By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer–
For the past two holiday weekends, bright green “Cease and Desist” notices have appeared, disappeared, and then re-appeared on several of the city’s petroglyph art pieces. The notices claim the native art to which they are attached is “a copy of native images owned by the Kawaiisu nation” and the art has been “replicated without permission for commercial purposes.” By doing this, the notices claim the City of Ridgecrest is “violating California and Federal law.” Therefore, the Kawaiisu tribe demands the art sculptures be removed immediately or fully covered for later removal. The tribe members find the art “religiously offensive and racist.”
When the notices were first posted over Christmas weekend, Erik Catlin posted a picture of them on the private Facebook group “WTF Is Happening in Ridgecrest?” He announced to the group’s 22,200 followers that “every display on China Lake has this [notice] posted on them.” His post gathered 90 comments.
Some of its group members did not believe these notices were legitimate and were, instead, “liberal propaganda.” A female member disagreed that it was a “liberal thing” and thought it was more likely to be a non-native “with a screw loose.”
Marci Burnett questioned whether it was an actual “legal notice” since there were numerous misspellings within its text, including the name of the tribe. She concluded that “it was probably some ‘woke’ person trying to start a controversy.”
To which Shauna Christine agreed and asked, “Why now when they have been up all this time?”
However, Angela Guyre was more informed, having read the recent News Review article about the Kawaiisu’s objections to the art. She blamed “white privilege” and wrote that her generation “won’t let ignorant people continue to plague the earth and perpetuate harm to these minorities.” She also agreed with the notices that the petroglyph art was “put up without permission or authority of the tribe” and that the Native Indians have been harmed by the whites. “We cannot continue to overlook and disregard the wishes of the people we have stolen from and brutalized to exist on this land.”
Colton Booth thought it was possible that an indigenous person could have put up the notices since “they love to gatekeep their culture.”
Bre Davis questioned Booth and asked him if “trying to protect what’s left of our culture from what colonizers did is gatekeeping?”
Guyre asked Booth how he could “live on indigenous land and not know the first thing about the people we stole from?”
Booth asked Guyre if she is forgetting that his comments are centered around someone putting “fake” cease and desist orders on “statues built to honor these tribes.”
Guyre reiterated that the point made by the notices is that statues were “put up without permission or authority of the tribe!” She wrote, “We cannot continue to overlook and disregard the wishes of the people we have stolen from and brutalized to exist on this land.” She also told Booth that to say that the tribe “gatekeeps” their culture is “unbelievably tone deaf and out of touch.” She said no one is “entitled to their culture but the natives themselves and it is not gatekeeping.” She wrote that this should be respected or “we are just doing the same thing our ancestors did…”
Booth told Guyre that she is being hypocritical if she speaks for the tribe. Guyre responded that she believes it is possible that Booth is misinformed and “doesn’t mean to come across as speaking on behalf of the tribe.” She said that a “representative of the Kawaiisu tribe [and others] has already spoken about this topic.” She wants to “share their voice” and cite her source. She then attached a link to the News-Review article, “Kawaiisu Tribe Objects to Local Petroglyph Art Displays,” published on December 22. Guyre concluded that “this is looking to me like cultural appropriation rather than cultural respect and appreciation.” She wrote that the Kawaiisu tribe is interested in “throwing their own festivals” so they can “teach us about their culture in a genuinely informative way” rather than some random person who is unaffiliated with their culture, making and selling art to the city for a profit.
Another member, Shawn Doe, jumped into the conversation between Booth and Guyer and told Guyre, “Send them your paycheck, virtue signaler.” To which Guyre responded, “It’s called advocacy and it doesn’t hurt to try it. It costs $0 to not be part of the problem.”
Lori O. Christensen Maxwell commented that she believed “we should all strive to respect and honor that which is sacred to another.” Then she asked why it is permissible for people “to marginalize, mock, and criticize the sacred things” Christians hold that are connected to Christmas? She concluded that “this stance should be universal.”
