EPIC: Honoring Priscilla Hunter and Polly Girvin with the Sempervirens Lifetime Achievement Award

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by Matt Simmons, EPIC Legal Fellow 

At this year’s Fall Celebration, EPIC will be honoring Priscilla Hunter and Polly Girvin with the Sempervirens Lifetime Achievement Award. Priscilla and Polly are longtime Tribal and environmental advocates who have left a lasting impact on the North Coast.

Priscilla and Polly on their travels to Chiapas, Mexico to deliver humanitarian supplies to the Zapatistas during their revolution against the Mexican government.

Priscilla Hunter is a member of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians. When Priscilla was still a young child, the Army Corp of Engineers decided to construct a dam on the Russian River that would submerge her tribe’s lands. Congress then “terminated” her tribe and seized their land in order to construct the dam. The newly constructed “Coyote Valley Dam” formed Lake Mendocino and left her tribe landless. 

Over the coming decades, Priscilla’s elders worked hard to keep her tribe together and resist termination. After almost 20 years of being “terminated” by the Federal Government, the Coyote Valley Band was restored in 1976 thanks to litigation by California Legal Services. After the restoration of her tribe to federal recognition Priscilla was appointed Tribal Administrator and was responsible for building the roads, homes and tribal office on the new reservation as well as crafting the formative constitutional documents and resolutions establishing the tribal government. One of the tasks at this time, which she viewed as most important, was reintroducing traditional dance and songs to the tribal youth. 

During her tenure as Tribal Chairwoman, Priscilla established a Tribal Environmental Protection Agency in which tribal youth each summer participate in environmental protection projects on their tribal land. Today, the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians has restored itself as a thriving, economically self-sufficient Indian nation dedicated to taking stands to enhance tribal sovereignty and preserve and protect their cultural heritage and the environment.

Priscilla has long worked with environmental organizations and engaged in government-to-government consultations with federal and state agencies to protect her people’s sacred landscapes and cultural resources, both archaeological and biological. When EPIC filed the lawsuit EPIC v Johnson in order to protect Sally Bell Grove, Priscilla acted as a co-plaintiff while she was a Board member of the International Indian Treaty Council. The lawsuit opened the door for the eventual return of 3,845 acres of aboriginal Sinkyone land to local tribal control and stewardship. Priscilla also helped found the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a consortium of 10 Northern California Tribes which, in 1997, established the first-ever InterTribal “Wilderness”. Priscilla has been the Chairwoman of this organization from its inception to the present. Today, the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council works to protect and revitalize this critical part of Sinkyone territory through the reintroduction of tribal members’ cultural-ecological stewardship and traditional land uses. They have placed a wilderness easement on the land, permanently protecting it from development and commercial logging. 

Polly Girvin is a proud Chicana woman who has dedicated her life to helping people and protecting the environment. She graduated from UC Berkeley and Columbia Law and uses her degrees to assist the most vulnerable. Polly has been fighting for civil rights since a teen when she participated as a student leader in the fight to integrate the schools of Berkeley. As a Human Rights Fellow at Columbia Law School, Polly worked with the NAACP on a national equal protection challenge to the death penalty. After graduating from Law School, she went on to work with California Indian Legal Service in Eureka where she developed a love for the redwoods. 

Eventually, Polly moved to Mendocino where she worked as an attorney who helped women out of abusive relationships. Polly also participated in many Earth First! actions, including Redwood Summer. She has been arrested many times for the trees and deeply believes in the power of nonviolent direct action to effect social change. It was during a rally against the First Gulf War held in Boonville, California that Polly first met Priscilla. Polly thereafter taught classes at the reservation as part of a satellite branch of DQ University, one of the first ever Tribal Universities in the United States. Together, Polly and Priscilla then travelled to Chiapas, Mexico to deliver humanitarian supplies to the Zapatistas during their revolution against the Mexican government. Upon their return from Chiapas, Polly served as the Executive Director of the US Congress’ Advisory Council on California Indian Policy on which Priscilla served as a tribally-elected and Secretary of Interior-appointed representative for Northern California Tribes. This federal commission’s task was to recommend policy solutions to the US government regarding the status issues facing California’s terminated, unrecognized and federally recognized Tribes.

Since then, Polly and Priscilla have been inseparable and have participated in many, many campaigns including travelling the state with Jesse Jackson and tribal leaders to fight against the elimination of affirmative action in the UC University system. They also recently joined with Mendocino County environmentalists in a campaign to protect both the wetlands and many ancestral sacred sites during the construction of the Caltrans Willits Bypass Project. Polly and Priscilla have also both been pivotal in the fight to preserve Jackson Demonstration State Forest which is the traditional territory of the Northern Pomo.

Priscilla and Polly have both lived incredible lives and the previous paragraphs only cover a small fraction of their important work. When not advocating on behalf of the planet, the dispossessed, and the vulnerable, Priscilla and Polly are busy helping to raise their four grandkids and five great grandkids. EPIC is so happy that Polly and Priscilla will be attending our event and we are excited to honor them both for their achievements. You can see Polly and Priscilla speak on October 3rd at the annual EPIC Fall Celebration.