Kolby KickingWoman
Indian Country Today

Two years ago, California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a formal apology to tribes in the state for atrocities committed against them and for the history of genocide and oppression they endured.

He also decided to put action, and money, behind his words.

Through an executive order, the governor established the California Truth and Healing Council to provide an avenue for Native Americans “to clarify the record – and provide their historical perspective – on the troubled relationship between tribes and the state.”

This first-of-its-kind panel recently held its initial meeting to discuss what it hopes to accomplish.

“Telling the truth is only one small part of this whole healing cycle,” said Caleen Sisk, a council member and chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. “It’s taking action and doing things so tribal ways can continue to exist.”

The council is made up of 12 leaders of federally and state-recognized tribes from four California regions — southern, northern, eastern and central. They will meet quarterly and present a yearly report to the governor’s tribal adviser, Christina Snider, Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians.

Additionally, a final report of findings will be submitted at the council’s conclusion on Jan. 1, 2025. The council's budget originally included a request for $450,000 annually for four years, then $225,000 for the 2024-25 budget year, from California's Environmental License Plate Fund. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the budget was reduced to $100,000 annually through 2024-25.

The Truth and Healing Council last month held an introductory meeting, where members determined they would continue to meet virtually until COVID-19 conditions allow for in-person gatherings.

While the tribal leaders come from across the state, they shared similar sentiments regarding what they wish to address in the coming years. Sisk hopes to look at tribes’ loss of land and water rights, and at ensuring their communities can survive while protecting their traditional ways of life.

She intends to hold the governor to his word about addressing long-term injustices and elevating Natives’ contributions and experiences, and she noted the council is just one step in the process.

While international models exist in places like Canada, New Zealand and Australia, California’s statewide council appears to be unique in the U.S.

According to Newsom’s office, it marks the first time a state has taken “dual action to correct the historical record and acknowledge wrongdoing through executive order mandate and a tribally-led, consultation-informed council.”

A similar commission was established in Maine in 2012; however, the Maine Wabanaki-State Truth and Reconciliation Commission explicitly examined events relating to Wabanaki children and the Indian Child Welfare Act.

At the local level, Portland, Oregon, city leaders recently approved a series of directives aimed at promoting awareness and inclusion of Native Americans in city business and “more equitable outcomes for Native people.” They include plans for a formal land acknowledgement and strategies for improving recruitment and retention in the city workforce.

Robert Miller, Eastern Shawnee, professor at Arizona State University's College of Law, praised California for taking the step to establish the council and hopes other states pay attention.

“It is crucial for all Americans to correctly understand our real history and how Indigenous Peoples and Nations were treated with genocide and ethnic cleansing to take their homelands, their assets, and their lives as part of American ‘Manifest Destiny,’" Miller told Indian Country Today. “Hopefully, this Council will be able to bring a wider awareness to the tactics that were used against Indian Peoples and Nations and the horrific results.”

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The office of the tribal adviser has received a lot of questions on what exactly the council will examine, but Snider said it’s not the state’s place to make that decision.

“Basically we have created a framework and set the table, but we are not dictating where this goes, what it examines or what would be most beneficial,” Snider said.

The idea for the council came in the early days of Newsom taking office in 2019. Snider said cabinet members were on a retreat getting to know each other and talking about what they hoped to accomplish under the new administration.

She recalls the governor being very engaged, wanting to hit the ground running and do some really progressive things. During his tenure, Newsom has also doubled the staff of the Native American Heritage Commission and made the tribal adviser a permanent position within the governor’s office.

“He has really believed in the work of restoring an irreparable damage to the Indigenous peoples of California and also being creative about how we do it and trying to be as inclusive as possible in doing that work,” Snider said.

Snider was hesitant to say if other states would follow suit but hopes California’s council will serve as an example.

One of the appointed council members is Yurok Tribe Vice Chairman, Frankie Myers. In a recent op-ed, he wrote that it is important to ask the questions that connect the past to the present. He hopes the council’s findings will help all people of California to have a better understanding of the state’s Native population.

“This Truth and Healing Council is historic in its scope and nature, and potential for impact, but it is really just the beginning,” Myers wrote. “What this council finds will shape how we move as one state and many tribes that together deliver on a promise for all people.” 

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Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. For hot sports takes and too many Lakers tweets, follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

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