Interview with Kathy Wallace


Kathy Wallace is Karuk, Yurok, Mohawk, and a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe. She is an assistant lecturer for the American Indian Studies Department and Cultural Liaison for the NAGPRA program at San Francisco State University

What is your cultural background? 

I’m Karuk, Yurok, on my Mom’s side I’m a little bit of Mohawk and I am a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, but by blood I’m not, that is my government classification.

What is your educational background?

I have an AA in Museum Studies, Certificate in Basket Weaving, and I have taken other classes but I don’t have a BA or MA or PhD.

Do you feel by not having academic certifications that the learning process is any different in regards to the validity of the knowledge?

It depends on who is listening to me, in this department they value Native Traditional Knowledge so I’m on an equal level, I feel very comfortable with that. But sometimes you get into a more academic situation and people may question that, but sometimes they don’t. It has kept me from getting a job even though I had won out against of people who had their PhDs. But it was because the administration did not want someone with their PhD teaching at their school. So it’s kind of a situation, but I didn’t let it bother me very much because that isn’t what I ever started out to do. I started out to be a basket weaver and I gained knowledge along the way and experience. And that experience I would have totally missed if I had been going to school. What I was hired for here was that experience, and they did not teach the classes I needed at any of the schools that I went to, in fact they still don’t. Other than this school.. [laughter]

How do you feel that Oral Narratives have been challenged by western educational systems?

Well I’ve seen it in all the work that I’ve done over the years because I’ve had the opportunity to sit and talk with scientists and agency people who have science backgrounds whether it be in Natural Science, Archaeology, Environmental Science, whatever it is. So I’ve had that opportunity to interact and find that being a scientist is to have a very elitist attitude. They bring it down to a level where Native Americans are excluded, I believe that our knowledge is just as valuable. But I’m use to fighting that battle and have for a long time, so I don’t let it stop me or bother me like it might others who have just gotten into it. Because you know you’re kind of conditioned to say the right things and make the right arguments after you’ve done it enough times.   

Do you see this kind of silencing within your own oral traditions in your own tribes?

In my And part of it is because we’re either getting more education or we’re hiring people who specialize in whatever kind of science that we need. And then we are now writing the papers that we need so that it’s now in black and white, those oral histories and traditions and observances and anecdotal incidents are put into black and white, which seems to be the only way that some agencies can look at them. So we’re starting to do that on a more regular basis, which is helping. It’s a shame that we have to get to that point where you can’t talk just speak one on one with them and have them treat what you have to say with respect, like you are treating them with respect. But that seems to be an exercise you get to go through.     

So I guess this leads into my next question.
How does your Native community revitalize and restore these narratives?

Because I’m from an area that was not impacted as soon as a lot of areas in California, even though our ceremonies were outlawed, even though we had the boarding experience and a lot went underground compared to the other tribes in the state, we kept a lot of our traditions alive and going. And maybe not with everybody but there were some cultural characters along the way so when the tribe was ready to pick it up again we had the people to do that. And then it was just generating the interest among the younger people. And some went to school and suddenly became interested in their culture. So that combination has created a lot of curriculum within the schools, it has prepared people on how to approach agencies who are taking care of the lands, or doing the harvesting of our native plants. So I’d say we are probably luckier than most in that way. Within our tribe we have cultural committees and we have natural resources committees, and we have lawyers, and we have people who can contend with all the different problems and have the expertise. But like I said sometimes for some tribes in the state that is not the case at all.             

I understand that you are teaching Survey of Native California and American Indian Art this semester. How do you hold space for this kind of resistance in your classes you teach here in the American Indian Studies department?

I have people who are on the same page that I work with, who believe in what I’m doing, who are carrying on even when I wasn’t here. They still taught California Indians who taught basketry. And that I think is a real bonus to working here at San Francisco State University. They are use to having people who are activists, they are use to having people who don’t fit in the box, and don’t mind going outside of the box. And people are a lot more open, when I dealing with a more conservative university I found that, that was limiting. I might have gotten paid more, it was very very limiting. They wanted you to fit the profile and it was really hard to justify the importance of the class and teaching it the way I would teach it. I remember having to write and rewrite and rewrite syllabuses so that the kind of fit into what  a syllabus should be. So it was a totally different experience. I really like teaching here because I don’t have to go through that exercise, once you’ve proved yourself you’re in. You don’t have to keep proving yourself and proving yourself and proving yourself, which doesn’t make for really good education and teaching other people if you have to continually prove yourself. This is where I am and lets go forward, lets not have to go through the same thing over and over and over again. And people don’t tend to be quite as prejudice and have the stereotypes that they do in other colleges. But I’ve also taught at DQ University, which is a two year tribal college in Davis. So many of our classes were very traditional, so it was accepted. Everything I taught was accepted, I could teach the way I was taught. Of course I tried to improve on that, but that’s where I started. On a more hands on traditional way of learning.

