Q&A: Ali Meders-Knight Of The Mechoopda Indian Tribe

Jun 22, 2020

NSPR’s Matt Fidler spoke with Ali Meders-Knight of the Mechoopda Indian Tribe about racial injustice, colonization, and wildfire.

Here are highlights from their conversation. You can also listen at the top of the page.

Interview Highlights

On where the ancestral lands of local tribes are located

Mechoopda is here in Chico. So the city of Chico up to Paradise encompasses the Mechoopda territory. So we kind of calculate that territory based on the peace and friendship treaty that was signed around 1851-1852, here in Chico, California, with John Bidwell. 

Nomlaki is mostly in the Paskenta area. So when you're looking at Corning, then you're going out to Paskenta, that's Nomlaki. 

Konkow is more in the Oroville area. So Berry Creek, up in those mountains, maybe even actually, what we call Concow today, between Paradise and Oroville. And then we also have 

Wintu, which is closer to the river, Sacramento River near Durham next to the Patwins. Across the river would be the Pomos, so Wintu would be in that area, the Sacramento River, more like Orland.

On the local Native American population’s relationship to police

I came out here in 1993. I graduated high school in Virginia, came out to this area and what I first started noticing was that the Chico police here were pretty much on gang task force 24/7, so anybody who looked like they could be gang affiliated were highly harassed by the police. And I noticed that my uncles, my dad, my cousins, they would get pulled over a lot, to be put on the side of the road, hands in the air, just a lot of drama, a lot of searching. And these are folks with no records, no felonies, anything. It was just based on the color of their skin. And our family would have these stories. We talked about it — being profiled as gang members. 

It really kind of surfaced a lot when Chico PD was actually kind of indifferent about the crimes against natives. We had a young man who was hit by a car out here in Chico and the car spun around to hit him over again. And a neighbor came to help and the Chico PD, when they came to the scene just threw a blanket over him and pretty much didn't charge anybody for a crime. Because this was your local native folks, and the police here have just had a very indifferent, if not hostile, feelings about natives. The PD has changed but I don't think they've ever reconciled the truth of how they've treated local natives throughout the years here.

On her vision for how the relationship could be improved

Yeah, I really do. I think that defunding the police — DefundChicoPD.org is a website that we've put together. I think that putting the services outside of just the police department, and creating other community development services that adequately serve people in this community. 

Especially the education of our existence has to be reestablished. And I think it starts with social workers, police officers, judges and political representatives. So I think that what I'd like to see is more money funneled through the Chico community for development, educational outreach — that's what I see. And basically less presence of police officers as the social — I guess we'd call mediators — that we've been relying on, that they're just not capable of the job.

On how she views what the police do and what should change

I mean, you can look at statistically, police don't usually show up and save the day on a crime and kill the bad guy. We actually pay a lot of movie and our cable bills to see that in real life because it really doesn't happen. We pay a lot of money to see that. They tend to come after a crime. They do reporting. They focus mostly on investigation for justice and acquiring people that have gotten away with crime and looking at ... you know, they're more investigative. They should be more investigators and less patrol and basically overseers of the community, wearing guns, and going in on domestic disputes or going in on situations that are very hostile and volatile, having very little crisis management training, very little de-escalation training, and then being completely irresponsible with the position they have. And so I think that defunding is about looking at what they're capable of doing, which is investigating, learning, understanding. But we should be putting a lot of these services that we have for domestic violence, for even youth, when we have police officers in high schools that are equipped with guns. They're there to escalate a situation with a child. They're there to kill the child. And so we have to understand the position that we've put these police officers in ourselves and then remove that and change the whole dynamic of how we basically police our community, but basically also how we maintain the health of our community. We can't maintain health with guns and hostile, overzealous police that are just looking for bad guys to kill.

On her recent speech at a downtown Chico rally 

I work with this group called Justice for Desmond. Desmond Phillips was shot by police officers here in Chico in 2017 in his apartment. His dad called for help for a mental crisis. And Chico PD pushed down the door within seconds, tased and shot him dead in front of his father. And the local DA was like no problem, that's the way we deal with domestic violence. That's the way it is. So Justice for Desmond is a group that I speak for. They were invited to speak on Tuesday. It was canceled for me to open up and speak because of threats, online threats, rumored to have people come in counter protest that we're going to be hostile and maybe aggressive, if not violent. So I went Wednesday instead. And there was about 200 people downtown Chico, and I brought a microphone and an amplifier and turned it up and started off 'Welcome to occupied Mechoopda territory.' And I got everyone's attention. No justice, no peace, no racist police. And then we go into Chico, and our budget, and Chico's tax budget based on our population. We put over 50% of our whole tax budget every year into the police department and that has grown and grown and grown. And so I started talking about the gun range that the police officers have, a private gun range, that they have a $900 uniform allowance that they can spend at their own gun range and that this is on the taxpayers' back and it's not procured. It's not inventoried. And so these types of things are conflicts of interest if not just outright a racket scheme. And so I've got the crowd. You know, eventually they were even talking about the DA Mike Ramsey. 'Mike Ramsay sucks,' that was a chant. 

On whether there were any issues with vandalism or rowdiness at the event

No, no, in fact, there was a little bit of people that wanted to get a little bit rowdy and kind of march downtown. We'd already seen businesses board up, you know, and I had gotten in front and I said, 'Look, we don't have millionaire corporate America down in our downtown. Those are our neighbors, those are our friends. These are not millionaires. We're not going to be busting up their businesses. This is their livelihood. You know, we're not in that part of town, even if we wanted to make that kind of racket. We're here to make a change. And so I basically invited everybody on a movement. And you know, the movement is not just about police reform, the movement is about decolonization and then I broke it down to them what I was willing to do.

