“We're under this huge rock as Native Americans, and you’re thinking somebody's gonna come and help you take it off. [The powers that be] are profiting from having people under that rock. They are profiting from oppression… and then you realize that nobody is coming to help you. You have to do it.” – Charlie Toledo
Charlie Toledo is a healer – whether it is through touch or spoken word; through prayer or protest; she has continued to strive for peace, advancement, and equity. Charlie was born in New Mexico and is descendent of the Towa Tribe, located west of Santa Fe. Her family suffered forced assimilation generations before, and Charlie has always strived to reconnect with her Indigenous roots. Her grandparents were separated from their families; her grandfather being only seven years old when he was forcibly assimilated. Her family would eventually make a voluntary migration from New Mexico to Southern California in 1958 when she was eight years old.
Charlie has always been a person who longed for peace, praying for it from the time she was three years old and years later when she became a pacifist at the age of 16. She had become disillusioned with the United States during the height of the Vietnam War, not wanting to be associated with the violence that was constantly unfolding. Just after her 21st birthday, Charlie bought a one-way ticket to journey through Western Europe, the Middle East, and Mexico, trying to figure out where she belonged in the world. Epiphanies can surprise us, and an unexpected encounter with a man in a bar in the South of France would lead her to an unprecedented awakening: she needed to be home. “I had this vision. You know, one of those little visions where things go dark? And I saw this huge dragon, just like fire breathing, consuming the whole earth and it said, ‘to change the earth, you must live where the dragon is,’ [and] the dragon was in the United States. I realized, OK, I need to go home. This is my country. I cannot just find some place to hide out.”
Charlie returned to the U.S. nearly a year and a half later looking for a place she resonated with. After travelling all over the West Coast she landed in Napa, and that is where she calls home today. She fell in love with its beautiful land and purple sunsets. As it turns out, however, not all was perfect in paradise. After finding relics on the land, including arrowheads and traditional grinding bowls, she learned that the beautiful vineyards she was spending time in had once been home to local Indigenous tribes. The tribes that had once inhabited the land had been forcefully relocated north into the Round Valley, located in northern Mendocino County. For nearly twelve years Charlie searched for information regarding the history of Indigenous people of Napa Valley and its surrounding areas. She made connections within local Indigenous communities to build a network of support for causes important to not only to the local community, but globally as well.
In 1982, a friend of Charlie’s told her about an important gathering taking place in northern Arizona with the Diné (Navajo) Tribe that would change her life. She met a Pomo woman from Napa who helped Charlie make connections to other tribal organizations in California. She immersed herself in Indigenous life and culture, attending ceremonies and advocating for tribal members and organizations all over the state, gleaning information along the way that would best serve Napa Valley’s Indigenous community. Over the course of several discussions, it was determined that what would be most helpful for the safety and security of local tribal members was a space to perform ceremony freely. “Even on the reservation...it was against the law for Native Americans to practice their religion and ceremony. President Carter made a law called the [American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978] and it got passed, but it still wasn’t enacted. It was still very dangerous. It still is a little bit dangerous. We have to be very careful when we do a ceremony, and back then [especially] you had to be really careful.”
It was out of this dilemma that Suscol Intertribal Council was created, named after a Patwin village site in the area that had been destroyed in the early 1970s. Since its start in 1992, Suscol Intertribal Council has worked to develop educational outreach for public schools (K-12), community clubs, and other organizations, as well as to host classes and community events that are open to the public and mostly free of charge to help bring people together. This month marks Charlie’s 30th year as Executive Chair of the Suscol Intertribal Council.
In 1998, the Council took a groundbreaking step forward that would send shockwaves throughout the broader Indigenous community by buying their land back. Land-based tribes in the area had long-since been removed, and this move to re-establish a physical presence in the Napa Valley by way of purchasing ancestral land back (as opposed to petitioning the federal government) was a momentous event. Soon enough, other tribes would follow suit. As it stands today, the land is home to camping lodges, a living ceremonial arbor and is currently in the process of building Suskol House, an off-grid, indoor gathering space with its own water collection system and low-impact building development plan.
Charlie’s power and determination to create and foster positive reform stretches well beyond the boundaries of Northern California. In 1995 Charlie, along with 30,000 women from all over the world, attended the NGO Forum on Women in the Huairou District of Beijing, China to “network, exchange information, and devise innovative and determined implementation of solutions to the world's most pressing problems” regarding Human Rights. While there, she was invited into a group of women who represented their respective countries’ Indigenous populations. It was an informal gathering as their group did not have an official designation at the conference, but this group of Indigenous women came together to discuss issues like access to education, gender equity, healthcare, and more. The NGO Forum ran concurrently with the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women which was also held in Beijing, and Charlie formed bonds with people and agencies from all over the world. In the end, Charlie left the conference with a wealth of knowledge, deep-rooted connections, and a global perspective that would serve her well going forward.
Charlie has held consultative status with the United Nations through her work with Women’s Intercultural Network (WIN) and it has given her the opportunity to work with the Cities for Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international treaty that provides tools and leadership to empower local women’s organizations and municipalities and effectively initiate CEDAW within their city, county, or state.
In addition to Suscol Intertribal Council, WIN, and Cities for CEDAW, Charlie has served on the Low-Income Oversight Board to California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), American Indian Tobacco Education Network: a program of California Rural Indian Health Board (CRIHB), and currently serves as an advisor for Disability and Legal Services Committee to Native American Outreach. In addition to her local and global work for Indigenous peoples, Charlie is also a practicing hypnotherapist, massage therapist, and midwife.
On her journey to reclaim her Indigenous identity, Charlie Toledo has worked tirelessly to identify, address, and eradicate the countless injustices that threaten to stifle progress. Her mission to provide safety, security, and humanity is evident throughout her impressive career. She is driven by compassion and empathy, and it shows in everything she does. “You have to have that spiritual connection--that there is a higher power; and you have to be able to distinguish that Protecting Voice, Guiding Voice versus the chaos of your own anxiety and fear. It's not time for that, and one of the affirmations is [that] everything unfolds in its own perfection. And that everything is happening the way it's supposed to; that everything is perfect.”
Charlie Toledo was interviewed by Haley Katz, Community Engagement AmeriCorps VISTA.
To learn more about this story visit the links below:
Suscol Intertribal Council: https://suscolcouncil.org/about-us/board/
NGO Forum on Women, 1995: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/14672715.1995.10413053
United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women: https://www.un.org/en/conferences/women/beijing1995
Cities for CEDAW: http://citiesforcedaw.org/