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As tribal archaeologist for the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, Myra Masiel-Zamora uses her UC Berkeley anthropology training daily. Her mission: track down skeletons of Native Californians extracted from gravesites over the last two centuries that were shipped off to museums around the world, and return them to the tribe’s ancestral land near Temecula so they can be reburied with dignity.

But lately, that quest has put Masiel-Zamora at odds with her alma mater.

The remains of thousands of Native Americans, along with possessions such as beads and fishhooks buried with them, now sit in drawers and boxes at University of California museums. Federal and state laws require their return to tribes able to prove a connection to them. Some tribes accuse university officials of delaying so professors can continue to study the bones, and are pushing state legislation to force the UC system to speed its efforts.

“As an anthropologist, you don’t own what you’re taking care of. They’re in your care,” said Masiel-Zamora. “But I think the research community does feel that they own them.”

Over decades, archaeologists and common looters excavated Native American cemeteries—with some people even motivated by the racist eugenics movement, which compared skull shapes to attempt to prove white superiority.

In 1990, U.S. law began requiring federally funded museums to list remains in their collections, along with any “associated funerary objects” or other sacred items, and share the list with tribes, who could then make repatriation claims. California law extended that approach to state-funded museums.

But UC campus responses varied widely. UCLA’s Fowler Museum has transferred nearly all of the 2,300 remains in its collection to tribes, according to its archaeology curator, Wendy Teeter. But at UC Berkeley’s Phoebe Hearst Museum, which holds one of the largest collections of human remains in the country, fewer than 300 bodies have been returned out of more than 9,000.

“It’s a huge black eye on the institution,” said Phenocia Bauerle, Berkeley’s director of Native American Student Development. She said the slow pace of repatriation has hurt her ability to build trust with Native American students and tribes.

Randy Katz, UC Berkeley’s vice chancellor for research, said the university “works diligently to care for (remains) in a respectful and legal manner.” He noted that he recently appointed more Native Americans to the campus committee reviewing repatriation requests, once dominated by anthropologists—and at one point with only one Native American member.

Pechanga’s dispute with the Hearst Museum began on San Nicolas Island, a sandy, scrub-covered outpost about 60 miles off the shore of Southern California, owned by the Navy. Archaeologists with the Navy and Cal State Los Angeles were digging there, seeking to unravel the mystery of the Lone Woman, a Native American whose story inspired the novel Island of the Blue Dolphins.

That didn’t sit well with the Pechanga tribal council, which said traditional songs and stories prove the tribe’s connection to the island. It filed a petition with the Navy, which agreed the tribe had a cultural affiliation with the area. That meant digging had to stop—and, by law, the nearly 500 remains uncovered on the island over the decades should go to the tribe.

In what tribal representatives describe as a six-year saga, other museums—including UCLA’s Fowler—have said they will return bodies they have from San Nicolas. The Navy has given permission for island reburial to Pechanga and three other Luiseño and Chumash tribes. But UC Berkeley insists it must conduct its own investigation before returning some of the remains.

The dispute reflects a longstanding clash of worldviews, with UC academics weighing concerns of descendants against potential research benefits.

“There’s a wealth of data in the human body,” said Robert Bettinger, professor emeritus of anthropology at UC Davis. “We can trace a whole series of isotopes that will tell us about your diet, about the water you drank and probably the region you came from.”

Bettinger worries that if tribes rebury remains without allowing anthropologists to examine them, society will lose the opportunity to gain detailed knowledge about life in western North America before Europeans’ arrival. “Maybe this is patronizing, from an archaeologist’s point of view, but I think someday, somebody in the Native American community is going to ask, ‘Why don’t we know this?’” he said. “And the answer will be because some of your forebears decided it was more important not to know that.”

But for many tribes, the very idea that their ancestors would become research objects is, in Pechanga chairman Mark Macarro’s word, “abhorrent.”

“As long as these remains are out there, and our people are in pieces in different institutions,” he said, “the tribes have this sense that things are really out of balance.”

Macarro subscribes to the Luiseño view that the world was created in the Temecula Valley, and is skeptical of academics who he sees as guessing at history, constantly changing their ideas as new evidence discredits the old ones.

“Look, if you want to know the past,” he said, “talk to us.”

California’s Assembly has passed legislation by San Diego Assemblyman Todd Gloria, a member of Alaska’s Tlingit and Haida tribe, to create a uniform UC repatriation process, overseen by the state’s Native American Heritage Commission. Tribes would have equal representation on campus committees, and the state auditor would review UC’s legal compliance.

“If (research) was done in a cooperative fashion with the descendants, maybe something could happen here,” Gloria said. “Sadly, right now, the relationship is very adversarial.”

Matching centuries-old skeletons with contemporary Native American groups can be challenging. Poor record-keeping abounds. Even when likely descendants are identified, they sometimes lack the money or land to take on repatriation.

UCLA’s Teeter said her team reaches out to tribes to help identify the origin of remains.

“We’re not talking about Neanderthals; we’re not talking about Homo erectus. We’re talking about people that are sometimes just a generation or two separated from us,” Teeter said. “There’s more value in making sure our relationships are true and ethical than in trying to hold onto (someone’s) ancestors.”

Teeter said the collaboration with tribes is one reason for UCLA’s high repatriation rate. At UC Berkeley, by contrast, campus officials have designated more than 80 percent of the remains in its North American collection as “culturally unidentifiable”—a legal limbo that means researchers can study the bones without seeking permission from any tribe. Katz says that’s because they come from a broader range of places and time periods.

In a basement room filled with white file boxes, UC Davis osteologist Michael Walters sorts through plastic bags full of bone fragments so small they look like wood chips. He’s searching for human bones that were mislabeled as animal, and sometimes he finds them—a body part from a child, for example, that was so small that an undergraduate in the 1960s decided it must have come from a bird.

Walters is part of a three-person team hired by UC Davis to update its inventory of about 300 sets of Native American remains—finding additional bones that researchers in the past missed, and returning those that can be repatriated to tribes.

Human bones go to a separate room closed to the public and the press. There, black curtains cover the shelves that house the remains; the lighting is dim, and there’s an area for tribal representatives to make religious offerings, according to staff.

Walters wears gloves, and speaks to the bones while he works. “I do say hello and good morning to them. I apologize for colonialism,” he said. “My goal is to get that person home.”

But even this process is controversial. The United Auburn Indian Community says its own claim for repatriation of remains and sacred items from UC Davis has dragged on for years, and objects to scientists handling the bones as disrespectful.

The scientists contend they must ensure there’s sufficient evidence to repatriate the bones—or they could be sued by anthropologists who want to study them. In 2012, Bettinger and two other UC scientists seeking DNA to study ancient migrations sued but failed to stop the university from transferring two 9,000-year-old skeletons to the Kumeyaay tribes.

The UC system has not taken a position on Gloria’s bill, though Berkeley’s Katz said he’s “concerned that, as written, it will increase layers of bureaucracy and hobble our ability to act swiftly on the advice of the new (committee) we’ve established that is more representative and inclusive of Native American perspectives.”

While the tribes await Senate action, Masiel-Zamora continues her work. Last month, she flew to Europe to consult with a museum about remains that she says have ties to her people.

“The tribe, we’re very patient,” she said. “We don’t forget. I will continue to fight for these people until they get returned back to where they came from.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

Published in Features

If you’re not a follower of Native American history, you’ve probably never heard of the late Wilma Mankiller—even though she’s arguably one of the most influential women of the 20th century.

Thankfully, a new documentary, Mankiller, takes a deep look at the life of Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010), the first woman to be elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. The film, directed by Valerie Red-Horse Mohl, will be screened at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

During a recent phone interview with Red-Horse Mohl, she said a documentary on Wilma Mankiller seemed like an obvious thing to do.

“Wilma Mankiller passed away in 2010, and I obviously knew who she was because I’m Cherokee, but a lot of people don’t know who she was,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “In 2011, PBS reached out to us and said, ‘Maybe you and (co-producer) Gale (Anne Hurd) should think about doing Wilma’s life story.’ The irony is that it took us six years to make the film when we thought it would take a couple of years. It turned into way more than a biography. Her message is still really relevant and really important.”

Mankiller, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was a prominent member of the Democratic Party, a liberal activist and a self-described feminist.

“I knew she was a great leader, but never really knew why she was a great leader or what her leadership style was,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “After doing the film, I was really impressed by how she was never angry, never divisive and never looked at her opponents as if they were enemies, and instead looked at them as someone to embrace and to learn from. … For me, especially in this climate that we’re in right now, I think she really role-modeled being a servant leader and thinking about solutions … and work she did as opposed to her own self and her ego.”

During Mankiller’s leadership from 1985 to 1995, the Cherokee Nation became one of the most prosperous Native American tribes in America, with strides in education, employment opportunities and health care.

“I have not met anyone who is Cherokee who feels she is not an icon,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “During her life, she had political opponents, which is bound to happen when you’re in a political situation, but at this point, everyone agrees she did so much for the nation. You can’t argue with the facts—where the Cherokee Nation is at now financially, and most of it is based on groundwork that she laid. … I would say every Cherokee reveres her, regardless of whether they voted for her or were on her side politically, because it doesn’t matter anymore. I think everyone can recognize the greatest Cherokee leader we’ve ever had.”

Joe Byrd, who followed as chief of the Cherokee Nation from 1995 through 1999, was embroiled in scandal. Red-Horse Mohl explained why his tenure was briefly mentioned in the documentary.

“We wanted to include (a mention of Byrd’s tenure), because we felt it spoke to (Mankiller’s) character about after she left office—being so sick yet still caring about the Cherokee Nation—but we didn’t want to take a left turn into the political part of what happened after she left office. … In short, Joe Byrd and his administration were accused of … mishandling government funds and fraud. In order to find out if that were true, the judicial side, which is separate from the executive branch, ordered an audit of all their books. They refused to give them up, and in order to avoid the audit, fired all the existing tribal police and tribal judges. It was pretty bad in terms of what they were doing, and no one knows what really happened, and no one ever went to jail. Wilma felt that some third party needed to intervene, and she wasn’t just going to sit in her sickbed and let this happen, and she really could have. She used her relationship with President Bill Clinton, with the federal government, and she wrote letters and made phone calls, and they got some intervention and people came in to help.”

As a Native American filmmaker, Red-Horse Mohl said it’s hard to break through stereotypes and misconceptions that all Native American tribes and nations went through the same things. 

“That’s why Gale and I really want to make more of these films, because we see the ignorance,” she said. “I meet so many people who are friendly people say, ‘We just had no idea.’ … We typically don’t appear in history books; we don’t appear in film or television, and we’re not in the media. There’s no context for the average person to understand any of that. We do feel a sense of obligation with our documentaries to shed light on things that need to be told, because nobody else is really telling them.”

Mankiller lived with several health conditions throughout her life, and survived a horrible car accident. Red-Horse Mohl said dealing with all of these complications helped make Mankiller a remarkable person.

“One of the things I learned about her was not just strength of character, but physical strength,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “We all live with, ‘I’m tired today,’ and ‘I have too much work.’ I don’t know anyone who had as much going on physically as she did her entire life. She had kidney disease in her 20s. She had a bad car accident, and toward the end, she had multiple things going wrong. Everyone who knew her and was by her side said it was hard for her … but she never complained and was still really good at getting things done.”

Mankiller also covers Wilma Mankiller’s husband, Charlie Soap, who was just as active as she was.

“He is so committed to the Cherokee Nation just as she was, and it’s part of why they were probably so good together,” Red-Horse Mohl said. “He’s still very active and lives in the same house. He’s very active in community organizing and helps to raise money through grants and other projects. He’s still very busy with the Cherokee Nation and projects she would want to be a part of, and he does that in part for her memory.”

Mankiller will be screened as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival at 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 5; and 5:30 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 6, at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9, 789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Road, Palm Springs; and 11 a.m., Saturday, Jan. 13, at Mary Pickford Is D’Place, 36850 Pickfair St., in Cathedral City. General admission tickets are $13. For tickets or more information, visit www.psfilmfest.org.

Published in Previews and Features

It has happened again. Near Española, N.M., the monumental statue of Spanish conquistador Don Juan de Oñate has been attacked.

Though Oñate rides his horse behind a tall metal fence, someone painted his booted right foot blood red and spray-painted “Remember 1680” on a nearby wall.

In the culturally diverse Southwest, schisms over history and heritage live on.

The statue is part of the Oñate Monument Center in Rio Arriba County. While many longtime New Mexicans want to commemorate Onate’s bold leadership in establishing the Spanish presence in the region, most Native Americans from the pueblo villages along the Rio Grande River—and specifically Acoma—hold a different opinion.

Across the American South, the public is embroiled in controversy over statues of Confederate war heroes. For some white Southerners, statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis represent states’ rights, chivalry and valor. For others, including most African Americans, Confederate leaders symbolize a Civil War fought over the evils of slavery and the perpetuation of racist attitudes.

When cities such as Richmond, Va., and New Orleans erected their statues in the 1890s and early 1900s, white people lived and worked nearby. Now, whites have fled to the suburbs, and black residents have no interest in being reminded that their ancestors were treated as property to be bought and sold.

In the West, many of our statues and monuments portray victory over Native Americans. The obelisk at the plaza in Santa Fe once had the inscribed phrase “savages” in a memorial to the brave New Mexican pioneers. Someone has since chiseled out that word.

In front of the State Capitol in Denver, a 1909 bronze monument commemorates the volunteers who fought Civil War battles, including Sand Creek in Colorado, which left 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho dead, most of them women and children. In the South, many statues are being taken down or concealed and covered with tarps. In Denver, no one “toppled, desecrated, or put into secret storage” the 1909 monument, writes historian Tom Noel. Instead, it was “preserved in a process that was conciliatory.” In 2002, thanks to Senate Joint Resolution 99-017, the statue received a new Sand Creek interpretive plaque that tells a brutal but accurate story.

The plaque explains, “By designating Sand Creek a battle, the monument’s designers mischaracterized the actual events. Protests led by some Sand Creek descendants and others throughout the 20th century have since led to the widespread recognition of the tragedy as the Sand Creek Massacre.”

And so, a grievous historical error was corrected as Cheyenne and Arapaho representatives attended the new plaque’s installation. But in Española, there has been no dialogue. The magnificent, oversized statue of Oñate was erected in 1992 to commemorate 400 years of Spanish settlement in New Mexico. A few weeks after it was installed, someone cut off the statue’s right boot. Why? It is a bitter story.

Spanish soldiers, seeking food, raided Acoma and raped a young native girl. Fighting back, Acoma warriors killed Oñate’s nephew and a few other soldiers. Later, in retaliation, Oñate’s soldiers overran the pueblo and killed hundreds of Acoma warriors, while also enslaving the surviving men, women and children. In addition, Spanish soldiers cut off the right feet of 24 men from Acoma as punishment for their defiance.

That’s why the statue’s right foot was hacked off in 1992; it was recast and replaced, though the seam remains visible—and that’s why the restored statue was recently vandalized.

“The timing of the vandalism does not seem random,” wrote Amanda Martinez in the Rio Grande Sun. “It occurred the same day as the entrada during the Santa Fe Fiesta, which marks the return of Don Diego de Vargas to the area after the 1680 Pueblo revolt.”

Hispano families seek to commemorate de Vargas’ arrival and permanent Spanish settlement. “With a (local) population 78 percent Hispanic, many wish to celebrate Oñate’s arrival to the area,” according to a Rio Grande Sun editorial. From another perspective, the editorial continued, Native Americans have every right to be offended: “The racism here is real, multi-directional and simmers just below the surface of conversations we need to have.”

Across the West, we need to look hard at our statues and our monuments. We must distinguish between the sometimes-bitter truths of history and the selective memories of heritage. Española could take a cue from Denver. And Rio Arriba County and the New Mexico State Legislature might want to add an interpretive plaque close to the right foot of the Oñate statue.

Andy Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

Dear Mexican: I recently took a DNA test to find out about my genetic heritage. It turns out that my “Mexican” side (maternal side) may not really be Mexican at all: The DNA test has 100 percent matched me to Native Americans in what now straddles the U.S. Southwest and Northern Mexico, with no traces of European ancestry. My mother’s ancestry clearly traces back beyond than the political existence of both the U.S. and Mexico.

The same test on my mother and her close relatives would reveal the same results, but everyone on that side of the family insists they are Mexican. (In fact, some of that familia would vehemently deny any indigenous ancestry, despite irrefutable scientific evidence … like a weird Mexican DNA version of the O.J. Simpson trial.)

What is the “Mexican race,” if there is such a thing? I understand Mexican history was at times bloody and oppressive, which is why any connection to an indigenous past was probably whitewashed away by my ancestors or someone else. At this point, there’s no way of finding out any specific details of an indigenous ancestry, so I’m just left with my family’s DNA.

So what’s a confused Mexican … Chicano … Hispanic … Latino to do? Technology has opened my eyes to a part of my heritage that I don’t really know how to process. Am I still Mexican? Am I Native American? What’s going on here?

Damn Nerd Assholes

Dear DNA: We have a saying in Mexican Spanish—“Tiene un nopal en la frente,” translated as, “He has a cactus on his forehead”—which is used to mock people who say they’re not Mexican, but totally are. That’s how a lot of Mexicans are when it comes to certain parts of their ancestry—we practice the opposite of the Cherokee princess blood myth claimed by so many gabachos. You have prietos who can’t grow facial hair, yet they insist they’re pure Castilian; grandmothers with kinky hair and broad noses who won’t entertain the thought that the familia tree has negrito roots; mothers who light candles every Friday night, because that’s how their great-grandmother taught them, and no way on Earth does that mean that her Mama Pacha was carrying on the traditions of Sephardic ancestors. Best of all are the armchair Aztecs who decry everything European, yet can sprout a beard as epic as that of that loco redhead Tormund Giantsbane on Game of Thrones.

In your family’s case, they seem to fall in the first example—a denial of indio roots. I’d remind them being Mexican is more of a state of mind than it is a race. (That’s why people like awesome actress Lupita Nyong’o and comedian Louis C.K. can claim they’re Mexican, but don’t, while a gabacho like Rick Bayless can pass himself off as the greatest cook of Mexican food on the planet.) However, being Mexican is fully anchored in the realities of pozole—that is, Mexico is its own spicy melting pot, with the indigenous part being the caldo of it all, and not some stray strand of repollo.

Let your family try to run away from their Native American blood all they want; the physiological Cortés called diabetes will catch up with them in the end.

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or follow him on Instagram @gustavo_arellano!

Published in Ask a Mexican

After Jack Pettibone Riccobono filmed his 2007 documentary short The Sacred Food on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota, he realized the reservation had a darker story to tell.

He went back to film The Seventh Fire, which was shown at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 3, and will be again screened on Tuesday, Jan. 5.

The Seventh Fire follows two residents of White Earth, Rob Brown and Kevin Fineday—both of whom are Native American gang members. Brown is shown throughout the film using drugs, and the law eventually catches up to him to add three more years in jail to the 12 he’s already served throughout his life. Kevin, Brown’s 17-year-old protégé, is following in Brown’s footsteps.

Before Sunday’s screening at the Palm Canyon Theatre, Riccobono and Brown sat down for an interview.

The film lacks a back-story about the reservation and the Ojibwe tribe. Brown filled me in on some basic history.

“The tribe is actually the second-largest tribe in North America,” Brown said. “I’m enrolled in a Minnesota Chippewa tribe, which is a combination of bands of Chippewa Indians. We call ourselves the Ojibwe, but in our language, we’re referred to as the ‘first people.’ We migrated from the East Coast and settled around the Great Lakes. We had to fight the tribes that lived there before, because we were given this prophecy: This was our final place for living. That’s how we ended up all around the Great Lakes.”

As far as opportunity goes on the reservation, Brown said the situation is dire.

“I had the opportunity to grow up there sporadically,” Brown said. “(I was also) in 39 foster homes throughout the state of Minnesota. Occasionally, I would return to the reservation. The living conditions would vary. There would be some working families who were pretty well-established and financially established, but the majority of the homes had very limited income.

“People would come and tell us we were an impoverished community, and I didn’t know what that meant. Right now, I think it contributes to this mundane atmosphere, where people are just disgusted and repulsed by waking up, so they aren’t embracing the life as they should. There’s no love for life anymore, so it’s contributing to depression, crime, suicide, drug use and everything else. It’s ripe for problems, and now since heroin and meth came along, it’s out of control. The situation is critical and dire. It’s just insane.”

Riccobono noticed some of these problems when he went to the reservation to film The Sacred Food.

