Painting the senior wall, located across from the Mail and Copy Center in Adams Plaza, has been an annual tradition where students gather to decorate the white space during their final months at Mills. On May 2, 2020, Mills senior Sunshine Anderson uploaded a photo to Twitter showing the Class of ’20 senior wall, decorated with artwork and messages from graduating students, sprayed over with the message: “Land Back.”
The following day, the Indigenous Women’s Alliance (IWA) published a statement addressing the harm of the vandalism and calling to action a motion to repair the wall.
“We, The Indigenous Women’s Alliance, are saddened by the damage that has been done to the Senior wall. Our hearts go out to the Seniors who have been affected by the damage done to the wall. We know that during this challenging and scary time this was the last thing that our community needed. The Senior wall has been a wonderful Mills tradition that has now been harmed,” the statement reads. “We, I.W.A., would like the Mills community to know that we do not support the defacing of the Senior wall or any defacing of Mills property in any way.”
The phrase “Land Back” is associated with a movement advocating for land rights and reparations for indigenous people. There is no reservation or protected land for the Ohlone people, a predominant indigenous group in the Bay Area. According to the Bay Area Equity Atlas, during the late 1700s, the Ohlone people’s existence was threatened by the arrival of Spanish missionaries and soldiers with “forced cultural and religious assimilation, exposure to European diseases, and harsh and unsanitary living conditions.” In 1850, California became a part of the Union and authorized the mass genocide of indigenous populations by local militia due to the Gold Rush. The Ohlone population in the Bay Area significantly diminished by the 1880s.
The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 was a United States law passed to incentivize Native Americans to leave their reservations and assimilate into the dominant population. Several indigenous tribes relocated to the Bay Area as the U.S. government promised housing, training and jobs in the area, which they failed to deliver.
“It all goes back to all of the treaties within the United States. … The treaties between the federal government and Indian nations … none of those treaties have been fulfilled ever. And so it’s just this idea that … getting back the land that we do deserve, that we were promised,” senior and Vice President of IWA Kelli Rutherford said.
While the goals of the “Land Back” movement align with the mission of IWA, the organization does not support the use of its phrase to deface the senior wall nor any damage to Mills property. Due to its association, there was concern that IWA would be seen as responsible for the defacement.
“Not only was I upset for the senior class as we have three seniors in our club alone, but I was also nervous about IWA,” Kai’ilihiwa Greig, a third-year and member of IWA, said. “We are the only club on-campus that uses that phrase and I was extremely nervous that we were to be blamed regardless if we were all innocent.”
Rutherford also believes that the incident could have unfairly placed suspicion on IWA.
“I feel like putting the phrase land back on the senior wall was very exploitative. It exploits our mission as indigenous students and it exploits just who we are as indigenous people … and it makes it seem like what we’re doing and who we are [is] either violent or aggressive … [and] it didn’t put us in a great position,” she said. “You know, I don’t think that there should have been any use of any phrase anywhere on Mills property. … It just doesn’t correlate with … any of the work that IWA has done within the last two years.”
The club has been spearheaded by Viola LeBeau, the president of IWA, since its beginnings in 2017. Since then, IWA has worked hard to gain visibility on-campus through events such as Native American Heritage Month. Building their community at Mills is important to every member.
IWA has also informed Mills administration, staff and faculty that they believe the institution should contribute to the Shuumi Land Tax, a voluntary contribution from non-indigenous people living on indigenous land. The money goes to supporting the work of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust that aims to “acquire and preserve land, establish a cemetery to reinter stolen Ohlone ancestral remains and build urban gardens, community centers, and sacred arbors so current and future generations of Indigenous people can thrive in the Bay Area.”
“We were told something along the lines of needing to check with finances first before committing to it. It also needed to be discussed with the higher-ups and the president,” Rutherford said.
She believes that this advocacy could have connected IWA to the vandalism as they promote awareness about land reparations. She hopes for an apology from the person who committed the crime, addressed specifically to IWA and the seniors. Rutherford’s message was among those covered directly by the vandalism.
IWA has been in communication with the dean of students, Dr. Chicora Martin, and the process of repairing the senior wall has begun. The council for the senior class of ’20 notified students through the Student Forum of plans to repaint the wall on Wednesday, May 13 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or until the repairs are finished. The phrase has been painted over in the base white color. Participating students are asked to wear a mask when arriving and maintain social distancing while they paint.
For students whose artwork was directly impacted, there is a form to address how they would like it to be repaired.
The individual responsible for the vandalism has not been identified; however, there have been additional patrol requests by Public Safety of the senior wall, and the Division of Student Life is investigating ways to prevent similar incidents in the future.