Luhui Whitebear of the Coastal Band Chumash Tribe acts as the Assistant Director of the Native American Longhouse Eena Haws at Oregon State University, and is a mother of three.
Whitebear’s ancestors lived on the island of Limuw, known today as Santa Cruz. Like so many other tribes throughout the country, her ancestors were separated from their homeland in 1822 and relocated to the Santa Barbara Missions. Limuw is now the property of the Parks Department and is uninhabited by people. Access to the island requires the purchase of a ferry ride – a financial barrier for many who wish to visit. Whitebear was only recently able to visit Limuw with her family this year, after decades of viewing it from afar.
“Knowing that you can look at it all you want from the shores of Santa Barbara, but you can’t actually go there – it’s really hard,” she said. “To be able to go with my dad, my brothers, and our kids – to have that experience together was really beautiful.”
During her trip to Limuw, her family was able to share stories, experiences, and perform a ceremony. Whitebear reflected on her father’s story during the ceremony, of paddling to Limuw on his tomol.
“Our dad was one of the people that brought back our tomols, which are plank canoes. Those were taken away during the mission era [when] they drilled holes in them, so those traditions were lost for a while. He had paddled over there in the 70’s, and he hadn’t been back for a very, very long time.”
According to Whitebear, Land Acknowledgement “is giving recognition to who’s land we’re on. No matter where we’re at… we’re on somebody’s traditional homeland.”
Every county, town, and city in the U.S. is located on ancestral lands of indigenous tribes and communities. Land acknowledgement serves as a starting point for open dialogue about those communities, while highlighting the adversity Native Peoples still face and overcome today.
Here in Corvallis, we are settled on the ancestral land of the Mary’s River Band of the Kalapuya, which is believed to have consisted of 13-19 subdivision groups, with an estimated total of 15,000 people. Between the years of 1805 and 1830, the population is estimated to have been around 8,780 to 9,200 people. By 1849, the population dropped to roughly 600 people, due to the introduction of colonizers and the illnesses they carried to the Pacific Northwest.
Between 1851 and 1887, local tribes were further displaced by the signing of treaties, forced removal to reservations, and the blending of tribes. The descendants of the Kalapuya People are now part of the federally recognized Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon and Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians of Oregon.
Whitebear reminds us that this is “not a historic thing. These are still somebody’s lands. The people are still alive.”
Tribal Recognition and Sovereignty
The United States government has played an impactful role on the visibility and rights of indigenous people by naming certain tribes with a federal recognition status. According to Whitebear, “The U.S. is acknowledging those tribes are sovereign nations,” that hold a government to government relationship. A federally recognized tribe is given tribal sovereignty, or the ability to govern themselves independently while still following federal laws, since reservations are located inside U.S. borders.
It should not be confused, though, that Native Americans of federally recognized tribes have received “super rights” due to their ability to self-govern. A common misconception is that Native Americans want or are trying to gain special privileges.
“I think one of the biggest things I wish people would stop saying is that they’re ‘special rights,’” says Whitebear. “We just want to be able to practice our ways [of life], and we want to have our connections to the places we need to. We don’t want sacred sites and burials disrupted.”
Federally recognized tribes were granted certain rights through a ratified treaty with the United States. One example is the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which ensures the return of human remains and sacred, cultural, and funerary items from museums that receive federal funding. NAGPRA was enacted to help diminish the removal of remains and funerary items, and to protect burial sites from disruption using archeological research and science. However, NAGPRA is a protection only available to tribes that have the federal recognition status.
In the United States, there are 573 tribes that are federally recognized, while roughly 460 tribes remain without this federal distinction. Non-federally recognized tribes are especially vulnerable to disruption of sacred sites and burial sites.
Non-Federally Recognized Tribes
The Coastal Band Chumash tribe has been fighting for federal recognition for more than 35 years.
“My tribe was written as extinct,” says Whitebear. “Just because you’re written a certain way by a dominant society, that doesn’t mean that you aren’t who you are.”
Tribes that are not federally recognized do not have their own tribal land. Whitebear explains, “[My tribe] had property in California, and it wasn’t considered tribal land. We considered it tribal land, but it’s considered private property. We don’t have access to the same types of sites and the same land.” Examples include sacred ceremonial sites, burial sites, and access to the ancestral land of the Chumash tribe, including the island of Limuw.
Disruption to Sacred Sites and Burial Sites
Burial sites have been disrupted by people looking for mementos to keep for personal fulfillment, removed to make high-end resorts, and removed for construction of industrial projects like highways and pipelines.
“There’s a long history of nastiness that has to do with the disruption of gravesites here, that still happens,” says Whitebear. “People literally stealing bones and funerary objects.”
Her own tribe in California faced burial disruptions around 15-20 years ago. “One of our grave sites was disrupted to create a high-end resort in Santa Barbara, and there wasn’t much we could do because we’re not federally recognized.”
Whitebear recalls how she felt when she learned of the disruption. “It’s just really gross… to see it turned into a tourist attraction and for people to not know it was a burial site.”
In 2008, the federal government bulldozed through an ancient sacred burial site known as Ana Kwa Nchi nchi Patat, or “Place of Big Big Trees,” to make way for a highway expansion west of Government Camp, Oregon. A place of worship, ceremonial prayer, and the growing of ceremonial medicinal plants was torn apart. Today, elder Carol Logan of the Clackamas Tribe, Chief Wilbur Slockish of the Klickitat Tribe, and Chief Johnny Jackson of the Cascade Tribe are fighting for the land to be recognized as sacred, for the trees and medicinal plants to be replanted, and for the return of sacred items under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They’ve been fighting since the 1980’s for the site’s protection from highway expansion.
Changing the Narrative About Native Americans: A Guide for Allies is an excellent resource in understanding the complex, and often misunderstood representation of Native Americans in the United States. A narrative that is grown from exaggerated, real, or assumed truths and half-truths can have a lasting effect on a group of people – especially when the narrative is skewed to a one-sided interpretation.
There are “negative” stereotypes that are represented in mainstream media including movies, news articles, and school history lessons. The negative narrative can have impacts on self-esteem, values of self-worth, and be used as a tool of oppression.
There are also “positive” narratives that highlight indigenous peoples’ resilience throughout historical challenges, spiritual connections to land, protection of land, and their commitment to family and affiliated tribes.
“We have histories and very specific connections to land, and I think sometimes people run off on their own romanticized view on the connection to land and native people, instead of viewing it as a very real connection,” says Whitebear.
Positive and negative labels used simultaneously can perpetuate a one-sided romanticized view of Indigenous people, lumping them into single categories. This makes it difficult to recognize the rich, texturized identity of a single Indigenous person within a tribe that may have differing beliefs, practices, and cultures than another tribe.
Misrepresentation in School
Whitebear highlights how the ‘people of the past’ mindset is especially perpetuated by American education systems. “The way that [Native] history is taught in the K-12 system is just really poor… We’re lucky to have even half a page in most books. It’s like, ‘they were here, and then they were gone.’”
As a student, Whitebear says she “used to speak up in elementary school … saying Columbus was a murderer and a rapist… Tangentially, I guess Columbus had something to do with the United States, but Columbus wasn’t a part of the United States at all.” She equates celebrating Columbus with celebrating genocide.
Contesting those who want to hide these hard truths from youth, Whitebear retorts, “My kids live with the truth. Kids who are descendants of African slaves live with the truth.”
Whitebear challenges us to think about who exactly is protected by, or prospering from, romanticized views of indigenous peoples – whose genocide remains buried under the guise of freedom advertised by our country’s founders, and propagated to this day. It’s a harrowing reminder that the proverbial “Land of the Free” came at a cost – the decimation of 90 percent of indigenous peoples, whose descendants live today as survivors, fighting for justice and recognition of all that was stolen from them.
By Olivia Cartwright