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Meet Tedde Simon, UC Berkeley's new — and first — tribal liaison

As tribal liaison and director of tribal relations, she is building relationships with tribal nations on behalf of the campus. 

By Gretchen Kell

Tedde Simon, the new tribal liaison for UC Berkeley, wears a vertically-striped dress and turquoise jewelry and smiles while standing next to a pillar

"I am eager to help the university move from merely trying to follow the law to doing the right thing," said Tedde Simon of her new role.

Brandon Sánchez Mejia/UC Berkeley

Theodora "Tedde" Simon’s new job on campus is also brand new for UC Berkeley: She's a tribal liaison and director of tribal relations, building relationships with tribal nations on behalf of Berkeley and engaging with them as sovereign nations.

Advocacy, persistence and hard work on the part of Native Americans on campus and statewide led to the creation of this position, which is within the Chancellor's Office of Government and Community Relations.

Simon's hire is a critical step toward building institutional change across Berkeley, which is working to fully repatriate all Native American ancestors and sacred objects and to repair relationships with Native Americans and Indigenous people. Simon also is the point person to understand and communicate tribal concerns and interests to Berkeley and to relay campus priorities, initiatives and efforts to tribes.

A graduate of the University of San Francisco and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Simon most recently worked at the ACLU of Northern California, where she founded its Indigenous Justice Initiative and Indigenous Justice Working Group. To do so, she built long-term relationships with tribes, Indigenous leaders and Native-led organizations throughout California.

"I am eager to help the university move from merely trying to follow the law," said Simon, "to doing the right thing. … I hope to see the university engage sovereign Native nations on issues that matter to them, issues that tribes define, toward outcomes that are mutually defined and prioritize tribal knowledge and perspectives."

The following are excerpts from a Berkeley News interview with Simon.

Berkeley News: You've decided to take your work into the setting of a major university that's had a difficult history with Native American and Indigenous peoples. What attracted you to this job and to Berkeley?

Simon: Like the rest of the U.S., Berkeley is on unceded Indigenous lands. It was funded and developed with resources tied to systemic acts of genocide and dispossession, especially of California Native people. Throughout its over 150-year history, it built much of its reputation by desecrating Native burial and sacred sites, stealing Native ancestors and artifacts and elevating academics whose work sought to erase and negate the existence of Native peoples. In some ways, I came to Berkeley because of the history, which, along with the power and prestige of the institution, creates an enormous moral responsibility.

Tedde Simon, the campus's new tribal liaison, looks sideways at the camera with the Campanile in the distance. She's wearing a vertically-striped dress and long turquoise earrings.
At the ACLU of Northern California, Simon founded  the Indigenous Justice Initiative and Indigenous Justice Working Group by building long-term relationships with tribes, Indigenous leaders and Native-led organizations.

Brandon Sánchez Mejia/UC Berkeley

Tribal nations predate the U.S. and the state of California. And despite hundreds of years and multiple waves of attempted genocide, tribes are still here. In California alone, there are well over 100 tribes, including those recognized by the federal government and those without federal recognition. Sovereignty — the right to create one's own laws and be governed by them — is an inherent right. Tribes' right to self-determination includes the right to create systems of governance that reflect tribal norms and customs. The right to protect and preserve language, culture and tradition.

It's really significant that this new position is in the Chancellor’s Office of Government and Community Relations – it's an acknowledgement of the government-to-government relationship between the university, as part of the state, and sovereign tribal nations, and of the importance of that role to campus administration. As with so many important policy achievements, this position was the result of advocacy over many years by Native American faculty and staff and tribal leaders, including a direct recommendation to the chancellor at a tribal leaders forum in 2017.

I’m very excited that this administration is starting the overdue and hard work of building these relationships, with sovereignty at the core. The importance of that can’t be understated.

It is daunting, honestly, to step into this position, to take on the role of building right relationships with tribal nations from within an institution that benefited from and participated in the erasure of Native people.

What's the answer to building right relationships between Berkeley and tribes?

I'm excited to be in a position to reframe that. It's not necessarily a question for us to answer, but a question for us to ask. I want to hear from tribal leadership: How do tribes want to see the university repair relationships and reckon with its history? What kinds of relationships do tribes want with Berkeley? How do tribes want to work with and partner with the campus?

I'm a guest here in California, and I hope to be a good guest. I try to approach all of my work with tribes and Native people with humility, integrity and love. I have a lot to learn and am here to build relationships and support the vision, priorities and needs of Indigenous people, as defined by them.

Tedde Simon, the campus's new tribal liaison, stands in front of the iconic old California Buckeye tree in Faculty Glade wearing a vertically-striped dress and turquoise jewelry.
"I hope we can bring Indigenous perspectives into the institution in real ways, so that our campus community can learn about and have a deeper understanding of Indigenous ways of being and knowing," said Simon.

Brandon Sánchez Mejia/UC Berkeley

We need more and better understandings of tribal sovereignty, cultural humility and Indigenous perspectives in order to approach relationships in a good way. And, of course, there are fundamental values that we must center as we reach out to tribal nations.

In collaboration with other Native people and their allies on campus, I hope to infuse those values more deeply into approaches across the university — relationships based on reciprocity and respect; generosity and gratitude; compassion and humility; and integrity and responsibility.

What ideas do you have for improving the way the campus interacts with tribes, and how tribes interact with Berkeley?

When we talk about bringing Indigenous perspectives into the fabric of the university, it's about helping people understand not only our shared history and how Berkeley contributed to and contributes to erasure and genocide, but also that different ways of seeing and experiencing the world around us exist, that there are different ways of understanding our role in and relationship to the land and one another.

