In recent years, it has become increasingly common to hear public officials and event hosts naming the Native tribes on whose ancestral lands an event is taking place.
These “land acknowledgements” are an important signal of raising awareness about the physical, social and economic genocide that continues to impact Native Americans.
Yet some, including Taylor Pennewell, executive director of the Rohnert Park-based nonprofit Redbud Resource Group, are convinced it’s time to do more.
Founded in June 2020, Redbud is committed to building bridges between Native and non-Native communities through public education programming and institutional training. The group aims to bring the history of Native people back to the forefront of California education and land stewardship. It also supports calls to return the ownership of land to Native people, generally referred to as #LandBack.
Groups giving land acknowledgement are “basically admitting that they are occupying, that they are in the role of colonizer actively. It’s not something in the past; it’s something that’s present, ongoing,” Pennewell said in an interview at the nonprofit’s office.
“Saying that you recognize someone’s existence is really, really fundamental to living a healthy life and being in a relationship with people [who are] in your community,” Pennewell said. However, “many Americans don’t think Native American people exist. That we don’t exist anymore. And this is tied to all these really big public health issues that Native communities face, [the] effects of being physically erased.”
These harms may be compounded by the generational trauma of being erased, but they are not of a past time. They are present, verifiable and community-wide. For example, Native people have a life expectancy 5.5 years lower than the national average.
“The problem [with land acknowledgements] is that they don’t really do much to address the root of inequities that Native people face [in the present time],” Pennewell said. “Which is what Redbud is all about. Teaching people how to go beyond [acknowledgements] with really concrete action.”
A first step is increasing public knowledge about the killing of America’s Native people.
Many readers may associate the European conquest of North America with images of Spanish galleons full of gold loaded by Native slaves under the lash of whips, or colonizers using smallpox-infected blankets to open up land for western-bound wagon trains. However, discussions of California’s history often omit how the genocide continued well after the state’s formation in 1850.
As a member of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Council for Holocaust and Genocide Education, Pennewell is working to ensure that the mass killing of Native people between 1846 and 1871, known as the California Genocide, is included in public K-12 curricula. Pennewell hopes that the council’s work will become a model for national education. (To learn more about this subject, Pennewell recommends reading An American Genocide by Benjamin Madley.)
“When you really look into the tactics of the genocide, [settlers] were just extremely ruthless,” said Pennewell. “[They showed] a really unprecedented blood thirst.”
Rose Hammock is a tribal member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, among the groups that were rounded up and driven—using cattle wrangling techniques—to reservations and rancherias designated by settler authorities, including the state of California.
“It’s a miracle for Taylor and I to be here to do this work because we come directly from people who survived the genocide,” she said. Pennewell and Hammock say that there are signs that the genocide is ongoing.
One example is Texas’ legal challenge of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. If the Supreme Court strikes down the law, it would “make it easier to forcibly remove Native children from their families with or without consent [of relatives],” according to Pennewell. This would deal a significant blow to tribal sovereignty and represent a continuation of the genocide, the Redbud leader argues.
In addition to improved education, Redbud supports the Land Back movement. As the name suggests, this campaign seeks to return sovereignty of land and resources to the Native communities that stewarded them before the arrival of white settlers.
“Being able to receive a parcel of land, whether it’s really big or small, just that act of being able to have land back [is important in itself]. It gives us access to resources,” Hammock, Redbud’s manager of community outreach, said.
The campaign has precedent in Northern California. In 1860, the sacred Wiyot village on Tuluwat Island, located in Humboldt Bay, was the scene of a remorseless massacre of Native women, children and elderly by local settlers who claimed to have “bought” the land, without the tribe’s consent or knowledge. One hundred and forty-four years later, the city of Eureka returned 67 acres of the island to the Wiyots of Humboldt County. In 2019, the remaining 202 acres of the island were transferred to the tribe.
The erasure of Native culture affects all. As drought-stricken California continues to burn year after year, the importance of proper stewardship is more evident than ever. The very resource management system engaged in global ecocide cannot be expected to find the key to safely managing the environment. Land management and public safety agencies have a chance to include the Native knowledge of local ecosystems that they have stewarded for millenia.
A common perception is that “the Native people would just kind of let everything grow and not touch anything,” said Hammock. In fact, Native populations “were always cutting and burning and pruning and gathering, because that’s what we know our plants need to be healthy.”
“We’re hoping that by communities having access to land, we are going to see ecosystems and the land heal,” said Hammock. “People need to heal, but our land also needs to heal. The two go together.”
At Redbud, “we’re not saying go out and do this,” said Hammock. “We’re saying, Here’s the tools to have the best relationships and … go into a conversation not just with the right language, but to go into that space in a respectful way. Or what we often say in the Native community, ‘Do it in a good way; do it the best way that you can.”
To learn more about Redbud Resource Group’s work and to access their education programs, visit www.redbudresourcegroup.org.