Moving Forward Together – In A Good Way

Department: 

Quaker Oaks Farm is a place where we, Darlene and Melissa, children of families from very different backgrounds, are creating new stories together. We are characters in the stories, and we are authors. The stories are about what happens when non-Native and Native people risk engaging with the uncomfortable conundrum of how to go forward together, In A Good Way, given all the injustices delivered to Native people over the centuries and which continue today. The stories are about ways that Native peoples, settlers’ descendants, and newer immigrants might co-exist in true harmony.

Quaker Oaks Farm sits on 25 acres near the small city of Visalia in the mostly rural, mostly poor, and mostly agricultural California Central Valley. In the shadow of the Sierra Nevada, adjacent to the 322-acre Kaweah Oaks Preserve, this place is also known as T’a Pa’an, That Land, a piece of the ancestral homeland of the Wukchumni Tribe.

Friends Bill and Beth Lovett moved to Visalia in 1966, when Bill began working with Self-Help Enterprises, a community development organization. The Lovetts bought the property in 1979 and named it after a giant valley oak that grows there. In 1984, their friend Martha Tapleras told them that the land was part of what had been a gathering place and village for her people, the Wukchumni. She asked permission for her family to use the land for ceremonies, and Bill and Beth happily agreed.

Others were welcomed also. Mixtec immigrants from Oaxaca, Mexico, have sustained a flourishing community garden there for over twenty years. Two acres were deeded to Visalia Friends Meeting to build a meetinghouse in 1991, and Unitarians and Seventh Day Adventists worship there as well. Quaker Oaks Farm has always been a place where people of different faiths and backgrounds have worked on the land and created community.

However, for many years, people maintained this multicultural harmony by keeping respectful distances from each other. As Melissa remembers it, “For years I did not understand the importance of this place. I moved away around 1980, shortly after my parents bought the land. My sisters and I made homes far away. Every year we would gather at the Farm at Easter and Thanksgiving to enjoy time with family. My children and their cousins loved the Farm and would be off on adventures the entire visit. We knew the ‘Indians’ were also meeting on the land those weekends, but our paths seldom crossed. We respectfully stayed clear of the space they used for their sweat lodge. Occasionally, an encounter led to a casual invitation to join them. I considered it, but I didn’t go, partly because time with family was limited, but honestly, it was a little scary to step into their world. I did not know what to expect, was not sure how I would be welcomed, and was fearful I might offend in some unknown way. It felt much safer to keep a respectful distance. We were all using the land, but we did not really know one another.”

Darlene also remembers her family’s history with the Lovetts as being emotionally complicated: “My tribe, the Wukchumni, does not have a reservation. We are not federally recognized as a tribe, even though my family members have BIA enrollment numbers. It doesn’t make sense.

“My mom knew Bill Lovett through his work with Self-Help Enterprises. I had gone to school with Melissa from 7th to 12th grade. Not long after the Lovetts moved to Quaker Oaks Farm, my mom, my sister, my husband, and I went to visit them. My mom told Bill that the farm was part of an area she used to pass through as a child on her travels with her grandma and grandpa. She asked if we could resume ceremonies that used to be held on Tha’ Pa’an, The Land. The Lovetts welcomed us. After my first child was born, we got started with our ceremonies. We started small with about 10-15 participants, and over the years we have grown to often having between 100 and 200 joining in. Our Wukchumni people continue to gather and hold ceremonies each Spring and Fall. We welcome all who wish to celebrate with us.

“When Bill and Beth began deciding who they should pass the land on to, and when the Visalia Friends were reluctant to accept this gift, our Tribe expressed our interest in becoming the legal owners. We have no land base, and our tribal members are scattered throughout Tulare and Fresno counties. Although the Lovetts have given us access to the land for over 30 years, we were fearful that once Bill and Beth were gone, our relationship with the land would change.

“The Visalia Friends gave us the opportunity to share and participate in their Quaker threshing process. This was a very educational and emotional process for our tribal people. We were surprised, enlightened, and uplifted to see so many people work together and come to consensus, as our people once did. It was refreshing not to see the ‘greed’ that is so dominant in today’s society. How many organizations or people would just quickly jump on this opportunity and accept a generous gift of precious land? Not the Visalia Friends. No, this decision was not a hasty one; there was much discussion and understanding to be made.

“The land was finally accepted by the Visalia Friends. In the land transfer, it is written that our people shall continue to have access to use and take care of specific parts of the land. However, in the deed, it is specified that if the Visalia Friends can no longer carry out the specifications of the gift, the land would be transferred to the Sequoia Riverlands Trust. We were disappointed that we were not named as the successor, even though we have confidence that the Visalia Friends understand our connection to this land. It is scary to think of what could happen, should new owners take over. But, as history shows, we will endure. Although our people have survived multiple attempts at genocide and horrendous atrocities, we continue to live life in a good way. We pray for all our relations – human and animal people, our world, water, fire, air and earth. We may not be perfect, but we strive to do things ‘In A Good Way.’”

Visalia Friends Meeting was concerned that the land would be too much for their small meeting to manage, and they would not accept the gift until a plan was in place that assured both physical and financial sustainability for the property. In 2007, Quaker Oaks Farm was incorporated as a 501(c)3 educational nonprofit. Its purpose is to operate a sustainable working farm and serve as a gathering place for learning and sharing the lessons of what the land has to teach us: small-scale, environmentally sustainable food production and community gardening; economic justice; conflict resolution and alternatives to violence; and Native American culture, history, and life skills. In April 2015, the land was finally transferred from private ownership to the stewardship of Visalia Friends Meeting. The deed was explicitly written to give access to the land to Native Americans indigenous to the area, even if the land is transferred to another organization in the future.

Darlene and Melissa both agreed to serve on the board of directors of the new nonprofit, Quaker Oaks Farm. Reunited after many years, Darlene began to share the story of her people, and Melissa began to learn a different history of California, strikingly different from the benevolent picture she had been taught in 4th grade (and was also taught to her children many years later). She learned the history of enslavement and oppression that is told by California Natives and documented by other historians. She learned of “lost” and broken treaties, of atrocities during the Gold Rush, of the Quaker role in the Indian Boarding Schools, and of grim statistics. For example, as Walter Echo-Hawk relates in his book, In the Light of Justice, “In 1492 at least five million American Indians inhabited the land now comprising the United States. By 1900 only 250,000 were left alive.” In other words, only 5% survived.

As Melissa learned more of this sad story, her initial response was outrage. But she also felt amazed by the example set by Darlene and other Native Americans, who face these tragedies not with anger and resentment, but with acceptance of the truth.” They teach that both Native and non-Native peoples need to develop a deeper understanding of what actually happened in the past and learn how that past continues to affect survivors today. To know the truth is the beginning of healing.

From Darlene’s perspective, this is an opportunity for cultural revitalization of her people. “Because the Lovetts found it in their hearts to see the broader picture, we have formed a long-lasting and enduring relationship with them and with Visalia Friends Meeting. Bill has often told me, ‘I don’t believe in owning the land, I believe the land owns us.’ On behalf of my mom and my people, I say to the Lovett family, Na enesha min kho hin, I am wishing good things for you always.”

Melissa, Darlene, and other supporters of Quaker Oaks Farm are deeply aware of the importance of the land and the people who share it. They are committed to breaking down barriers and learning how to open doors of friendship and understanding among all who come to Quaker Oaks Farm.

One core project that has developed quickly at Quaker Oaks Farm is the Spring Youth Service Learning Camp for teens, which has been conducted twice now, in 2013 and in 2015. Formed in collaboration with Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Youth Programs Coordinating Committee, the camp offers an opportunity for youth from different cultures to share their backgrounds with each other and to learn about Native traditions, with a central focus being the Wukchumni spring ceremony, Tihsha’a, which includes building and worshipping in a sweat lodge.

The curriculum for this camp is maturing quickly. By 2015, camp directors were clear that the program should be multicultural and equally co-created and co-presented by members of the Wukchumni Tribe and by Friends. The focus was on California Native American history – a history that not even many Native youth know – and on the living cultures of today. To acknowledge and address the trauma and grief that this history opens up, Darlene proposed using a curriculum called “Gathering of Native Americans (GONA)” and asking for facilitation help from her friends at the Fresno American Indian Health Project (FAIHP). GONA was developed by a national team of Native American educators in collaborations with professionals in the field of substance-abuse prevention.

At the camp in 2015, fifteen Native and three Quaker teens came together with Native, non-Native, and Quaker adults for a week. Eight tribes were represented (Wukchumni, Pomo, Tongva, Kumeyaay, Toho’ono Odom, Chukchansi, Yacqui, and Mono.) The GONA curriculum guides participants through a four-part process: Belonging, Interdependence and Healing, Mastery, and Generosity. Throughout this process, participants explore a few essential questions: Who are we? What tore our world apart? What brings it back together? What is my gift to the world?

Camp staff worked hard to create an inclusive, healing camp structure to support a sense of community and safety for participants to share deeply. Humor and risk-taking broke down barriers and created a sense of connection among participants. The laughter and friendships formed needed no translation. In some ways the GONA curriculum is similar to the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP), which is familiar to many Friends. Camp staff are excited by the possibilities for moving forward in ways that that honor both Native and Quaker traditions and strengths.

Working together these past three years, Melissa and Darlene have learned a lot, yet they recognize much more remains to be revealed. Open questions include: How can people from different cultures get to know each other better? How can they unlearn stereotypes? How can we make it safe for outsiders to enter our groups? How can we help others overcome barriers that limit them? How can we celebrate a sense of belonging and heritage in diverse groups?

Quaker Oaks Farm is teaching us all that reconnecting with cultural heritages and histories can be healing. Creating a sense of tribe can bring new people into the fold, support them in learning new skills, and help them work together. Caring for a piece of homeland can open up a new and visceral sense of connection with the Earth, which can teach us about our relationships with other parts of creation. Quaker Oaks Farm stands as an example of how different peoples can help each other to develop a deeper understanding of the world and our places in it, together – in a Good Way for All our Relations,
K’ umoi Mai’ihn Yo’ kutch.  ~~~

Darlene Franco (Chairwoman, Wukchumni Tribe) and Melissa Lovett-Adair (Central Coast Friends Meeting, PYM) first met in middle school in Visalia, CA. Now they serve together on the board of Quaker Oaks Farm nonprofit, conspiring to make the world a better place. For more information, please visit QuakerOaksFarm.org. They thank Alyssa Nelson (PYM Youth Programs Coordinator) for her editorial support in building their stories into an article.