By Sean Hill
The Native Voices Project is a regional collaborative in the Upper Feather River Watershed between local educators and leaders from the Mountain Maidu community. The Mountain Maidu, the native inhabitants of this landscape, have suffered centuries of devastation due to American Colonialism. This project is a step towards restorative justice, with goals to pass on Mountain Maidu history, traditional ecological knowledge, language and voice through regional environmental education programming. Lead partners are Trina Cunningham of the Maidu Summit Consortium, Rob Wade with the Plumas County Office of Education and Plumas Unified School District, and Krissy McGill, Sarah Barnes, and Sean Hill with Sierra Nevada Journeys. Rob Wade, lead author of the blog, has lived and worked in the region for more than 25 years.
The story of Native Voices Project really could not be told without Covid-19. The invitation to slow down, pause, and even stop was welcome, and even pervasive. The compassion for self and others became widespread and even normalized. The focus away from the “where and when” of clock and calendared deadlines along with the “what” of task listing, gave way to deepening reflection on the “why and how” of purpose and vision. This reframe of pace and plot radicalized our commitment to doing something, but in a different, deeper, and better way.
What deeper and better looked like we honestly did not know. We were just sure that it had not been done with enough integrity and follow through in the past. A survey of our own past practices identified use of story, knowledge, and naming that had been done in isolation from native voices and relationships. We trusted our level of commitment to Trina and the Mountain Maidu community and would use their sense of diverse, equitable, inclusive and justice, more than our own.
When Sean Hill first approached me about collaborating on a project with Sierra Nevada Journeys and Trina Cunningham in the Winter of 2020, I did not hesitate to say yes. Sierra Nevada Journey’s Grizzly Creek Ranch is located in my rural northeastern California region, and I have been looking for an opportunity to work together with their talented staff and high quality facility. Trina is a Mountain Maidu leader who I have known for the better part of twenty years, having also taught all three of her children. I had worked with Trina somewhat in the past, but never in the deeply integrated way that Native Voices Project promised. Specifically the difference is reflected in the statement, “nothing about us, without us.” It is a simple phrase but past activity, while respectfully held, was often if not usually done without native inclusion.
We began traditionally enough having grant deliverables drive the discussion as we looked at the obvious and practical ways of reaching our desired results. These took the form of land acknowledgement, place names, and seasonal traditional ecological knowledge through activity and vocabulary. We wanted our process to reflect our project. We shared a commitment to making sure that diversity, equity, inclusion and justice guided the journey and the destination. We felt inspired but honestly, I think we also really didn’t want to mess it up by perpetuating further harm to the Mountain Maidu through cultural appropriation.
Lesson 1 – At the Speed of Trust
While we slowed and reflected on the “Why” of Native Voices Project and the shared values that would guide our work and way together, something came into focus. We all knew trust was important but the concept of working at the speed of trust was a reframe for me. We would go no further nor faster than trust would allow. And it was the speed of Trina’s trust, as our Mountain Maidu representative, that mattered. Even the word speed seemed misplaced here. This was not about pace. We would move with trust or we would not move. For example, early meetings had a focus on the time specific deliverables of the project, a common Western approach. Our team was focusing on the “what” and “how”. We realized that stepping back, regrouping, getting to know one another on a deeper level, and spending time thinking and talking about why we were all here and doing this work was the best way to slow down and move forward with care.
We were all cultured to achievement and accomplishment as the metric of success. We all knew how to crank out curriculum and programmatic activity, but growing trust from where there had been literally none was humbling. Check your ego at the door. No agenda or pressure. Just asking and listening and waiting. It was glacial in pace and often uncomfortable, but it was this discomfort that grew our awareness, invited us to responsibility, and to be patient. This is when we began to understand that the real product of our project was not measurable curriculum, it was immeasurable trust.
Lesson 2 – Nothing About Us Without Us
While lessons one and two are indivisible really, it was later in our project process that I encountered this phrase. “Nothing about us, without us”. To me it said everything that we needed. No Mountain Maidu without the Mountain Maidu. No story, no song, no words, no place names without Trina and our local Mountain Maidu community leading the way. We had previously developed land acknowledgements for our programs on our own and delivered them to sincere effect but the difference of working with Trina and deferring to her language preference was an obvious change. Additionally we made the commitment that Land Acknowledgements would always be offered by a Mountain Maidu partner who would be paid for their time. Otherwise permission would be required to proceed in their absence.
In applying this idea, I reflected on my 25 year career, lived thoughtfully and respectfully, but with liberties and shortcuts taken. I know I am not alone in moving forward alone. Formal and non-formal educators all around the country make liberal use of free resources without considering the local native community. Can we all slow and stop and wait until we know them, until they trust us, and then defer to them about what is taught, where, when, and how?
Trina Cunningham, our Mountain Maidu lead partner, was gracious throughout this past year. Trina had always stepped into a leadership role but often as a volunteer. During our NVP work together we were privileged to support her as her own leadership in the Mountain Maidu community grew. Our Native Voices Project did more than parallel Covid. It included the North Complex Fire, a 318,935 acre wildfire in our region where Trina served as tribal liaison. We also witnessed Trina stepping into the interim Executive Director role at the Maidu Summit Consortium (MSC) which has grown to a permanent position. These changes caused some time constraint for NVP through our initial grant, but Trina’s work capacity and influence grew in ways that positively has increased the impact of NVP and resulted in a grant from the Heller Foundation. This grant was made to MSC and will continue our NVP work together for another year, something to which we were all committed.
We found that as we committed completely to moving at the speed of Mountain Maidu trust, Trina reciprocated with encouragement to shape our residential program experience with activities designed to restore native voices. We developed five meaningful activities guided by Mountain Maidu that will be integrated into both SNJ and PCOE residential programs in the 2021-2022 school year. Additional activities will grace our PUSD K-6 Outdoor Core program in the 2021-2022 school year in Plumas Unified School District. More importantly, we have affirmed that this generous National Science Foundation funded pilot has given us more than a one-year relationship reframe with the Mountain Maidu. We have a collective commitment to carry this trust work of the Native Voices Project forward essentially and in perpetuity. The aforementioned Heller Foundation grant awarded to MSC will help us to maintain continuity moving forward through regular communication, monthly meetings, program activity development and implementation, and collaborative field coordination.
Sierra Nevada Journeys was a powerful ally through the past 13 months. Sean Hill’s (SNJ’s project lead) assertive but respectful facilitation, and his brilliant SNJ Colleagues Krissy McGill and Sarah Barnes provided a depth and breadth of view, commitment, and energy to the process. As we entered the final few months of this BEETLES supported project, they provided the capacity to bring the tangible programmatic artifacts into form. The programmatic placement of these thoughtful activities will lead to meaningful experiences for the kids attending our residential programs. More importantly we will do this with the Mountain Maidu, led by and leading with trust.
Over my career I have worked with Mountain Maidu kids each year through the lens of science and stewardship. We have climbed local mountains and rafted local rivers together. I have always expressed value for their heritage and 500 generations of connection to this place that I have spent only 25 years. The humility isn’t going anywhere, but the courage to journey forward together with greater trust opens all trails to possibility.
This post is part of out Regional Networks Tales from the Field Series. Read about how other regional networks in the series here.
This project was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation under Grant No.1612512. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.