Remembering Barbara Drake

On behalf of members of the Pitzer and Tongva communities, we share the following message regarding the loss of Barbara Drake. We send our love and strength to all during this time.

Barbara Ann Drake
February 2, 1940-November 18, 2020

Tongva Elder Barbara Drake

We write to celebrate the life of Barbara Drake, beloved Tongva Elder, grandmother, mother, mentor, teacher, and friend. Widely known to many students, faculty, and staff as “Auntie Barbara,” she was a central force in cultivating long-standing partnerships between the Claremont Colleges and the local Tongva community. Peerless in her warmth, generosity of spirit, and ability to bring people together, Auntie Barbara allowed our better selves to take root and flourish.

Barbara Drake was invaluable to our community: a maker of life and a giver of gifts. She would often arrive at events with baked goods or a jar of homemade jam and depart by pressing a small bundle of white sage, wrapped in red yarn, into the palms of guests. Auntie Barbara worked graciously with innumerable students, guiding them on their intellectual, creative, and spiritual journeys, generously offering her knowledge and wisdom. Throughout her life, Auntie Barbara demonstrated how to be indelibly tied to the land, and to the plant relatives that had given her and her people life. Leaving an offering of tobacco or sage, or a strand of her beautiful hair, was critical in the reciprocal relationship she had with the land: “Our breath is here,” she said. “It’s on this land.”

The greatest gift Auntie Barbara gave to the Claremont Colleges and her Tongva extended family was her spirit. She worked tirelessly for the revival of reciprocal relations with the land and played a key role in Tongva cultural revitalization. Loved by all, she never spoke ill of anyone, and always brought a positive light to her interactions with students, faculty, staff, and community members.

Born in West Los Angeles in 1940 to Tongva mother Dolores Lola Lassos and Anglo father Charles Milton Scott, Barbara Drake (née Barbara Ann Scott) was raised exclusively on her mother’s traditional plant-based medicines until she was in her teens. Her upbringing built the foundation of her love of native plants and her interest in ethnobotany. Barbara was an enrolled member of The Gabrieleño/Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians and served as Tribal Secretary for many years. Barbara Drake went on to work in Indian Education Title VII for San Bernardino Schools, before coming to Pitzer College in 1993 to lecture on ethnoecology. Beginning in 1996, she began to participate in the Leadership in Environmental Education Program (LEEP), where she introduced hundreds of children to Tongva perspectives on the environment. Through her years with LEEP, she was dedicated to introducing children to seeing the natural world in different ways—as the center of all life, as cultural history, as storytelling, as tradition, as part of holistic community building. She said, “Even a rock has a life. Do you know why? Because it changes. Everything has a life. Everything is interconnected with each other. It’s important to teach that to the children.” Auntie Barbara was one of the founding members of Mother Earth Clan, Cultural Keepers, and the Chia Cafe Collective. She loved to bring Tongva community people together for one common cause: to continue our culture and traditions.

Over the past five years, Auntie Barbara felt her people coalescing and growing together: “We’re rebuilding ourselves. It’s like being reborn.” She considered her partnership with Pitzer College and the land of the Robert Redford Conservancy and Bernard Field Station in particular to be a key part of that revitalization. She often discussed the challenge of what it meant to come back from the wholesale cultural destruction of her people. But she always did so with grace, and she found solace in the dedication to cultural knowledge production among many Tongva young people, for whom she considered herself a guide: “They will take these responsibilities as we let go of them. It’s comforting because we know it’s not going to be on us. We can sit back and enjoy the beauty. It’s a beautiful thing, really. I didn’t think I’d be on earth to see these things happen.” Of the seasonal ceremonial gatherings, she said, “I know it’s going to continue to be something beautiful. Everybody needs this in their heart: sharing songs, stories, eating together, being able to be on the land. Everybody’s happiest on the land. It’s a gift. It’s not a small gift. It’s a tremendous gift that has been given to our people.”

Barbara Drake nurtured all who knew her. She is survived by her husband of sixty years, Gary Drake, two children, and numerous extended family members. Her loss leaves a monumental gap in our communities. Yet, the many seeds she cultivated will only continue to grow. We take heart by redoubling our commitments to the projects she helped start. We honor her life by working in partnership to steward the land and our relationships to it. May you rest in peace, beloved Barbara Drake. Your spirit lives on in us, and in the land, and you are now among the ancestors.

Gabrieleño/Tongva Tribal Elders and Members of the Local Tongva Community
Pitzer College and the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability