Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy

Show Footnotes

Christopher Hawthorne: I was really struck by your talk at the Toppling Mission Monuments conference about various models of land acknowledgement—particularly those that include action items for the audience to take up and other strategies for moving past perfunctory or rote approaches to land acknowledgement.01 “Toppling Mission Monuments and Mythologies: A Conference—California Indian Scholars and Allies Respond and Reflect” was an online event held via Zoom on July 15, 2020. It was organized by the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center in collaboration with partners at UC Riverside, UC San Diego, and UC Santa Cruz.
And I wanted to talk with you a bit about those approaches, and how they might be relevant to our civic memory work. To begin, could you just tell me a little bit about yourself, your background, and the work that you do now? 

Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy: I’m the department chair and associate professor of Native American studies at Humboldt State University. I’m Hupa, Yurok, and Karuk—those are three of the largest tribes in Northern California. I’m enrolled in the Hupa Valley Tribe but have ties to Yurok and Karuk peoples. I like doing work with people and in communities, but my research really focuses on decolonization and California Indian peoples, and especially California Indian politics and the ways in which we understand and enact sovereignty and self-determination. My passion is land return and decolonial futures. 

CH: Our working group has been interested in various approaches to decolonization. Can you talk a little bit more about the forms your work has taken in that area, or models of decolonization—particularly in public spaces and public design—that you might point us to?

CRB: For me, it’s been a couple of different interventions that I’ve started to really focus on when I think about what decolonial space work looks like. One is renaming and using Indigenous languages a lot in spaces. I think we’ve been taught for far too long that our languages are very weird or foreign, and it actually spreads the message to our own people, our own youth, that somehow our languages are inaccessible. Because they’re not seeing it every day or everywhere. And in part it’s because, in order to reflect the way we speak with English letters, you have to use a lot of colons and accents and barred Ls and things like that, because our languages are very different from English. When you see it written out in this way, it can at first feel jarring. But when you start to refer to spaces by the Indigenous names, you begin to have a different relationship with them. 

One of my colleagues, Dr. Kayla Begay, she’s a linguist, and she talks about how in Hupa, for instance, when we talk about coming into a new space, we don’t say, “I’m lost.” We would never say, “I’m lost here” or “I don’t know where I am.” We actually say, “The land doesn’t know me.” There’s something about introducing yourself and knowing the land and the relationship you’re supposed to have to it. Our languages have a lot to say about that relationship. So in our own area, in Hupa, we often have signs, and we’ve named our roads in our language. We all know the name of our medical center is K’ima:w Medical Center. It means medicine—that’s our word for medicine. In my own land acknowledgments, I always make sure that I don’t just say wherever I traveled to. I don’t just come to the place and say, “I’m here in this city and it’s the land of these people.” I try to find the name of the place in the Indigenous language and use it and say it, and then have other people pronounce it and say it, to help people get more comfortable with everyday Indigenous language.

 In our region, they just returned a sacred island to the tribe. It was taken more than 150 years ago because of a massacre that occurred there. And because of that massacre, the people had to leave. And then that island was taken over, but it is still considered the center of the world to the Wiyot peoples. Eventually it was returned—an unprecedented return. The city of Eureka said, “We’ll give you this island back.” In our area, that island is often referred to as Indian Island. And that’s how people colloquially talk about it. I can’t call it Indian Island, because it’s only called that because that’s where they went and killed a bunch of Indian people. But before that the village was called Tuluwat. [The island was called Duluwat.] And I think it’s really important to start just calling it Tuluwat, so I try in my own practice. I try with my students. I try with people I know to be like, “That’s Tuluwat. That’s Tuluwat.” More and more you hear people saying, “Oh, that’s Tuluwat, that’s where the Wiyot people are from.” 

I think that those sorts of moments are really important. I give my students extra credit in their papers if they refer to the areas they’re writing about using the Indigenous words. A lot of them refer to Arcata, which is where Humboldt State is, as Kori [the name for the Wiyot settlement that existed on the site]. And that’s how they talk about it. Same thing with Eureka, which is Jaroujiji [in Wiyot]—they just talk about it that way. There were so many attempts to divorce us from our language, knowing that our language held our culture and our beliefs and our reasons for being, knowing that our language tied us together and tied us to the land. Reclaiming that can become so important. Seeing it in public spaces is also important, and knowing that these languages are still living, that they’re not dead languages or gone languages. And that all these places had names—that they were renamed through colonization, but they all had Indigenous names before that.

 CH: That’s really helpful. Before we get to land acknowledgments specifically, another question on decolonization. This report is coming out of a mayor’s office, which makes it somewhat unusual. It’s a bit of a hybrid. Many of our [Civic Memory Working Group] members are not city officials, of course. What would be your advice to a city like Los Angeles to expand the work of decolonization beyond some of what you were just talking about? 

CRB: The most practical thing is land return. There’s a great article called “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor.”02 Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012): 1–40.

It’s by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, and what they’re basically saying is, when we talk about decolonization, we can’t talk about it as a metaphor. It actually comes down to one very key thing, and that is the return of Indigenous land. That’s what decolonization is. If land is stolen, it needs to be returned. So if that’s the ultimate goal of decolonization, when you start talking about decolonization in your own practice, what you’re really signing up for, ultimately, is land return. Now, there’s multiple steps to get there. When I come into spaces and say, “We’re all going to start working to give land back,” everybody goes, “Uh, what?” And they get all scared about it. And then my job is to say, “There’s multiple steps to get there.” We as Indigenous peoples acknowledge that it’s not going to happen overnight. Even though I think that’d be amazing and righteous, if tomorrow somebody was like, “Oh, you want it back? Here you go!” I have actually flirted with becoming a notary just because I go to all these spaces and I think, “You could give it back right now. I’m a notary”—

 CH: I’ll sign the document right now!

 CRB: I’ll fix it. And I know someday it’s going to happen. But it’s a longer process. In our area, with the Wiyot, they started that conversation over 25 years ago. It was Wiyot leaders saying, “We want the island back. That’s what we want.” And a lot of people at first told them that it was impossible, that it’s just not going to happen. But their leaders kept saying, “It’s going to happen. Maybe it’s not going to happen today, but it’s going to happen, because that’s what we’re working for.” It was constant education and outreach. They held vigil on the island every year for 20 years. They started to do their ceremonies again; they brought those back. They educated people. They did all these things. And through that developed a really important relationship with the city of Eureka, saying to them: “We are the Indigenous peoples of this area. We have to build a real relationship with you.” So it was talking with them. It was visits. It was taking them to the island. It was retelling that story. It was making videos about what they wanted to do. 

Ultimately, it was a grassroots movement. Cheryl Seidner, who was the tribal leader at the time that this started, she was so sure that this was what needed to happen—the return of this sacred space—that she started doing bake sales to raise money. She started selling T-shirts. They did a campaign around it. All told, it took about 25 years to get that to happen. And once you had a city council that was ready to truly move it forward, it moved forward, and the island was returned. 

So land return is the ultimate thing. Los Angeles is in a very particular position because so many of their tribal peoples are unrecognized [by the federal government]. I think helping to show support for the return of land to unrecognized tribes is going to be something that puts a city on a map in a really good way. That’s decolonization. It’s saying, “We don’t need the federal government to decide that these are our tribal peoples. We know who our tribal peoples are, and we’re going to honor them in a really meaningful way. We’re going to bring them into this conversation and we’re going to talk with them about what land return looks like.”

And in the city of Eureka’s case—and this is really important—Tuluwat was not given back just because it was a sacred site and so important to the Wiyot people. It was considered surplus land by the city. The city wasn’t using it or doing anything with it specifically, because it was a brownfield site. It was so contaminated through the work that had been done there by settlers throughout the whole period of time that they couldn’t afford to fix it. It was unbuildable, unusable. So there’s this other layer to it: it happened in part because the land was considered surplus land. 

It did, however, open up, in the Indigenous imagination, “Hey, there’s surplus land in cities that they’re not doing anything with? And yet we haven’t had this conversation about the fact that we want to do things with it?” And with the Wiyot tribe, they are now the ones doing the cleanup. They have shared several of the ways in which they have now cleaned up the island so that it’s once again usable. When they showed up, there was so much trash there. Somebody had built a retaining wall of old car batteries on the island and they had to remove it. They had to remove several layers of soil that were contaminated. They had to rebuild buildings. This is what they signed up for, because this is their sacred space. And I think the partnership built between the city and the Wiyot was really important, because here was an island that was in disrepair, that the city was not using, but was also a sacred space to these Indigenous peoples.

To me, the land return part is the most important part—and actually makes the biggest impact, because when we’re talking about climate change, climate justice, environmental justice, it’s Indigenous peoples who want to come in and to be able to work with the land in a meaningful way so that it’s good for everyone. So I think those kinds of opportunities are there under decolonization.

 CH: It’s so interesting that you note that 25-year timeframe. This has been a theme in many of our conversations: that things that can seem to outside observers—or to city governments, for that matter—as happening really quickly, like the toppling of monuments, are almost always the process of many years of activism and community advocacy. Part of what cities need to do is just recognize the amount of work in communities that is ongoing, that has been ongoing, when it comes to these issues and this kind of change, and to begin to think in a different timeframe as well. Again, this report is coming out of a mayor’s office, and there’s so much connected to the idea of a fixed, finite term of office. And that can be in tension with the way these movements work, which is over many, many years. 

CRB: Even the city of Eureka, though it’s much smaller than a city like L.A., had to work out that the Wiyot relationship, the relationship with their tribal peoples, was structural to the mayor’s office. No matter who came into office, they understood this as a structural part of it, that you work with the Wiyot tribe in this way. It’s not dependent on one mayor to say, I value this. Instead, it’s a structural part of our city government.

 CH: Is there a designated staff position to be the liaison to the tribe in the city government of Eureka? 

CRB: No, not yet. But I think certain people have taken on that role. They’ve been talking about making it official. And actually it was just a couple weeks ago that the city of Eureka finally adopted a land acknowledgement. They’re moving forward with many related things in part because of the very positive response to their action to return this island. It went international. We were doing interviews with people from countries all over the world about this movement and this moment. And suddenly Eureka, which in our area doesn’t have the best reputation, is known as being the place. It was the first city that we know of in the United States to return land to Indigenous peoples. And so this relationship actually built something really powerful that people are talking about all over the world. I think that inspired the next steps that they’re taking now.

 CH: Before we get to some of your thinking about new models of land acknowledgement, just a basic question: why from your point of view is it important for cities to adopt land acknowledgements?

CRB: I think the most important thing is that cities are some of the first relationship builders and responders to Indigenous peoples in their regions. The U.S. government’s relationship with tribes is nation to nation, and that’s really important to remember. But when we’re talking about who tribes have to interact with and deal with every single day, a lot of that comes down to cities and counties. And I do think that that relationship is important because the cities are occupying Indigenous land, and because the decision-making that happens in a city is going to affect Indigenous lands. It’s going to affect Indigenous peoples, because the Indigenous lands are right up against city lands, and oftentimes right there in the same spaces. And Indigenous peoples, having been here for thousands upon thousands of years—I mean our timeline of what it means to live here is very, very long. And then we’re also always thinking long into the future. We’re making decisions now, and we’re thinking about how beneficial something is going to be seven generations in the future. It’s that long-term process of, “We’re always going to be here.” I watched a really good documentary yesterday [“Dancing Salmon Home”] in which Chief Caleen Sisk—she’s from the Winnemem Wintu—she tells a government agency, “At some point you’re going to retire, but I am never going to retire. This is my place. This is the work that I do. I will always be this person.”03 “Dancing Salmon Home,” directed by Will Doolittle, Moving Image Productions, LLC (Eugene, OR), 2012. City government to tribal government, you can do real things. There are some amazing impacts that you can have on a local level that can affect international conversations about what the world should look like next.

 CH: I wanted to ask about models of land acknowledgement that you think cities like L.A. might consider. I’m particularly drawn to this idea of yours about using a land acknowledgement at a conference or public event to ask the audience to take up a particular action or make a donation, right then and there.

CRB: What it always comes down to for me is this: we don’t want land acknowledgments to be prescriptive or rote. What I constantly ask people who come to me and say they need help in developing a land acknowledgement is, “Why are you doing it? Why?” Each person who is having this conversation needs to really reflect on what that means for them, because as we’ve discussed, land acknowledgement is supposed to be the first step toward signing up for land return. So if you are not willing to say, “Yes, I’m willing to work toward land return,” then why are you doing it? Otherwise, it doesn’t really amount to anything. It’s a statement, and we don’t need a statement. We don’t need a statement that you know that we’re alive. What we need are compelling actions and calls to action to remind people that we’re always in the process of building toward a decolonized future. And it’s going to look different in every city. It’s going to look different in every town. Every land return is going to look different. This is what I always say to people: “I can’t give you the answer of how should you do it, because it’s always going to look different. And that’s okay. But you do have to say that you’re signing up for decolonization. And if you’re not willing to say that, then don’t do a land acknowledgement.”

