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Uplifting forgotten voices: a spotlight on the Sacred Place Institute for Indigenous Peoples

By Emily Elliot and Lindsay Filgas

This blog post was written by students as part of a spring course, “Land Justice: Unearthing Histories & Seeding Liberation” (EARTHSYS 96) taught at Stanford University in Spring Quarter 2021.

Issued in 1493, the Doctrine of Discovery was crafted by European monarchies to spiritually, politically, and legally justify the colonization and seizure of Native people’s land in the Americas and the rest of the world not inhabited by Christians. This doctrine and it’s resulting displacement started the erasure of Native tribes in the United States that continues to this day. Consequently, the work to return Native land and restore sovereignty is ongoing.

In 2014, a bill sat before the California state legislature that would expand protections for tribal sacred land under the California Environmental Quality Act. Seemingly a step in the right direction, the bill had one critical problem: its definition of tribes did not include non-federally recognized tribes, which make up a third of the tribes in California.

Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples logo

That’s where Angela Mooney D’Arcy and the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples (SPI) stepped in. Jumping into action and organizing with other tribes and community partners, SPI pushed the legislature to include non-federally recognized tribes in the bill. And on the day before the bill was passed, their recommendation was adopted.

This is the kind of work that Angela Mooney D’Arcy does. As a member of the Ajacheman tribe, a non-federally recognized tribe that is native to what is now Southern California, Mooney D’Arcy is driven to build the capacity of Indigenous peoples and fight for the protection of sacred lands, waters, and cultures for all time.

Mooney D’Arcy founded the Sacred Places Institute in 2012. Her vision was a space where Indigenous people could come together to learn from one another and “dream together” about the changes they would like to see to support their communities. SPI is based in Los Angeles and works closely with the tribes of Southern California, both federally and non-federally recognized, but their work and partners span the entire globe. Much of this work centers around intervening in processes to ensure that tribal voices are heard.

“We enter spaces where people have literally forgotten we exist and we are loud about our existence,” Mooney D’Arcy said. “[There] is something deeply rooted in the national psyche that says native people are dead and only exist in the past. You don’t invite folks to the table. And so if we’re not real or if we only exist as something that once was, it doesn’t enter peoples’ minds to actually invite us to the table today … One of the most important interventions we make is that Indigenous people are still here and very much interested in the return of our ancestral land.”

Rematriation of Indigenous land is one step in recognizing and honoring the continued existence of Native peoples.

SPI has a broad range of ongoing efforts related to Indigenous rights and culture, conservation, and climate justice . Their Sacred Ecologies Program works on specific environmental and cultural protection projects brought forth by tribes, such as working with tribes and community partners to produce a film about conservation in the Owens Valley. The Indigenous Waters Program works to protect water resources and expand education about Indigenous water use and relationships. The work of SPI is constantly evolving and growing as new needs are identified.

Mooney D’Arcy sees land rematriation as central to the push for a “just transition” away from fossil fuels. In this process, it is critical to think about how we will use land that once served the fossil fuel industry and how we can work towards justice for tribes. “Land rematriation has to be a part of any just transition strategy. And I can’t count the number of times where, had it not been for us saying that, Native people would have been completely erased.”

Unrecognized tribes like the Ajachamen have minimal resources and support for understanding the environmental justice concerns and needs of their peoples. SPI is looking for support in continuing community-driven research on these issues through close relationships with affected tribes. If you want to get involved, go to their website http://www.sacredplacesinstitute.org/ or contact Angela at angela@sacredplacesinstitute.org. Other ways to get involved include participating in SPI’s Alliance of Earth, Water & Sky Protectors fellowship focused on building the capacity of young leaders and activists who will continue to fight for Indigenous rights. SPI is also actively fundraising for their Elders’ Indigenous Climate Fellowship, a program to financially support elders who are doing critical climate justice work.

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EJ @ Stanford

EJ @ Stanford

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