Indigenous Struggles and Decolonization

Sonya Hadley, Isa Hoffman, and Catherine Donson

The following work is meant to serve as an educational resource that highlights Indigenous initiatives, issues of decolonization, and land justice, especially as they relate to the area in and around the Claremont Colleges and to the Tongva people whose land the colleges are on. With a focus on the Etiwanda Preserve (located 15 miles from the colleges) and the Robert Redford Conservancy (located in the Bernard Field Station), this compilation of information touches upon:

  • The natural and cultural importance of sage
  • The detrimental effects of sage poaching 
  • Ways in which settler institutions have collaborated with the Tongva community
  • The role complicity plays in the persistence of modern settler colonialism
  • Information about coalition building currently taking place at the 7Cs around this topic

Through our research process we’ve noted that taking personal accountability for Indigenous education and personal decolonization is a crucial action, and we hope that this resource can help others start this journey that we ourselves are still on.

Sage and the Etiwanda Preserve

The North Etiwanda Preserve is a nature preserve located in Rancho Cucamonga, California. It’s home to an especially unique alluvial fan sage scrub community which is only found in southern California in the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains. The Preserve itself protects various plants and wildlife, some of which are listed as threatened or endangered at the federal and state level. 

Why Sage?

The issue of sage poaching was brought to our attention by Violet Luxton, who introduced us to the work already done and the work planned for the future in regards to protecting this sacred plant. A major goal of this project was to advance the agenda of the people most directly impacted by the fight for Indigenous land justice and decolonization, which is why our project took a focus around this topic.

Cultural Significance 

White Sage (Salvia apiana) has long been used for food, medicine, and as part of spiritual and religious practices by Indigenous groups throughout the regions in which it grows. It is a sacred medicine however it is currently on the brink of extinction due to commodification and poaching. Despite an increase in poaching, there has been weak protections and little enforcement in regards to White Sage. It is still not on the endangered species list despite these threats.

In regards to stealing Sage, Tongva Elder Julia Bogany said  “We wouldn’t go into a church or place of worship and start walking out with their sacred objects, please do not do this to ours. The Sage is sacred to us.”  

If you would like to read more about the current situation regarding White Sage here is an article recently published in News From Native California called “Saging the World” on how the global commodification of this sacred medicine is bringing it to the brink of extinction as well as what local Indigenous communities are doing to fight back. 

Natural Significance

In the alluvial scrub community at the Etiwanda Preserve, white sage acts as a keystone species to the unique ecosystem. Its presence is crucial to maintaining the fragile habitats that protect threatened and endangered species at the Preserve.

Interview With Violet Luxton

Our first interview was with Violet Luxton, who is a student support specialist at the Office of Student Engagement at Claremont Graduate University. She has been actively advocating for more resources and funding relating to Native Initiatives at the 7Cs. She is working towards building a coalition, and has invited people into this work alongside her. We met with Violet twice during this semester. She told us about her work, organizing alongside Tongva elders and community members as well as folks from the Claremont Colleges. Violet introduced us to the campaign to protect White Sage, explaining that poaching of this sacred plant is wreaking the ecosystem. In an effort to protect the sage fields, she has helped to launch a letter writing campaign to petition Assemblyman Ramos to issue stronger protections for the sage fields at the Etiwanda Preserve. She told us that though the project was only slowly building momentum, and that she hoped eventually to be able to provide strong legal protection for white sage under the Endangered Species Act. 

 During our conversations, she encouraged us to think about each of our passions and talents and what skills we were looking to gain. She emphasized that all of these skills and interests are important contributions to this work. Because of this we were all able to work on pieces of this project that catered to our strengths, knowledge bases, and experiences. Violet offered us specific ways to get involved based on our abilities and interests. 

Violet focused on sharing information and raising awareness about white sage. This has become a large part of the work we’ve been doing. We all also hope to continue to work with Violet and her newly formed 7C Native Coalition with future projects. As of right now, we have created an instagram post to educate about what is happening, and a letter template to help people send letters to Assemblyman Ramos. We’ve included links to both of these in our “take action” section. If you are interested in joining Violet’s 7C Native Coalition, send and email to 7cnativecoalition@gmail.com for more information! Hopefully, this coalition will build solidarity with other affinity groups on campus and work to build a 7C database about Native initiatives. 

