As a kid in Healdsburg, Adam Villagomez knew of his Chippewa and Dakota Sioux roots but sensed no more of a practical or spiritual linkage to them than did the typical suburban child of Mexican, Italian, African or other descent.
He recalls the spark of curiosity about his heritage that flashed when he was about 12 and at a funeral, taking in the simple, traditional Native American ceremony for his great-grandfather.
“I remember asking questions and my mom didn’t have the answers,” said Villagomez, a thoughtful Windsor resident of 44 with twin braids hanging from his salt-and-pepper goatee. His family had largely detached from the ways of his great-granddad.
Though his teens, the approach to life that had sustained his ancestors for centuries prior to the incursion of non-natives intrigued him. But that fascination was just one aspect of his life that was subverted when he declined into addiction.
Now abstinent and a substance-abuse counselor with Sonoma County Indian Health, Villagomez says he was saved by his return to praying, singing, drumming and engaging in the ritual of the pipe and the sweat lodge.
“What was missing from my life, was that,” he said. “My children, I have been able to raise them up in the ceremony and to give them what I didn’t have.”
Villagomez’s commitment to traditional native prayer and practice has never been stronger, he’ll tell you, since his three sons persuaded him earlier this fall that they must join the oil pipeline protest near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.
His youngest, 17-year-old Wakinyan, a senior at Windsor High, told him, “It’s more important than school, it’s more important than your job that we be there with our people.”
The two of them and Villagomez’s wife, Meagan, and their other sons, Otter, 22, and Raven, 20, carried supplies to the encampment. Villagomez was powerfully struck, he said, by “the passion and unity of the whole camp working together, and everybody having a place for a common goal. And the love and respect that everybody gave each other.”
He returned to Sonoma County to help organize the large, solemn march in downtown Santa Rosa a week ago. It concluded with a surprise: Villagomez read an announcement that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would not grant a permit for the construction of a section of the pipeline beneath a dammed reservoir on the Missouri River near the Standing Rock reservation. Instead, it will research other potential routes.
Though the declaration came as welcome news to Villagomez and others who seek to halt the 1,172-mile pipeline or at least to have it moved away from the river and the reservation, many say they’re sure the battle isn’t over.
“We know that it’s only a temporary victory,” said Villagomez. He expects the company building the pipeline will wait until President-elect Donald Trump is sworn into office, anticipating that his administration will allow the project to proceed as planned.
“The black snake is wounded, but it is not dead,” Villagomez said. “So our fight is not over.”
As he analyzes the Corps of Engineers’ action, he makes no bones of the fact that the American Indian experience has taught him to distrust the government’s word.