Laying at the heart of the University of California, Riverside’s (UCR) campus, the Native American Garden has begun to grow and flourish. With an abundance of indigenous flora, a possible new classroom  and mural created by local indigenous painter, River Garza, it is steadily instilling itself as a core part of UCR’s landscape. On Tuesday, April 9, 2024, a grand opening was held for the garden to establish its presence on campus.

The event began at noon with an opening statement by Associate Dean and Director of the University Writing Program, Wallace Cleaves. Starting off with UCR’s land acknowledgement, Cleaves proceeded to say, “We are grateful to have the opportunity to live and work on these homelands. I always like to add to that how important it is to acknowledge those contributions in the long history of indigenous faculty and supporters here at UCR.”

An emphasis was placed on the role of community members in the creation of the garden, stating that their contribution was “vital” for its conception.

After Cleaves finished his speech, a Serrano elder led the crowd in an opening prayer. He stated, “Thank you very much. What an honor to be here with all these wonderful folks who have worked so hard and continue to bring change for people and country … And I’m glad to be here.” 

Clifford Trafzer, a distinguished professor of history, and current Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian Affairs, while unable to attend the event, sent in a statement to be read at the opening. Trafzer outlined the history of what led to the conception of the garden, beginning with the vision of Rupert Costo, who along with his wife, Jeanette Costo “shared a vision to develop UCR as a Center for Native American studies.” It was through their efforts that a seed was planted, and the “native garden we dedicate today will be our constant reminder of Rupert’s vision, of our renewed vision, for future generations who will know this garden and its meaning; we live and work in a native space and place.”

Following the end of the prayer, Professor Gerald L. Clarke from the ethnic studies department, reminisced about the work that went into the land acknowledgement and the creation of the garden. He elaborated on a specific word within the land acknowledgement, “responsibility,” and stressed the importance of how this “country in this system owes a debt of gratitude to the tribal people whose land they built these schools upon. So this, along with the other initiatives that we’re doing are all part of our responsibility back to the tribal people.” He explained how the garden is not just just a garden, but also a classroom and how he will be bringing in his class to teach them about this “ancient indigenous intellectual tradition.”

Clarke also discussed the possibility of using the garden as a classroom, “We are not simply spiritual and intuitive people, we’re incredibly intelligent people. And our knowledge of plants are things that have been handed down generation upon generation. If you’re a basket weaver, I want you to come here and gather the grass. And if you need medicine, I want you to come here and gather, because this is what we owe you. This is our responsibility to our tribal people here.”

A moment was provided to Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox to explain the importance of the garden. He explained how the school has been trying to do their best in respecting the identity and language of the indigenous people and that “I’m particularly grateful for the people behind me who have been so helpful to me personally, as we’ve tried to do a better job of respecting that tradition, that history. And I’m very grateful to see such great people here today.”

Mamata Elangovan / The Highlander

Lorene (Laurie) Sisquoc, a scholar in residence, then came in to expand on the importance of various parts of the garden. “This is a classroom that’s much more, these are our relatives, and our teachings, and our responsibility. Our elders have said that these were put here for us to take care of, and they’ll take care of us, so it’s important to learn about them.” She highlighted four plants, the yucca, oak tree, sage and elderberry, and how the use of those plants are sacred to the indigenous community and acknowledged many tribal elders who began the process of spreading indigenous teachings, and how that work is being continued now.

After the end of individual speeches, the event turned into a more interactive setting. Many joined in as the social songs began. Will Madrigal, a Cahuilla man, and graduate student at UCR began the first song. Prior to the start, he reminded the crowd, “We’re here to celebrate that exercise of sovereignty, history making … Those of you who are students here, those of you who are faculty here, you’re going to remember this, and you’re going to come here, and you’re going to feel the energy that’s going to be imbued in this place, because as Native people, that’s what we do, we go into places that have energy, and we bring that energy to the forefront when we sing the songs.”

Various other performances and social songs were carried out, the first detailing the First Migration. The circular formation of the benches and sand pit often would include a fire pit at the center, Madrigal explains, and it would be there that “we’ll start the song cycle at the beginning of the story, the story of our peoples first migration, and the new earth, and new people.” It was through this that they “learned about their connection to the land, to the water, to all creation, to the celestial beings as well. And so they sang about it. They celebrate it. That’s what we’re doing today.”

Each performance and song holds importance to the history of the indigenous people. Many people entered the sandy area in the middle of the garden to dance and sing along, while others stood at the outskirts and viewed the scene.