Being Native in Richmond


November is designated National American Indian Heritage month, but the contentious relationship between the United States and the Native Peoples of this land remains present in our society. One person’s Normon Rockwell painting is another’s Trail of Tears. 

Many Native people still feel that their cultures are regularly misrepresented, forgotten, and disrespected in today’s society. To provide an outlet for local Native stories, and to celebrate the heritage of Richmond’s Native people, Radio Free Richmond gathered five oral histories from Native people who live in Richmond.

The first three come from one family. Courtney Cummings, who works at the Native American Health Center, and her daughters, Zolina Zizi and Isabella Zizi, share their experiences being Native in urban environments. The last two stories from from a married couple, Mike Raccoon Eyes Kinney and his wife, Kay Kay Kinney. Mike discusses Native history, and Kay Kay recalls a personal story. 

The goal of these five stories is to provide a platform for conversation and to share the experiences of the city’s Native population. Together, they barely break the surface of Native Peoples’experiences in Richmond. But they are a start.


Courtney Cummings — Protecting Native identity

I am Northern Cheyenne, and I’m also of the Arikara and Creek tribes. I’m an enrolled member of the three affiliated tribes of Fort Berthold of New Town, North Dakota, and I’m a federally recognized Indian. 

I have a very strong Native heritage, and in school I was often given trouble for it. As a kid I was very shy and modest, but teachers would use me as a mascot to say, “Look, here is a real Indian!”My mom didn’t cut my hair, in accordance with tradition, and my hair was long past my hip as a child. There were times I didn’t want to go to school as a kid because the teacher would always point me out as a real Native Indian. It was rough for me. I got teased, had my hair pulled, I got made fun of.

Thanksgiving was a time that I would avoid at school. I would miss the week or even the month because I knew the teachers would take me by the hand and bring me before the class. The rest of the kids wore feathered hats and we would all be chiefs. It was all very offensive to my culture. There is a whole tradition and criteria that goes behind being a chief, but in school it wasn’t taught like that. 

I learned really quickly to, in a sense, blend in with the melting pot in California. But in my personal life and in my own home, I raised my daughters and my siblings to remember their Native ways. I kept that heritage, but I kept it hidden from the neighbors and society. My daughters were taught the real Native ways, and when they were invited to talk about this, they were again persecuted individually in their own classrooms. They were able to handle it with their strength because they had the backing of their mother and grandmother and Native community. 

We’re taught from a young age as a Native person, who we are. We are taught never to lose that and never let anyone take that away or split it or hurt it. It’s a sacred teaching to us that is given in the womb. If it’s not respected and not kept sacred —if were are ridiculed and called Redskins or Chief, and if society doesn’t change the cultural insensitivity to us as Native people —then that creates trauma. We already have historical trauma that is passed down from generation to generation. When I speak of trauma, I speak of the assimilation, the loss of language, the boarding schools, the loss of our own way to spiritually reconnect with who we term Creator. 

We’ve come a long way, and we have a long way to go. When Thanksgiving comes up, the real truth isn’t told. It wouldn’t be a holiday anymore if it was. When the Indians sat down to eat, the pilgrims murdered women, children, and elders for their land. That’s the real story of Thanksgiving, and that’s why I cannot personally celebrate it anymore. I cannot be thankful for the fact that my own Native relatives were murdered and killed as I sit over a meal. 

Instead go to Alcatraz on Thanksgiving day, and I pray for our ancestors and those who are coming. As long as Thanksgiving is treated as a national holiday, Native people are still not viewed as a people. Until that happens I will keep working to bring the truth.



Isabella Zizi: Embracing Native dance

I started dancing when I was about 15 years-old. My family has always been involved with Intertribal Friendship House classes, and someone there was teaching a class about how to do Native dances. I just checked it out and I guess I was really good at it.

My specialty is the Fancy Show dance, which represents a butterfly going through the grass and transforming. As I practiced and learned the dance, a dress was made for my coming out, which is where I first get noticed by other dancers. Eventually, though, I sort of stopped dancing because I started to work. 

Now I work at Gathering Tribes in Albany, and working there has really taught me more about my culture and about the traditional ways of prayers and the appreciation for what’s out there for me. To me I see that my work is not just about having a job, but appreciating life itself and my potential.

With the dancing, I learned that I can just be free. The dance is freestyle, just dancing to the drum beat. The drum beat is the heart beat, and it taught me how to be free and how to be worry free and to accept what comes my way. Working has helped me become who I am, because it’s my first job. It has helped me open up and speak to people and get out of my comfort zone. It has also helped me become an activist in the area and learn about nonviolent methods. I get a lot of support from the people that come in. It has taught me to have an open eye and an open mind. You never know what difference a small group of people can make in this huge world. 



Zolina Zizi — Persecuted for her heritage

When I was a freshman in high school, we had a show and tell in my history class about our cultures. I brought in sage, and cedar, and wheat grass to represent the healing rituals of my Native culture. I had people smell them and pass them around to understand the scents of the practice. 

