Alexii Sigona on supporting his tribe as an academic

alexii sigona outside touching a plant

Alexii Sigona, a member of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and a third-year Ph.D. student at UC Berkeley, harvests dried seeds from a plant in a small native plant garden near the anthropology building on campus. His research looks at Indigenous natural resource management, specifically with the Amah Mutsun — a landless and non-federally recognized tribe. “I was really fascinated by how we were a landless tribe with a cultural obligation to steward the land, and how the elders in my community navigated that,” said Sigona. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Alexii Sigona was 18 when he began learning about his tribe, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. He had just graduated high school in Mountain View and had joined the Native Stewardship Corps, a program that brings young adults back to their tribal homelands to resume the Indigenous stewardship work of their ancestors.

For several weeks, Sigona and a group of about a dozen other Mutsun members learned their language and their culture, heard stories from their elders and took care of the land together.

“As a teen, I was really concerned about the environment, I was really concerned about food,” said Sigona, now a third-year Ph.D. student in UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. “And so, I was able to put that energy into being a Native steward, where I realized that we could rethink our food systems and protect the environment by restoring Indigenous knowledge onto a place. I think that embodied experience was very formative for my journey.”

At Berkeley, Sigona’s research looks at Indigenous natural resource management, specifically with the Amah Mutsun — a landless and non-federally recognized tribe. (The Amah Mutsun is one of more than 200 non-recognized tribes in the United States.)

“It’s really a social science project looking at how natural lands and natural resources are managed, in the contexts where Native Americans are involved,” said Sigona. “Maybe they’re not landowners. Maybe they have different relationships with public lands or private landowners or land trusts.”

Berkeley News spoke with Sigona about connecting with his culture, the interplay between his research and his commitment to his tribe and what he believes the responsibility of UC Berkeley and other universities is to Native communities.

Berkeley News: You grew up in Redwood City in the Bay Area, and you mentioned that you began learning about your culture as a young adult. Did you ever ask your family why you didn’t know more about your culture growing up?

portrait of alexii sigona smiling outside

When Sigona was 18, he joined the Native Stewardship Corps, a program that brings young adults back to their tribal homelands to resume the Indigenous stewardship work of their ancestors. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

Alexii Sigona: I knew that I was Ohlone — that was a word I heard a lot — but I didn’t know much else. I think it speaks to California Indian history: The state-sponsored genocide; the unratified treaties; the 50 or 60 non-federally recognized California tribes that don’t have any land or any of their due rights from the federal government. California has the largest number of non-recognized tribes in the United States out of any states. I think the ability to have that identity was blocked by the federal government — not allowing us to even be seen as Indian because they didn’t honor the treaties.

Not having a land base, having bounties on the heads of our ancestors, I think contributed to people in my family and other people across California Indian country not wanting to talk about their identity. Native Americans couldn’t practice Native American religions up until the 1970s, right?

So, maybe sometimes I asked my family why I wasn’t brought up with these values, but I can also read the history and read between the lines and understand that there were a lot of other dynamics that shaped why they didn’t tell me about my identity growing up.

Your research looks at how natural lands and resources are managed by Native American tribes. How did you come to do this work, and what have you learned so far?

I was really fascinated by how we were a landless tribe with a cultural obligation to steward the land, and how the elders in my community navigated that. I was fascinated by how my community was able to engage in access agreements that grant over 30,000 acres to our traditional territory without owning any of it and how we’re able to employ community members for their jobs.

This really involved two different ways of knowing, or epistemology. Looking at coming together to manage land — you have an Indigenous way of knowing that has traditional, ecological knowledge, and then you have more Western, scientific ways of land management. And when they come together to steward land, there are dynamics of a system that has alway prioritized Western science over Indigenous knowledge. And I think it’s incredible to see Indigenous communities returning as the stewards of their ancestral lands.

There is a land back movement, too, that we see today, where people are talking about the justice needed for Indigenous peoples here in California and around the world and how returning Indigenous land to Indigenous peoples is needed.

For the Amah Mutsun, in my community, this isn’t necessarily happening. We’re not getting land back, per se, but we are getting certain property rights and access agreements and opportunities to steward land, whether it be public or private. And it’s also an important way of looking at serving the needs of community members if people want to gather medicine or food plants. Knowing the moods and languages of these plants — those names are really important. The English language maybe isn’t as good at describing the plants or the life here in California as a language that comes out of several thousands of years living in a particular place.

I don’t think a lot of folks expect that all of the federal, state and county lands in California will be returned to the tribes any time soon. But what could happen in the short-term is Indigenous peoples being able to inform management decisions, people being able to be stewards, being able to co-manage in a more meaningful way, where traditional ecological knowledge is incorporated, and Indigenous worldviews are meaningfully brought in.

hands harvest dried seeds

“Coming to UC Berkeley, I was a bit nervous about this big institution and its extractive nature and not serving all the communities I hope to serve,” said Sigona. “But what I think I have learned in my three years at Berkeley is that there can be change created within the university system, and that you can use the resources to support the needs of Native peoples.” (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

This month, you helped host an acorn processing and gathering day, where the community came and learned how to harvest acorns. Can you talk a bit about this workshop, and what you did?

I try to dedicate a good amount of my time to doing work that has tangible benefits to communities that I work with. The acorn harvesting event was on Nov. 5 in Mutsun territory in Gilroy, California. Some UC Berkeley students from a class on California ecosystems, taught by professor Paul Fine, came out to learn how to process and gather acorns alongside some tribal members.

People were outside at tables learning how to process acorn, which is one of the main staples in a lot of California Native cuisine. This year, a cultural practitioner who’s Chumash came down and actually led the activity on how to process them. The acorns were dehydrated beforehand, and then we turned it into a flour and leeched it with water, and it became mulch. Then, the mulch got boiled with water and it became almost like a creamy buckwheat or oatmeal kind of substance and people got to try it.

Now that you’re older, do you find engaging with youth is an important part of your work with your tribe?

Yeah. One thing that I’m really passionate about is a newly formed youth group of tribal members who are 30 or younger who do activities together. This involves maybe going out together to do prayer walks for protecting sacred land or having Zoom meetings with elders to ask them questions.

We have folks with all different interests related to food or art or marine science, calling in from all over, including Las Vegas and Los Angeles. We have opportunities for people who live far away and for people who are able to drive out for day trips. We just had a camping trip a few weeks ago, and it went really well. We’re hoping to have another camping trip with the acorn event.

This group really shows that there is an interest in the younger generations for connecting to culture. It’s a privilege to be able to work with these tribal youth, many of whom, as I see it, are in the situation that I was in: They didn’t know much about their culture as teenagers and want to learn more. So, I’m blessed to provide any sort of support that I can to these folks because I was there just a few years ago.

alexii holds seeds in his hand outside as he talks to a friend

Sigona talks with Alec Apodaca (right), a fourth-year Ph.D. student in anthropology who does eco-archaeology in collaboration with the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, and Annie Taylor (left), a third-year student in environmental science, policy and management who uses geospatial tools to study Amah Mutsun land stewardship impacts and opportunities for gathering important plant materials. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

How do you hope to use your research at Berkeley to benefit the Amah Mutsun tribe and other Native communities? What responsibility do you think universities and research institutions have for supporting these communities?

Coming to UC Berkeley, I was a bit nervous about this big institution and its extractive nature and not serving all the communities I hope to serve. In the future, I want to continue to keep that question central — about whether or not engaging in academia is relevant. But what I think I have learned in my three years at Berkeley is that there can be change created within the university system, and that you can use the resources to support the needs of Native peoples.

This is coming in spite of the University of California land grab, where our lands were stolen from us and the UC system continues to profit from that. So, I think there are a lot of contradictions. I’m here in Berkeley on the ancestral lands of Chochenyo Ohlone-speaking people, and they don’t have land, they don’t have access to these things, and they don’t have any unique support from UC, really.

I hope to continue to bring resources to underserved communities, such as California Native peoples, and my community, the Amah Mutsun, and to make sure that universities that have many resources and opportunities are working towards advancing and supporting the needs of the people whose lands they’re on.

The UC Natural Reserve System can do a lot more to work with local communities. These reserves often house a lot of important cultural and natural resources, and since many non-recognized tribes may have a hard time harvesting on federal lands — because it’s illegal for non-recognized tribes to gather in national parks — these could be important places that can provide access to local tribal peoples. Professor Paul Fine is working hard to make changes at the Pt. Reyes Field station and form a relationship with the Coast Miwok.

It can be easy to be at an institution like UC Berkeley and have work that is more performative than actually meaningful when it comes to supporting local Native communities. This could look like forming a land acknowledgement or trying to consult with the local Native community, when in reality it’s more extractive than helpful.

In this new age, where there is an increased visibility of Indigenous rights, it’s easy to do work that makes you feel better about yourself instead of actually helping folks. It’s important to think about what real relationship-building looks like and really doing some deep work on yourself before doing some land acknowledgement that maybe absolves you of some guilt and makes you feel like you’re doing work in collaboration with a Native community, but in effect, it doesn’t do as much as for them as it does for your own career.

alexii sigona sits and talks with two colleagues on the grass on campus

Sigona says one way to meaningfully support Native communities is by showing up to events and listening to speakers. Two local efforts are the Save the West Berkeley Shellmound and the Protect Juristac campaign. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

How do you believe the UC system and other institutions and communities can meaningfully support Native peoples?

Do your own research first, looking at the people of these lands — the specific history about them — and think deeply about cultural resources and how you could support Indigenous communities. It’s important for folks to know that your first meeting with a local Native community isn’t going to be about your research. It might just be having a cup of tea or coffee — it’s about building relationships.

If you’re coming from a more privileged place, being able to provide honoraria or gas mileage reimbursement or paying for a meal goes a really long way.

Also, simply show up to events and listen to speakers. The Save the West Berkeley Shellmound and the Protect Juristac campaign are two examples of local efforts to protect sacred land, and these efforts are aided by local allies who can influence local politicians. My tribe’s Protect Juristac campaign is planning to hold some large public events in the winter, provided COVID does not affect plans, and we hope to have a large turnout!

Watch this 2018 video about how UC Berkeley archaeologists and anthropologists joined with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and California State Parks to support Indigenous stewardship of ancestral lands in the Santa Cruz mountains. (UC Berkeley video by Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally)