The White Album
by Josué Rivas
“This land, this part of the continent, to me, is all connected. I don’t see the division of borders or perimeters that other people put upon the land of Indigenous peoples, my people. Our original homelands of the Mēxihcah people, that’s from my dad’s side, and from my grandmother’s side and my mom’s side is the Otomí people, they are in Central Mexico mostly, but they have been recorded as being as far north as Northern California, even Nevada and some parts of Arizona. So it’s kind of hard to say where the homelands are now.
A lot of the time when we talk about land, and especially in the United States, there’s a big misunderstanding and also a lack of connection to what we know as homelands and land. A lot of people, especially in Northern American Indigenous communities, don’t see a connection to the land per se. It’s more than just living there, you also have to be connected to it in a way where you’re not only roaming it, but you’re at one with it. You don’t own the land, you are just part of the caretaker team to make sure that the land grows and is healthy.
Traveling up and down the Pacific Northwest, from Portland down to California, was quite an interesting journey because there was part of me that knew the land and had been there before with Indigenous folks, and I had done work up there but had never really experienced being around other folks that lived there and have settled there. So, when we went, and to just go through the landscape, there was a storm, there was this snow storm, and then all of the sudden it got really clear when we got into Northern California. Once we got to Yreka, things had shifted. For me as a storyteller and photojournalist and most importantly as a human, it was really hard to see.
For me, this whole mythology of the pioneers and the settlers being these great people that were able to make that place better, tamed, and had a given right to explore it and settle it and own it. It was really hard to do that. Obviously because I’m a person of color and an Indigenous man, but also because what I really saw was that we often uphold lies so high they’re in history books, and they become the narratives that we tell ourselves to feel comfortable.
And being in this newly made up State Of Jefferson, we went to the local museum that was dedicated to this revisionist history. They had all these Indigenous items, and they put them on display to create a narrative of proper civilization, and how they had transformed the natives from long haired savages to be remade in the image of the short haired settler. And it was really sad for me. There was a part of me that had the grief of knowing that those peoples that roamed the land there and were stewards of the land had been going through a process of genocide.
The evidence was proudly on display. It was really important for me to understand the State of Jefferson story, that even though they are the descendants of those triumphant settlers, they now think that they are in a marginalized state. They still don’t understand that they have a privilege over those peoples that came before them and it’s not their place to do that because they are a guest in that land. You know? In the end, they are anchor babies. You know? That’s what they are.
So, I think that there was also a part of me, like I said as a storyteller and just how I approach stories and how I approach photography, that I wanted to make sure they were dignified and that they were humanized. And I didn’t want to make them look like anything that came only from my own perspective. Even though I really really wanted to. I didn’t do it because they also deserve that dignity, that humanity, even though, you know, I don’t agree with them.
So I was photographing and it was really interesting because at first, nobody talked to me, everybody ignored me. But eventually one man was able to kind of open up a little bit more and he even shook my hand at some point at the end. When I was photographing him, when I was taking his portrait, I was just thinking good thoughts. I was thinking thoughts of healing and reconciliation because that’s a place I wanted to go, I could have easily gone to anger and resentment, I really wanted to speak up and say what I wanted to say, but I used my camera as a way to shift the energy. And it did, because after that he kind of sucked it up and shook my hand.
When we started getting back north into Oregon, around Cave Junction and more into the woods, it was just interesting to me to see that whole landscape, and that whole place of beauty. It’s really nature, you know? And nature has no nationality. Nature has no political stance. It’s like nature is just nature and me and my family at some point were able to stop by and be by the river and just be with nature. And I was thinking how beautiful it is that nature welcomes anybody. It’s arms open to anybody who wants to come to that place as long as you take care of it too, you know?
I just really hope that the people who settle there, that their descendants really believe, or come to understand, that they are a guest in those homelands, not just of Indigenous peoples, but of nature itself. Like taking a step deeper into it. But anyway, in that same way I am a guest. I am a guest in what we call Portland, what this territory is.
