To honor Native American Heritage Month this November, we are proud to feature an interview with Marjorie Rhodes-Ousley, Assistant Director of the California State University East Bay C. E. Smith Museum of Anthropology. She is the project coordinator of Against All Odds: Native Californian Stories of Endurance & Continuance, an exhibition and public programming project that shares and preserves the stories of native Californians for future generations. This project was supported by a California Humanities Community Stories grant.
Marjorie Rhodes-Ousley: With help from California Humanities, Cal State East Bay’s C. E. Smith Museum of Anthropology preserved and told the stories of a local Jalquin/Saclan, Ohlone/Bay Miwok five-generation, 60+member family. Ruth Orta, 82, the family elder is a descendent of these tribes on her maternal line. “My mom was so proud of who she was and always told me, ‘Don’t you ever forget that you’re native,’” said Orta in an interview with Bay Area News Group. After interviewing Ruth Orta and her descendants, the exhibition Against All Odds: Native Californian Stories of Endurance & Continuance was created by students at Cal State East Bay to tell the family history while giving insight into past indigenous life ways of East Bay natives.
The museum created this exhibition because we wanted to preserve and share this family’s stories before they were lost. As an anthropology museum, we typically exhibit stories that have already been told. It was a unique opportunity for us to record and share the story of a local family’s heritage and how they’ve kept their family together across two centuries. California’s East Bay was home to untold generations of Native people, now known as the Ohlone and Bay Miwok, before expanding European countries arrived on their shores. Under Spanish, Mexican and early American governance of Alta California, the numbers of Natives fell precipitously, the environment was transformed, and it became impossible to continue living the older way. What many people today don’t realize is that the descendants of the first people of the place now known as the East Bay are still in our communities today. We hope to educate visitors that the original Californians are still here.
Since the exhibition was created at a campus museum, it was rewarding to see student interviewers, designers, and visitors learning about a part of Bay Area history that most had never heard before. Both visitors and the family whose story was being told were moved by the intimate story told in the exhibition. There were also several events where Ruth Orta and her family members answered questions and demonstrated cultural foods and skills they are restoring, such as making acorn soup, dogbane string, and soaproot brushes. Patti Henkhaus, a guest at the cultural demonstration said, “It was wonderful meeting people with an ancestral connection to the area and have them teach my children authentic techniques to make necklaces with abalone shells and pine nut beads.”
In late 2017 Peralta Hacienda Historical Park in Oakland installed a traveling version of the exhibition. Ruth Orta also gave a talk at this location and was gratified that an even larger portion of the East Bay community could learn that Native Californian’s are still an integral part of their communities.
After being well received in the museum’s gallery in the spring of 2017, we are excited that the exhibition has continued to generate interest and travel to additional venues. During fall 2018, the traveling version of the exhibition continues to educate visitors at CSUEB’s Concord Campus library until December. Dr. Nancy Olsen, a de Anza professor, who first originated the project, has started installing a version of the exhibition at de Anza Community College in the South Bay that will open in spring 2019. A second consultant on the project Dr. Beverly Ortiz, Cultural Services Coordinator at the East Bay Regional Park District, is in the process of completing a publication about the history part to present of Ruth Orta’s family that will be made available on our website dedicated to the exhibition. This exhibition will be on display at the Concord campus through December 6, 2018.
Marjorie Rhodes-Ousley can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit the California Humanities website for more information about the Against All Odds: Native Californian Stories of Endurance & Continuance exhibition.