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Native American Activist Grabbed by Law Enforcement During Public Testimony

An Oakridge Police officer grabs Kayla Godowa Tufti
An Oakridge Police officer grabs Kayla Godowa Tufti

As a Native American activist testified against a proposed gravel mine in Oakridge at an Oct. 12 Lane County Board of Commissioners meeting, a plainclothes law enforcement officer walked up, took her by the wrists and began placing her arms behind her back. 

Commission Vice Chair Pat Farr, who stopped the officer, later called the incident a learning experience in terms of cultural sensitivity and discrimination.

Warm Springs tribe member Kayla Godowa Tufti, who is also a freelance opinion columnist for Eugene Weekly, says she was testifying at the meeting at Oakridge High School for herself and on behalf of her 1-year-old daughter whose future would be affected by the mining on TV Butte on the outskirts of Oakridge. The County Commission will decide whether the land will be rezoned from forest to quarry.

The proposed quarry mine, called Old Hazeldell, is a project of Ed King of King Estate Winery and bills itself as environmentally responsible on its website. Opponents of the mine question not only its sustainability but also its affect on neighbors, through dust, noise, trucks on the road and more. Godowa Tufti of the Warm Springs tribe is concerned about the mine destroying Native American cultural resources. 

Godowa Tufti signed up to testify against the mine and also signed up on behalf of her daughter. In her own testimony she discussed her family’s long history in the area, and the historic use of the area by the Chakgeenkni-Tufti band of Molalla Indians, who were among those who gathered foods such as camas, elk and huckleberries and camped at TV Butte.

Then when the next person was called, Godowa Tufti stayed at the podium and explained she was testifying for her daughter, J.C., who she said would be most affected by the proposed mine over the course of its 50-year existence.  

Commissioner Chair Faye Stewart responded, “A 1-year-old give testimony?” And he told her she was welcome to turn the comments in later. Godowa Tufti began reading.

As she read, a plainclothes officer walked up to the podium and reached for the paper Godowa Tufti was reading from. Video of the incident shows her politely requesting that he not touch her things. He then moved behind her and began to place her arms behind her back. As she continued to read, Farr walked up and had the officer desist. 

“The tactics used only escalate a situation and make it unsafe for tribal people to testify publicly,” Godowa Tufti says. “But I do hope this incident will give us an opportunity to discuss the abuse of power taking place in local government and law enforcement.” She points out that “what happened was a violation of civil liberties. This creates an unsafe space for tribal people, families of color or families in general.”

Warm Springs Tribal Council member Carina Miller testified next, saying she was shocked at the officer laying his hands on a native woman. She refuted the testimony of the cultural historians hired by the mine and called the research “dehumanizing.” It was inappropriate for a nonnative expert to tell native people who are the descendants of local tribes that they did not exist on the butte, she said.

Farr tells EW that it is standard to have law enforcement at County Commission meetings and when the meeting takes place in another city, like Oakridge, instead of its usual downtown Eugene location, the board uses local law enforcement. 

Commissioner Stewart responded in a statement via Lane County Spokeswoman Devon Ashbridge: “We regret that Ms. Godowa Tufti’s testimony was interrupted in a manner that was upsetting and could certainly be interpreted as disrespectful.” And the statement says both Farr and Stewart sought Godowa Tufti out after the hearing to apologize.  

The statement also says that the Oakridge officer responded when “Godowa Tufti declined to follow the established rules of the public hearing, which allows speakers each one three-minute comment period, by signing up to make a second, separate comment — which no other attendees were allowed to do.”

Quarry spokesman Phil Donovan says, “I think Commissioner Farr nicely defused an awkward moment by instructing the officer to allow her to finish her testimony.”

Farr says the incident was a learning experience for him, and, “When a person is discriminated against only they truly know how it feels.”

Kevin Matthews, who previously ran against Stewart for his commission seat, also referenced the incident in his remarks and later told EW, “I’ve probably been to something like a hundred public hearings in Oregon over the last 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything remotely like what was done to a Native American woman at the county commissioners’ hearing in Oakridge.” 

He adds, “It’s a shocking level of double standard for a strip-mine opponent at the podium to be grabbed and restrained for handcuffing, for talking a little more than her allotted three minutes, when the strip-mine applicant had already gone on for some two hours, more than an hour over their stated time.”

Written comment can be submitted on the proposed rezoning until Nov. 1. Send to Deanna.Wright@co.lane.or.us.