Robert Redford Conservancy

The Robert Redford Conservancy was founded in 2012 with the intention to promote collaboration in the realm of socio-ecological justice and sustainability. One of the key ways they’re doing this is through the incorporation of Indigenous knowledge into their education programs, and by collaborating with members of the Tongva community in planning outdoor spaces at the Conservancy. Brinda Sarathy is the director, but was unfortunately on sabbatical at the time of this project. Susan Phillips is the current interim director to whom we are incredibly grateful for allowing us to interview her and learn more about the Conservancy in the process. To read more about the Conservancy please refer to their website: https://www.pitzer.edu/redfordconservancy/about/

Interview With Susan Phillips

What has been your experience with Native initiatives at the Conservancy and in your personal advocacy work?

  • Susan Phillips became the interim director of the Conservancy in September. On the topic of advocacy work she notes that she has not had a lot of experience with native initiatives before this. Through her past field work with LA housing projects she was able to briefly experience these types of initiatives, but in the interview she explains that, overall, she never had the opportunity to really connect with people. Phillips expresses a lot of gratitude and respect towards being able to “step in” to this position as interim director and emphasizes that Brinda Sarathy is really the one who worked carefully and collaboratively with the Tongva community to make the Conservancy what it is today.

How does the Conservancy collaborate with members of the Tongva community?

  • The Conservancy itself is a representation of this collaboration. Brinda Sarathy really emphasized collaboration with the Tongva community and played a big role in the relationship that exists today. She made sure to involve the Tongva community in planning the Conservancy’s construction, especially when it came to what ceremonial or gathering spaces they wanted to see implemented in its design. Overall a large focus of this collaboration was getting the community back in touch with the land. The Tongva are currently landless and federally unrecognized, so this was a crucial step towards the process of cultural revitalization. In the interview, Phillips emphasizes that, as settler institutions, it’s important to understand our role in complicity as settler colonialism persists. Part of the goal of the Conservancy is to resist this by providing a space for the Tongva community because, when colleges have land, it’s part of their duty to recognize who that land belongs to and give back.
  • The Conservancy has also been working on a memorandum of understanding (MOU) at the request of the Tongva community. So far, this would include a use agreement for land at the Conservancy and a potential partnership with the colleges (or at least with Pitzer). 
  • There is an environmental education program at the Conservancy known as LEEP (Leadership in Environmental Education Program) where elementary school students are taught traditional ecological knowledge, stewardship, and plant relationships. Paul Faulstich and Barbara Drake have notably done a lot of work with this program. The Conservancy is also a site for things such as cultural education workshops for the local Tongva community (though these also remain open to members of the colleges). 
  • The newest collaborative project underworks at the Conservancy is the library project. The goal of this project is to create an information center at the Conservancy for Tongva culture, community, history, language, and ethnobotany. The project as a whole also addresses the greater issue of decolonizing libraries. Under the Dewey Decimal System, Native/Indigenous literature are all categorized under “history”, creating a barrier that prevents Native peoples from being recognized as part of the contemporary world. 
  • There are some notable limitations to the Conservancy. It’s located in the middle of a sensitive biological field station, so no fire or burning is allowed which does place some limitations on how ceremonies are conducted. Additionally, everyone requires permission in order to get into the field station, so it’s not like the community really has ownership over that land. 

Are there plans to allow members of the Tongva community to act as stewards for the Conservancy? Any sort of Land Back initiative?

  • There is currently no Land Back initiative for the Conservancy. Stewardship at the Conservancy is currently a work in progress, and something being written into the MOU specifically is how much caregiving/maintenance to the land they would like to perform themselves. Phillips emphasized that they have full say on this, especially when it comes down to the ceremonial circles. 

How has your positionality impacted your work with Native communities?

