Acknowledging land and history

As OPUSD recognizes its presence on indigenous land, the community can also reflect on its origins


This article’s layout, as seen in the Talon’s Fall 2023 print magazine. Layout by Mara Hankins, art by Anika Ravilla.

Creation stories, and the history that follows, depend upon the storyteller.

A geologist would describe how a tectonic plate of the Earth’s crust rose from the depths of the Pacific Ocean more than a billion years ago. It fused to the brewing supercontinent of North America through magma and molten granite, shaping the Pacific southwest and forming the future state of California. 

Over time, glaciers chiseled away at the Sierra Nevada and paved a way through the rock walls of Yosemite. Eroded sedimentary debris filled the Central Valley with fertile soil. Brimming magma squeezed through faultlines to make the cliffs and rolling hills of the Santa Cruz through Pacific Coast ranges, which the San Andreas fault separated from the rising east.  

To the south, churning tectonic activity stacked chunks of rock one atop the other like building blocks: the San Gabriels, the Simi Hills, the Santa Monicas of the Transverse Range—the mountains that encircle Oak Park. 

A biologist would add that as the geology of the Earth, and the state, still evolved, so did animals and plants. Incredible biodiversity traveled to land as the first vertebrae crawled ashore, followed by the rise of fish, insects and birds. The conifer ancestors of some of California’s most famous flora—the Hyperion redwood taller than the Statue of Liberty and the ancient bristlecone pines that date back farther than Socrates—emerged. 

Summarizing biological history condenses hundreds of millions of years into single paragraphs, but to abbreviate such a timeline is to acknowledge constant and continuous change. Before Oak Park was a suburb with just under 14,000 residents, dinosaurs roamed, though mostly outside of the state in the Mesozoic Era. Modern plants and mammals took over after their extinction, and eventually, the first people, the Chumash of Southern California, emerged. 

Their creation stories are far different, yet as integral to the land as any science. According to Chumash myth, the goddess Hutash, the Earth Mother, created their people on the island of Limuw, known as Santa Cruz Island, from the seeds of a Magic Plant. The god Alchupo’osh, Sky Snake, the glow of the Milky Way galaxy across the sky, gifted the Chumash people fire. 

As Limuw became too small to hold the growing villages, the Chumash traveled to the Californian mainland across a rainbow bridge that spanned from the island to the tallest mountain of what is now Ventura County. Those who weren’t able to successfully make the journey fell from the rainbow and were transformed into dolphins. In this way, Chumash myth reflects the relationship between people and the land, and how values and cultural beliefs intersect with the environment.

The Fernandeño Tataviam and Ventureño Chumash are the original Chumash tribes of Oak Park’s region. To recognize this, Oak Park Unified School District instated a Tribal Land Acknowledgment on May 18, 2021.

“The statement acknowledges that the land that our schools and facilities rest on has been the home to the Ventureño Chumash indigenous communities for at least the last 13,000 years,” Superintendent Jeff Davis wrote to the Talon.  “It is intended to raise awareness regarding the enduring relationship between indigenous people and the land.” 

The statement is posted on the OPUSD district website, is included in the meeting agenda for every regular board meeting and is inscribed on a plaque located outside of the main office of Oak Park High School.

“As an educational institution, a land acknowledgment statement reminds people of Native American history,” Davis wrote. “In addition, the statement is a way to recognize land originally belonging to Indigenous people as a sign of respect and honor.”

The Land Acknowledgment’s journey to approval by the OPUSD Board of Education began in December 2020. Its wording and sentiment were spearheaded by graduated OPHS student Anna Stephens. Other collaborators include Environmental and Sustainability Literature teacher David Kinberg, Chumash elder Alan Salazar, former Superintendent Dr. Tony Knight and other administrators.

“I have always been proud to teach in a progressive school district that has been at the forefront of social and environmental justice issues,” Kinberg said, “and I believe [the land acknowledgment] will only further our position of being on the right side of history and a leader in the fight for equity, diversity and justice.”

Oak Park land has been claimed by Spanish explorers, sold between mid-20th-century radio stars and divided amongst cattle ranchers over hundreds of years. Yet the existence of indigenous people, both in the past and present, is a testament to the fact that history dates back further than settlers and colonization. Further than 1966 when Louis Boyar and his Metropolitan Development Corporation began to buy up land grants to build a new community in the middle of nowhere.

It was a time of development seen before in many suburbs across America. A calculated formula of constructing new neighborhoods and having young families move in. Of building school districts for their children and expanding right up to the base of the mountains, paving roads, digging pools and planting lawns along the way. The MDC even moved on once satisfied with their development project to replicate it elsewhere, tacking on the name “Oak Park” as they departed. 