“It was about wild rice, which is a sacred food for the tribe and part of the Seven Fires prophecy,” Riccobono said. “When they were leaving in the northeast, they received a prophecy to migrate west and look for where food grows on the water. In the lakes region, in the upper U.S. and Canada, they found the wild rice, which they found to be a sacred food from the creator. I made that short, and two years after I made that, I read about the issue about inner-city gang culture and prison culture migrating out to these Native American communities. So I started to look into it, and there was very little out there in terms of films, books or journalistic pieces, so I said, ‘Let me go back to the place where I know people, and see people there who might be willing to talk about it.’

“In October of 2010, I went back and visited the tribal college and played the short. Rob was in the class that day, and we first met. We agreed to move forward on the project and did 14 shoots over two years.”

Riccobono said he had to earn the trust of both Rob Brown and Kevin Fineday in order to film them doing drugs, dealing drugs, or in the midst of chaos.

“It was a long journey making the film, and it’s a huge leap of faith and trust you build up with your main subjects,” Riccobono said. “We always thought of Rob and Kevin as collaborators on the film, and they shot footage on their own. Rob contributed numerous writings of his own to the film, and we feature one of his poems.

“It was an interesting artistic process. For the community where we shot the majority of the film, the fact we kept coming back meant something, because a lot of people don’t go back again. We did 14 shoots over two years. I think the only way you can build trust is by being serious, keeping coming and respecting people’s wishes. If people didn’t want to be filmed, we didn’t film them. We tried to discuss the project and what we were making.”

Brown is shown in the film surrendering to go to jail for three years. It also includes scenes from a party that was thrown for him the night before, and Brown is shown doing drugs in the morning before making a phone call to his father—and breaking down. At the end of the documentary, Brown explains that again being in jail gave him a different perspective—after the drugs were out of his system.

“I served 37 months,” Brown said. “I took a full inventory of what I’ve been in my life … owning everything, and making no excuses for it, then seriously sitting down and choosing to live in a different way.

“I were to put it on one concept, it would be that I had to stop being reactive and start being proactive. I finally understood that. Now I’m learning different things and appropriating them by how I think and how I act. I base these things on respect, good nature, cheer and meaning the things I’m talking about. I’m finding a lot of success with that.”

Brown conceded it’s hard to watch what he does in the film.

“It’s hard for me to watch it now,” Brown said. “I don’t recognize that person, even though I was that person, and I am that person. My speech is different. I was so under the influence, and I had no idea it was that bad. I never want to go back to that. I can’t.”

Brown is currently unemployed.

“I do have a trailer house on the reservation, and right now, I’m not working, but I do plan to start working when I get back,” he said. “It’s hard for me, because it’s hard to tell an employer that I need a full-time job—and I might have to leave for about a week and go to a film festival or whatnot. There are things that are piggybacking from this film, and I have no idea where that’s going, but all I know is I want to be available whenever the opportunity presents itself.”

While Brown is doing better, the status of Kevin Fineday is up in the air.

“Kevin is back on the reservation, and Rob has had some contact with him on social media. The last I heard from him was about a month ago,” Riccobono said. “We reiterated that he has an open invitation to go to the La Plazita Institute in New Mexico, which is our main outreach partner that does amazing work connecting Native American youth to their indigenous culture. In the film, we see that he has a chance to go there, but he’s not really willing to take that leap. I don’t think he’s in that place yet to change his life. We tried to show him the film a couple of times now, and unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet. We’ll keep trying, and we’re going to be doing outreach campaigns in Minnesota and screenings there, so I think he’ll have a chance to see it. Maybe seeing it will have an impact on him.”

Brown is the father of six children, and he’s hoping that he can make an impact on the reservation in a positive way.

“There are upstanding members of our community doing things that they never thought they’d be doing, and trying to raise their kids to go to school,” Brown said. “There are so many problems. I have six children, and I’m anxiety-based about their future, but I take into consideration what I’ve been through, and I know what I’ve passed on to my kids. All my kids have shown me they’re resilient, and they’re tough. I know they’ll be OK, because they’re strong, and they’re showing me that. … They’re all considering moving in with me, and three years ago, they wouldn’t have considered that.”

During the interview, Brown had a book of his poetry that is combined with stills from The Seventh Fire. He’s actually a talented writer.

“All I know is when I share my writings that it draws a lot of emotion out of people,” he said. “What I can write and put on paper can make people cry, and I know that’s a gift. It’s not something everybody can’t do.”

The Seventh Fire will again be screened at 12:30 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 5, as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival. For more information, visit the festival website.

Published in Reviews

Dear Mexican: Mexicans always reference the Reconquista. However, I think you should be invading Spain instead.

The Spanish did to the Native Americans in Mexico what the whites did to the Native Americans in America. In fact, we treated the Native Americans better: We gave them reservations; they pay no taxes; they have the right to gambling, etc. We also treated the Mexicans a lot better than the Spanish. The Spanish slaughtered the Native Americans in Mexico, and I believe their indigenous cultures have been totally destroyed. Let’s not forget the Spaniards’ great gift of syphilis.

If “Mexicans,” Spanish illegal immigrants, are going to go back 160 years to hold a grudge against Americans, why don’t they hate Spain, too?