On traditional ecological knowledge

TEK is traditional ecological knowledge that's 10,000 years of science based on indigenous observation, trials and tribulations, and learning about the plants, ecosystem, animals and how it all works. So some of that knowledge has been passed down through words, some of it's been passed down through technologies like basket weaving, and some of these, this knowledge has been passed down through hunting, and just skills that are part of ceremonial lives of men and women as they grow up. These ceremonies aren't so strong in strongly colonized areas, but there are areas in California that have this native life and this indigenous life still thriving.

On how issues in society are interrelated

There's a marriage. The marriage is between racism, colonialism, and capitalism. And these three married together create the nation of America, the United States of America. And so, this United States was based on proving that, on racism, that whites, which was made up out of thin air. There was no white race up until the United States was born. And so they went and said, Look, this white race is superior and we're going to show you through capitalism and colonization. And colonization is a very ugly human tool of taking on over humans, you know, indigenous peoples' political power over their land, but also to actually destroy every bit of the culture in order to assimilate them into a new one. And so, in that way, colonization is a cancer to a human society, because it acts like cancer in a human body. And it colonizes like cancer in a human body. And everything toxic and disgusting and sad that can come out of cancer can come out of colonization.

On how the current version of American society is not sustainable

Well, it's not sustainable. See, when you have a nation that's based on one, the premise that one race is superior than the other, which is false, which is going to be played out and shown to be not true. Because this is the nature of the universe. Lies don't last forever. And second, you know, you have the idea of capitalism. That's not sustainable. That's all extraction and product, and then trade. Not trade locally, which is the true word of economy, but trade out around the world, global economy. 

And then you have colonization, which is basically taking over land, privatizing it, but pretty soon, how are you going to privatize everything? It's like a room that you've given space for, you know, you become a hoarder. There's no space for anybody. Everything is possessed. It's owned, it's only traded back and forth between people of wealth. Everybody of poor is going to fend for themselves, and live off the land in a very odd way. This is not a great way, this is not a very ingenious method of sustainable life. This is very primitive. And so this primitive way of life that the United States has set up, has convinced and programmed everyone to think that they're living high off the hog. It's not far to believe that we have been raised in a society that has made us delusional. I think that's too far from the truth. 

And so when we look at changing society, it will go away on its own. It's not going to sustain itself. So you have to have backup plan, you have to have a plan B, and a plan B is about how do you take something that's falling apart, and let it morph into something else that's a lot more comfortable for everybody. And so that's the idea of decolonization, to take land, to teach people how to do traditional ecological knowledge, how to manage the land. First, you're going to have to do a lot of fixing the land, so you have to do a lot of recovery of native plants and a lot of restoration projects to do to watersheds. Then after you fix it, then you have to maintain it. Those are jobs forever. But after you maintain the land, you should have rights to the land. So I think that that's a redistribution of wealth through land, using land management. And I think that's a great social justice movement to look forward to.

On how she started her work with traditional ecological knowledge certification

I started working with my tribe, the Mechoopda Indian tribe, and I went to them and I said, Look, we can't do driver's licenses, we can't do hair cutting licenses, shoot, we can't even do Sawyer licenses to cut down trees. All these things are licensed by the state of California. But what we can do is we can license people to do TEK, traditional ecological knowledge, land management certification, where they learn and have certification on plants, their uses, how to restore, how to take care and then how to maintain land using TEK and having certifications. And I started realizing that the tribe was kind of needing some more education. So we did kind of like a town hall and invited not only Mechoopdpa tribal members but community tribal members in Chico to come and learn about TEK and the certification project. So we did basically a trial run on five plants, like a first phase one, step one, of TEK certification, and we have about 100 people certified in the community. It was a lot of work. We did a lot of training. And then after we did training, we actually came back in and did certification tests. So after I trained everybody, I test them.

On the promise TEK holds for solving larger problems

I think that it's a transition for people to get away out. I think a lot of times people are trapped in their life and they can't get any way out. People feel the oppression, they articulate that they're stuck in their rent, they're stuck with their mortgage, they're stuck in their life. And they really can't make enough money to get to the places that they want to be and have the experiences they want. And some people do and they're really comfortable. But there are folks that really want to have a break. And so I think having a program where say, let's go take this federal land, this public land, let's all get certified. Let's get jobs managing it. And then let's go ahead and start making this our new home and we start creating new communities based on new programming. And I think this new programming, of looking at land management as the genesis of our, basically, each one, teach one, our many hands make light work projects for the day. You know, I think that that changes the dynamics of who survives and who doesn't survive in the future. And people that survive are people that can work together with others, cooperate, and share experiences and share land.

On how media can improve the way they talk about native communities

I think that if we look at, for Native communities, what we are taught in school is basically maybe some archaeology, some anthropology, and it's always past and about the history of Native people and the past. And I'm a history buff, I love history books. I'll read, you know, nonfiction for days trying to figure out what I can do to restore the history and the future here. And so what I find is that it is about today's stories. It's about TEK. It's about the sovereignty of a nation. A lot of people don't realize that I'm not a race. I am a citizen of a sovereign nation that has been here for thousands of years. It's almost like going over to, when we go to Afghanistan, and they have a new regime or a new government and you find tribal people that have been there for thousands of years, there's that reverence is that they do exist. Yes, there are policies and sanctions and things that are here now, but it's supposed to be an acculturation of communities, not an assimilation. We're not supposed to be erased. 

So the media I feel has a really great opportunity to help reestablish the existence of sovereign nation and the citizenship that natives have and the access to the citizenship can actually empower other people. And that's what I'd love to see the media seeing, how well the matriarch of a native woman, the matriarch that I hold, is the most empowering thing this community can hold. It's such a precious gold. It's precious, more precious than gold.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview.