When I think of Native American Heritage Month, I see it as a time to celebrate our heritage and cultures, but also as a time to critically examine our histories–both backwards and forwards–and find emerging opportunities to undo those cycles and threads that contributed to that dispossession and disconnection.
Anna-Liza Victory is the Oregon Land Justice Project Manager for the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts, and a citizen of Cherokee Nation. We sat down with Anna-Liza to talk about her work, what inspires her, and her hopes for the future.
This interview is part of a series in celebration of Native American Heritage Month. Throughout November, COLT is elevating the voices of Indigenous leaders in the Oregon land trust community, and highlighting the many ways they are transforming how land trusts approach conservation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
COLT: Tell me about yourself!
Anna-Liza: My name is Anna-Liza Victory. I am Cherokee, German, and Scotch-Irish and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and, unfortunately, I haven’t been back east to the Cherokee homelands ever in my life. But I love this area and consider it my home.
Prior to working at COLT, I studied anthropology and international studies at Portland State University. I’m passionate about land rematriation and repatriation efforts to return ancestors home from museums, especially from abroad. I also really enjoy reading, wandering out museums and antique stores, walking, hiking, learning languages, and spending time with my dogs and my cats at home.
Could you share more about your role in the land trust community in Oregon and what that looks like for you?
I manage the Oregon Land Justice Project at the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts, which is a really unique program that we have in Oregon to bridge the land trust community and Indigenous communities in order to advance common goals. Our mission is to expand Indigenous access, ownership, and stewardship of conservation land. My role in particular supports a lot of the logistics and the delivery of our programming that focuses on a couple of different areas: education, relationship building, and resource development.
We try to be as well-rounded as possible, providing learning opportunities, sharing knowledge, and cultivating experiences that land trusts need to better understand and practice land justice and land back, as well as transform their work and their organizations—how they operate, who they’re serving, what they’re doing, and where they’re going in their conservation mission and in their partnerships. While we are still building up our capacity on the Tribal side, our work there is to make sure there is power, resources and land shifted to them in order to support them in fulfilling their roles as land stewards.
Is there any moment from the Oregon Land Justice Justice Project that you’re really proud of?
We can’t take credit for it, but to me one of the biggest successes for land justice in Oregon is the annual root gathering event that Wallowa Land Trust hosts. That’s the pinnacle of the work right now. It’s leading the way and putting everything that we stand for as a project into action. And I’m also very proud of all our other participating land trusts and their dedication to land justice and shifting financial resources to Tribes.
What drew you to this work?
Prior to starting at COLT, I didn’t know what land trusts were, and I wasn’t involved in the conservation field. I worked in the tribal relations sphere, providing some similar educational opportunities for organizations to bridge cultures and find common ground.
What drew me to the work was seeing just how much of an impact that this project can have both in the land trust community and in Tribal communities across Oregon, and hopefully across the nation.
This is one of those projects I truly felt could make a meaningful contribution to the Land Back movement and to Tribal communities. It also aligned with my personal passions and personal responsibilities. I felt like this was a place that I was being called to. So that’s how I got involved, why I’ve stayed, and why I am staying.
What motivates and inspires you?
It’s really exciting to be able to branch out into a newer field, working with land trusts, while keeping in line with a lot of the skills and experiences I’ve had working with Tribal communities and non-Indigenous organizations, trying to bridge those cultural and systematic barriers in order to find common ground.
What motivates me on a personal level is the major shifts that we’re seeing in regards to Land Back and adjacent movements—culture back, ancestors back, and medicine and first foods protection.
I am excited to be a part of something so much bigger than myself that has the potential to change this country, to change communities and shape our future, the future of our planet, the future of our nation, the future of all of our Tribal nations.
How does your Indigeneity inform how you approach your work?
I am very much a person who is reconnecting with my culture, with my Tribe, and with Indigeneity in general. I have the lived experience of being white passing and disconnected, so I don’t have the same experiences and the cultural knowledge that a lot of other Tribal members do.
