As the owner of Exclusive Collections Gallery in Solana Beach, Ruth-Ann Thorn is no stranger to actively engaging her community to share experiences and stories, though as a gallerist, it’s most often through the art and its creators she features in the gallery or on her YouTube series, Art of the City TV. Luckily, her work — which includes traveling to discover and meet artists of all genres — offers a natural opportunity to explore her own heritage as a Native American and member of the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians, as well as a means to connect with others who share that heritage nationwide. Now, Thorn is embracing an even deeper sense of purpose and responsibility to that history by taking an active role within the Native American community here in San Diego. “As I get older, being more involved with other tribes, I get to meet a lot of interesting women from all over Indian Country, and really seeing the cultures, it made me realize that importance of not just preserving the culture, but telling the true story of the Americas so that people understand the history,” she says. “Telling the true story of what happened here on this land is so important to the future of us as human beings.”
Sharing, and ultimately honoring, the actual experience of Native Americans and exposing the fallacies that have been perpetuated in our history books for centuries is the primary goal of November’s National Native American Heritage Month, proposed initially as just one day in 1915 and ultimately declared to span an entire month by President George H. W. Bush in 1990. Still, more than 30 years later, Thorn acknowledges we have a long way to go for her people to be seen for who they really are — and were — as the first Americans. “People don’t understand that this was a thriving nation of 100 million people who bartered and traded for thousands of years with people from all over the world,” she explains. “We really haven’t successfully, as a nation, wrapped our heads around that fact, and they almost don’t exist any longer. We’re the smallest minority group in the United States.”
A significant part of her work in bringing Native American life to the forefront and helping modern tribes to thrive both on- and off-reservation comes with her work as chairwoman of Rincon Economic Development Corporation (REDCO). Thorn works with a team of tribal members, all with diverse business backgrounds, to identify businesses that would support their tribe, and not just financially. Notably, Thorn has been involved in the development of the Rincon Reservation Road Brewery, which is slated to open an Ocean Beach tasting room in early 2022 and will be the first off-reservation business in the history of Rincon. “We felt like it would be an opportunity to be part of the craft beer community that San Diego is known for, and do a profitable business [at the same time],” she says, adding that the label can be found in stores including BevMo and Costco as well as in neighboring casinos. But it’s the opportunity for people to get a true taste — literally — of their culture that really excites Thorn. “You’re going to hear our story in there with a glass of beer and sit down next to an Indian!” she says.
A mural in the tasting room by Native American artist Joe Hopkins depicts the world of the Rincon from the mountains down to the ocean. “We wanted it to be hip and contemporary because we’re tired of telling the sad story,” says Thorn. “Yeah, the sad story is there and we want to continue to bring the truth out, but in that we also want people to know that we were also a very hospitable people. Our idea is just, ‘Let’s celebrate that fact that we’re still here and we have a story to tell, let’s also be those people we are, which is just to invite people to come in and experience our culture.’”
Thorn’s work to advance the awareness and appreciation of her people doesn’t stop at her work with REDCO. She has plans to break ground next year on a cultural center on her own tribal land in Valley Center, which will include a gallery devoted to native art and an event center to host indigenous artists from all over the country to work and share their discipline with kids, from painting, sculpture, and pottery to beadwork and even fashion. She’s also developed an organic skincare line, N8iV, which includes traditional ingredients her ancestors used and celebrates the beauty ideals of indigenous people.
Ultimately, Thorn’s true mission echoes that of National Native American Heritage Month. “I think it’s about taking a minute to just acknowledge and maybe learn a little bit about the land that you’re now living on, and that there were a whole bunch of people here for thousands of years,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be a focus on the negative, just an acknowledgment. And I think once that gets acknowledged, people can start healing.” nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov, ncai.org, ecgallery.com