside got hit in the head in the dark. So, this guy shows up one day that I know from the community and he has this big, nice van and I said, ‘What do you do? That’s a nice van.’ He said, ‘I replace windows.’ I was like, ‘Just the man I wanted to talk to!’” Wahpepah said the man measured the windows and ordered them from Home Depot. “And we had about five guys just show up that Saturday to help, and they installed all those windows. We have a room upstairs where he installed them up there too. But that only costs us the money of the windows.”
IFH recently finished a five-year strategic plan, as well as a fund development plan, Wahpepah said. Planned improvements include roof repairs and a roof replacement over the main hall, new asphalt for the parking lot, and a dancefloor for the back room. She also hopes to add another full-time staff member and enhance the Native youth council. She said individual donations have improved, but she would like to increase donations from individuals and other sources.
For more information about Intertribal Friendship House and its programs, visit: ifhurbanrez.org.
Before the release of Ryan Coogler’s superhero blockbuster Black Panther, I discovered social media buzz about Afrofuturism. The term immediately brought to mind images of pyramids and spaceships with AFROFUTURISM written in pink neon graffiti across the starry night sky. I was close.
Through cursory research, I found Afrofuturism to be a movement centered on the intersection of art, science, and technology. The term was coined by the author and cultural critic Mark Dery in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future,” which examines science or speculative fiction within the African diaspora. Jamie Broadnax, editor-in-chief and creator of the online community Black Girl Nerds, takes the definition a bit further, adding that Afrofuturism is different from standard science fiction because it’s steeped in ancient African traditions and black identity. “A narrative that simply features a black character in a futuristic world is not enough. To be Afrofuturism, it must be rooted in and unapologetically celebrate the uniqueness and innovation of black culture.”
With that, I realized I had totally seen Afrofuturistic elements in the music and art of Outkast and Janelle Monáe, and in the science fiction of Octavia Butler. I took these as one-offs, however; it didn’t register as a conscious movement.
Now I see the Black Panther in a different light, as a great step forward in not only Afrofuturism, but in superhero storytelling. The film has already exceeded box office expectations and continues to pull in crowds with itscritical praise andpositive word of mouth, even with the highly anticipated Avengers: Infinity Warcoming in less than three months.
I went with to a matinee with my wife and siblings-in-law at the Grand Lake Theater the day after Black Panther opened. Because Coogler is from Oakland, directed Fruitvale Station, and includes Oakland-based locations and characters in the film, Grand Lake was the obvious choice. Apparently, everyone else thought so too! Lines stretched down Grand and Walker avenues, taking anywhere from 45 minutes upward before moving. An extra draw to the theater that day may have been due to Coogler’s surprise appearance the night before. According to social media reports, he dropped several Easter eggs about Bay Area representation in the film.
Photo taken by my wife of the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland before the matinee.
We didn’t see any cosplayers or anyone with Afrofuturistic style at our showing, but a good number of people wore African and African-Inspired clothing, especially for the evening showing—ladies donned jewelry, colorful head wraps, and regal gowns, while men wore tunics with fancifully embroidered collars.
Inside, the diverse crowd buzzed as people searched for seats and stood in concession lines. Once the house lights dimmed and the red velvet curtain rose, the crowd hushed as previews began. The only previews that stood out were both science fiction entries—A Wrinkle in Time, which appears to have Afrofuturistic elements, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, which…I actually don’t know what to make about Solo just yet. The film seems way undermarketed, which is not a good sign for a movie, especially for a brand as huge as Star Wars; plus, the trailer left me with more questions than excitement. (Editor’s note: my view of this film has changed after seeing the finished version!)
At any rate, the Afrofuturistic elements and strong female leads in A Wrinkle in Time and Black Panther made me think of how diversity and gender equality are having moments even in this socially and politically divisive time. Further, with the successes of Jordan Peele’s social thriller Get Out, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017), and the evermore-diverse Star Wars films of late, moviemakers should realize the time has died for appeasing only one type of audience for box office success. Video game developers have known this for a while with the advent of create-a-character games, which allow players to gallivant as versions of themselves around virtual worlds.