But I’ve learned from elders that there’s a role for everybody. Everybody is important and contributes. So even if I’m not a culture keeper or a knowledge keeper or a language keeper, I have skills that can serve the people who have that ability to revitalize and perpetuate culture. That’s how I can contribute.
Even though I feel like I’m not as connected to my community or homeland as I should be I’m inspired by the many people who are on their land and are actively keeping Indigenous cultures alive. It makes me want to be better and be more involved. For me, working with the Oregon Land Justice Project is a way of reconnecting to and honoring my Indigeneity, which has been at risk of being lost across generations in my family. I am excited for where I can go personally, and I’m feeling a lot more confident in myself and in that niche that I’m carving out here.
What do you see as the biggest challenge ahead for land trusts and your work?
I feel like the biggest challenge is shifting people’s mindset. Day-to-day, the most common one is combating harmful stereotypes, rhetoric, and misconceptions. It seems like 99% of the public doesn’t know anything about Indigenous people or they hold very antiquated, stereotypical views of us. That translates into distrust of Indigenous people. It’s challenging to have to educate people about Tribal cultures and worldviews, more specifically, the responsibilities we feel to be good relatives and fulfill the covenants with the land, plants, animals, and water. It feels like having to justify why our existence matters. For the land trusts attempting to be good allies, taking on that burden of educating and sparking culture shifts are going to be hard, but it’s so appreciated that they can help alleviate that burden.
What does Native American Heritage Month mean to you?
For me, Native American Heritage Month isn’t any different from any other month, but I try to observe it, specifically by using it as a time for reflection. Just recently, I realized that in my family, I’m the seventh generation since removal on the Trail of Tears. To think that my ancestors would have been thinking of me at that time is both painful and motivating. I understand that that comes with a big responsibility.
So much has changed and so much was taken since then, and we’re still feeling the ripple effects. When I think about where I am now, across the country from our homelands, a place that I’ve never even been to, it’s hard not to be angry. The federal government removed us to Indian Territory, but other systemic injustices pushed us [my family] even further and further away. That caused my generation to be removed from culture and community.
I keep a picture of my family’s land in Georgia as the wallpaper on my laptop as a daily reminder for why I’m involved in land justice work. That land is now part of a National Recreation Area and the creek there is still named after my family. The picture is of a dam that they built on the creek after removal with people swimming under the waterfall that comes down from it. While most people can look at that and see it as a positive thing: a conserved area that is publicly accessible where people can enjoy hiking, biking and swimming, I see it differently. It’s extremely frustrating that it can be enjoyed by others because it was taken away from us, its rightful owners and stewards. We did everything “right”; we owned that property in the way settlers think of ownership–with a deed and title–and we had a home, orchards, a mercantile and a ferry business tied to that land. We had resources and abundance, and that was taken from us, from me, seven generations later, and from whomever comes seven generations after me. That injustice is never really going to be solved or repaired, but it can be used as a lesson.
So when I think of Native American Heritage Month, I see it as a time to celebrate our heritage and cultures, but also as a time to critically examine our histories–both backwards and forwards–and find emerging opportunities to undo those cycles and threads that contributed to that dispossession and disconnection.
What makes you feel hopeful?
I am really inspired to see how many people from the land trust community are emerging as allies, leaders, and strong voices for change. With the power, the resources, and sheer determination and willpower, I feel hopeful that we’ll get to a place in Oregon–and maybe across the country–where land justice and Land Back are really understood, celebrated, and practiced.
So with that vision in mind, I feel a lot of hope for the work that we’re doing collectively. Every time we visit a Tribal community, we hear about amazing community projects and initiatives to address a broad range of issues. It’s not just natural resource protection, but it’s also cultural resource protection, language and community involvement, support for elders and youth, housing and healthcare. There’s so much good work being done across so many different sectors, but it all connects to a larger purpose. I feel really hopeful for the future of our Tribal nations and Tribal sovereignty, knowing that there are so many amazing people working towards a better, Indigenized future for us to thrive.