Heidi Lucero, member of the Acjachemen and Mutsun Ohlone tribes of California is interviewed by Karen Graham, Curriculum Development and Community Liaison for Earthroots Field School. Heidi is an anthropologist, culture bearer, and an educator in the American Indian Department at California State University Long Beach with a focus on cultural sustainability. She is also on the Board of Directors for Earthroots.
July 8, 2021
Karen: The Earthroots mission is to “cultivate a sense of care and connection with the natural world”. Tell us one way that you care and connect with the natural world.
Heidi: Caring for the natural world as a Native American in California is not just one thing, it’s a way of life for me. Connecting with the natural world for me is about gathering basket materials, gathering plant materials, creating a relationship with those plants in our natural environment and making sure those plants and animals are seen as relatives. When you change your perspective and see them as relatives, you learn to have a greater respect for them and care about them more than if you just see them as objects. The way I changed my way of thinking was becoming a basket weaver. When I began gathering my own materials I would see good basket material and poor basket material. I saw that when you care for something and create a relationship with it, those materials grow better and stronger, and are easier to work with. This led to changing my whole way of thinking and how I live my life in terms of the natural environment.
Karen: Can you tell us about your family tribal affiliations and how your tattoos reflect your tribal connections?
Heidi: I can trace my family back to a historic ancestor from the Mission San Juan Capistrano. My family has been an active (tribal) family for generations, since the mission system and colonization began. My great-grandmother was the matriarch of San Juan Capistrano and my grandfather was the ranch foreman for the Santa Margarita Ranch. My grandmother and her 13 brothers and sisters were active tribal members. I have continued that tradition. Being Native American is something that is in the forefront of how I live my life.
The tattoos on my face are traditional tattoos. They were given to young women during her coming of age ceremony when she began her first menses. Most of the tribes in California did some face tattooing. All the indigenous tribes from Mexico to the ring of fire did these tattooing practices. An elaborate ceremony went along with it that included fasting. When colonization occurred, especially in southern California it was against religious law to have tattoos. It was a practice that was forbidden based on the bible, so our practice was lost. In northern California it was the Gold Rush that did away with the practice because most men that came for gold recognized that the markings identified women and not children, and because of the brutality that occured the tribal communities stopped doing the practice. In the last 20 years or so, there has been an upswing of bringing back this practice. We are in the process of reviving traditional ceremonial tattoos. I have had mine for six years. I am also a tattoo practitioner in the traditional style of stick and poke.
Karen: As a parent of a child who just finished fourth grade and studied the mission system and the Gold Rush, I find what you have to say so relevant and important for kids and adults to hear.
Heidi: A lot of our children have been taught that we no longer exist as California Indians. If there is one thing I could get across it’s that we are still here, and we are living our traditions. We are active in our communities and living in this dual world.
Karen: That’s such an important message. Let’s talk a little bit about the upcoming election. If you are elected as Chairwoman of the Acjachemen Nation, how do you see your life experiences benefiting the Nation and the general public in Orange County?
Heidi: I have been involved with the tribe for the better part of my life and have created relationships with native communities throughout California. I have worked on the digital atlas of California Indians, which is a project put on by the Native American Heritage Commision, so I have very close connections and relationships with other tribes, which starts to open lines of communication which have been lost between our community and other communities.
Another big problem is that our tribe is not federally recognized, it is only state recognized, which doesn’t afford us any benefit at all. My plan is to continue working on federal recognition and prepare a solid petition to turn in to work towards federal recognition. A lot of people believe that the reason we want federal recognition is to open a casino. That is not a decision that is not in my making. We are a tribe and everyone has a vote. It is a community decision. My concern is that we are not entitled to health care benefits because we are only state recognized. We don’t have the ability to protect our dead ancestors when a burial site is under construction. Being able to practice our ceremony, having access to health care, these are high concerns of mine, not the casino aspect.
Karen: Tell us about the Landback movement and share how it has affected (or may affect) you personally, and the Acjachemen Nation?
Heidi: This is an amazing, powerful movement. At one point all of the United States was indegenous land, and now we have very small fractions of land left, if any at all. Lots of the tribes in California are landless tribes. To be able to get back a small portion of land that we can call our own, practice ceremony on, and grow our native plants, that is priceless for us. We are there to protect the land, not destroy it. Our notions are so in line with Earthroots. We only want that land for our ceremonies and rebury are ancestors that are on earth, and have a sacred place to go. We don’t have that now. The momentum the landback movement is gaining right now is giving us as a tribe something to look forward to in the future. If you look at the map, there are no tribes south of San Francisco that have coastal property. It would be remarkable to get land back on the coast of California.
Karen: In 2020, Earthroots formed a DEI Council and initiated the practice of acknowledging on social media and in person that our programs are held “On shared ancestral land of the Tongva and Acjachemen peoples.” What do you think about this form of land acknowledgements? How can we make them more meaningful and proactive?
Heidi: Land Acknowledgement is something that I teach in my class. I was proud of how Earthroots did theirs. Many people in the community reach out to us to write their Land Acknowledgement. I think that if someone from the native community writes it for you it skips your obligation to learn about the tribe or tribes whose ancestral land you are on. I would like to applaud Earthroots for making that part of their regular practice. I would always be open to making things more meaningful by pushing forward the importance of that land acknowledgment.
Karen: There is a growing number of non-indigenous led nature education organizations like Earthroots popping up. What advice do you have for us to honor and lift indigenous teachings and local indigenous teachers?
Heidi: Reach out to us. Most of us in the community are willing to do workshops and help your community understand our community. Creating an open dialogue relationship is the best way that we are both going to win at whatever we are doing. Even as simple as doing a plant talk and talking about what you use the plants for and what we traditionally use them for. Finding the ways that our teachings are similar and learning new ideas from each other is a great way to meld our communities together.
Karen: If you could impart one lesson on the youth today, what would it be?
Heidi: Native people in California are still here. We are still practicing our traditions. Please always feel free to ask questions and to reach out. Our prior administrations have fallen behind on keeping in contact and answering emails from members outside our community. It is so important because we are all here cohabitating. No question is a dumb question unless you don’t ask it at all. Reach out to us, we will help you with whatever we can.
Thank you so much Heidi for taking the time to share with us today.