The success of Black Panther creates a new template for Marvel’s movies, much like the first Iron Man did back in ‘08, Gamespot’s Tamoor Hussain notes. One reason is because T’Challa is already a hero who fights for and with his people, as opposed to a goodhearted, yet selfish person who gains superhero status after forced maturation, such as with characters like Tony Stark, Thor, and Dr. Strange. Hussain also adds that the Black Panther is doing so well at the box office because the film has its own identity, akin to how Thor: Ragnarok felt so different from the usual Marvel superhero movie.
And the above-mentioned difference is partially why I haven’t written a formal review for the film—there is so much to unpack. I mean that in a good way. The movie offers so many avenues for discussion that I want to see it again to both enjoy and analyze.
One of my criticisms with the film going in was regarding CGI usage. The trailers didn’t impress me in that regard. In general, I’m against CGI because it rarely adds whatever artistic weight filmmakers intend. Said plainly, most CGI looks fake. Thankfully, many of Black Panther’s sets and characters are grounded in the physical world, leaving room for only a few flat digital effects. What remains is pretty good. The African utopia brought to life, with its elevated Vibranium-powered bullet trains, humming around high-rise buildings and through bustling markets is a sight.
Much like Afropunk, Afrofuturism seems like it’s always been a thing, but the requirement mentioned above, the unapologetic celebration of the uniqueness and technological innovation of Black culture, is hard to come by in mainstream pop culture. Even those who don’t identify as Black or of African descent can see, at least for this moment, the great amount of celebration and pride the movie has inspired.
Wakanda forever, yes, but Afrofuturism, too. I think it’s cool.
All U.S. states are known for something: Idaho for potatoes, Georgia for peaches, and Arizona for the Grand Canyon and State Bill 1070. California, however, is the only state widely associated with gold, one of the most prized metals known to man—so prized, in fact, people uprooted their lives, migrating and immigrating from all over the nation and world in 1849, to hit pay dirt in Northern California. Few became rich. Some broke even. Most died poor.
I learned this basic bit of California history during my grade school years in the Midwest. The other bit, about the Native people of Northern California before, during, and after the 49ers’ arrival, was not included in the lesson. Curious to know what California students are learning about the gold rush today, I asked Anjali Kamat, an Instructional Coach at Anna Yates Elementary in Emeryville, California, who said California teachers are to adhere to “History/social science content standards, but they must also teach Common Core, which is more skills-based than content-based, focusing on language arts.”
According to the Common Core Standards website, forty-two states, including California, the District of Columbia, and four territories have adopted the same standards for Math, English, history/social studies, science, and technical subjects in order to help students nationwide succeed under shared educational expectations and goals.
When asked if there are certain books students are required to use to meet the standards, Kamat explained that Common Core Standards are not a curriculum, so lesson planning and implementation are left to teachers within the California Department of Education History/Social-Science curriculum framework, the most recent adopted by the California State Board of Education on July 14, 2016. This means that the depth and balance of a student’s formal gold rush public school education depends on the combination of her teachers and texts.
Per the curriculum framework, teachers usually focus on California History in the fourth grade. Though the grade four History/Social-Science curriculum framework isn’t the only one that asks students to analyze aspects of the gold rush, it does hone in on that period more than the others. The timeline of the framework spans from the lives of California’s Indigenous people before European arrival, California history after European arrival through statehood, and growth and development after statehood. The gold rush component outcomes ask students to “consider how the Gold Rush changed California by bringing sudden wealth to the state; affecting its population, culture, and politics; and instantly transforming San Francisco from a small village in 1847 to a bustling city in 1849” among other thinking points regarding cultural and gender diversity during the period.
From a random sampling of textbooks, westward expansion, including the gold rush, is covered in varying degrees of detail, depending on grade level and curriculum. This means encounters between indigenous people and Europeans are sanitized less with each increasing grade. For example, the fourth grade text, Our California, uses words and phrases like “problem” and “forced to give up their way of life”; the fifth-grade text, Our Nation, uses “conflict,” “assimilate” and “massacre”; and the eighth grade text, History Alive: The United States through Industrialism, drawings of Spaniards burning and hanging resistant Indians next to a quote from Bartolomé de Las Casas, who accused colonists of being “wild beast” who took pleasure in “killing…, torturing and destroying the native peoples.”
Even though contemporary narratives continue to slant toward the colonial telling of American history, critical thinking is usually encouraged in these texts by way of prompts such as “How justifiable was U.S. expansion in the 1800s?” and “As you read, think about how each new area was acquired and whether the decisions that led to U.S. expansion across North America were justifiable” to get students to weigh the presented information and come to their own conclusions. In History Alive, Chapter 2: European Exploration and Settlement, there is a section titled “How Historians Use the Sources,” in which the process for evidencing history is examined; Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) is shown in various lights, such as noble, destructive, or a man with good and bad qualities who committed “errors of the times,” as noted by Washington Irving in his book The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. The problem remains, however, regarding the vast number of pages dedicated to the lives and deeds of male European explorers compared to the handful devoted to other cultural and ethnic groups.
Outside of textbooks, there are a plethora of educational guides and resources online for teachers. A general internet search revealed a mixed bag of lesson plans, ranging from total omission of an Indigenous presence during the gold rush to full inclusion and consideration. As with textbooks, the level of education a student receives depends on his or her teachers’ abilities and willingness to unpack available materials. So, hypothetically, if Mr. Adams wants to focus on miner dredging techniques for most of the gold rush instruction period and gloss over discussions about settlers massacring Indigenous people and stealing their land, it would be his choice.
There was no internet during my grade school years, so any specialized subject searches required skulking about libraries and picking the brains of people more knowledgeable than I was. With the information age upon us, however, we have the luxury of search engines and high-speed downloads; gold rush history from many different angles is available as fast as our internet connections allow in the form of books, news articles, documentaries, and social media platforms. But I wondered about the information being disseminated to the average person searching for a gold rush experience at the many gold-rush-themed attractions and historical organizations across the state.
My first inclination was to set out on an adventure of my own, visiting each major attraction in a 70-mile radius, but with time and money constraints, I decided to start local. The Gallery of California at the Oakland Museum is an ever-evolving collection of stories and experiences through the years to ambitiously illustrate the diverse history of California, beginning with its indigenous people and continuing through to present day with the increasing global influx of people. Within the gallery is the gold rush exhibit, which focuses on “different cultures, languages, ambitions, and experiences of the gold rush era.” Although the histories of various Native nations are told more expansively in other sections of the gallery, especially before the arrival of the Europeans, the gold rush exhibit includes descriptions of Native people in various aspects during the gold rush as miners, defenders of their homes and families, outlaws, victims, and successes.
The museum also offers a supplemental curriculum series titled Myth & Reality: The California Gold Rush and Its Legacy, which, according to the curriculum website, relies on primary source materials. The site also notes that volumes have been created separately for grades four, five, eight, and eleven and all lessons presented in the volumes relate “directly to strands in the History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools.”
This experience, however, was an exception. Upon calling a handful of other sites, I found “Unfortunately, we don’t have any information about Native Americans” to be a standard refrain. The Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park’s Gold Discovery Museum and Visitor Center attendant told me by phone the park has an exhibit that features Native people before prospector arrival, but not during the gold rush. I asked about the offered “Living History Days” tours; the attendant said the tours usually focus on the miners’ experiences due to knowledge of Native life during that time being “few and far between.” She added there were not many American Indian tour volunteers available to depict Indigenous life during that period, and that the park only offered an exhibit with Indigenous artifacts. The term “Living History” is a medium museums and other history-related organizations use to educate the public about various aspects of a historical period. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park’s “Living History Days” event features docents dressed in period clothing who discuss the 1850s and give demonstrations in rope making, candle dipping, dutch oven cooking, sawmill wood working and games.
Not having more information, the attendant referred me to the proprietor of the local bookstore, Floyd D.P. Øydegaard of The Columbia Booksellers & Stationers. Floyd said via phone he didn’t have extensive knowledge of California Indians during the gold rush, but said members of the Paiute tribe had killed miners for “any reasons they wanted to” and the miners retaliated. He also mentioned tensions between the Paiute and Miwok nations and how the Paiute caused more trouble to the Miwoks than the Miwoks did to themselves. He continued, saying Indians also “danced in the streets,” performing for money and attempting to launder clothes for pay “like the Chinese, but not as good.” He added that some Native people worked alongside the miners, but “they didn’t care about the gold as much.” He said the museum didn’t have much beyond Indigenous artifacts and the museum store didn’t have an extensive collection of books about Native people, but he mentioned specifically Tending the Wild and Tribes of California.
Gold Prospecting Adventures, LLC has, according to the company website, earned the title of “best of the best” in gold prospecting and gold rush history, however, the attendant told me during a phone call their packages, such as school programs, mining camp, prospecting courses, and travel, don’t include Indigenous history. She said there is a huge Miwok history available through other avenues, such as from the tribe itself, though, the Gold Prospecting Adventures, LLC staff is “still learning” and she wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching Indigenous history without more knowledge.
The Wells Fargo History Museum attendant said not in “either one of our museums do we have anything about Native Americans in the West at all.” One of the locations she referred to is in the Old Sacramento Historic District and the other is on Capitol Mall about half a mile away. Similar “I’m not aware of anything specific to Indian history” phone conversations were had with the Sacramento History Museum and Gold Country Visitors Association staff members.
A visit to Old Sacramento revealed a 19th-century frontiersman ambience that lingers in the small town replete with horse-drawn carriages trotting down the cobblestone streets, brick and wooden buildings with wood plank walk ways, and a riverboat and railroad station lining the Sacramento River.
The Sacramento History Museum website says the museum is “dedicated to Sacramento’s rich and diverse history” and its “galleries and exhibits explore the history and stories of the area’s first inhabitants, the pioneers who settled here during the Gold Rush, life on the farm, and more.” When asked by phone, a Sacramento History Museum guide said there was nothing extensive regarding Native Americans, that only a small portion of an exhibit was dedicated to Indigenous people. “And some books,” she added. In person, I spoke with Me’Lisa James, Educational & Interpretive Programs Manager, and tour manager Shawn Turner, whose alter ego is Thomas Legget, the name of a man of Irish descent who reportedly resided in Sacramento in the 1850s. Turner’s name tag read “Thomas Legget, Proprietor,” though he was not in character at the time we spoke. Both James and Turner confirmed the museum had mostly gold-rush-era artifacts with Indigenous mentions before and after the gold rush—not during, and said that I would find more information at Sutter’s Mill and the State Indian Museum.
I browsed the store merchandise to find various elixirs and vials of “real” gold and silver amid dream catcher kits and shiny rocks and marbles. There was a bookshelf of general American Indian interest made up of dream catcher bracelets, American Indian fun activity books, which included inspirational Native American leader puppets, corn husk doll kits, archeological dig kits for Indian relics, and several books geared toward adult readers, such as Grave Matters and Deeper Than Gold. I then toured the museum myself, walking the gold rush exhibit four times to find not one mention of California Indians.
The Sacramento Visitor Center, located down the walkway from the Old Sacramento Wells Fargo History Museum, contained as the extent of its Native history offering a small, three-panel display that described the dwelling place of the Nisenan people in that very spot over 200 years ago. The attendant suggested the State Indian Museum for more offerings. That was about the third or fourth time I had been told to ask Indians about Indians, so I took the hint.
While there was no specific exhibit related to Indigenous people during the gold rush in the State Indian Museum, there were images displayed from that time period. One of the attendants gave me a page-and-a-half long handout titled, “California Indians & the Gold Rush: Discovery, Devastation, Survival,” which highlights the decimation of Indian people in California during the gold rush and their determination to rebuild in its wake. Along with the Native-made items, snacks, and usual museum swag, such as t-shirts and key chains, the museum also had several books among its large bookshelves related to California Indians and the gold rush.
The American history narrative is multifaceted and has many voices. And while educational standards in the California public school system seem to be slowly evolving, classic institutional barriers to true understanding and healing remain stubbornly embedded. In my search for Native history, I recognized the theme of “ask Indians about Indians” to be a directive, a call to action, as if the burden of history must be lifted largely by those underneath its girth, hidden by its shadow.
The “unfortunate” gaps in historical knowledge must be filled by those who hold the history. Yes, California Indigenous history during the gold rush and beyond exists but, like gold in the foothills today, we must dig for it.
Co-produced by KCETLink Media Group and the Autry Museum, Tending the Wild, a six-part multimedia series, displays the traditional environmental knowledge of Indigenous people across California by exploring their methods of shaping and caretaking the land for millennia.
Tending the Wild began airing in October 2016 on KCET, commencing with the first episode, “Cultural Burning,” which shows how Native people practice cultural burns that help to sustain meadows, coastal prairies, and grasslands. The inaugural episode is focused on the area just south of Yosemite National Park where the North Fork Mono and the Cold Springs Rancheria of Mono Indians tribes conduct the practice. “Cultural Burning” opens with slow panning shots of the aftermath of a wildfire at the Kaweah Oaks Preserve in Tulare County, California, overlaid by a traditional song sang by Tribal Chairman of the North Folk Mono, Ron W. Goode, as embers flurry and smoke winds from trees and charred earth.
“You have to know how to work with fire,” Goode says, shown seated among the brush at Mariposa Ranch in Clovis, California. “I take my young ones out—smell the smoke. Smell it!” He continues as a hint of his song lingers in the background, “That’s grass fire. Smell the smoke! That’s a house burning. Smell the smoke! That’s tires burning. That’s a wood fireplace burning. You should be able to smell every different kind of smoke. The animals teach their young to do that and if there’s no fire, they can’t teach them to do that. That’s why we have to burn. That’s why we have to keep the fires going.”
Walking the area with tribal council member Jesse Valdez (North Fork Mono), Goode explains how the careful application of fire can increase fruit and seed production from bushes and promote new tree and bush growth with naturally enhanced resources for making baskets and medicine.
But today’s fire suppression methods have been detrimental to cultural burning efforts, resulting in dense forest situations with high tree mortality due to disease, insect infestations, and large-scale wildfires, Goode says.
“You need to be able to see through the trees,” Goode says. “The concept we are bringing forth when we work out on the land is this open concept.” He then says, pointing to the weaving of a baby basket, “When the baby is inside the basket, look through the basket. See the world! See through the basket to the outer world. See through the forest. See through from this world to the next world. Always the ability to see through.”
Jared Dahl Aldern, Ph.D. EPA Program Manager, Cold Springs Rancheria of Mono Indians, dates current modern forest service and CalFire fire suppression policies back to the times of Spanish conquest in the Americas. He says during the episode that the Spanish view of Indigenous cultural burning was one of recklessness by “primitive” people. “Fire suppression is very much tied up with social and political oppression of Native American people.” He continues, saying that the forest service wanted to maximize the amount of trees per acre, changing the landscape by placing thin trees in the wide spaces that had been maintained for thousands of years by Indigenous fires. “By suppressing fire and keeping people from lighting cultural burns, you’ve built up the fuel over time, and that’s what has led to a situation today where the forest is full of trees, but really closely packed and ready for that spark and for a huge wildfire to start at any time.”
Aldern’s comment segues the remainder of the segment into the California wildfire issue, introducing Abran Lopez (Amah Mutson) of the Amah Mutson Native American Stewardship Corps, who emphasizes, as he analyzes shells and other cultural burn material at UC Berkeley’s Department of Anthropology, that proactive prescribed burns are the key to mitigating the massive, virtually uncontrollable super fires that serve only to sterilize the land. Near the end of the episode, Aldern speaks about the necessary collaboration between the forest service, fire suppression agencies, and Indigenous people to tend the land for the benefit of all parties involved.
Subsequent episodes apply similar narrative style and filmmaking devices and successfully merge both documentary-style interviews with moving cinematic expression and heartfelt narrative all under 25 minutes.