Because indigenous cultures are inextricably linked to the lands they have historically inhabited, their survival necessarily depends on preserving those lands, which face countless threats at any given time. In California and beyond, contemporary indigenous people are engaged in battles over mineral rights, water rights, federal recognition, honoring of treaties, repatriation or honorable treatment of sacred sites, healthcare, language preservation and much more.
In California alone, there are 109 federally recognized tribes and another 78 that are petitioning the Bureau of Indian Affairs for recognition, often waiting for decades to receive a verdict. Many others do not bother to apply for recognition at all, often viewing it as a waste of energy and resources.
Beth Rose Middleton, associate professor in the department of Native American studies at UC Davis, cites several examples of how even indigenous people who lack federal recognition are finding ways to exercise sovereignty over their original territories. Middleton is the author of Trust in the Land: New Directions in Tribal Conservation, which explores conservation partnerships led by California native nations. In contrast to many conservation land trusts, which prioritize species conservation that diminishes human contact with land, she notes that Native American–led projects focus on restoring humans' historical role as land stewards.
Such projects provide a tangible way "to right historical wrongs and provide long-term protection and enhancement of lands and waters we all depend upon," Middleton says.
California's first-ever indigenous land trust was born out of a figurative and literal battlefield in the "Redwood Wars." In the 1980s, large corporate timber firms—including Louisiana-Pacific, Georgia-Pacific (now owned by the Koch Brothers) and Maxxam—were in the process of felling most of the largest remaining redwoods and Douglas firs on their private lands along California's northern coast.
People chained themselves to trees in the heart of a roughly 7,000-acre parcel Georgia-Pacific was actively logging, located within the ancestral territory of the Sinkyone people. A lawsuit by the Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center, the International Indian Treaty Council and other parties halted the logging operation.
Those that protected the forest named the largest stand of old redwoods the Sally Bell Grove, after a Sinkyone Indian woman who had survived a massacre of her people as a young girl in the 1860s.
At the outset, many of the forest protectors—transplants from urban life and white, for the most part—might easily have viewed Sally Bell as a token of their struggle. They would soon find out that her legacy was very much alive. In 1986, seven tribes from Mendocino and Lake counties formed the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, with the intent of acquiring a portion of the Georgia-Pacific land for traditional cultural purposes.
After co-founding the Sinkyone Council, Priscilla Hunter of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians (a federally recognized tribe), and numerous others, led a political and fundraising campaign that involved grants and small donations. In 1997, the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council land trust became the proud owner of 3,900 acres of rugged and beautiful Sinkyone terrain, establishing the first intertribal wilderness park in the United States.
The council's current executive director, Hawk Rosales, notes that the Sinkyone has been a touchstone of a broader social movement, which focuses on restoring land to indigenous stewardship as a means of protecting the land from industrial activity, while also enhancing it through wise human intervention. "We have shown the world that there is a way in which indigenous people can, and will, return to their role of traditional caretakers on the land when given the opportunity," Rosales says.
There are now at least four other indigenous land trusts in California. In Oakland, for instance, the first women-led, urban land trust in the country formed last year. The Maidu Summit Consortium land trust formed in the early aughts on behalf of Mountain Maidu people in the vicinity of Mt. Lassen.
The Mountain Maidu got their breakthrough in the wake of the early-2000s Enron scandal, which forced PG&E into bankruptcy. Since the early 1900s, the utility giant had owned title to one of the tribe's most sacred areas, Humbug Valley, a miraculously undeveloped 2,000-acre meadowy area southwest of Lassen. As part of the bankruptcy proceedings, a state judge ordered the utility giant to relinquish thousands of acres it owned to conservation stewards.
In a lengthy process, Mountain Maidu traditionalists demonstrated to the court-appointed stewardship council their worthiness as stewards of their ancestral land. By 2013, the Maidu Summit Consortium had claimed title to the valley from one of the wealthiest and most powerful corporations in the western United States.
In 2014, Maidu Summit consortium executive director Kenneth Holbrook, a 40-year-old Mountain Maidu traditionalist with a broad and boyish smile, led me on a tour through Humbug Valley. It is a remarkably beautiful place, featuring a meadow fringed by tall conifers and a soda spring bubbling out of the ground on one end to help form Yellow Creek, a tributary of the upper Feather River.
In 1908, Holbrook's great uncle was murdered by two California game wardens as he fished near there. Roughly a hundred years later, key support for the consortium's stewardship proposal came from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which regards Yellow Creek as one of the most promising areas in the state for native salmon restoration.
"We're all hopeful that the song of the salmon will return to this valley under our people's stewardship," Holbrook says. "Getting the land is really the first step."
Hawk Rosales says that recognition of indigenous people's knowledge of tending the land has broad implications for environmentalists in general.
"Among various segments of society, I think we now see an increasing interest in restoring a better relationship with nature," Rosales says. "But without key principles of ancient traditional tribal knowledge, which honor and protect the many complex interrelationships and functions of the natural world, then the well-intended efforts of non-native groups to restore environmental balance will only go so far."