After I got out of class, I was pulled aside by the school officer because they thought I had narcotics on me. I said, “No, it’s part of my culture. It’s for a ceremony.”I explained that this was the assignment, but they didn’t believe me. I was in the Principal’s office for two hours until my mom came. I told them that I brought religious items, but they didn’t believe I was Native. They thought the sage was marijuana.

In my everyday life in the city, no one knows about Native American culture. People should know what Native culture is about instead of using it against us. I was so young and it’s so hard to know who you are at that age. Because my dad is from Italy, does that make me Italian? Because my mom’s side is Native, am I then Native? I had to fight for my identity. I had to prove that I’m Native American. Being 14 years-old, you shouldn’t have to prove who you are. You shouldn’t have to fight with school administrators to prove who you are. 

Even earlier, in middle school, I got jumped in front of a church because people thought I was part of a Mexican gang in the city. I should be able to stand and say I’m Native American, but people don’t believe; they don’t know. 

Unless you have feathers in your hair or deer skin on, they don’t think you’re native. Being an urban Indian, not coming from the reservation, and growing up in the city, it’s hard to find who you are. 

I grew up with a lot of Italians and Americans, but that’s not my culture. It’s hard growing up not knowing who you are when the education isn’t there. In school you see buffalo, teepees, feathers —they don’t tell them about urban Indians. People don’t know that we exist. I grew up in Richmond, it’s my home. And back at a reservation, people give me a hard time because i’m from California and they don’t think I have a Native connection. Having a Native identity is hard in a city because you’re pulled between so many identities.



Mike Raccoon Eyes Kinney: Remembering the Termination and Relocation Act

I was born and raised here in Richmond. I am what you call a mixed blood Native man. My father was a full-blooded Cherokee from South-East Appalachia, and mom was from here in Richmond. In those years, our parents did not want us to know that we were Native kids. We came up in what was called the ‘Age of Ignorance.’We were of the belief that what people didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. But we as Native people were always shunned, demeaned, beaten, tortured. We were damned for who we were, damned for who we were not. For many of us here in the greater Native community of Richmond, particularly if you were a kid of the ’50’s, those were everyday experiences for us. 

You have to remember that this was the time of the Termination and Relocation Act. In the beginning 50’s early 60’s, the Termination and Relocation Act came about because many people in mainstream America thought that the reservation system was outdated and needed to be replaced.

Under Termination, the American Congress sent representatives to the existing reservations where there were treaty obligations and said, “Here’s the deal, give up your sovereignty and autonomy and your allegiance to the Native nation that you stand and represent. Then we will go ahead and give you about 166 acres of land, help you set up some infrastructure, which was about a cookie-cutter house. We’ll give you about 20 grand and set up some power lines, water lines for you, give you a house.”Many people went ahead and stayed on that land that was no longer a reservation. 

Under Relocation, if you renounced the citizenship to Indian country, the US also said they would give you 20 grand, and relocate you to a big city, give you housing —which was public housing —and job training. The men would come to the urban cities with their families. There were many points of relocation. For the people of the Horseback and Buffalo nations in the Dakotas, people would be moved far away. 

For my family, my father came to this area during the Korean War. My mother was a school teacher in Honolulu. Our story is a little bit different. Many people here have come under the guise of Relocation. When Relocation occurred, the men would go ahead and they would be trained in jobs like welding, auto assembly, and the women would learn to open small businesses. This was about 1950 to 1970. A lot of Native people in the Bay Area come from this. We have a population in California of about 1 million today.



Kay Kay Kinney: Connected with Native spirituality 

My mother was Apache and Swedish. My grandmother was also that, and my grandfather was Apache. My Father was Worhocmoc

My father was a hunter, and in the Native way when a game was brought home, blessings were brought over the body and we were not to touch it or eat it until my mother said it as oaky to do so. If the blessings had not taken place, the animal was taken to a barrel out back and burned. Those are the types of things that I grew up with.

I like to think that this upbringing instilled a super strong spiritual aspect in me and it will continue to carry me for the rest of my life. I don’t like to use the word religion, because it’s not that. But it is spiritual. It’s very hard to explain…When I say spiritual, it’s not spirits that go flying through the room, it’s just what carries you on a day-to-day basis. It allows you to continue your life as it should be.

Being Native and being raised with certain beliefs and so forth, for some strange reason as a child I thought that my mouth was a weapon. As a little girl I had a thing about biting. It’s almost impossible to explain this to make it make sense, because it doesn’t make sense. But it did to me at the time. Part of this comes from the fact that I was born deaf. At the time I was 90% deaf, so the fact that my mouth was my tool so to speak. It was a spiritual embodiment of certain body parts, and I feel that was connected to my Apache heritage. 


To learn more about the Native American Health Center, click here.

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