Tribal liaison: Honor the land and its people

Story by Andrea Valadez-Angulo

There’s a difference between identity and political status, says Melissa Leal,  the tribal liaison for Sacramento’s Sierra College.

“There’s a cultural identity that many people share in being [indigenous],” Leal said during her presentation Nov. 16 at California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB), “but there’s also a legal status for tribal nations in the United States that is separate from any racial or ethnic identity.” 

It’s all about how people separate cultural identities from political identities, something that was the focus of Leal’s talk entitled “Native American Voices: A Conversation On Identity & Sovereignty.” The talk was put on by the Otter Cross Cultural Center (OC3).

Leal identifies as a California Indian and is a member of the Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen Nation. CSUMB was built on Esselen land.

Leal began by speaking in her native Esselen language. She explained that the standard greeting translates to “my heart is happy to be here.”

The talk, attended by mostly students, touched on matters of indigeneity, terminology, culture and sovereignty.

The Constitution recognizes American Indian tribes as distinct government and political entities. This means that federally recognized tribes hold the “supreme power or authority of a state to self-govern,” according to Leal.

Following an audience member’s question about stolen land being given back to Native tribes, Leal pointed out that the media spin this narrative.

While the media will make you think that land has been “given” back to tribes, in reality, that land has been repurchased by nonprofit organizations that are often associated with tribes that are not federally recognized, Leal said.

An example of this occurred in 2020 when the Esselen Tribe of Monterey County worked with the environmental group Western Rivers Conservancy in order to purchase their ancestral homeland in Big Sur’s Adler Ranch.

“I’m a result of really strong and resilient peoples who survived something really horrible,” said Leal, who spoke passionately about the history of her ancestors. In 1899, the Esselen tribe was deemed extinct by anthropologists.

On this topic, Leal said that she wants people to know that her people are still here. “Sometimes you have to survive by becoming invisible.”

Leal also expanded on a recent trend of people trying to learn more about their Indigenous lineage. “People are yearning for some sort of connection outside of themselves. They look at indigenous cultures to teach them that.”

It is perfectly understandable to want to learn more about one’s ancestors, but Leal points to a few critical steps in order to “reclaim your indigeneity” while being respectful.

  1. It’s necessary to understand the trauma of your ancestors and the extent of the atrocities forced upon them by the U.S. government in particular.
  2. Find your place and seek out where and who you connect with.
  3. Learn the proper manner in which to interact with tribe members in specific spaces (learn the language, the protocols, etc.)

Leal also stresses that it will take a lot of time and effort until tribe members, especially elders, trust you to be in their spaces.

While the conversation surrounding Indigenous rights has become amplified in the past few years, there is still a lot of work to be done in order to support Native voices.

CSUMB issued a land acknowledgment in the spring of 2020 in order to recognize and honor that the land upon which the university was built previously belonged to the Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen Nation.

Leal recognized this as just a first step out of many that CSUMB could take in order to identify her people’s land truly.

Firstly, Leal believes that CSUMB should reach out to the Repatriation Oversight Commission, which is in charge of facilitating the California Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (CalNAGPRA). 

CalNAGPRA was passed in 2001 and allows for the redistribution of tribal burial items and human remains that are still buried under the land. It is significant for Leal that her ancestors be reconnected with their tribes.

Leal also stated that in order to create more awareness, CSUMB would benefit from hiring a tribal liaison that can help facilitate the university’s relationship with the appropriate tribes.

Lastly, Leal believes that CSUMB would highly benefit from hiring a group of professors to teach California Indian studies. “Every student should take a tribal law class,” said Leal.

Leal recommends that everyone get in touch with their Indigenous roots. “Even if you can’t learn your own indigeneity, there are ways you can learn about the Indigenous cultures of the place you’re in.”

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