Kin to the Earth: Cutcha Risling-Baldy

 by Carrie Tully

Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy

Upon my initial introduction to Cutcha, my attention was instantly sparked by her matter-of-fact way of speaking – like it is finally okay to be brutally honest and that anything is possible. I was stunned.  I made an appointment to meet with her right away. As Native Cultures Fund’s Senior Program Director, Lindsie Bear, puts it,“Dr. Risling-Baldy embodies the radical imagination that she is constantly encouraging in others.” Spot on.

Since then, I have been fortunate to be involved in several different projects with Dr. Risling Baldy.  When I think of all that I am working on and towards, I feel motivated and whole.  Dr. Sarah Ray, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Humboldt State, states it perfectly, “Cutcha Risling Baldy is the kind of colleague who makes everyone around her feel totally empowered to do anything they set their minds to.”  Native American Studies professor, Dr. Kaitlin Reed, goes on to say, “Dr. Risling Baldy is a leading scholar in California Indian Studies & Native American Studies. She is an inspiration to her students and fellow faculty at Humboldt State and a constant source of support for community based research and Indigenous environmental and social justice.” Yes, all of that…and more.

We Are Dancing For You

I had the opportunity to discuss Dr. Risling Baldy’s projects with her, and I’ll not be the first to say that she is one of those people who has a hundred projects happening all at once, and thrives.  Dr. Ray elaborates that “she seems to have superpowers, and is everywhere at all times, achieving more things than seems humanly possible.”  If Cutcha did have a superpower (and I’m not entirely convinced that she doesn’t), it would be that she makes people imagine the world in ways that seemed impossible prior to talking with her: everything is possible.

Dr. Risling Baldy is the Department Chair for the Native American Studies at HSU. She states that her goal in this position is to “get as many projects as [she] can on the burner in order to build the program,” with the goal to create an NAS program that truly stands out. One of the current projects she has facilitated is the Native American Studies Food Sovereignty Lab and Cultural Workspace (NAS LAB). The NAS LAB started in Dr. Risling Baldy’s NAS 331: Indigenous Natural Resource Management Practices course as a student-led research project. Cutcha reflected that this project is “what other students want to see on campus…which can be used as a model for how to do research.” As a student in this class and a participant of this project, I can say sincerely that Cutcha truly values the motivation, energy, and efforts of the students who co-created it.  

In 2019, Dr. Risling Baldy’s book received “Best First Book in Native American and Indigenous Studies.” The Native Women’s Collective funded a group from the Hoopa Valley Tribe to present at a conference about the book in New Zealand. Pictured here are the presenters.

In addition to the work Dr. Risling Baldy does on campus, she also works with Two Feathers Native American Family Services and the Native Women’s Collective. Two Feathers focuses on culturally-based programs to help support the needs of Native American youth and their families. Cutcha’s work on the Acorns Project looks at the effects of the way culture, ceremony, and cultural practices interact with mental health. Through this important work, she is able to conduct research which proves the necessity of culture to mental health, which is represented in her book, We are Dancing For You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women’s Coming-of-Age Ceremonies. Similarly, the Native Women’s Collective supports the development of Indigenous art and culture. Co-founded by Dr. Risling Baldy in 2007, the organization brings in community members to perform, and holds community workshops to practice cultural activities. And, although COVID-19 has challenged some of the ways that these organizations have been able to gather and host events, the work has not stopped. Cutcha states that she believes “people miss that camaraderie or community” but commends people for their abilities to think outside the box and become innovative.

We all feel how much this pandemic has changed our realities. Yet, Cutcha chooses to see the silver lining, and how the youth are so very important to this phase of our experience. She speaks about the resilience of the younger generations and their ability to connect with the rest of the world online with short videos that go viral in a matter of days. Her faith in the future is encouraging…like we should all be doing more to create the changes that this world desperately needs.

The future is an exceptional topic to discuss with Dr. Risling Baldy. She states: “For me I’ve always wanted to inspire a sense of radical imagination, and to build radical futures. I don’t consider ‘radical’ controversial. It’s a way that’s been stifled by the education system or the media…I want to think about a future in any way that we want.” Dr. Ray highlights, “[Cutcha] is visionary, but also utterly pragmatic…If Dr. Risling Baldy is involved in something, I will show up.”.So, to echo that, Cutcha makes you want to change the future. How many people do you know that make you feel that way?

Dr. Risling Baldy taught me that in Hupa there is no word for ‘thank you’. Instead, they say ‘I am happy.’ Well, I am happy to have had so many opportunities to work with such a visionary, community leader and collaborator, futurist, and youth supporter. I am happy that I can see her work bleeding into so many different aspects of our community. Many future generations of people will benefit from the work that she is building today. I am happy to know Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy, a true kin to the earth.