Heep Big Jerk

Dear Gabacho: I had to give the respuesta to my former college profe, Paul Apodaca, a professor of sociology and American studies at Chapman University and the scholar who turned me on to one of my all-time favorite books: Richard Drinnon’s Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building, which perfectly explains gabacho foreign policy.

“American Indians pay federal and sales tax like other U.S. citizens but do not pay state income tax while living on their federally recognized reservations,” Dr. Apodaca says. “The United States did not give land to Indians any more than England gave freedom to the U.S.; both governments recognized the God-given rights of men.

“Millions of Indians in Mexico speak their own languages, cultivate their indigenous foods, practice their folk arts, continue their histories, have participated in two revolutions and retain the entire country of Mexico as members of a nation they formed. Indians have traveled across North America for thousands of years searching for resources for their families. Time changes every culture, and Mexico reflects those changes, but the people are continuing, and that is something wonderful to celebrate, not begrudge.”

Pressed for something funnier, Dr. Apodaca concluded, “The fellow has conclusions but no accurate premises—simply opinion. His use of the word ‘grudge’ is Freudian, as I make clear in the last line. Some folks don’t see the forest for the trees or the Indian for the Mexican.” BOOM!

Dear Mexican: Do Mexicans resent meaningless, wannabe Spanglish advertising slogans like Taco Bell’s “Live Más”? This gabacho finds it rather offensive. Sniff. Shouldn’t such odious assaults on language(s) be outlawed?

Shepherd of Shakespeare

Dear Gabacho: This Mexican resents Taco Bell’s meaningless, wannabe Mexican dish called the Doritos Loco taco—leave it to a company founded by a guy who ripped off a Mexican family’s recipe to earn his billions (true story—read my Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America) to fuck up what could’ve been an amazing dish. Hard-shell tacos are Mexican; Doritos were created by Mexicans at Disneyland (again: in my book). Yet the Doritos Locos taco is too salty and has little Doritos flavor—and then there’s the “beef.” Guacatelas!

As for your complaint: Some Mexicans do despise Spanglish, but those Mexicans need to get laid more often. Anecdotally, Mexicans like Spanglish advertising if it’s clever, and “Live Más” was OK enough to not spur a yaktivist revolt.

Scientifically, don’t believe the hype: Most studies done on whether young Mexican Americans prefer advertising in English, Spanish or Spanglish is laughably biased. Take “The Bilingual Brain: Maximizing Impact with English- and Spanish-Speaking Millennials," a 2014 study involving Nielsen and Univision that unsurprisingly found that advertising in Spanish “offers a unique advantage for brands striving to connect with bilingual Hispanic millennials”—the most foregone conclusion since Mexico underachieved in the last FIFA World Cup.

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or follow him on Instagram @gustavo_arellano!

Published in Ask a Mexican

Alexis C. Bunten understands what it’s like to be an outsider.

A mix of Alaska Native, Swedish “and something else, French Canadian, I think,” the writer spent her childhood moving across the country, from Hawaii to South Dakota to Alaska and Washington state. She may have faced less outright discrimination than her mother and grandmother, but prejudice was still a fact of life. “Starting with the kindergarten role of ‘Thanksgiving Indian,’” she writes, “I was always inexplicably assigned the villain parts in grade-school plays.”

That outsiderness forms the backdrop for her first book, a first-hand account of the cultural tourism industry in Sitka, Alaska. So, How Long Have You Been Native? was inspired by the two summers Bunten spent working as a Native guide for Tribal Tours, a company owned and operated by the Sitka Tribe. The book deconstructs how tourism—“sorely undervalued as a suitable anthropological field”—influences modern Native identity.

“The (Native) culture on display,” she writes, “plays a bit part in a larger performance reflecting the dominant culture of the tourists themselves.” One local wryly calls the guides “Stepford Natives,” noting their perpetual cheer and willingness to go along with their customers’ cherished fantasies of a whitewashed past. Not to mention their idealized notions of the present: “Alcoholism, neglect, jealousy and violence (don’t) exist in the world of the Stepford Natives,” Bunten observes. “The veteran guides carved out larger-than-life personas. … It protected them from having to deal with never being able to live up to guests’ expectations of what it means to be Native.”

With journalistic precision, Bunten explores topics as varied as the influence of cruise lines on the Alaskan economy, the history of the Tlingit people and the ongoing effects of colonization on tribes. Despite occasionally awkward attempts at softening the narrative with lighthearted banter or extraneous personal asides, she succeeds in creating a sharply focused picture of cultural tourism today, especially in villages like Sitka, where between 10 and 20 percent of the local jobs are tourism-related. By fusing economic data with the personal experiences of Native guides—including her own—Bunten exposes the side effects of turning one’s culture into a valued commodity.

“Our clients longed for us to be further removed from modernity than themselves,” she writes. “And we complied by talking about nature, subsistence, ceremonies, and demonstrating other signs of ‘primitivism’—but we did so on our own terms.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

So, How Long Have You Been Native? Life as an Alaska Native Tour Guide

By Alexis C. Bunten

University of Nebraska Press

272 pages, $26.95

Published in Literature

Dear Mexican: I read your column of a couple of years ago about Chicanos loving the Aztecs, and it left me both cracking up and intellectually fortified. In the last portion of the column, you added: “But, hey: If you want to change your name from José González to Nezahualcoyotl Moctezuma and go to sweat lodges on weekends, even though you’re lighter-skinned than a Southern belle, be my guest! I’m sure your ancestors who fought the Aztecs—both indigenous and Hispanic—would’ve approved!”