So when I moved here it was just an interesting process, because as much as there was a lot of progressive thinking and progressive values, which is what kind of drew me to it. It is also a place where I would go into spaces where I thought I was supposed to be welcome, in such a supposedly liberal city, but I still didn’t feel welcome. Even though people say the right words, I didn’t feel welcome.
I think there’s a lot of the times where we have intentions where we’re trying to be inclusive to people, but then we still don’t fully understand what inclusion means, or what it looks like here. I’ll go into a restaurant that’s supposed to be like, you know, very very inclusive and I just feel something. I can just feel from either the waiter or just the way that I’m talked to or the way that I’m looked at, that some of those folks still have a lot of judgment about someone like me.
You just come to realize as much as there is the desire to want to be inclusive and have a lot of diversity in this city specifically, there’s a really long way to go. And I feel that often. I kind of wonder, “are they doing it just because they want to feel good about themselves? Or are they doing it because they really want to learn?” It’s like a different dynamic and like a different process of really trying to understand a different person’s perspective and trying to really walk in their shoes. Then to try to basically say “I’ll give you this, but this is as much as I can give you.”
In order for us to really come together as people, there will be a lot of hard conversations and there’s going to be a lot of hard realizations. And for example, I’ll put it this way: imagine if I were to have a conversation with that guy that we interviewed in Yreka about debunking the whole mythology of Manifest Destiny. How it’s really messed up.
To me, what Manifest Destiny means is that it’s a very good tool for people to have an excuse to go into other people’s homelands and other people’s ways of living and world views and tell them that there’s a man in the sky that looks like a tennis player who tells them they have the right to go do these things. You have the right because you are from a certain descent and you live in a certain being. But for me, Indigenous people look at Manifest Destiny as like the biggest excuse for settlers to invade. It was like a really good way to put it, because then everything was covered under the blanket of religion.
And then you start thinking about, you know, at least when I grew up, we were taught about history and how Christopher Columbus was trying to get to India, right? And he had no idea where he even was and that was the whole narrative. Then you start thinking about the fact that there’s this desire, this thirst for wanting more. It will probably never end, in the sense of that like, maybe in modern times Manifest Destiny can go inter-galactic, you know what I’m saying? It’s just like always trying to conquer and colonize.
For Indigenous people, and especially for me it’s kind of a joke, you know? It’s like, “Hey! Do you really understand what you’re saying? What you’re talking about? Like the fact that your ancestors could go from East Coast to West Coast no problem? Just because god told them so?” And that’s a conversation that I think, like I said, it’s very easy to put it under the blanket of religion. Or under the blanket of belief, you know? And not have any concrete ways to really prove that “hey we do have this right.” It was just more convenient for settler mentality to say “hey we’re going to conquer you because we have the given right from god.”
So, yeah, Manifest Destiny to me just means an excuse to colonize. You can look at it in a more modern way, by taking on gentrification for example. I look at my own neighborhood here in Portland, where there’s just this huge house next door that just was built and it’s going for like three times as much as our place is going for. And now it’s the people who moved in there, they’re working in tech. We don’t even think about the fact that these expansions in the context of our relationship with the land. Are you actually taking care of the land? You’re not just living there. Are you actually connected to it? Are you connected to the natural weight and the natural patterns of this place?
And I think that is a big disconnect that we have, specifically in Oregon and California, where a lot of people are either on one side of being super liberal, being like overly connected and overly spiritual, yet in a purely superficial way, and then on the other side we have like folks that are very, very conservative and also very uneducated and kind of repressed. So it’s like, do we have a bit of ground anywhere in between where we can use some facts but also be open? And I guess that’s where I’m at right now with this story. Just really understanding that the story itself it’s a lot more complicated than just black and white.
Acknowledgement is certainly a great step forward towards anything. To acknowledge something and to really put it into perspective and even accept it. The thing where I’m at a lot in my own conversations with my peers and with people that I work with that are non-Indigenous. I have to be like, “Hey, it’s not your fault that your ancestors did this. I’m not saying that. I’m saying that it’s your responsibility to acknowledge what your ancestors did and to debunk and really rebuild the structure that they built that benefits only you.”
