Suscol Council Blog
Part Three of Harms Farm Guest Blog: Interview of Charlie Toledo, Executive Director of Suscol Intertribal Council, with Lisa Murgatroyd.
Lisa: What are some of the projects and issues that the Suscol Intertribal Council is currently working on?
Charlie: First, let me tell you about the build out of Suskol House. In 1992, we had a vision to create a spiritual gathering place as a stepping stone to healing the post-colonial trauma, the trauma of colonization, and the invasions of Europeans that the California indigenous people have endured. They were in a very deep space of inter-generational grief, post-colonial trauma, stress. They were just in the very early stages of recovery, and, what a few other elders and I were talking about was that we needed a safe place to do ceremony.
What Jim Big Bear King used to say, and I think this sums it up, is, “Where’s my church? The sky is the roof. The Earth is the floor. The fire is the heart. Without these things, I cannot pray. Where’s my church?” . . The fire is like a telephone line to the universe. So the fire needs to touch the Earth and be open to the sky.
At that time there wasn’t a safe place on the reservations to do ceremony because the people on the reservation had all been Christianized in order to survive. They had to take on Christianity at force of death. So most California Indians are some kind of Christian. So, on the reservation, the indigenous ceremony was considered satanic and evil. Until the 1990s, it was still against the law to do ceremony. You’d often be harassed by the police, the army, or some were even killed for praying, doing ceremony. We tried to reactivate ceremony in the Napa Valley in 1998. We had to deal with harassment from the police, and that went on for years.
So that’s kind of where we are now. We purchased the land for Suskol House in 1990, 20 acres in Pope Valley. It’s dedicated to the Unity of all Lives. We’ve had people from all over the world coming there, even though it’s still open land. That’s why we’ve been looking for publicity now, to find help find in funding and collaborators in the building out of the center, as it isn’t finished.
Native peoples from around the world have been coming to consult with us as well as use the center for ceremony. Indigenous groups from East Africa, Samoa, people of Hindi religions, the Maoris of New Zealand, the Lenca from El Salvador, and now the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers. So, that’s the future. Our center, like any center, will be an active place, and people of the world will be coming to use it. As a compass point, every circle has it’s center. We hope to be the center for the San Francisco Bay area. That’s really beginning to happen now, in quantum leaps.
Lisa: Tell me about your new project on Prevention and Early Intervention.
Charlie: Native American life expectancy is 48 years in the US, and they have the highest suicide rate of any ethnic group in the world. We are the only true minority in the world. All the other minority groups have a country where they can go home to, where they can have their language, their culture, their customs. Native Americans only exist within the boundaries of the U.S. We are the highest at-risk population, so mental health services prevention is a very important issue and is the basis of our work here.
In our new project, funds are coming from the state, being distributed through the counties, and then we’re contracted with Napa County to create programs for native peoples in the area based on what we’ve found that works related to self-esteem matters. Working with young kids and making sure they get access to their culture and ceremony helps strengthen their self-esteem, the community, and their survival rates. We’re going to be focusing on families in our events, all ages, in efforts to bring together elders, adults, and children, and then doing cultural projects on language, regalia, and what’s requested.
We’ve also been producing a pow-wow, a public sharing of our culture for 18 years now in the Napa Valley, and we’ve also put on an art auction for over 15 years. This will be the first time we have money from the county, and, Louis, who is coordinating the Prevention and Early Intervention Program, is our first paid employee ever. All this time, we’ve been all volunteer. He’s working to coordinate the programs and build cohesion within the scattered intertribal people that currently live in Napa County.
Of course, we’ve been working towards these same issues without any funding since 1972, creating a cohesive base for Native American people to come together. That’s a key element, being around people that have experienced similar trauma and trying to address the stressors.
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Part Two of Harms Farm Guest Blog: Interview of Charlie Toledo, Executive Director of Suscol
Intertribal Council, with Lisa Murgatroyd.
Lisa: Drawing on your experience, how do you think we can we hold the land and Earth as sacred once again?
Charlie: Ceremony is sacred and so is just about everything and how we protect it. The environmental movement is the biggest thing going today that is working towards understanding the sacredness of all places and all land - keeping the water clean, promoting bio-diverse agriculture, keeping the land free of toxics, and respecting the life of the animals with which we share the land.
I used to think that the stories of our people were metaphors, but more and more, as I get older, I feel that they’re real. We have a lot of stories about how the four-leggeds were here first; the coyote was here. Then the two-leggeds were created, and the two-leggeds and four-leggeds used to sit and share life together. Then, the two-leggeds became egotistical, and that was the time of when the imbalance came, and that was when the time was supposed to come. The transition to the time of imbalance that we’ve been in for the last 10,000 years is going to change. We are in the beginning of that transition time right now. It will be like a quantum leap. Things are going to happen whether we want them to our not. People think we have to save the Earth, but it’s not really the Earth we’re saving - it’s ourselves. The Earth will survive without humans. Everything that existed before us will continue without us, but if we want to be here, we’ll need to put ourselves back into balance as a species.
We say that there’s one air, one water, one land. People are really starting to understand this, as we see in the reaction from the tsunami and radiation in Japan. If we defile our water, we defile our food, our air, ourselves. When I moved here in 1982, the Napa River was really seen as a toilet where you threw all your trash, but, fortunately, there is no “away”. Suscol Intertribal Council has been very involved in helping to work towards watershed restoration in the valley.
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Part One of a Three Part Series
Charlie Toledo, Executive Director of the Suscol Intertribal Council in Napa, CA, will speak on First People’s Agriculture at 11 am, Saturday, June 18, at Harms Vineyard and Lavender Fields Open House. A $10 donation is suggested towards the build out for “Suskol House”, a spiritual center for Native American peoples in Pope Valley.
For more than 30 years, Charlie Toledo, Suscol Intertribal Council Executive Director, peace activist, community organizer, and healer, has been dedicated to preserving Native American culture and building the cohesiveness of indigenous groups in the Napa area. Current projects at Suscol Intertribal Council, a 501(c)3 organization, focus on inter-cultural healing between Native American populations indigenous to this area and the cultures currently inhabiting the Napa Valley. The organization also connects underserved local Native American populations to resources.
In the following abridged interview with Lisa Murgatroyd of Harms Vineyards and Lavender Fields, Charlie lends perspective on local Native American issues and cultural history in the Napa Valley. In describing the dynamic work of Suscol Council, she speaks about coming into sacred relationship with the land on a personal and a global level.
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