Some teachers at OPHS know the past of Oak Park with familiarity, having witnessed its growth as former students of the district and childhood residents of the town.

“I would say that I was raised to believe Oak Park is a bubble and that cliche, that term, has been around for a very long time,” said English teacher Jessica Wall. “And to an extent that was such a blessing. I mean, I could walk to school at Brookside Elementary without any kind of fear of what might happen to me in my classes. In my free time, I was just raised from an early age to believe I could accomplish anything in a community of like-minded individuals who were all in harmony.”

After graduating from OPHS in 2014, Wall attended Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. Her close proximity to home was short-lived as she spent her sophomore year abroad in Germany and then the summer in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Post-undergraduate, Wall spent a year in Athens, Greece, detailing her experiences in a blog with an audience that included people from back home. For all her travels, Wall’s path eventually brought her back to Oak Park.

“You can’t outrun family, you can’t outrun yourself,” Wall said. “And the more I experienced other places, I just kept thinking about Oak Park because I really love this community.”

Like Wall, other OPHS faculty members grew up in the area and have returned to their childhood home, including history teacher Todd Creason and health teacher Eric Pryor. Creason recalls an area more rural than the Valley of Los Angeles, where his family moved from in 1976, a time when cattle once wandered onto the early building site of OPHS.

“There was no road back there,” Creason said,  “just open fields. And actually, Kanan stopped. It didn’t go through. Where [Pryor] grew up and where I grew up was kind of the end of the line.”

There was no Lindero Canyon Road or Westlake Boulevard beyond that. Kanan didn’t reach the Pacific Coast Highway at the ocean, and it backed into ranchlands and meadows on the other side. A trip to the closest grocery store used to mean heading into Woodland Hills. Oak Park was described as an escape from the rat race, free of smog, noise and crowds. 

Creason described riding his bike along Medea Creek. In the absence of phones and other devices, kids would scour the hills for arrowheads, remnants of the Chumash from before their land was divided up and changed hands in decades of property sales. Pryor would collect and recycle scraps of aluminum from the high school’s construction site to make money. For Creason, the full circle of returning to Oak Park, and OPHS, is surreal.

“It’s weird because you’ve actually walked in the foundations of this place,” Creason said. “You’re observing this education and then you’re here still walking in the place that you saw built.”

Wall and Creason also spoke about their hopes for Oak Park’s future. Since her time as a student, Wall has noticed that kids are increasingly able to communicate their anxiety and advocate for their mental health. She hopes that the next shift in the community will be regarding the college system and finding a dream school that is the right choice. 

“I see in our future, especially just because the economy is going to call for it, that we embrace community college for what it is: a college in our community,” Wall said. “What a beautiful thing, to go to college locally and give back to your community before then going on. I think that is such an important kind of cultural shift that needs to happen at this school because [the college system is] classist, it’s elitist. And it’s not even accurate to what the college experience is like. Anyone can be successful at any college as long as it’s the right one for them.”

For Creason, in an area where the cost of living is 36.1% higher than the national average, affordable housing would allow new families to become a part of the community.

“[Affordable housing] can get other groups in here and have access to the opportunities that present themselves because this is a special place,” Creason said. “But I also hope, at the same time as [Oak Park] grows, that it still has that small town feel that it used to have.” 

Located on the OPHS campus, the plaque of the Land Acknowledgment is a physical representation of the district’s commitment to indigenous history and furthering inclusion in education.

“To continue the work that was started, I reached out to the Ventura Indian Education Consortium so that Oak Park could become a part of the consortium,” Davis wrote. “At the Aug. 30, 2022 Board meeting, the OPUSD Board of education approved an MOU to become part of the consortium.  The Ventura County Indian Education Consortium is a federally funded program providing direct services to American Indian and Alaskan Native students in grades TK-12.”

Recognizing history through Land Acknowledgments creates permanence. So does ensuring school safety. Taking local action against climate change, expanding educational opportunities for women and redefining what “success” in the future means. 

It all guarantees the longevity of a community that protects its roots, and can therefore flourish. 

It creates the certainty that even in the face of fire, the community can rebuild, and so can the hills. It’s the understanding that more than one version of Oak Park’s story can be true. Under the banner of the southern Californian sky, geology and biology, myth, history and fact can all intersect. 

No matter how far one strays there’s always an invisible cord, a tether to origin, a single road guiding the way back home.