I really would like to know your opinion about Chican@s appropriating indigenous names. (Well, for me, it’s appropriating.) Every time I go to Facebook and see my friends change their names to things in the Nahuatl language, I cringe. Maybe it’s my own internal struggle, but I see changing your name as a very insignificant. I mean, que ganas con cambiando tu nombre, if you don’t know the language? Or if you do, you probably know some phrases.

I don’t, because to me, yo soy indígena—and I mean by immediate bloodline. I know Zapoteco and I speak it with my family. Pero, you don’t see me or my family changing their names or whatnot. In fact, nosotros nos guardamos nuestra cultura; we don’t parade it to the world. I don’t know; maybe it’s bad to get frustrated by these people changing their names. What are your thoughts?

Tehuana Chingona

Dear Badass Tehuana: Big correction to your boast about zapotecos not showing off their culture: From Día de los Muertos to your Guelaguetza (for gabas, it’s basically a Mexican country fair meets Eurovision) to your spectacular cuisine, Oaxacans are among Mexico’s proudest ambassadors of their native cultura, and aren’t afraid to show it off—and that’s OK. Similarly, it’s fine for Chicanos to change their names from the Hispanic nombres given to them at birth to Nahuatl ones if it makes them feel more in touch with their roots.

Everyone has a different path to coming to terms with their Mexican identity, and they’re all OK. The problem I have is with people who then start ridiculing others who don’t adopt Aztec dancing and calendars as vendidos and Tío Tacos; these indigenazis, of course, make their insults in English and use the Internet (created by gabachos) to boast that they’re more Aztec than Quetzalcoatl himself. Que se vayan a la chingada.

I’m a Canadian woman who has been travelling to Mexico (Guanajuato y Oaxaca, the cute places) lately. I travel alone and want to understand the “social” rules a little better.

I was told by an expat American living in Mexico that Mexican men think all American women are sluts. (I assume that generalization extends to canadienses.) His theory is that Mexicans see television shows like Sex and the City and think it’s reality. I’m acutely aware of this when interacting with Mexican men, and as a result, am somewhat guarded, which I really don’t want to be. I’d like to be able to meet Mexican men on the same terms as Canadians—sure there’s a possibility of a little steam, but maybe we’re just platicando, amigo-like.

What are your thoughts? Do mexicanos think we’re all sluts? If so, why? Do Mexican women/girls save sex for marriage? Does this mean I can never have casual sex with a Mexican man again, for fear of perpetuating a stereotype?

Una Canadiense Confusa

Dear Confused Canadian Woman: Noticias flash—Mexican men think ALL women are sluts. It’s the Madonna-whore complex, comprende?

That said, don’t let pendejo heretonormative norms get in the way of you enjoying chorizo—modern-day Mexican women don’t, so why should you?

Ask the Mexican at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; be his fan on Facebook; follow him on Twitter @gustavoarellano; or follow him on Instagram @gustavo_arellano!

Published in Ask a Mexican

Comic books may be meant for kids, but they’re not child’s play. So says Jon Proudstar, creator of Tribal Force—the first comic book to feature an all-Native American superhero team.

Time spent counseling child-abuse victims and violent youth offenders—often from the Pascua Yaqui and Tohono O’odham reservations near his Tucson, Ariz., home—taught Proudstar the value of cultural awareness. He didn’t learn about his own Yaqui heritage until his maternal grandmother told him when he was 5.

Tribal Force, released in 1996, was critically well received—even making it into Comic Art Indigène, a pop-culture exhibition that stopped at locations including the Palm Springs Art Museum. Several large comic-book publishers sought to buy the rights, but Proudstar wanted to retain control of the storyline and the characters’ unhappy, all-too-real backstories. Unfortunately, he lacked funding, so the project went dark for more than a decade.

The new Tribal Force, from the small independent publisher Rising Sun Comics, continues the saga. An online preview is already available, with the print version expected in April.

The god Thunder Eagle, determined to create a Native superhero team from North America’s various First Nations, helps Nita, a Navajo child-molestation survivor, transform into the goddess Earth. Meanwhile, Gabriel Medicine Dog, a Hunkpapa Sioux left mute by fetal alcohol syndrome, metamorphoses into the fearsome Little Big Horn following a fatal bar fight. Together, Nita and Gabriel seek out other Native supernaturals, fighting high-tech government entities and supervillains along the way.

A onetime Hollywood chauffeur and bodyguard, Proudstar, 46, currently works as a screenwriter and independent-film actor. In 2012, he co-starred with Booboo Stewart of the Twilight franchise in the award-winning coming-of-age film Running Deer. He formed Proudstar Productions to represent and finance deserving projects, including the forthcoming Wastelander, an apocalyptic science fiction film directed by Angelo Lopes.

Bryn Bailer caught up with Proudstar recently in a Tucson coffee shop.

Why did you create Tribal Force?

I think Native children need to know who they are. They forget why we fought so hard in the beginning, and why we continue to fight: to fulfill the promise we made with our God to protect this land and take care of it. When you have that strength of knowing where you come from, and the greatness your people once had, it’s like you’re Superman. You feel the power.

Where did the idea come from?

The superhero comic books that I was so into (as a kid) taught me the whole thing about good and evil. I saw the bad things that were going on, that gangs were doing, and … I know it sounds silly, man, but I was like: “Spider-Man wouldn’t do that,” or “Batman wouldn’t do that.”

Traditionalism vs. modern life is a big theme, isn’t it?

That’s definitely entrenched in Tribal Force. They’re all traditional heroes—meaning that their powers come from Native tradition—but their enemies are all high-tech: guns, lasers, cannons, invisible ships. That’s what they’re up against. It’s hard to keep values and traditions when you’re amalgamating with such an advanced society. You walk two roads: Failure in one world is success in the other, and vice versa. … My dream is to give Native American kids heroes. I didn’t have that.

The members of Tribal Force aren’t your typical superhero team.

The characters are very young and flawed, and not into their culture. They’re the last people you’d pick to have super powers in your community. They’re the jerkoffs who are in jail every frickin’ weekend. Nita’s a punk … and the gods won’t take it from her any more. Spiderwoman—the Navajo goddess who taught her people how to weave—takes Nita to the past, and shows her what the Navajo have been through. When she sees the sacrifices that her people made, she starts to become more serious about learning. If she learns how to weave, she’ll get more powers. If she goes through her Kinaaldá (a Navajo coming-of-age ceremony), she’ll increase her powers.

If the members of Tribal Force were here today, what would they be most upset with?

Tribal Force looks at the same issues that rez kids have to deal with. When I was younger, I remember thinking, “We’ll always be poor, struggling, seeing relatives being arrested.” That was kind of crushing. But I educated myself by reading a lot, and in broadening my horizons, I realized that things will change—and that you can change them. The first issue I’m dealing with in the book is the epidemic of child molestation on Indian reservations. Seven out of 10 girls—it’s a huge cancer. Gabe has fetal alcohol syndrome … and he’s into weed and drinking, and struggles with learning what it truly is to be a warrior. A lot of kids misinterpret what a warrior is. It has nothing to do with war. A warrior takes care of his village, makes sure the old ones are taken care of, and that the children are safe. But for the most part, it’s a comic book. There’s action and aliens, and weird stuff.

Given all the injustices Native Americans have experienced, what keeps you fighting the good fight?

To know I have that blood running through me definitely gives me strength. That’s what I’m hoping when kids pick up my book—that somewhere in there, they will find a window that opens up to them, too. We give kids the information in a non-threatening way. It’s not like a textbook.

Is it intended to be controversial?

The books that influenced me, like X-Men, were very controversial at the time, because they talked about homosexuality, racism, suicide—topics that were taboo in comic books. If an educator reads (Tribal Force), they definitely would be worried. (It has) a lot of violence and controversial subject matter. But I’m not writing it for adults. I’m writing it for young people, in a medium they’re used to. It’s the art of “fighting without fighting.” The last thing I want is teachers or organizations saying, “Children, you should read this.” If anything, I want them to say, “Stay away from this book.”

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Features

Doug Peacock, author of Grizzly Years and Walking It Off, once walked point as a polar-bear guard on an Arctic expedition, armed with only a homemade spear. He still loves large predators and new territory, and in his latest outing, he asks us to accompany him on “the greatest adventure” ever—the peopling of the New World.

Roughly 20,000 years ago, scouts on a ridge in Beringia got their first glimpse of the “unending wild country that encompassed two continents uninhabited by humans.” Some 5,000 years later, at the very end of the Pleistocene, the climate changed; oceans rose; and the Bering land bridge flooded. The formerly ice-barred interior of the Americas opened, allowing passage south.

“I can’t think of a richer, wilder, more-perilous time to live,” Peacock writes.

There are parallels as well as vast differences between that time and ours, Peacock says. He is curious about how Homo sapiens perceives risk and how our species might survive and adapt to climate change—dealing with our own saber-toothed foe in the bush. The “bold migrations” of the past, he concedes, are “impossible in the 21st century” as a solution. But that original migration still offers us “challenging illustrations of courage and caution.”

Blending archaeology and paleontology with memories of childhood arrowhead-hunting, and evoking a keen sense of place, Peacock explores some of the colonists’ likely waypoints: Siberia’s tiger-tracked Amba River, the Yukon’s Bluefish Caves (one held a mammoth bone spear point), a 13,000-year-old burial site on the Yellowstone (yielding “10 five-gallon buckets of artifacts”), 10,000-year-old human teeth in British Columbia, and Baja California’s 8,000-year-old shell middens.

The book suffers from some sloppy editing and repetition, but Peacock’s accounts of archaeological finds ring with the excitement of discovery. His descriptions of dire wolves, lions on steroids, and leggy, short-faced bears—”monsters of the plains”—can raise the hairs on the back of your neck. “We evolved to deal with the predator,” he writes. And therein could lie the rub: “In comparison, present day ‘global warming’ seems distant, harmlessly incremental or something that happens to remote strangers.”

Still, Peacock seems confident that a species that overcame flesh-and-blood threats like dire wolves can somehow manage to confront this latter-day, more nebulous foe.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: A Renegade Naturalist Considers Global Warming, the First Americans and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene

By Douglas Peacock

AK Press

200 pages, $15

Published in Literature