Angela Mooney D’Arcy’s heart—and roots—are in her Acjachemen culture and homelands. And, for nearly 20 years, the Native American activist, who could have been a stellar attorney, instead drives a beat-up gray Honda sedan between meetings, hearings and strategy sessions, and visiting cultural sites.
It’s all in a long day’s work with the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples, the Native rights group she founded and continues to serve as its executive director. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Brown University and a law degree with a concentration in critical race studies and focus on federal Indian law from University of California’s Los Angeles School of Law. D’Arcy was also a recipient of the New Voices Fellowship, a national Ford Foundation-funded program dedicated to cultivating the next generation of social justice leaders; the Earthjustice Sutherland Fellowship, awarded each year to a young lawyer to continue their work in environmental public-interest law; and is a member of the 2012 Circle of Leadership Academy sponsored by Native Americans in Philanthropy and the Center for Leadership Innovation.
D’Arcy advocates for all Natives, but particularly for Southern California tribes, most of whom are not federally recognized. We talked with D’Arcy, who’s still pumped up over the establishment of Indigenous Peoples Day, replacing Columbus Day, in Los Angeles, via the motion introduced by council member Mitch O’Farrell, and the work of the Indigenous Peoples Day LA Coalition, Los Angeles City County Native American Commission, and all the Native Nations and Indigenous Elders, youth, parents, and community members who made it happen.
What led you to start advocating for tribal rights?
My commitment to advocating for the environmental and cultural justice rights of Indigenous Peoples stems from my sense of responsibility to our ancestors, elders and our youth. I exist because my ancestors resisted multiple and sustained, state-and church-sponsored efforts to eradicate us physically, culturally and spiritually. They resisted and they continued—continued to live, laugh, love, speak their language, sing their songs, even when doing so had to be in secret due to laws violating Native American religious freedom, build and sustain their communities through all the violence. It is therefore my responsibility to do what I can to plant the seeds for a just and sustainable world for our descendants.
How do you see your work as a Native American activist in terms of unrecognized tribal rights?
Despite our history in the place known as Orange County since the beginning of time, and evidence of that history that manifests in artifacts unearthed via development projects, stories, songs and the language of the people, we continue to face ignorance and erasure in local, regional, state and national policy and decision making. The nature of the white supremacist settler colonial society is that it is hard for all of us to do the transformative work we’re trying to do. It is even harder for those of us from unrecognized nations to do this work.
How long have you been serving in an advocacy role?
I’ve been working with Native nations and Indigenous Peoples on environmental and cultural justice issues for nearly 20 years in California.
What are some of the biggest issues and barriers facing Native people on the West Coast in terms of indigenous rights, including preservation of sacred spaces?
The ongoing legacy of settler colonial erasure. This erasure has created a situation where the majority of non-Indians know very little about Indian people. Often, what folks do know is informed mostly or wholly by media mainstream portrayal of Native people, which tends to focus on Plains and Southwest Indian culture. These biases inform peoples’ understanding of who is “authentically” Indian, which informs the way they do or do not relate to representatives of local Native nations in California.
For those of us whose ancestral territories are located in major urban metropolitan areas, access to sacred places, gathering sites and other areas of importance is a critical issue. Many of our sacred places have been destroyed. Those sites that remain are often located on private property or property that is inaccessible to Native people for a variety of reasons.
What are some of your biggest victories as a Native American activist?
I can think of three that come to mind. Recently, thanks to the Sacred Places Institute’s intervention, the California Coastal Commission committed to developing a tribal consultation policy that is scheduled to be released for comment in November 2018. This will be the first time in the commission’s 40-year history that the need to consult with Native nations on a government-to-government basis will be formally adopted as a statewide commission policy. This resulted from an effort to build coalitions and advocate for the full and fair participation of Native nations, communities of color and the economically disadvantaged in the provisions of the California Coastal Act.
In 2013, we produced a short film “Saving Payahuupu: The Owens Valley Solar Story” in order to support a grassroots coalition of tribes, local community groups, historic preservation committees and environmental conservation organizations working to protect cultural places and environmentally sensitive habitats in Owens Valley. In 2016, we worked with a coalition of Acjachemen and Tongva Native nations and organizations to protect the traditional cultural property Genga, located within the proposed development footprint of the Newport Banning Ranch project. Our efforts to protect the land were successful, and in 2016 the Coastal Commission voted to deny the proposed development project.
We led a coalition of Native nations and organizations in California to support the protection of Native American sacred sites and places of cultural and historical importance under Assembly Bill 52, which was designed to amend the California Environmental Quality Act, in 2014. Through our organizing efforts, we were able to significantly raise public and tribal awareness about the issue and build tribal capacity to advocate effectively for their position. The passage of AB 52 ensured that the CEQA will “recognize that California Native American prehistoric, historic, archaeological, cultural, and sacred places are essential elements in tribal cultural traditions, heritages and identities,” and “Establish a new category of resources…called ‘tribal cultural resources’ that considers the tribal cultural values…when determining impacts and mitigation.”
What new issues are you—and the Sacred Places Institute—planning to tackle next?
First and foremost we will continue to support specific sacred place protection campaigns as requested by Native nations. We are also very excited to expand our Indigenous Youth Coastal Ambassador Program launched last year.
In 2017-2018, our Indigenous Youth Environmental Justice Project, in partnership with the Los Angeles Waterkeeper, Sherman Indian Museum, and others, will connect indigenous youth at Sherman Indian School in Riverside and indigenous youth attending Semillas Community Schools in East Los Angeles with resources and opportunities relating to environmental justice. The program will build student relationships with traditional cultural practitioners, scholars, indigenous community leaders, environmental scientists and advocates for land and water conservation. Some learning opportunities for the youth include peer-to-peer leadership development activities via the youth co-planning of an Earth Day symposium; college site visits, conversations with Native American undergraduate and graduate students and faculty pursuing environmentally focused careers; and an introduction to community leaders and traditional culture bearers from local Native nations. They will also participate in presentations from noted scientists, attorneys, community advocates and other leaders active in the environmental movement.
Additionally, throughout the yearlong program, youth will have the opportunity to participate in numerous hands-on community-based science activities, including several water quality testing trips along the Los Angeles River, documenting ocean vessel use in designated Marine Protected Areas in Los Angeles County and water quality analysis in the coastal waters of Crystal Cove in Orange County.
What other things do you want people to know about you and SPI?
The Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples is located on the southern California coast in the ancestral homelands of the Tongva people. Our mission is to build the capacity of Native nations and Indigenous Peoples throughout California, the United States and around the world to protect sacred lands, waters and cultures. Our long-term goal is to create paradigm shifts that support environmentally and socially just systems and assure the continuation of indigenous cultures and people.