Acknowledgment is the first step but then taking action is the next step. I think a lot of folks just want to acknowledge it and be like “okay cool, I’m done,” but how are you actually trying to better understand? And I think that is where we are at in general right now in our society. And what I experienced personally from this project is that even though I don’t agree with a lot of things these State of Jefferson folks are saying, I tried my best to just acknowledge it, and then I tried to put myself in their shoes as much as possible.
And it was extremely hard, I’ve got to be honest. But, then I was like, “Well I still don’t agree with it. I still don’t think you’re in the right position. However, I am trying my best to put myself in your shoes.” And that created a little bit of understanding. That’s how they live. I don’t live in Yreka, in the middle of nowhere. I can see how those folks can feel like that, but I still don’t agree with it because at the end of the night, the practices that they have, their actions, are pretty messed up.
The way they treat the people in the community who are not like them, yeah it’s pretty messed up. Or how they like talk about Muslims, you know what I’m saying? You start thinking about like, yeah I’m gonna try to understand you, but I’m not going to agree with everything you say, because your actions are showing something different.
They’re coming from a place where “our Founding Fathers promised this. Our Founding Fathers promised that.” And I was like “..your Founding Fathers were owning slaves. Your Founding Fathers were killing Indigenous people left and right. So your Founding Fathers and what they promised, does not work.” From where I sit, there’s no such thing as the so called American Dream. There’s only an American Nightmare. That’s how I looked at it. That’s how I was thinking. I knew what they were talking about. “Our constitution promised this. Our constitution promised this.” And I’m just like, “that’s a settlers document.”
Just think about the fact that we have Founding Fathers, right? Well, I personally don’t accept them as founding anything, but what about the mothers? I’m pretty sure god, the one who told the settlers they could go coast to coast—if god would’ve been a woman [according to the story at least], that would’ve been a very different way of how they would’ve gone about it. Because the matriarchal ways of doing things is a lot different than this patriarchal society that we live in.
So it’s going back again, it’s like that character of the mother is within nature. It’s very much like she’s doing the right thing. But in The State of Jefferson it’s dudes doing this! It’s guys who want to feel victimized due to the fact that they don’t have enough people in Congress or enough people representing them, you know? And it’s like, “yeah because, in the first place, in the society where you were brought up, and the way you were brought up, it’s not balanced.”
But then, on the other at then hand, I did experience some young people, and not just young people, but the cycles of humanity, trying to do something. Even in hashtag liberal Portland, teenagers at the International Climate Strike behaved in inspirational and surprising ways. This next generation is becoming stronger and stronger as they start to grow up. Just how they talk to each other. Just how they communicate with their leaders and how the leaders communicated with the people at the march. It was all young people communicating and really strategizing to do something. So when I first got there, I was just kind of like, “okay cool, another march in Portland. Everyone’s gonna feel good about being at the march with their posters and march for a little bit and go home and have some dinner.”
But what these kids did, they went to the office of the school district to demand that they include climate change in their school systems’ official curriculums. It was actually kind of interesting because they walked, they took over the bridge, at least 1,000 to 1,500 kids. And when they got there the school officials came out and told them to go back to their classrooms and said they’d talk about this in their next meeting. Instead, the kids took the megaphone and said they weren’t going anywhere and they all just sat down. They weren’t going to go anywhere. Then finally, they were able to get a date when they could actually have a conversation about really incorporating climate change into teachings.
And it was incredible, again it wasn’t just acknowledgement. It was about pressuring people to take action. To give some concrete ways. It wasn’t only beautiful to see, it was also really inspiring. Because I think that younger generations are coming in really strong and they’re not really taking shit from anybody. They were young kids, they were like 14! And I thought, “What was I doing at 14?” Well, actually, I was pretty involved. But you know what I’m saying? It was this feeling that it’s going to be okay, if we just nurture that sense of shifting the paradigm to them, instead of just acknowledging and being like “okay you have feelings, okay” it’s not just that. It’s okay, we’re going to take action. You want to learn about climate change? Well we need to get our act together then to do something about it.”