- By Andrew Kennard
OAKLAND, Calif. — A civil lawsuit filed in January by former Oakland city councilman Wilson Riles Jr. alleges that the city violated his religious rights during a long dispute over sweat lodge ceremonies performed on his property. Over the past few weeks, a small organization of Native American women elders has formed to mobilize opposition to the suit.
Riles and his wife Patricia St. Onge are part of a community called Nafsi Ya Jamii, or “Community of Souls,” which meets on contiguous properties owned by Riles, St. Onge, and Riles’s brother. St. Onge told Native News Online that the community practices Lakota ceremonies in a Cree-style sweat lodge on the property. According to the lawsuit, the religious services and community gatherings require a specially built fireplace and chimney, yurts, and a renovated garage space.
The community also engages in gardening and animal husbandry. St. Onge added that Native Americans, Buddhists and occasionally Christians have joined the community.
“We’re just trying to live in a way that reflects deep values of commitment and care for the world, for the earth, for each other, for all of our neighbors and community,” St. Onge said.
St. Onge said that previous ceremonies used to be led by a Mohawk medicine man named Jeremy Goodfeather Molt, and that she was given permission to pour water by two Cheyenne River Lakota women. St. Onge said she is not an enrolled member of a tribe but has Mohawk heritage and is adopted Cheyenne River Lakota.
Riles and St. Onge have raised more than $19,000 through GoFundMe to pay fines issued by the city, which maintains that sweat lodge ceremonies are in violation of Riles’s permit and city regulations, according to the lawsuit. According to the GoFundMe, the money will also be used to pay for legal fees and “support a campaign advocating city legislation to bring Oakland into compliance with federal Native American spiritual practice rights.”
“We paid the fines so there would be no question that this was not about paying the money, or whether we have the ability to pay the money,” Riles said. “This is about the issue. So we raised the GoFundMe in order to pay the fines to take that off the table.”
St. Onge said that Nafsi Ya Jamii has a lot of support from the Native community in Oakland. She estimated that 20 to 30 Indigenous people came to a gathering at city hall in support of the community. Riles added that Nafsi Ya Jamii has a relationship with the Oakland Inter-Tribal Friendship House.
‘To help protect our religious freedom’
Riles and St. Onge’s GoFundMe was posted on Facebook, and word eventually reached a group of Native American women who say they’ve worked together before on issues that impact Native Americans, including the use of Native mascots by non-Native people. The seven women took on the name of the American Indian Elders Council and started an email campaign and Facebook page to raise opposition against Riles’s lawsuit.
Patti Jo King (Cherokee), a member of the council and a retired chair of American Indian Studies at Bacone College, as well as a former Indian Country Today journalist, told Native News Online that she does not believe St. Onge is Native American after a council member performed a search of St. Onge’s ancestry.
King said the organization’s goal is for the city to deny Riles’s permit and stop the sweat lodge. The council also said in a statement provided to Native News Online that “no person, Indian or not, can give approval for a non-Indian to use, modify, or lead others in Native spiritual rituals.”
“We call on Riles to stop this hideous violation of our culture, and on the City of Oakland to help protect our religious freedom and respect the letter of the AIRFA protections that our ancestors struggled so long and hard to obtain,” the organization said in an email message.
Although the lawsuit is based on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which prohibits discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws, it also says that Nafsi Ya Jamii’s Lakota ceremonies are protected under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA). King said that Nafsi Ya Jamii’s ceremonies and the lawsuit’s use of AIRFA acculturate Native spiritual beliefs and the law made to protect them. She also said that Riles and St. Onge are profiting off of Indigenous ceremonies through their GoFundMe.
“Federal Indian laws were enacted to preserve and protect the rights of federally recognized tribes and their enrolled members,” King said. “They do not apply to non-Indians. Our goal is to inform the city government, the mayor, the court, and any other interested party, that using federal AIRFA is illegal since the suit is being brought by non-Indians.”
‘A systemic result’
The lawsuit is one of the latest developments in an approximately three-year dispute between Riles and the city of Oakland over the sweat lodge ceremonies that Riles said has involved appeals and challenges across city departments and the city council.
Riles told Native News Online that the dispute began following a complaint to the zoning department from a neighbor, who he said called the Nafsi Ya Jamii group “pagans” and questioned what Riles’s son-in-law was doing in the former city councilman’s backyard.
“Not that the city intends to be (racially) biased, but because of the way the zoning department is set up to only respond to complaints, and because of the folks who usually complain to the city, you end up with a result that’s racist, and biased,” Riles said. “A systemic result.”
The lawsuit says that after the Oakland City Council upheld the permit, “dissatisfied Oakland Planning and Building Department employees” inspected the property without a warrant and found the permitted structures to be in violation of the law. The lawsuit disputes the current position of the city, which has allegedly informed Riles that he is in violation of his permit and city regulations and will not be granted a hearing. Riles said the state court has not yet set a date to hear the lawsuit.
Riles also filed a separate federal lawsuit on June 26 against police officers and city officials about his controversial 2019 arrest during a visit to the planning department about the sweat lodge, as reported by Mercury News. According to that lawsuit, officers “twisted (Riles’s) arm behind him, and swept his legs from under him throwing him facedown to the floor” following a 911 call in which city officials allegedly made “inflammatory and racist remarks” about Riles. The federal lawsuit says Riles was never charged with a crime.
The city of Oakland declined to provide a comment for this article, citing a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.
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