Cekpa

Reflections on revolutionary decolonization, ownership, and power

Image by Fort Wick

When a baby is born, Lakota mothers make two cekpas. A cekpa (“check-pah”) is a leather bag made into a sort of amulet that holds a baby’s umbilical cord, signifying the child’s connection to the mother and the land they came from. A cekpa is a form of art that represents ceremonial culture and also incorporates an aspect of utilitarianism; most cekpas are beaded or otherwise designed based on the sex of the baby—lizards for boys and turtles for girls—and, while beautiful and delicate, they are meant to hold something important and then be buried, hidden away, stowed in the depths of a larger bag or a stack of pelts.

There is a dummy cekpa and a real one, and the real one is hidden. The dummy cekpa exists to distract bad spirits that would try to steal the real one. Babies who grow up without a cekpa, or whose cekpa is lost or stolen by bad spirits, will grow up without that connection, yearning for something they know is missing.

I am one of those babies. I was born to a Persian woman whose family came to the United States from Iran when she was a teenager, when the shah was overthrown. She met and fell in love with my father, a Lakota man from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, who couldn’t stay in one place. When he left her pregnant and alone with two young children already, she realized she couldn’t do it all by herself and had me adopted.

My adoptive parents wanted me to grow up with a connection to my Indigenous roots. They didn’t know much about Persian culture, but my adopted father is a quarter Diné and wanted more of a tether to his own heritage, too, so they took me to powwows and supported my involvement in the Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) growing up. NAYA is a nonprofit organization run by and serving Native youth and families, particularly in the area of community development. Going to NAYA kept me connected to my culture; before I found NAYA, I was lost. I was kicked out of three high schools and had started drinking and using drugs. I struggled with my mental health, and I had been arrested multiple times for a variety of infractions. I started participating in NAYA programming as a high school senior. Through NAYA, I found counseling and other support, and I got back into school.

In college, I started working for NAYA in the summers as a camp counselor and summer tutor. One summer, I was invited to participate as a research intern on a large project funded by the Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF), which later led to the acquisition of NAYA’s current facility and program structure. NWAF is a philanthropic organization with a specialized interest in community development for Indigenous peoples. NWAF had reached out to NAYA and asked them to put together a group of youth interns, elders, and adults to conduct community-based participatory research on Native people in Portland. We conducted hundreds of surveys that summer.

The surveys we received informed us that Portland’s Native community struggles with invisibility, in part because we are not recognized in public spaces via art, physical Indigenous centers, signage, languages, or other public visual representations. Due to this invisibility, Native people in Portland suffer from a lack of resources, particularly considering that their needs are 

equal to or greater than those of other racial demographics in almost every area, from poverty to disease to school failure and more. This research was eye-opening for me, and it later fueled my passion for art and working on behalf of my people.

On July 16, 2020, the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF) announced that ownership of the historic Yale Union Contemporary Arts Center (YU) in central Southeast Portland would be transferred to NACF. NACF—a Native-led national organization committed to mobilizing Native artists, culture-bearers, communities, and leaders to influence positive social, cultural, and environmental change—took ownership of the building and land in late February 2021 and renamed the building the Center for Native Arts and Cultures (CNAC).

A statement from NACF President/CEO Lulani Arquette reads:

Together, the NACF board and staff believe that this free land and building transfer will set an example for recognizing the value of Native ownership of property in urban areas across the nation.…It’s liberating and encouraging to witness this kind of support for First Peoples of this country. The potential for local community and national partnerships around shared interests through Indigenous arts and cultures is wide open. We are deeply grateful for this transformative opportunity afforded NACF by YU board and staff, and stand united with all to reclaim Native truth, engage anti-racism, and address important issues we face today.

 

From my experience working with NAYA and from my background as a Native person, writer, and artist, I see CNAC as a beacon of hope, particularly during dark times. I’m not alone; when I talk to people about CNAC, the response is positive. So many people, Native and non-Native, are desperate for something exciting, hopeful, and uplifting to look forward to.

Despite the challenges Portland’s urban Indian community faces, we are resilient. A huge component of our resiliency is our cultural arts. One of the most unique things about Native cultures is that our art is so deeply embedded in our lifestyles that even the most utilitarian item can also be a thing of beauty. There is no way to separate art from our culture. For example, we make baskets for their aesthetic appeal, but also for their functionality. We bead our moccasins for decoration, but we still use them to walk and dance on dirt. We dance both for performance and for prayer and healing. Walk into the Portland Art Museum’s Indigenous art section and you will see moccasins displayed on walls, ceremonial items under glass, and pots and baskets and tools displayed as great works of art.

In mainstream Western culture, art is treated as if it’s something separate from everything else. We talk about “investing in the arts” or how “the arts are the first thing to go” when there are school budget cuts. But in Native cultures, we cannot separate our art from any other aspect of our lives. This is part of a relational worldview, rather than a linear one. Everything is interconnected, and without that balance, we are unhealthy and unhappy. Our strength in the face of adversity is driven by our cultures, which are also our arts.

Not only are the arts essential to an Indigenous worldview, the arts are powerful. Art demands attention. It crosses borders. It creates empathy. It helps to bridge divides through storytelling. Every piece of art tells a story. You know a work of art because it makes you feel something; it connects you to the artist, their worldview, their experience. When you touch down in Anchorage or drive down the highway in Phoenix, you know you are on Native land from the art you see—in the airport, on medians, on buildings. The presence of Native art tells you that we exist and that we have something to say.

In order for Native people to stand up for our communities, we must be able to throw off the cloak of invisibility that hides us from the public eye and says we do not exist. CNAC promises to fill that need in the Portland Native community, as well as for Native communities regionally and nationally, because it elevates our voices and gives us visual representation that we can use to advocate for the needs of our people.

 

There is no definition for the word “rematriation” in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. According to them, it is not a word. My computer and iPhone agree, leaving wavy red lines all over my screens. I had to consult several online sources before I found definitions I like. Wiktionary defines it as “a return to a spiritual way of life with respect for Mother Earth.” I especially like Sierra Seeds Cooperative’s take on it: “The Indigenous concept of rematriation refers to [the] reclaiming of ancestral remains, spirituality, culture, knowledge, and resources, instead of the more patriarchally associated repatriation.”

NACF uses the term “rematriation” when communicating about the transfer of the YU building to NACF. The building is being given as a gift—a $5 million gift—and as an act of decolonization. “Repatriation” comes close to describing the process, but it doesn’t quite fit. The land and building are not being gifted to an entity from outside of this country. They are being gifted back; something that was once taken away, stolen, is being returned to the rightful owners.

Pondering the word “repatriation” makes me think of my fathers. I have two—my adoptive father, who I grew up with, and my birth father, who recently passed away. I have a healthy relationship with my living father. What I know of my birth father is limited; however, he has affected my life deeply, like a cut from a single sharp blade.

When I was twenty-one, I moved to the Midwest to search for my birth family. The goal when I initially set out was to find my birth father and his father, specifically, so that I could get enrolled in my tribe. In the process, I ended up finding three full siblings, my birth mother and her family, and my aunt on my father’s side (and all of her children—so many cousins that I can’t even count or name them all). Finally, I found my birth father; I also found out that he owned land on our reservation.

We were sitting on some large boulders in the countryside outside of Asheville, North Carolina, in the sweltering, sticky heat, when he handed me a can of Budweiser and told me about how my birth mother’s family paid him to disappear from our lives. Then he told me about his land on the reservation in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, part of the Badlands.

He said, “When I die, that land will go to you.”

Apparently, he told my brothers the same thing. He probably would have told my sister that as well, if she had ever wanted to know him after he abandoned her and my brother when he left our birth mom.