Hayden King is an Anishinaabe scholar from Canada, and what he says is, when you make a land acknowledgement a very prescriptive statement and you just read it or somebody else reads it, that’s not building a relationship. You have to make this something active. And that to me can be so many things. Everywhere I go, I’ll research not just the actual name of the Indigenous peoples for the region that I’m going to, but whether there are multiple tribes in that region. So for instance, in Los Angeles, the Tongva are the peoples, but there are multiple tribes within the region. So I would want to name every tribe in my land acknowledgement as well as the peoples. Then I try to find out the Indigenous name for the place that I’m in, so I can give them that language. And then I say, “Okay, I’ve said this to you, but what are we going to do? What’s the action that we’re going to take?”

Sometimes you hear amazing, beautiful, powerful things from members of the audience about what this means for their relationship to Indigenous peoples. I had one woman who said, “This compels me to teach my daughter about the strength of Native people, because I know she’s not going to get that in school. So now what we do is, when she’s going to talking about Native people in school, I give her these resources. We have these conversations. I take her to these events.” And I was like, “That’s a really good start.” When it comes to larger organizations, I always say you’re going to talk with action or you’re going to talk with money. And I always educate people about land—specifically that close to 90 percent of land in the United States is owned by white people. And when you know that but you’re not compelled to address it, then what you’re saying is that you’re okay with this disparity. So stop being okay with it and start saying what you’re going to do.

 In the case of organizations, I constantly try to get them to put in actions toward supporting what’s already happening in their communities. I’ll often look up nonprofits, or even tribal agencies or land trusts. In the case of the Toppling Mission Monuments discussion, I had asked them to donate directly to the Kumeyaay Trust because I previously taught at San Diego State, so I had been on Kumeyaay land. And I was saying here’s a way you can actually support what land return and what land management looks like. And then I’ll call attention to certain activist movements that are happening at the time, because I think it’s important to just give people things that they can feel like they’ve done something to help. And maybe it inspires them to compel other people to action. You don’t have to stand up and be like, “This compels me to demand the end of capitalism, at this very moment.” I want to give people things they can do right now. And then I want to tell them that in doing that, they are starting to open up their imaginations so that we can see the end of settler colonialism, so that we can see past the system that has tried to teach us that there’s nothing we can do.

 CH: And I recall you saying that sometimes you will pause to give people time to act at a conference, or you will come back at the end to update the audience on their progress in taking up these actions, whether it’s writing a letter to the president of San Diego State asking them to change their mascot from the Aztecs or making a donation to the Kumeyaay Trust.

CRB: All the time. The first time I did it, it was at Cal State East Bay. They asked me to do a land acknowledgement and I did it, and then at the end I said, “So there’s actually a nonprofit that is a land trust that is trying to get land back in the Bay Area for tribes that you can give money to. You can actually pay land taxes, honor taxes to tribal nations.” I do know that there have been some cities that have been able to put into their tax forms the option to say, “Yes, I will pay the honor tax.” People can opt into paying a tax to tribes, as part of their property taxes. In the case of this land trust, they use the honor tax to start to buy back pieces of land in the Bay Area. Sometimes they’re small pieces of land that are available. Sometimes they’re larger pieces of land. So I asked people to donate and then I said, “Okay, I’ll wait.” And I just stood there and they were all kind of looking around. And I said, “Yeah, pull out your phones and start typing because you can pay now. You should do it now. It’s not like I want to inspire you to do it later.” And then they all very slowly started. And I said, “Keep going, and when you’re done, send it to me and I’ll post it up on the screen. I’ll show people the work that you did today, the actual work that you did.”

At the Missions conference, people tweeted at me when they donated and I retweeted it. I celebrated them. I don’t want you to get into your car later, after you’ve heard me speak. and be like, “Wow, she gave me a lot to think about.” I want you to do something. And sometimes it makes people uncomfortable. But I also think we should make people uncomfortable.

 CH: Do you think there’s value in having a short statement that can be used in certain circumstances, then paired with a more adaptable one that can be configured to match a particular event or context? What’s your advice about how a city might take on that set of questions?

CRB: This is a good question. I think it’s important to take time to do a land acknowledgement if you’re going to do it. When people invite me to do land acknowledgments, I’ll say, I will come into your land acknowledgement for your event, but my land acknowledgement takes ten to twelve minutes. And then they always say, “Ten to twelve minutes? Because we were thinking, you know, one minute, maybe two, because we don’t have much time on the agenda.” And then I say, “Then you don’t really want a land acknowledgement. You want a statement.” So call it a statement. I’m not going to show up to do a two-minute statement. If you’re going to invite us into the space, you have to invite us in as partners, and at least give us the time to do a true acknowledgement of who we are, and our lands.

CH: What are the institutions or cities that have done this well, in your opinion? 

CRB: San Diego State has a land acknowledgement that was written by a Kumeyaay who works for them, who’s one of their instructors. His name is Mike Connelly. It doesn’t compel action, but as a statement it is one of the most beautiful I’ve heard.04 “SDSU Senate Approves Kumeyaay Land Acknowledgement Statement,” news release, Department of American Indian Studies, San Diego State University, Sept. 11, 2019, https://ais.sdsu.edu/articles/land-acknowledgement.htm. He’s a writer and a poet, and the way he wrote it, it reconnects Kumeyaay people to the land in a way that I had not heard done in a long time. [It reads, in part, “We stand upon a land that carries the footsteps of millennia of Kumeyaay people. They are a people whose traditional lifeways intertwine with a worldview of earth and sky in a community of living beings. This land is part of a relationship that has nourished, healed, protected, and embraced the Kumeyaay people to the present day. It is part of a worldview founded in the harmony of the cycles of the sky and balance in the forces of life.”] I have been blown away by that one.

 CH: In the few minutes that we have left, is there anything that we haven’t touched on that you’d like to mention or talk about? 

CRB: Earlier you asked something about public spaces. We have a new mural in the lobby of our Native American Forum at Humboldt State. For a long time, the lobby was a very plain space where you would gather before heading into the auditorium. And we found funding and we redid the lobby with all Native art, and we put in a bunch of information about the tribes. We put in a bunch of information about the school and its ties to Indigenous peoples. And it’s become a really important space on campus. People walk in and they recognize that it’s an Indigenous space and we’re being represented here. I do think that public art can be really important as a part of how we reclaim space. 

The other thing I’ll say is that people have started to give abandoned or empty buildings to Indigenous peoples in downtown areas. In Oregon, there was a nonprofit that actually donated their building to the Indigenous peoples to be able to open their own art and cultural center in downtown Portland. In Eureka, the Wiyot just worked with the city of Eureka to purchase a building. These downtown spaces are important because sometimes people think of Native peoples as, “Oh, they’re out there, away from the city.”

CH: Speaking of reclaimed space, one of the recommendations we’ve heard from a lot of our members is that the city consider some way, when we produce new monuments and memorials or when we recontextualize existing ones, to have a reference to Indigenous landscapes or to the longer history of the land. I’m wondering if you think there’s value in that, or if there are examples of that happening already that you’re aware of.

CRB: When we’re talking about memorials, I always think about how I don’t want to just memorialize the genocide or death of Native peoples. For so long, people have tended to say, “This is the statue of Junípero Serra. Look, he killed all these Indians.” To me, that just talks about us as people who died. I like to talk about how we are people who are still alive, people who have survived and resisted. That has to be centered in terms of how we’re talked about. Recontextualizing anything has to recenter us as living, vibrant peoples who are also resistors. Otherwise, people get so used to just talking about our deaths. When people write about us, the bestsellers tend to be books about our genocide, books about our death. And I don’t want that to be what’s centered at any type of public memorial or acknowledgement of us, because we are so much more than the attempted genocide of us. And it’s the same thing that happened on Tuluwat: for a long time, people only talked about Tuluwat as a place of a massacre. And my point had always been, “This is not a place of massacre. This is a place of world renewal. And we need to talk about it not just in terms of what happened in 1850 or 1849, because of what was going on with settler colonialism. We need to talk about it in terms of what happened thousands of years before that—and 150 years later. It’s our world renewal place, so let’s think of it that way.” People kept asking if we needed a big plaque that says, “This is the place of this giant massacre that was attempted by citizens of Humboldt County against the Wiyot.” And I said, “I acknowledge that that’s important, because we don’t want people to forget that that happened. But when we center Wiyot death, let’s not ignore Wiyot life and Wiyot revitalization and Wiyot resilience.” That’s what I want people to keep in mind.

 CH: That’s a perfect place to end it. This has been really fantastic. I can’t thank you enough.