Bridget Sandate has a to-do list that would intimidate most people. It’s long, complicated and problematic. Many of the items won’t be crossed off anytime soon. Good thing Sandate has the patience of Job.
After a month on the job as the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe’s cultural director, she’s not particularly frustrated that the list grows longer each day. Rather, that the list even exists just adds to her conviction that there’s important work to be done for the tribe’s 1,200 enrolled members.
One of Sandate’s more pressing projects is to swap out the trophy cases in the Cultural Center for archival ones that will help preserve the tribe’s artifacts. While the cultural center is climate-controlled, the glass cases don’t provide stable humidity levels that the artifacts require in the desert’s arid climate.
“The baskets – some of them are over 100 years old,” Sandate said. “I need to get better cases so we can preserve them. I worry about deterioration.”
But because each exhibit case costs at least $3,000, it’s an expensive project that will have to wait. She needs at least six of them.
“When we get new cases, we’d have a repository to keep the artifacts safe. I can get some of our things back that are sitting in storage at Berkeley and Sacramento (State) University,” she said. Some of the objects are too fragile to be moved back to the reservation, but many could easily withstand the trip.
Another knotty issue is preserving the tribe’s cultural heritage. It’s a constant resuscitation effort,” Sandate said. “Many of our traditions were lost because of colonization.”
Some of those remaining traditions include the Chemehuevi language and arts.
She rides shotgun with June Leivas when teaching the Chemehuevi language to students. Sandate that since the tribe’s indigenous language was never written down, Leivas created an alphabet to make Chemehuevi easier to teach. But the larger problem is that there’s not much interest amongst tribal members to take the classes.
Sandate intends to change that.
“I know four people who understand and speak Chemehuevi. We need more. Even so, it’s all good and well to teach the language to kids, but they have no one to speak it with at home. I need more people who want to learn it and practice using it,” she said.
As for the arts, Craft Night at the Cultural Center is gaining some traction with the 400 residents who live on the reservation.
“The Chemehuevi are known for their baskets, but we do other crafts, too. We had 12 people here for Craft Night this week. We had a great time. Even the chairman (Charles Wood) came. He does woodburning. He brought all his tools and worked on a project. We also sew and make ceremonial clothing for anyone who needs it. I like beading on a loom. It’s not a traditional Chemehuevi art, but it is something I like to do,” Sandate said. “Besides, if (the art) comes from our hands, it is Chemehuevi.”
Protecting tribal lands
Every week, Sandate receives inquiry letters regarding tribal lands. Developers, pipeline builders and other companies seek permission to disturb the land in the name of progress. Sandate has to consider each request, determine if the action will desecrate a scared site and if so, turn the matter over to the tribal council.
“We are stewards of this land. We have an obligation to love it and protect it,” she said.
Another part of Sandate’s job as cultural director is to oversee the repatriation of remains. Such an event has occurred twice in the last 10 years.
“I’m hoping to get a zone in our cemetery set aside for repatriations so they can be laid to rest, even if the bodies found may not be (proven to be) Chemehuevi,” she said. She cited the example of an infant that was found buried on a cradle board with four funerary objects.
“If no one wants her, we will take her by claiming cultural ties. Right now, she’s sitting in a locker at UNLV. I’d rather bring her here and bury her. It’s better than sitting in a storage locker.”
The big picture
While there are a lot of moving parts to Sandate’s mission, her number one goal is to involve every Chemehuevi tribal member in the goings-on at the Cultural Center.
“I want to create a fully-functioning cultural revival – a movement that everyone can be a part of,” she said. “We’re not just a casino community. We have a culture with an ancient bloodline that we have to honor.”
To donate to the Cultural Center’s exhibit case project or to contact Sandate, call 760-858-1115.