My birth father died this past August. I met him only the one time, when I was twenty-two, but he called me every year or so after that for about eight years—most often when he sobered up in jail or rehab. I’d heard nothing from him since my oldest daughter was born four years ago.

When my sister found out about our birth father’s death, she called me crying, saying she wished she had tried to get to know him. I told her about the land. Then came the unexpected scramble for possession.

Because I am adopted, the funeral home in Pine Ridge did not recognize me as my birth father’s child. I had no say in any of the decision-making after his death, including what happened to his body, when we were to have the funeral, or where his body would be buried. My sister reminded me, repeatedly, in the weeks before and during his funeral ceremony, that he never formally gave up his rights to her and that she carries his last name.

She is a recovering meth addict who recently gave birth to a baby who was born meth-addicted. She is on probation for her second or third felony and had to get a special release to leave the state for the funeral. I am not a drug user, have a stable home life and family, and am working on a second master’s degree. When I successfully tracked down our birth father, she didn’t want anything to do with him. She refused to speak to him, while I tried everything I could to get to know him. She had his number and chose not to call for the fifteen years between when I found him and when he died. And yet she got to make the decisions.

That’s why I’m not convinced when my aunt whispers to me later over the phone, after I get home from my father’s funeral, that I have every right to his land, that all I have to do is call the right person, that the tribe recognizes my heritage regardless of whether my sister does. My aunt tells me she will help me. She convinces me to fight for it.

 

Lakotas are taught that we came from Wind Cave, that tricksters fooled us into leaving our home under the earth to come out into the light, even though we had everything we needed underground. Now we can’t go back, because we don’t know how to live underground anymore. We have a special connection to the land because we came from it; we were a part of it once, and we see ourselves as an extension of the land we come from.

As an Indigenous person, there is something about owning land that feels both empowering and wrong at the same time. We’ve learned from the structures that uphold White supremacy that owning land means having power, because the land has a monetary value. But we know the land cannot truly be owned—it owns you. Your body was birthed from its clay and will be absorbed back into it when you die.

When I first went to South Dakota, I jumped out of my friend’s truck when we left the airport and kissed the red earth. “I’m home!” I shouted into the sky. I don’t know what my parcel of land looks like, the land that my birth father owned and that will become mine someday, when the tribe answers the phone or returns my calls. I don’t know how many acres it is. But have you seen South Dakota? That area around the Badlands where my reservation is? How beautiful it must be.

When I imagine my parcel of land, I imagine rolling prairie, thunderclouds bearing bolts of lightning that set the sky on fire against a backdrop of dark gray, red earth and green and yellow grass. When I picture that, I think about how our ancestors said the land owns us and laughed when White people tried to explain otherwise. I am a part of that land.

A part of me resists the idea of owning land at all. Owning land is a White construct—it’s not real. Let the land be wild; stop trying to tame it. I’ve never been one for yard work anyway. But because of White supremacy, there are rules about belonging to my tribe. In my tribe, if you want to get enrolled, you have to prove your descendancy from someone who owns land on the reservation. If I want my children and grandchildren to be enrolled and have a connection to our tribe—if I want them to belong in a way that is hard to explain, in a way that happens when your people claim you—then I need to fight for this land.

 

As Indigenous people, our relationship with the land and the concept of owning it is complicated and tied to our sovereignty—something for which we are always fighting. There are nine sovereign tribes in Oregon: the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians; the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde; the Confederated Tribes of Siletz; the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs; the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians; the Coquille Indian Tribe; the Burns Paiute Tribe; the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation; and the Klamath Tribes. Sovereignty in this case means they have legal control over their own tribes—to an extent. There are cases in which the state or the federal government has dual jurisdiction, which is when things can get messy.

There are also tribes that do not have federal or state recognition, like the Chinook. Portland, the biggest city in Oregon, is on Chinook land. Portland’s urban Indian community is considered the ninth largest urban population in the United States, containing descendants from over 380 tribes. The Multnomah Chinookan people live in the Portland area, yet they do not have federal sovereignty or recognition. They have no land to call their own, no power or control over their own physical, mental, or spiritual domain. But despite the lack of land base and formal recognition, there are many Chinookan people who come together to have salmon feasts, ceremonies, and celebrations. Many can prove their descendancy and practice cultural traditions and art forms that have been passed down from generation to generation. For example, local carvers from the Chinook and other area tribes meet regularly to share skills and techniques. And there are Chinookan tribal language speakers spearheading an effort in Portland to revitalize their language, offering classes for elders and youth.

The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 forced tribal removal and provided free land to White settlers in the Oregon Territory, including all of Portland, over the course of only seven years. During that seven-year span, White settlers claimed over 2.5 million acres of tribal land. The government effectively stripped the Chinook people of their land and gave it to White settlers, and now the Chinook people have no land left to claim. Even if they received recognition, what land is left for them to establish their own government, culture, sovereignty, and power on?

When I was adopted, the Indian Child Welfare Act was fairly new. Established in the late 1970s, it was intended to “keep Indian children with Indian families” and connect them to Indian culture; however, the act was misinterpreted or not followed at all too often to be very effective. In my particular case, they forgot the important step of tribal enrollment. I wasn’t enrolled with my tribe during my adoption, so all of my rights as a Native person were stripped from me. Like the Chinook, I had a long uphill battle ahead of me.

When I first got connected to NAYA as an “at-risk youth,” I credited ceremonies, drumming, and dancing with keeping me off the streets. Through ceremony, song, dance, writing, and beading, I found my path to my community, and from there, the desire to visit my reservation, find my birth family, and get enrolled in my tribe. Through Native art, I was able to find my way home. Art served as my cekpa back to my “mother”—the land I came from.

Through my involvement in NAYA and the NWAF community-based participatory research project, I met tribal people from Rapid City who knew my family, knew of me when I was born. They connected me to my aunt, who helped me find my brother, who tracked down our birth mother and siblings. From there, I was able to find my birth father in North Carolina and get him to help me fill out my tribal enrollment papers.

As tribal people, regardless of the status of our tribe, we know that power and sovereignty come from our relationship to the land, which drives our relationship to our language, which drives our cultural practices, including art. We know that sometimes, the path to sovereignty must be driven backward. By reviving our arts and languages, we find our way back to the land, back to who we are.

 

When I worked at NAYA in my twenties, we focused our advocacy work around the theme “Making the Invisible Visible.” At the time, that meant focusing on collecting and disseminating accurate data about our community. Native people are known, not just in the Portland area but also nationally, as “the invisible minority.” The term comes from the effects of the domination, assimilation, and termination of Indigenous people in the United States since 1492. Although we are a significant minority group, our issues and strengths, our very existence, are relatively unknown in the public eye. History books teach children that we no longer exist.

Imagine the effect on a people of being told they do not exist, from the time they are born until the time they die. We grow up in denial about who we really are. My adoptive father’s mother is an example of this. Growing up, she watched me and my brother in the few hours between the start of my mother’s swing shift as a nurse and my father’s return from his day job as a warehouse supervisor. I remember how she braided my hair and then folded the braids up, tying them to the hair up higher on my head with red yarn or cloth. She never said, “This is how Diné women do their hair.” She said, simply, “This is how you do your hair.” She told me she wasn’t allowed to speak her language or claim her heritage. She was told she had to say she was White, or she would be treated “like a Black person.”

Being invisible means nobody knows you need help, that your people need help. Huge pockets of resources in this country are devoted to supporting other minority communities, most notably Black and Latino communities, because they are very visible in the public eye. Comparatively, for almost every social challenge, Native American people suffer more than any other minority group, yet they receive the least amount of support from advocates seeking to address the needs of minority groups. For example, Native organizations receive 0.23 percent of philanthropic dollars in this country, despite making up over 2 percent of the population (a number that is controversial and does not accurately represent our community due to the ways in which demographics are gathered) and having higher rates of poverty and suicide, and less access to education.

Being invisible also means that when the larger public acknowledges Native peoples, misrepresentations abound. Often, the members of the public or media present our communities in an overly negative or overly positive light. Everyone knows the stereotypes of the drunk Indian or the sexy, long-haired Native guy on the cover of a romance novel. We are demonized or romanticized, and neither picture is a true portrait.

CNAC will elevate the Native community locally and regionally in a way that is crucial to increase accurate representation and additional advocacy for the needs and strengths of Indigenous communities. Owning a building and the land the building stands on, in a central area of such a prominent city, will bring increased attention and resources to Native communities. Additionally, the building is located in what is being lauded as “the creative corridor” of Portland—a stretch of space in the Central Eastside known for organizations like the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), Milagro Theatre, and Revolution Hall, among others. The building’s location in relation to other major cultural institutions in the city will garner additional attention for CNAC and, therefore, for the Native community on local, regional, and national levels. Due to its location, size, historical significance, and the extraordinary way in which the building and land were gifted via a decolonization model, CNAC promises to rip off the blanket of invisibility that has hidden Portland’s urban Indian community for generations and reveal the beauty and resilience underneath.

 

As an adopted person, I’ve lived my entire life with invisible scars. There is still so much that is unknown about the trauma that affects children who are adopted, particularly babies. What is known is that early trauma stunts the growth of the brain, particularly in the area of empathy. Brains affected by trauma do not function the way that healthy brains do.

Similarly, there are invisible scars that so many of my fellow Indigenous people have suffered and lived with. We bear the burden of traumas that aren’t even ours but that have been inherited from our ancestors. Alcoholism, drug abuse, self-harm, and disease invade our communities. As a people, we need healing. The way we find healing is through practicing our cultural arts. Art heals.

My favorite part of the new building is the creek that runs underneath it. Right now, it’s in a dark, dungeon-like basement; it’s kind of a scary place to go, even in the daytime. The stairs are steep, most of the space is unlit, and everywhere the concrete is crumbling. There is a little light that comes from the sidewalk above.

In all Native cultures, water is very important. Water is healing. Water is life. Lakotas are taught to smudge to purify the air, our hearts, our spirits, our minds. We usually use sage or sweetgrass or cedar, but if we find ourselves without, we smudge with water. Water is the strongest of all the medicines.

NACF plans to renovate the basement to honor the water. They will clean it up, add art, and let in more light. It will be a place we want to go to meditate, to purify, to do ceremony, to heal. It will honor the water and allow us a place to connect and re-energize.

Native communities are in a process of healing, of building strength and resiliency. We are getting stronger and coming out the other side. As a Native artist, I know I need this to happen; our friends and families need it; our communities need it. CNAC serves as a signal fire for the Portland-area Native community on our journey to healing and visibility via art and landownership.

As for my birth father’s land, I don’t know if I will ever own it. I don’t even know where it is, exactly. I don’t know if I’ll ever know what it really looks like. Maybe it’s tiny; maybe it’s uninhabitable. But like the Chinook, I have hope, and I won’t stop fighting. Stories like that of CNAC’s rematriation give me hope. Art gives me resilience. Art keeps drawing me back to the place I came from, where I may not have a physical, tangible cekpa, but I do have an invisible one—one that cannot be lost or stolen.

Comments

2 comments have been posted.

Thank you for writing this thought provoking and insightful essay. Your important work is indeed “making the invisible visible.“

Carol Sherman Rogers | May 2021 |

A powerful piece of writing. The author sounds like a very determined woman. I am impressed.

Dayna | May 2021 | Portland, OR

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Lies of Discovery

Who's Being Left Out?

Can the Land Make Us One People?

Cekpa

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The Things We Carry

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People, Places, Things

Discussion Questions and Further Reading