6 Actions Toward Allyship with Local Native Americans

View of Juristac, a sacred Native American site and 6,400-acre major wildlife corridor in Santa Clara County.

Green Foothills has worked closely with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band in recent years to protect the 6,400 acres of Juristac southwest of Gilroy from the threat of a sand and gravel mine. There is a stronger chance we will succeed in permanently protecting this wildlife corridor and sacred site because of this collaboration. Since then, all of us at Green Foothills have been thinking about how allyship is integral to our mission and what solidarity with local Native Americans looks like for our organization.

I’d like to thank representatives of the Muwekma, Dine (Navajo), Lenca, Maya and Amah Mutsun Nations without whose help this piece would not have been possible.

“From the perspective of the Navajo people, we are taught that our spiritual well-being depends on one’s own sacred relationship to the land,” says Ahíga Snyder, a Los Gatos resident, wildlife researcher, and member of the Navajo Nation. “The more care we put into the earth below our feet, the healthier and more fulfilled our lives will become. Each of us can trace our lineage back to a time when our ancestors had a reciprocal relationship with the earth. We all belong to this earth, and we can all benefit from being proper stewards.”

Just ten generations ago (late 1700s), California was home to more than 400 tribes, over 100 distinct languages, and 300,000 people. By 1900, five generations later, California’s population of Indigenous people had been decimated to less than 16,000 by Euro-American colonialism, enslavement, violence, and disease. Genocide and cultural destruction also damaged the natural environment, as land shifted from being a close relative to a settler commodity.

We can all agree that Native Americans have been — and continue to be — wronged. Humanity, wildlife, and nature continue to suffer greatly for it. Yet against the odds, California’s Indigenous nations resisted, survived, and continued to carry on their cultural, spiritual, and linguistic traditions to this day.

For two and a half generations (since 1962), Green Foothills has helped to protect nearly 200,000 acres of land through over 900 campaigns as a part of our vision of the region being a place where wildlife thrive, everyone has natural beauty to enjoy, and communities live in balance with nature. We have worked toward our vision by empowering people across the region to effectively participate in local land use issues.

Still, Green Foothills can be doing more to meaningfully engage with local tribes and Indigenous people, with the awareness that environmental conservation organizations in the United States have had a very problematic history in regard to Indigenous peoples (perhaps most notably, Sierra Club founder John Muir supported the forceful removal of Native American peoples from the National Parks).

Native American people have an inherent stake in any environmental issue in their traditional territory and are uniquely impacted by environmental degradation. “Our ancestors understood that if we do not take care of our environment (our Mother Earth), then we face extinction as a people because we have a codependent relationship with the Land,” says Chairwoman Charlene Nijmeh of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. Local tribes and Indigenous peoples can be uniquely powerful and effective partners in efforts to protect open space and natural resources. But non-Indigenous environmentalists must listen and take proactive steps to work in solidarity with Indigenous peoples, to heal our relationship with the land, and to build trust in the process of working together to achieve common goals.

For the past six months I have listened to and learned from local Native American people and their Tribal Elders, anthropologists, social justice advocates, and environmentalists. With each conversation I asked the question, “What does it mean to be an ally to Native Americans?” Below are some of the core messages I heard.

1. Learn about the past and teach others about the devastating shared history.

“California has some of the worst histories with Indigenous peoples,” said Professor Alan Leventhal, an archaeologist who has been teaching and involved in Indian Affairs over the past 42 years at San Jose State University. “The Muwekma Ohlone Tribe had a population of around 30,000 in the 18th century and the population was decimated to 62 members by the early 20th Century.”

“For generations, our people have been focused on survival alone,” says Muwekma Chairwoman Nijmeh. “We are here bringing back our culture which was hidden but not forgotten.”

2. Learn about the present and support healing by recognizing Indigenous peoples are part of the community.

California has 109 federally-recognized tribes and one of the most damaging things a person can do is fail to recognize that there are active Tribes locally. The best way to learn whose territory you are in is to contact the nations in question. Most of San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties are considered to be in Muwekma territory with the Amah Mutsun territory in the southern reaches of Santa Clara County and Ramaytush territory in the northern reaches of San Mateo County.

“Often when a member of our tribe tells someone they are an Indian, that person asks where their casino is. California Indians are nothing more than a stereotype for far too many people,” said Chairman Valentin Lopez of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.

One simple action is normalizing land acknowledgements, a formal statement that can be made at gatherings or written communication to demonstrate respect for whose traditional territory you are standing on.

3. Seek, listen to, amplify, and support Indigenous voices.

“We want people to listen to California Indians, and in particular the Indians of the territories within the Bay Area,” said Chairman Valentin Lopez of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. “We have something very important to say about nature, the earth, and stewardship. We want the public to support the tribes that are nearest to them, visit tribal websites to see how to help them.”

You can regularly donate funds to local tribes and Indigenous organizations on whose land you are living and working, and show up for their efforts as much as possible. “I base my monthly donation to the Amah Mutsun Land Trust on the Shuumi Land Tax model of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust in the East Bay,” says Nancy Vail, Founder of Pie Ranch on the San Mateo County coast.

4. Urge your city, county, and state assembly districts to take action.

There are many examples of local agencies taking steps such as adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, passing resolutions to support the initiatives of local tribes, removing offensive mascots, names or statues, and actually returning lands back to tribes. Cities and counties can go beyond inadequate state standards for tribal consultation in regard to sacred sites and burial sites, adopting “free, prior and informed consent” based policies to ensure that cultural resources are protected.

“These are distinct opportunities for allyship and often these opportunities will not arise unless you personally make the call to your elected officials and request action. Native issues are local issues,” says Tamara Alvarado, a Fire Keeper with Calpulli Tonalehqueh, a traditional Aztec dance group focused on culture, tradition, and Indigenous knowledge and practices of the Mexika.

On September 8, 2019 four hundred people gathered in San Juan Bautista, in support of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band’s efforts to protect their sacred grounds from a proposed sand and gravel mining operation.

5. Advocate for the protection of sacred sites.

“Colonization aimed to destroy our culture, our spirituality, and the environment,” says Amah Mutsun Chairman Valentin Lopez. “Because of this, our traditional sites were never respected or protected. Today there are very few of the sites remaining and tribes are fighting to protect the few sites that remain. Land managers can preserve and protect sensitive cultural sites that are on conserved lands, work to help tribes develop tribal parks and to get important sites conserved to ensure they can have access in perpetuity.”

One way of supporting an effort to protect a local cultural site is by supporting the Protect Juristac campaign. Visit greenfoothills.org/campaigns/juristac.

6. Support access to land.

Local tribes should be offered opportunities and formal rights to access land, harvest cultural resources, and practice ceremonies. Land managers should be proactive in ensuring that tribes are actively involved in the process of acquiring and stewarding lands within their traditional tribal territories. It is critical that local tribes be offered seats at the negotiating table.

The cultural easement for the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band at Mount Umunhum is a model for Native American access in perpetuity. “The Creator gave us the obligation to take care of mother earth and be stewards of our non-human relatives. This stewardship looks very different depending on the situation,” says Alexii Sigona of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.

“Many tribes now own and steward natural lands that have important cultural sites on them,” says Reed Holderman, former Executive Director of Sempervirens Fund and current board member with the Amah Mutsun Land Trust. “We need to find the right approach at every site so that cultural resources and natural resources are protected.”

Working in solidarity with Native American people requires humility, courage, action, and reflection. The conversation around solidarity is not a new one, it is ongoing and will continue on for many generations. “Sometimes you might stumble and struggle with allyship,” says Kanyon Sayers-Roods, an educator within the Indigenous community of the Bay Area, “This is okay. Indigenous people are struggling too as we are recovering.”

For further inspiration, we’ve started a resource page with a sample land acknowledgement, recommended books, and more. Visit greenfoothills.org/allyship.

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