  • Phillips notes that her positionality as a white, cis-gendered, middle-class woman has definitely had a large impact on her work. She reflects on being comfortable with positionality and acknowledging privilege, not trying to be something she’s not. She makes sure to remain aware of history in her work and mentions being “comfortable in that discomfort” and not constantly agonizing over her positionality. She states that “it never stops being a thing that’s present” so she “dedicates [herself] to antiracism and letting go of power”. For example, in her position as interim director she is comfortable letting go of power, especially in collaborative efforts such as those taking place at the Conservancy, and maintaining the role of an ally. She states that no matter how practiced you are at navigating this type of work, missteps and mistakes are always made. Phillips ends with a reflection on her position as an anthropologist. She reflects on her urge to interview people and if this urge is wrong given the colonial history of anthropology, though notes that the ethics of this is largely based on the agreement between the interviewer and the interviewee. Finally, Phillips ends with an emphasis on the importance of partnership. With the widespread cultural wipeout of Indigenous cultures, specifically in California, it’s incredibly important that we use privilege to aid in cultural revitalization. 

Further Reading and Texts That Guided This Project

Guiding Texts
10 Things Non-Native Folks Need To Know – a video that discusses appropriation of Native culture, specifically in relation to Indigenous identity and spirituality. 

What is going on with white sage? – article that discusses sage poaching at the Etiwanda Preserve and the ethics behind it

Saging the World – an article about the importance of white sage and the impacts of poaching

Mapping Indigenous LA: Placemaking Through Digital Storytelling – a map that tells the story of the original people of what is now known as the Los Angeles basin.

Witches, Pagans, and Cultural Appropriation  – article about cultural appropriation within pagan spiritual practices

Additional Resources

Text (907) 312-5085 to see who’s land you’re on

Indigenous Artists Tell Us What They Think About Land Acknowledgements 

Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor 

‘Living with fire’ may lead to less destructive wildfires, say Indigenous land stewards 

Calling-in Versus Calling-out: “Throwing Out My Activist Armchair”

Countering Racism & Oppression in Holistic Healing

Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith

7C Native Initiatives Committee 

The 7C Native Initiatives Committee is a group dedicated to moving forward work relating to Native Initiatives at the 7Cs. It is headed by Violet Luxton, who has long been involved in advocacy around these issues, and serves as a way of continuing to engage members within the 7C community in movement work as it relates to Native struggles. The group is currently in its initial stages and focusing on raising awareness and inspiring action to address the poaching of White Sage.

 This work has come directly from the interests of Violet Luxton and the late Tongva elder Barbara Drake. Through this work, we hope to educate anyone who is interested in learning about decolonization and Indigenous struggles — specifically as they relate to the Tongva community in regards to the Etiwanda sage fields, the Robert Redford Conservancy, and the 7C’s. 

If you are interested in learning more about how to get involved please email 7cnativecoalition@gmail.com

Take Action!

Share this infographic:

In order to raise awareness about the issues surrounding White Sage poaching and culturally appropriative uses of White Sage we have created the following infographic. Along with spreading awareness, it also serves to promote the letter writing campaign to protect White Sage that is described further below. 

Write a letter to help protect White Sage:

In response to a call action given by Tongva Elder Barbara Drake before her passing, the 7C Native Initiative Committee has launched a letter writing campaign in solidarity with the work of protecting the Etiwanda Sage Fields. 

Use the following letter template to send a letter to State Assemblyman James Ramos to help protect White Sage and stand in solidarity with the late Tongva Elder Barbara Drake and the members of the Tongva, Serrano, Cahuilla, Luiseño, and other Nations that depend on the Sage for their spiritual, medicinal and ceremonial wellbeing. You can find the letter template here.

We are calling on Assemblyman Ramos to take immediate action to help preserve the Etiwanda sage habitat through the following:

  1. Increasing security enforcement at the Etiwanda Sage Fields
  2. Enacting environmental monitoring at the Etiwanda Sage Fields
  3. Passing necessary legislation to protect this species by adding salvia apiana to the list of state and federal endangered species

The more letters received, the more likely Assemblyman Ramos is to take action to enact the necessary protection for the North Etiwanda Preserve. Once you submit your letter, share it with others so they can participate too.

We’d like to acknowledge and thank Violet Luxton, Barbara Drake, Susan Phillips, Tricia Morgan, Brinda Sarathy, and the Tongva community as a whole whose individual and collective efforts are what have allowed this resource to become a reality.

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