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The word “indigenous” is derived from “Late Latin indigenus ‘born in a country, native,’ from Latin indigena ‘sprung from the land.'” The United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, the International Labor Organization and the World Bank all have official definitions of what constitutes an “indigenous” people or population. The UN definition includes several characteristics, the first of which is that indigenous populations are composed of “the descendants of groups, which were in the territory at the time when other groups of different cultures or ethnic origin arrived there.” In 1986, a caveat was added that read “any individual who identified himself or herself as indigenous and was accepted by the group or the community as one of its members was to be regarded as an indigenous person.”
In an interview with Alt-X Berlin, Laguna Pueblo novelist Leslie Marmon Silko offers her own interpretation of the term: “When I say indigenous people I mean people that are connected to the land […] for at least some thousands of years. You can see similarities in some of the struggles of indigenous peoples in Africa, in the Americas, in Asia.”
In the same interview, Silko draws parallels with pre-Christian European traditions:
I am very interested in the pre-Christian traditions in Germany and the British Isles, very interested in what the people were like before the Christians came up here. Because, in a sense, there are many similarities. I am not trying to say it is the same but, perhaps, there are some similarities of what happened with the tribal people that were once here, the people that were so close to the earth and the trees. And then Christianity comes in the same way it came to us.
Silko implies that at some point after Christianization, many Europeans were severed from their connection to the land, from being “so close to the earth and the trees.” However, today, many indigenous people throughout the world are in fact Christian, and it is possible to be Christian and retain the sense of being “connected to the land.” Therefore, the UN definition of self-identification and acceptance by the group or community is important to keep in mind. What exactly constitutes indigeneity is not for non-indigenous groups to define.
The UN definition of “indigenous” does, however, emphasize that indigenous populations typically occupy a “non-dominant or colonial condition.” As noted in the first sentence:
Indigenous populations are composed of the existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial condition.
Christianity’s aggressive evangelization efforts in California certainly fit into this description, and have been a source of recent controversy due to the Roman Catholic Church’s canonization of the missionary Junipero Serra.
Canonization of Serra
Serra was a Spanish Franciscan friar who founded the first nine missions of the California mission system, which operated from 1769 to 1833. On Sept 23 2015, he was canonized by Pope Francis, despite the objections of indigenous tribal bands and other organizations that have criticized the Vatican’s decision to grant sainthood to a man seen as “ultimately responsible for the death of approximately 100,000 California Indians and the complete extermination of many Native tribes, cultures and languages.” Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, points out that “the brutality of Fr. Serra is documented in his own writings,” referring to Serra’s letters to Spanish colonial officials requesting and justifying the whipping of native converts, especially “runaways” from the Mission.
The Amah Mutsun, who are indigenous to the Monterey Bay Area, have been among the tribal bands vocally opposing Serra’s canonization. On their website, they have compiled a list of news articles, letters to the Pope, news reports of demonstrations, and academic research related to the topic. Other groups opposing Serra’s canonization include the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians (Acjachemen Nation), the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians (Pecháangayam Payómkawichum) and The Morning Star Institute.
In early October, several weeks after the canonization, a commemorative statue of Serra at the Presidio of Monterey was decapitated. A week before that occurred, the statue of Serra at the Carmel Mission was splashed with paint, and the words “Saint of Genocide” were painted on a headstone. The Los Angeles Times reports that the latter incident is “being investigated as a hate crime because the vandals targeted ‘specifically the headstones of people of European descent, and not Native American descent.'”
No one has claimed responsibility for either action.Walk for the Ancestors
Another response to Serra’s canonization has been “a 650-mile pilgrimage to each of the 21 California Missions, to honor the Indigenous ancestors who suffered and perished in the Mission system and assert California Indian rejection of sainthood for Junipero Serra.” The Walk for the Ancestors is being led by Tataviam descendants Caroline Ward Holland and Kagen Holland. The walk began on September 7 at Mission Solano in Sonoma, California and is planned to end at Mission San Diego on November 7.
The walkers meet with local indigenous people and hold a moment of silence at each mission site:
At each Mission, the walkers will join with representatives of local tribes and all those who come to stand with them. Words, stories and prayers will be shared, and a moment of silence will be observed at the mass grave sites of the ancestors. The walk will then continue southward, and anyone present at the gathering will be welcomed to participate.
Caroline Ward Holland has described the context for the walk as one of cultural trauma:
To me, the disease brought here [by the Franciscans] was secondary, in comparison to the ways they tortured our people, mentally, and physically. The stories of the atrocities are passed down. Mothers were giving themselves abortions so their children wouldn’t face a life of abuse. And you know, even when they left the Mission [after secularization], they had nothing. They took their land, they took their culture, they took their spiritual practices…so the people didn’t know who they were.
That’s why we’re talking about cultural trauma. I didn’t realize it was going on, until I really thought about it. I mean, it’s still me, and it’s hundreds of years later, and I’m still feeling this. You can feel it all around you at the Missions, too.
As they visit different missions, the walkers hear many stories, some of which they have shared on their website. For example, in San Luis Obispo, the walkers learned that the history of indigenous resistance can be found in the very architecture of the missions across the entire state:
The missionaries, still under periodic attack from flaming arrows and remembering the tiled roofs of Spain, started to experiment with making roofing tiles to protect the structures against the arrows. Very quickly, all of the California missions adopted the tiles as part of their construction.
