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Standing strong: Museum setback doesn't deter Indians' advocate

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For years, Cindy La Marr lobbied for a first-rate museum that would tell the whole story of California's Indians.

For even longer, she felt betrayed by what she learned in school about her people.

OAS_AD('Button20'); "In books, it's portrayed that Europeans came here and made us better people and taught us Christianity and how to be like the white man," said La Marr, frowning.

At 50, she winces when she recalls watching old cowboys-and-Indians movies as a child and rooting for the cowboys.

The museum is in large part her brainchild. It wouldn't erase mistakes of the past, but it would help set the record straight. If all went well, it would be the crowning achievement in a career devoted to helping Indian youths embrace their history.

But as the California Indian Heritage Center moves forward, La Marr finds herself on the outside. The state task force she chaired voted 7-1 July 26 to build the 60,000-square-foot museum on Northgate Boulevard along the American River Parkway. LaMarr was the lone dissenter and resigned after the meeting.

As much as she wants the museum, she insists the Northgate site is rife with practical and political problems, from sitting in a low-lying flood zone next to the river to displacing residents of a trailer park that city officials are eager to see disappear. By La Marr's count, it adds up to years of bureaucratic wrangling and delays.

"I maintained my integrity. If you're outnumbered 7-1, you're already on the outside. By resigning, I made a bigger statement than anything I could say."

Despite the setback, La Marr remains a major player on California Indian issues. Her journey to the front lines began in Susanville in Lassen County, where she was the youngest of six daughters born to a Pit River Indian father and Paiute mother. Her father, she says, instilled in her a work ethic she embraces to this day.

La Marr points to two moments in her young life that shaped who she would become.

At 8, the family dog wandered from their home and returned days later with a serious injury from a bear trap. La Marr wanted to take the dog to the veterinarian, but her father said treatment would be too costly and opted to have the pet euthanized.

"I always thought that if I had money, I could have saved him," she said.

Soon after, La Marr started doing odd jobs, determined never to feel broke and powerless again.

At 15, she was a passenger in a car traveling from Susanville to Reno when traffic stopped at a serious accident. A vehicle was engulfed in flames with the driver trapped inside. Other onlookers stopped La Marr from helping.

"It always bothered me," she said. "I decided I would never see someone in need again and not try to help."

As she came of age, La Marr was on her way to becoming a strong, independent woman, but not before she gave in to the wishes of her parents to get married and have a family.

"I figured I would get it over with early," she said with an embarrassed shrug. By age 17, she was a bride and by 22 a divorced mother of two.

In 1980, she attended California State University, Sacramento, earning a master's degree in social work with an emphasis on Indian child welfare. She has been advocating for Indians since.

"Being raised traditionally, it's passed on from generation to generation that you have to pick up the ball and run with it," said Matt Franklin, 31, one of La Marr's many protégés. "Cindy has been doing that for years."

Since 1991, La Marr has been executive director of Capitol Area Indian Resources Inc., a nonprofit agency focusing on education and cultural experiences for Indian youths.

Her words and fingerprints can be found on all kinds of letters and appeals and bills and executive orders aimed at improving the lot of Indians. She has campaigned to rid California schools of Indian sports mascots, insisting they humiliate many Indians.

At the national level, she played a key role in drafting the language in an executive order signed by President Bush in 2004 that not only clarifies the government-to-government relationship between tribes and the federal government, but also calls for the inclusion of tribal language and cultural education as part of the No Child Left Behind Act.

And throughout her career, she has been passionate and eloquent - and blunt.

When the California State Assembly, for instance, only narrowly approved a 2004 bill to ban Indian-themed mascots, she said the vote made her realize "just how terribly racist our Legislature is."

An avid baseball fan, La Marr refuses to watch games involving teams with offensive mascots.

Of the Atlanta Braves' now-dated tomahawk chop, she says, "One time I was asleep on my couch and I woke up and saw it and it made me sick to my stomach."

La Marr often finds fault with how mainstream society thinks about Indian culture, conceding she is slow to trust those who have slighted and deceived Indians over the decades. Her strong stance and strong language can send many people reeling.

"Cindy has the tenacity to get things done," said David Quintana, political director of the California Tribal Business Alliance.

"She has a vision for what she wants, but some people find it off-putting, especially people who aren't from that culture."

La Marr makes no apologies for making people uncomfortable about Indians affairs. One of her role models is Lehman Brightman, the fiery lecturer and Indian leader who often tells Indian audiences that if they aren't angry they aren't paying attention.

La Marr believes the cultural divide between Indians and non-Indians caused a strain on the museum task force, however unintentional. The task force consisted of state parks and Indian Heritage Commission officials and tribal representatives.

"She identifies a reality," said Walter Gray, a task force member and chief of the cultural resources division of state parks.

"No matter how sensitive or concerned or well-read any of us are, none of us who are not California Indians can fully understand the nature of life experience, historical experience and the concerns California Indians have."

The day before the July 26 task force vote, La Marr could see that her days leading the way for a museum were numbered. Hoping to find peace and tranquility, she decided to go hiking at Burney Falls State Park in Lassen County near her childhood home, only to feel slighted when a park worker asked her to pay the $6 entry fee.

"It's not like I'm an Indian from another state. This is our original land," she recalled telling the worker.

She handed over the $6 and went hiking.

The next day, she resigned from the task force and predicted she would not see the museum open in her lifetime.

Her crowning achievement seems to be slipping away.

Her effort to set the record straight continues.

About the writer: The Bee's Blair Anthony Robertson can be reached at (916) 321-1099 or - Get the whole story every day - SUBSCRIBE NOW! 

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