Native American activist, Rochelle Lacapa, talks solidarity and history

The Highland Support Project (HSP) and The PACE Center for Campus and Community Ministry at VCU hosted, Partnering with Native American Communities Workshop with Rochelle Lacapa, on the evening of March 18.

Lacapa previously worked as a director of the John Hopkins Center for American Indian Health on her home reservation, the White Mountain Apache Tribe of the Fort Apache Reservation in Arizona. Currently, she is the program manager for the Methodist-sponsored Highlands Support Project.

HSP started in Guatemala in 1993 as a response to violence against indigenous populations in the country. The organization wanted to change the existing model of community volunteering which, according to HSP’s official statement, says lead to outsiders, “displacing or co-opting local leadership.” Instead, HSP wants to to provide tools for indigenous to create self-built, self-sustaining community systems based off self-determination.

Ben Blevins, the community organizer for HSP on VCU’s campus and the larger Richmond area, is a longtime activist for indigenous rights. He studied economic development after first traveling to parts of South America with indigenous populations in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“Our whole program is to develop resources for indigenous peoples to define their own programs and projects,” said Blevins.

Lacapa echos this sentiment while explaining her role as a organizer.

“Let’s say the tribe wants a garden, it’s my job to figure out what they need, what they want to grow and to get them the tools,” Lacapa explained. “But I also have to teach and provide tools on how to make the garden sustainable so it grows year after year.”

Lacapa opened the three hour teach in with a historical context of Native American subjugation with focus on the methods used by American settlers and expansionists during the 19th and 20th centuries.

“The oppression of our people in the South West is much more recent than the violence that happened to the tribes on the East Coast,” Lacapa said. “We have parents and grandparents who were forced into boarding schools, separated from families and forced to assimilate.”

Lacapa goes into detail describing the legislation used to first eradicated multiple tribes and then later isolate and assimilate indigenous peoples. As recently as the 1950s to 1970s, the act of forced migrations and forced assimilations, led to some tribes having upward of 70 percent of their children taken out of their communities.

“Navajo kids were sent to boarding schools in Apache regions and Apache kids were taken to schools in Navajo region and it was policy that each kid was separated from their families minimum for eight years.” Lacapa said. “Later kids were forcibly adopted out to non-native families.”

Lacapa also focused on the inherent problem with the idea of federal Reserves and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) today. She explained that because the tribe are on federal lands, they can’t collect taxes for additional revenues and this exacerbates poverty in the reservations. Additionally, the tribes can not protest lack of equal representation within even Tribal government because the BIA and the federal government can revoke a people’s indigenous title, or withhold the title if land has resources. In turn, a tribe like the White Apaches could lose what little federal funding they receive.

Lacapa explained that many indigenous communities, including her own White Apache community, struggle with highest rates of arrests disappearances, domestic violence, poverty, sexual assault, substance abuse and suicide in America as well as some of the lowest rates of high school completion and college education. The reason, Lacapa explained, is that for centuries Native American communities were being subjected to violent and oppressive federal policies.

“We are still on the basic one and two steps of Maslow’s [hierarchy of] needs, physiological security and safety,” Lacapa said. “When generations of children are being taken from their parents, well now, no one knows how to parent or how to enforce rules or behavior because the risk of someone’s child committing suicide, by hanging or alcohol poisoning due to lack of coping skills, is a very real thing. How can people move on to trying to achieve, love, esteem and self actualization when they haven’t had a chance to learn how to get by the next day?”

Siona Peterous, Spectrum Editor

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