Guyre agreed with Maxwell that “we should respect everyone,” but she said that white Americans have a “particular responsibility” to American minorities. She said the majority of the population “is comprised of white Christians,” and while all people deserve respect, “not all of us are facing the same struggle [and consequence] of colonization and systematic oppression.”
Other subjects came up in this post. One was from Christopher Siebert who cited how long copyright laws can be enforced. However, Alana Spurling disagreed that copyright law is the issue and believed the tribe’s claim would more appropriately fall under the “Indian Arts and Crafts Act” (IACA), which is “a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in the marketing of Indian art and craft products within the United States.” This law states that “it is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell, any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced, an Indian product or the product of a particular Indian or Indian tribe or Indian arts and crafts organization in the U.S.” Violations of this act can be considered either civil or criminal and penalties can range from $250,000 and a 5-year prison sentence for individuals or up to $1 million for a business.
Spurling stated the tribe who carved the petroglyphs should be the ones who decide whether the “representation of their works is appropriate or not.” Non-tribal members should not have a say in the matter.
However, Siebert did not see IACA being applicable to this situation because “no one is selling items under false pretenses.” She wrote, “These are just art displays.”
Regina Troglin agreed. She noted that the act is not applicable because “it’s an art installation not for sale.”
Rachel Youngbear has “asked the same questions for years” with no answers. She objected to the use of images of native dancers and pow-wows “not from the area.” She also asked who profited from the “art on the boulevard.” She believes the natives should have been consulted before interpreting their art and culture. “How hard is it to ask?”
Mindy Spivey asks, “Is the artwork copy written?”
Regina Troglin responds, “It’s art,” and depending upon the artist, it may not be appropriation. She wrote that “there are several overlapping tribes in the area,” and they have no say because the art is “on city property.”
Jimmy Gray suggested replacing the current art with art that is either approved or created by the tribe. That would be “nice to see” and would “send a good message.” It would be “more thoughtful and actually representative.”
Finally, Stacy Anderson reached out to Ridgecrest’s Mayor, Eric Bruen, to “explain this.” She was concerned the city would “lose those statues” that make the town “look nice.”
Bruen explained he had no reason to respond to the posting of these notices since there has been “no formal legal action.” He wrote, “Individuals have the right to speak their mind, and unless there is some form of vandalism, this is nonnews on this beautiful Christmas Eve.”
Robert Blackwell, who has spoken three times before the city council on this issue, was asked his opinion about these public notices and the ensuing Facebook discussion. He admitted he helped post the cease and desist notices on the art and has read the social media posts. He thought the members’ discussion on this subject was interesting and thoughtful.
Asked about Mayor Bruen’s response to the notices, he said he would both agree and disagree with what he wrote. He agrees that “individuals have a right to speak their mind.” He said the First Amendment is “a very powerful tool for citizens to get their voices heard.”
But he disagreed with Bruen’s attitude that there was no reason for the city to respond unless formal legal action was present. “The mayor only takes it seriously if they get sued. That’s not our goal.” Blackwell said that if the city manager and council members “had taken a different approach and worked with us, we wouldn’t be in a confrontation.” He said these city leaders “have their heads in the sand and want to ignore the issue. They just want it to go away.”
Blackwell, who often speaks on behalf of the tribe, said the purpose of the notices is “to raise awareness to the issues the local natives are concerned about.” He said he has talked to people and once they actually read the notices and the issue is explained to them, their reactions have been “mostly positive.”
Private business owners who have petroglyphs painted on the outside of their business walls have been approached by Blackwell. According to him, many of these proprietors told him the city initiated and paid for the petroglyph paintings on their walls. But now, many of these private business owners want to paint over them. “They did not understand this was a controversial issue.”
Blackwell did not seem to be concerned that the notices were removed immediately after the Christmas and New Year’s weekends. He said assuredly, “The tribe’s voices have been heard.”