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Kawaiisu Tribe member Robert Blackwell posts a “Cease and Desist Notice and Order” next to a petroglyph art tapestry in the Council Chambers. / Laura Austin Photo

Art Fight at the City Locale

By Helen Tomlin

News Review Staff Writer–  One of the most famous shootouts in our country’s history took place on Fremont Street in Tombstone, Arizona.  It’s known as the “Gun Fight at the OK Corral.”   It resulted from a conflict between the town’s government and a group of angry cowboys and lasted less than a minute.  A similar short fight took place recently in Ridgecrest, but this one was in its Council Chambers.  In this fight, the City government’s opponents were Indians, not cowboys. And the weapon was paper, not guns.

Kawaiisu spokesman Robert Blackwell took the first shot.  During his public comment, he walked behind the council members and placed a bright green “cease and desist” notice near a tapestry hanging on the back wall.  Because the art features several images of petroglyphs used without the tribe’s permission, it’s “objectionable.”

Eric Bruen shot back.  Violating his promise that “the council will not respond to public comments,” he promptly arose from his mayoral chair, stomped to the wall, and snatched the notice before Blackwell finished speaking.

City of Ridgecrest Mayor Eric Bruen removed the “Cease and Desist Notice and Order” notice just moments after Robinson posted a notice on the tapestry. / Laura Austin Photo

Not deterred, Blackwell took two more shots.  The first was aimed at Councilman Skip Gorman. It was a letter demanding he be disqualified from any issues related to the Kawaiisu tribe or any native art.  He said, “California has [rigid] restrictions on conflicts of interest,” and he believes Gorman has made a lot of money selling art to the city or city-related agencies.  His second shot was a demand letter requesting all documentation pertaining to the city’s purchase of native art be provided to the tribe.  Blackwell, a retired lawyer, said this demand is allowed under the California Public Records Act, which is the state’s version of a FOIA request.

This months-long battle between the City and the tribe is really a clash between two opposing ideas: the City’s economic development vs. the tribe’s cultural heritage.

The City’s leaders are fighting for the development of Ridgecrest’s economy.  It doesn’t matter so much about “How?” – the question is more about “How much?”  How much revenue can Ridgecrest make capitalizing on the 20,000+ Coso petroglyphs in the area?  Answer: a lot.  So, after the idea was proposed about ten years ago, the City leaders began planning the show.  Like Moses, who gathered the skilled artisans to craft the Tabernacle’s furnishings, the City procured its own proficient craftsmen.  One painted faux petroglyph images on towering sandstone boulders to array a park.  Another cut metallic rock art replicas and propped them up along medians. Still another decorated boxes. Many local proprietors joined in the petroglyph party by allowing City-commissioned artists to portray mountain sheep romping across their walls. Finally, with the stage set and the props in place, actors were called to perform, actors from somewhere else.  Non-native Indians, adorned with feathers, braids, and beaded costumes, were invited to come dance and give hula hoop lessons.  Then, as the audience members arrived, they were greeted with the aroma of freshly popped kettle corn and treated with such culinary choices as deep-fried Indian bread piled high with spicy deliciousness. The City’s business model became a profitable, yearly festival, a “Petroglyph Festival.”

In contrast, the Kawaiisu tribe is fighting for the preservation of their cultural heritage.  Even though promoters market the festival as a “respectful celebration honoring the diverse histories, traditions, and artistry of Native Americans and the Indigenous peoples,” the tribe disagrees. First, how is it respectful to the “indigenous peoples” when the tribe was never included in the planning nor the implementation of the festival?   Second, how are the Kawaiisu’s traditions honored when other tribes from other areas share their traditions, and the truly indigenous tribes are left out?  And finally, how is their artistry celebrated when images of their ancestor’s petroglyphs are often distorted and always taken out of context?  The Kawaiisu people believe the festival’s stakeholders have not considered the centuries-old rock markings to be just as sacred to them as Jerusalem’s temple mount is to the Jews or the Vatican is to Roman Catholics.  How can the promoters claim their artistry and history are honored when vendors cut out the faces of their ancient warriors so festivalgoers can stick in their own faces for “photo ops”?   Much unlike the City’s fleeting pecuniary concerns, the Kawaiisu are lasting and involve a legacy that will span generations.

How this art fight will finally end is anybody’s guess.  Even though both sides seem unwilling to budge, there is always the possibility each may lay their weapons down and come to an amicable agreement. But it did not happen at this meeting.

After the city clerk’s buzzer signaled an end to the showdown, three agenda items were addressed. The first was the unveiling of the 2024 committee members for Measures V and P.  The committee members for Measure V are Chip Holloway, Holly Staab, Gurpreet Badrain, Chris Hill, and Nicole Harper.  The members for Measure P are Bradley Patin, Holly Staab, Todd St. Laurent, Denise Gorman, and Lydia Dixon.

Next was a request made by outgoing police chief, Mike Scott.  He sought approval to add a part-time Background Investigator who will report directly to the Police Administration Captain.  If this position is added, Scott said it would relieve some of the burden the already overworked staff currently carries.  His request was granted.

The third agenda item was handled by Captain Justin Dampier. At the last meeting, he announced Governor Newsom’s series of “reform legislation” aimed at increasing the transparency of the police departments.  One piece is known as AB 481 and requires all law enforcement agencies to “commence a governing body approval process for the adoption of a military equipment use policy… to continue the use of previously acquired ‘military equipment.’” It must be done in a public forum and be approved by the council every year.    

Dampier said, “The State of California defines military equipment into 15 categories.”  He said Ridgecrest’s equipment only falls into five of those categories.  So, as required, he came in a second time to present a complete inventory of all the equipment the Ridgecrest police currently have and asked the council members to “review and approve” them.  According to this new law, the RPD “must cease the use of all equipment defined as military equipment” if the council does not follow these required steps.  The steps were followed, and the council approved it unanimously.

Ridgecrest’s next council meeting is scheduled for March 6 at 6 pm.