Settler colonialism has, at its core, the displacement of Indigenous peoples and a replacement of the importance of being in relationship with the land to a view of land as a commodity to be exploited. We see that all over campus: Outside of a few small spaces that Indigenous students, staff, faculty and allies have fought to create, Indigeneity is pretty scrubbed. Indigenous people are invisible. Indigenous peoples' connections to and relationships with the campus landscape are made invisible, and the campus is treated as a resource. For me, that feels like ongoing colonization of the campus. I think about Strawberry Creek, a vitally important source of life for Ohlone peoples and Indigenous peoples, in concrete tunnels underground. It's painful.

I hope we can bring Indigenous perspectives into the institution in real ways, so that our campus community can learn about and have a deeper understanding of Indigenous ways of being and knowing. In my experience, stories, relationships and connection help people understand. And not just intellectually, but in our hearts and our bodies.

We already see positive collaborations and partnerships between Native nations and campus units where Indigenous knowledge is at the forefront, and they're led by Native communities and faculty. For example, Peter Nelson is leading Indigenous archaeology and community-based participatory research methodologies, and Carolyn Smith is working to shift museums away from colonial and extractive methods to real partnership with community. Berkeley is advancing Indigenous knowledge exchange, like through Breath of Life, which brings California Native language learners to campus to engage with the California Language Archives, in partnership with Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival.

How did you become involved with Indigenous justice work, and what efforts are you proudest of? 

Tedde Simon, the campus's new tribal liaison sits in a circle of women in El Salvador in 2010, where she is facilitating a discussion. The women are sitting under leafy green trees and holding notebooks and pens.
Simon has spent time in El Salvador, fighting for justice for the people there in the wake of the Salvadoran civil war. In this 2010 photo, she facilitates a women's group in the municipality of San Vicente.

Courtesy of Tedde Simon

My life's work has taken some interesting paths and turns, but it's always been about people, story and struggle. And always with this looming backdrop of colonization and imperialism. 

I'm a descendant of a Navajo survivor of the Sherman Institute, a residential Indian school in Southern California, and I'm of mixed heritage. As intended by the residential school system, my family's connection to the Navajo Nation was severed for generations. Because of that legacy, I didn’t grow up with much Navajo culture, language or knowledge of my kin. My sister and I have been on a journey of reconnecting with that part of our family's story, of building on those fragile connections. We can’t undo history. But we can try to heal some wounds and prevent their repetition. 

Some of my own political awakening happened when I was an undergraduate at USF and the U.S. invaded Iraq. I felt there was little I could do other than use my voice and my body to protest alongside other students and thousands of people in San Francisco. Then I was able to study abroad in El Salvador and fell in love with the people and the country. I returned after graduation and spent many formative years working in solidarity with Salvadoran people and communities fighting for justice in the wake of a brutal civil war.

The campus's new tribal liaison, Tedde Simon, in 2016 in El Paso, Texas, where she is using a megaphone to speak at a rally at an immigration detention facility. She is standing next to a wrought iron fence where there are posters with protest slogans in English and Spanish.
Simon in 2016, speaking at a rally at an immigration detention facility in El Paso, Texas.

Courtesy of Tedde Simon

In my years at the ACLU, I had the enormous privilege of working alongside Indigenous leaders from across Northern California. I learned incredible things from them and with them, and I hold those lessons close to my heart. I am most proud of those lasting relationships and how my work contributed to supporting Native leaders. And that included working in coalition to remove the "sq" word from place names in California, including from a community in Fresno County; with California Indian Legal Services to defend students' rights to tribal regalia at commencement; with the Northern California Indian Development Council to create an Indigenous Education Advocacy partnership; and to bring ACLU resources and attention to the Campaign to Protect Juristac, a sacred site of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band in Santa Clara County. I also supported mostly Native colleagues at ACLU affiliates across the country to strengthen and expand their work and to create guiding principles and a mission statement for Indigenous justice work at the ACLU.

What do you hope to accomplish at Berkeley?

I'm really excited to be part of the campus community. I won't work primarily with students, but I'm really inspired by them. A recent interview that graduate student McKalee Steen, who is Cherokee, gave really resonates with me. She speaks to the question of what it's like to be a Native person in higher education, and I think it translates to lots of other spaces. As a Native person, you're often the "only" in the room – and so you’re asked to answer all the questions, you’re asked to speak for hundreds of sovereign nations and the experience over hundreds of years of Native peoples, and you’re really lonely. And you’re often invisible. I would love for it to end with this generation.

Tedde Simon, the campus's new tribal liaison, standing with her hands clasped in front of her in an outdoor setting. She is wearing a vertically-striped dress with turquoise jewelry. She is smiling.
Simon said she is encouraged on campus by "positive collaborations and partnerships between Native nations and campus units, where Indigenous knowledge is at the forefront" that is being led by Native communities and faculty.

Brandon Sánchez Mejia/UC Berkeley

Relationships and real engagement with tribes cannot be about checking a box or doing merely what we're required to do by state and federal law. Legal compliance is a different and lesser challenge than taking moral responsibility, and we as an institution have the resources, knowledge and a deep responsibility to do better. Most immediately, this is about the return of ancestors in our keeping to their descendants and our stewardship of the land. But it's also bigger than that.

What is most important is for us as a campus to be in relationship and communication, and to work to respond to tribal priorities. That means going to meet with tribal leaders throughout the state, to hear from tribes what they want from the university. And bringing tribal leaders and representatives to a campus that is welcoming and inclusive. Where people feel heard and respected by senior leadership, where their concerns are taken into account.

I want to be a part of lifting those efforts up, communicating their importance to internal and external communities, building more institutional support for them, and helping those who want to work in real partnership with tribal nations to do so.