Can you speak more about Indigenous Knowledge and how Oral Traditions hold space for learning in new epistemologies outside of western prescribed truths and that kind of realm?

If you’re involved in your culture, and not everybody has that opportunity. But if you have that opportunity you have all kinds of opportunities to learn in a very traditional way because you’re learning directly from your elders, you’re learning from the stories, the history, the creation stories. If you’re lucky you are in your homeland so therefore everything you learn relates directly to that homeland the the plants that grow there, to the animals that grow there, the landscapes, the landmarks, and the people and the language. So that makes it a lot easier. Then when you’re like me, I was not raised there but I spent a lot of time there and then suddenly be put in a position of teaching totally outside of my traditional lands it was a little harder because I had to think of how I could fit that into a more general educational way of learning. In way that still kept the traditional knowledge alive. But like I said in his university there isn’t as much as a problem as there is with others. There are only three universities that teach basket weaving in California, Hombolt State is one of them and that’s from my homeland, here at SFSU, and UC Riverside. And I mean that is something you would think they would teach anywhere they have Native American or American Indian Studies. Unfortunately when there was a big push for Indian education, and I was involved in that movement too, there were a lot more classes offered and then as funding decreased pretty soon they started changing the criteria for people who were teaching those courses.

Pretty soon they changed American Indian or Native American Studies courses to Ethnic studies. And they didn’t hire Native Americans, they hired other people who had a general kind of across the board ethnic study background. And to me that isn’t quite the same, you get a totally different experience than you would be in learning from a Native person, and I think that goes the same for any culture. And I don’t think they would do that necessarily here, but it does make it harder. I found that working with the forest service or health service, our populations are so small that when you do a survey to find out when something is negatively affecting the people. It such a small little blip on the population base that it’s not even called a survey or a study, it’s called anecdotal information. It’s just not enough to make it worth being recognized, because we’re the only people that use that plant or that area of land in that way, nobody else does therefore it doesn’t affect the greater population. So it makes it kind of hard, you have to stand up and you have to push your way and you have to speak out and constantly say, “Hey, we’re here. We have a lot of information..if you would just listen to us”. It’s just a constant thing, and you get a group of people educated whether they’re with the forest service, burial of land management, different agencies within the federal government. You have to stand up every time because you educate some people and then they get moved around and then you start from square one again. You’re always starting from square one, educating a new group of people. And what you’re basically telling them is, “What I have to say is important”, and “You should listen to me”, and “You should respect what I am telling you”. And you have to establish that every single time and it gets tiring. That’s part of doing the advocacy work that I do (I’m finding out I’m an activist) [laughter]. It’s very tiring because you’re starting all over again, you have to be pleasant about it, because if you start getting a little testy then you might turn them off. So you have to make it palatable to them. So this makes it harder to get the to listen, so anyone who can work in bridging that gap is going to help.       

Do you see your students participating in Native community events here in the Bay Area or do you feel that it is something that is lacking in regards to sharing that knowledge and bringing outside of the academy, and outside of these educational institutions?

A lot of them before they came had no idea that there were even Natives here. And they don’t know that there are things going on all over the state, but I make it a requirement in both of my classes that they attend at least two traditional or educational events, or museums or galleries as field trips. Or they participate in doing some volunteer work with Native people so that they get a hands on, up close experience with that. And I see more and more students becoming active with that and going to other events and speaking out, even if it just to their friends. Because I ask them that at the end of my classes and I ask them, “Well you’ve got all this information, now what are you going to do with it?”. My belief that if you can change a person’s mind, one person, if you can open them up a little bit, that makes a difference. One person makes a difference. And so if they can do just that much, there’s just all different ways that people can approach it. And each time it’s going to add to society as a whole. It’s going to teach them about a group of people they didn’t know, which means they are going to become more knowledgeable, which means they’re going to be less afraid. And eventually less prejudice, less racist.      

What do you feel needs to happen within our community here at SFSU in addressing what you have spoken about?

I think that overall we’re doing pretty good. I think continuing to bring in the speakers allowing students the opportunity to interact with speakers directly. I think we’re pretty good at that, but we should continue doing that if we could find the funding for that. It would be nice if we could find some funding to offer more classes. It would be nice to bring some of the classes back that were cut, to provide a more complete experience when you are studying American Indian Studies, so that you have a lot more knowledge when you leave. One of the things that this department does is bring the community into the university and it’s really important for supporting a program, especially if it’s about them.

We have so many tribal people in the Bay Area that are so rich in that. And you don’t have that opportunity all the time, so continuing that is very important. A student lead radio program, where you can interview students and share these events with the community as a whole would also be helpful. And a lot of people tune into those shows to find out what’s going on in the community. I wish we had more display space so that we could put in displays, we could show students work on a continual basis so that there is always something people can look at that was made by students. We have a space but here on the wall, but it’s really small. So that if students are doing a poster for some conference or something in their work, they have a place to display it. If a class is doing a project, they can display it. One of the universities that I worked at actually had a gallery where I had the space for a week and I would display all my students work for a week. One of their museum students would put together the exhibit, and we would have a reception and invite everyone to come to the opening of the student show. It was very nice, it brought people to the department, showed them what we were doing and it was a chance for people to show their work.              

Do you yourself dabble into any other art forms besides basketry, like creative literature perhaps?

No, most of mine art is hands on. I make regalia, jewelry, I sew, I’ve done all kinds of handicrafts, which were all the things that kind of lead me to making baskets. But mostly I do make traditional jewelry or jewelry that is based on traditional jewelry when I’m not making baskets. I’m an avid reader, but I’m not a really good writer. I don’t enjoy it, so I don’t do it [laughter]. One time I use to sing, I don’t do that very much. My sister played the guitar way back in the old days. She still sings, mostly traditional songs. I have a family of singers and artists, and that seems to be their special gift.

Earlier before we started you mentioned that one of your tribal members is involved in writing poetry that speaks about resistance, would you mind speaking more about that?

Yeah I mentioned, Shaunna Oteka McCovey. I like her poetry it’s short, but it’s about our people. And it’s about all kinds of things, good or bad. One of the poems is called ‘Religious Freedom’, talking about everyday things we have to deal with on an everyday basis, food stamps, drug abuse, there’s just a lot of things. I really like her work, this is her first book, The Smokehouse Boys. And she’s also in the book The Dirt Is Red, and this is a variety of things from California Natives. So it’s another way of artistic expression. I think by doing anything, anything is a form of resistance because you’re basically saying, “I’m Indian I’m proud of it, and this is what I’m producing because I’m Indian”. And it’s different than what other people do. You look at the poetry , the stories, the artwork and everyone of them you can see some tribal influence in the artwork. I was asked by somebody here on campus, “Does all of the artwork have some other meaning?” and I had to say, “Yeah! Yes it does, you may not know what it is, but definitely”. I think it’s really important, and I think that the idea that the traditional artwork is given the same importance as more contemporary artwork.

So we cross that line quite often, most traditional artists are also contemporary artists and quite often the other way around too. Whether they be poets, or singers, dancers, making regalia etc. So the contemporary artists usually do both in some way or the other. It’s a form of remaining who we are, keeping our identity. We are different, we’re proud to be different, we have our own traditions and backgrounds and what is important to us. Some people still debate whether basket is actually artwork or if it’s just a craft piece. It could be just a simple basket, but they went a step further and turned it into an art piece. And like I said, I didn’t realize that I was an activist, I didn’t realize that anything I was doing is a form of resistance. I had never thought in those terms. I’ve had several people bring it up to me, and I’m not doing it because it’s a form of resistance. Basically we are taught that you have a gift, and you’re suppose to use it; and if you can, you teach it. It’s not something that’s sitting static there, it’s not something you own yourself. You need to give it away, spread it around. When you really think about it, that’s a form of resistance. Making it a living thing, instead of something dead and spoken about in what happened a long time ago or what we use to do. It keeps us alive, I think it’s really important. And you know documenting is part of it to [laughter] there’s so many people out there, wonderfully talented people that our people don’t know about and they’re inspiring. We need that, we need those heroes, we need somebody to look up to. We need those good examples of what you could be, what you should be. And by documenting it that puts it out there and even if something happens to them at least we know about them and what they did. I think that’s also important, because I’m into the idea of documenting things through media. Media is of course a form of artwork too, and it’s a new tool for resistance.                   

Interview conducted in person between Valerie Pérez Ordoñez and Kathy Wallace on December 4, 2012