In conclusion, every time you see the Mission-style tile roofs that are so ubiquitous in California, don’t think of Spanish colonial glory. Think of flaming arrows!
Refinery Corridor Healing Walks
Earlier this year, four walks were held in the Northeast San Francisco Bay Area, each of which ended up at one of five oil refineries in the area. These Refinery Corridor Healing Walks were organized by Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition (BARCC), a coalition between Idle No More SF Bay and local activists living along the corridor. Their website situates their walks within a longer history of healing walks:
There is a long history in Native America of these types of healing walks. The Refinery Corridor Healing Walks were inspired by the Tar Sands Healing Walks in Alberta, Canada, the Longest Walks, and the Peace & Dignity Journeys.
Prayers for the waters were conducted at the beginning and end of each walk, and throughout the walks:
We are walking as a commitment to Mother Earth and life on her beautiful belly. We walk as a commitment to clean air, soil and water. Members of Idle No More SF Bay conduct prayers at each refinery and toxic sites along the way. Prayers for the waters are conducted by Native American women at the beginning and end of each walk.
Annual walks and protests led by Indian People Organizing for Change (IPOC) have also been held in Emeryville, an East Bay city which built a shopping mall over remnants of the Emeryville Shellmound in the early 2000s. The Sacred Land Film Project describes shellmounds as “gently rounded hills formed from accumulated layers of organic material deposited over generations by native coastal dwellers. Often the sites of burials and spiritual ceremonies, these shellmounds are still places for veneration.” IPOC writes that shellmounds are seen by the Muwekma Ohlone as “shellmounds as living cemeteries where their ancestors rest.”
The Emeryville Shellmound was “once the largest of the 425 mound sites around the Bay” and was included as a landmark on a U.S. Coast Survey map in the 1850s. Hundreds of people were buried within it. The Sacred Land Film Project reports on its history:
In 1876, the site was partially leveled for an amusement park; when the park closed in 1924, archaeologists excavated more than 700 indigenous graves. The site was then razed to build an industrial plant that occupied the site until the late 1990s, when the city demolished the buildings and started cleaning up the toxic soil left behind. During that process, hundreds of human remains were found, some of which were reburied while others were taken to landfills or incinerated as part of the cleanup.
Corrina Gould, a Chochenyo Ohlone who is one of the organizers of IPOC, told Indian Country Today that “nearly 12,000 of these remains are currently in the possession of the University of California, Berkeley, locked away and piled on shelves.” Gould is working on creating a “Native women-led land trust, where the ancestral remains stored at UC Berkeley and other museums can be re-interred.”Unburied Bones
The University of California – Berkeley is required by law to repatriate native remains for burial, but has been slow to comply. According to a 2013 op-ed by Professor Tony Platt in the Los Angeles Times, “In 1990 Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Action, which required federally funded museums and universities to repatriate human remains to recognized tribes.” The Muwekma Ohlone are not recognized federally, but the rate of repatriation even to federally recognized tribes has been extremely slow: “UC Davis retains more than 90% of its collection (which caused one Native American activist to note that there are more dead Indians on the Davis campus than live ones). As of June 2013, Berkeley has repatriated only 315 of its 10,000 remains.”
Platt explains some of the reasons for this delay:
First, the process is slow and expensive, as claimants must make their ponderous way through faculty, campuses and university committees. Second, tribes unrecognized by the federal government have no legal right to make a direct claim. Third, and most significantly, because of unscientific work methods, most of the collection is unidentifiable as to provenance or tribal affiliation.
In the conclusion to his op-ed, Platt writes that in addition to “complying with the bureaucratic procedures spelled out in the repatriation law” UC Berkeley “should take responsibility for […] ‘a human ethical’ issue, namely, how so many well-educated, well-meaning professors and administrators eagerly violated the rights of the dead and tormented the living.” He suggests as possible courses of action “public apologies for decades of malpractice, accelerating the repatriation process and offering land or compensation for reburials.”
Indigenous Land Action Committee
Land has been at the root of recent conflict between UC Berkeley and the Indigenous Land Action Committee. A press release by the ILAC details a ceremony held at the Gill Tract, a UC-owned plot of land slated for development by the natural food chain Sprouts:
The multi-day ceremony began Sunday, October 11, led by the Indigenous Land Action Committee (ILAC), a group of indigenous people who organized the ceremonial observance to honor the land and the ancestors who lived on the land, to mark Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and to protect the land from imminent development.
Around 5:00 am on October 14, UC police forcibly removed Ohlone Hank Herrera from the land. Herrera told the police officers, “This land is native land, it’s Ohlone Land. [Ohlone people] cannot trespass on our land… where we lived for 10,000 years.”
Indian People Organizing for Change writes, “This is the homeland of the Muwekma Ohlone Nation. As new residents and visitors to their country, we ought to show the same respect we would expect to our far distant homelands and cemeteries.” While these words are addressed to those living in the East San Francisco Bay, they apply equally to any non-indigenous person living on indigenous land anywhere across the world.
Author’s Note: This article is not intended to represent or speak for any indigenous people or group. The author is not indigenous. This article is intended to be a introductory overview. Any struggles not been mentioned here are welcome in the comments below.