Sonoma County Regional Parks has developed a well-regarded process of consulting with local tribes. Its relationship with the Graton Rancheria in the management of Tolay Lake Regional Park, however, is entirely unique. "I think this collaboration is a testament to Greg [Sarris] and the tribe, and to the great working relationship we've had, even prior to the Tolay project," says Sonoma County Regional Parks director Caryl Hart.
Much of that collaboration involves planning out the land's restoration. A Graton Rancheria tribal citizen named Peter Nelson, a Ph.D. candidate in UC Berkeley's department of anthropology, is playing a crucial role in that process. Nelson's dissertation focuses on the history of human use of the Tolay Lake Regional Park land. "I'm basically speaking the language of ecologists and other scientists in support of what the tribe is doing," Nelson says.
The area surrounding Tolay Lake now consists of open grasslands characterized by non-native annual species such as wild oat, which turns golden in the summer. The land is dotted with cow patties. According to Hart, the agricultural heritage of the land will remain a fixture of the park, allowing for limited grazing. At the time of European contact, the area remained green year-round due to the prevalence of perennial bunch grasses, which the cattle later trampled out.
Stands of gnarly live oaks occupy only niche habitats on the Tolay Lake Park grounds today, while they were far more abundant 200 years ago, Nelson says. Shrubs that were once prolific, such as California lilac and California coffeeberry, are now entirely absent. A variety of colorful bulbs, like those in the Brodiaea genus (a staple food source that California Indians actively cultivated), are now consigned to marginal areas.
This former abundance of vegetation depended on the Coast Miwok people's tending practices, Nelson says, particularly their careful use of fire. In oak savannahs, fire removes oak leaves and litter, opens up the soil so that plants can grow faster, helps to control harmful insects and diseases, improves wildlife habitat (by, for example, removing brush from around water sources) and recycles nutrients from the litter into the soil. That resulting cornucopia of plant life, in turn, supports a greater array of wildlife.
The lake itself was also actively managed by indigenous people, Gene Buvelot tells me. Again, Nelson's research reinforces traditional knowledge. He notes that ecologists and geomorphologists have told him that "the land formation of this valley should not naturally hold water, and there is no evidence of landslides, so there must have been a dam constructed by native people in order for there to have been a lake."
Even after U.S. colonization, the Coast Miwok continued to conduct multi-day ceremonies at the lake. Warren Moorehead's 1910 book, The Stone Age in North America, refers to a letter from Petaluma ranching pioneer J. B. Lewis: "When I came here in the early [1850s]," Lewis wrote, "there used to be large numbers of Indians who go by my ranch in the fall, down to the creek to catch sturgeon and dry them, and they always went back by the way of [Tolay Lake] and stayed a day or two and had some kind of powwow. After the lagoon was drained, they never came back."
RESTORING WHAT WAS
When I visited Tolay Lake, the old lakebed—roughly 200 acres in size—held no standing water. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has developed a plan to restore it with the tribe.
"You can't recreate what once was, but you can use the knowledge of the past as a baseline to imagine and create a space that is of the here and now, as a guide into the future," Ross says.
After leaving Tolay Lake Regional Park, Ross and Buvelot led me on an eastern drive along Highway 37, around the base of Sonoma Mountain. Our destination was a 2,100-acre parcel the Sonoma Land Trust is donating as an addition to the park. Highway 37 itself, the "Lakeville Highway," gets its name from the former town of Lakeville—which was named for Tolay Lake.
We stop at the Sears Point marsh on the edge of San Pablo Bay. As Buvelot notes, the area's indigenous people formerly maintained themselves on sturgeon, Sacramento hitch and bat rays, which they fished out of the tidal marshes. The abundance of fish is a major reason Sonoma County was home to one of the highest concentration of indigenous people in the Western Hemisphere.
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CONNECTED TO THE LAND Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria tribal citizen Soren RedHawk Calzado helps collect tule at Tolay Lake for use in building a 'tule kotcha,' or house structure.
But the fish's habitat was largely destroyed by dikes and dams along the bay's fringes in the early 1900s. Starting in the 1980s, the Bay Institute and other environmental organizations adopted a program to restore 100,000 acres of these tidal wetlands, which has entailed buying the lands and removing the dikes. By 2006, the 1,000-acre Sears Point area was the proverbial "last hole in the doughnut," the Bay Institute's Marc Holmes, a wetlands-restoration expert, tells me.
Ironically, Graton Rancheria had purchased an option on the Sears Point property for $4.7 million, using an advance from their Las Vegas–based casino development funder, Station Partners. The tribe was exploring building its casino there. As soon as they learned of the conservation groups' intention, however, they donated the purchase option to the Sonoma Land Trust. Finally, in October 2015, tribal members joined environmentalists and regulatory officials in a ceremony where the levy was breached, and water once again washed into an area of crucial habitat that had been drained and dried.
Buvelot is one of the most respected elders in North Bay Indian country. His memory is filled with landmarks and watersheds of his people's historical occupancy of this region. On the way to the levy breach site, he points out a former village site, which the California Highway Department (now CalTrans) bulldozed to construct the highway.
Buvelot's grandfather, the locally famed Coast Miwok fisherman William Smith, is largely credited with founding the Bodega Bay fishing industry in the early 1900s. He recalls being eight years old when the Highway Department built an extension of Highway 1 through Bodega Bay—and also through some of his people's ancestral burial grounds—during the 1950s. As the relics of his ancestors were excavated and cast alongside the highway, he and his relatives scurried around shoving them into burlap sacks, hurrying before the bulldozers returned.
THE HONOR OR RESPONSIBILITY
As with the rest of Tolay Lake Park land, the Sonoma Land Trust's new addition consists of beautiful rolling meadows. It sits at the crossroads of highways 37 and 121. And like so many parts of the North Bay, it is a place where industrial civilization's imperative to expand visibly collides with the need to protect the earth from despoliation and greed. A sprawling new vineyard and a winery are slated for development on one side of the land; the Sonoma Raceway lies on the other. Hundreds of cars course past on Highway 121 in the half-hour we spend there.
Ross' life, like Buvelot's, has paralleled the larger journey of the Graton Rancheria people. Her grandmother was forced to attend an American-Indian boarding school in Sherman Oaks. When the original, Sebastopol-based Graton Rancheria was terminated, their family held onto a one-acre parcel where Ross' parents raised her in a small cabin. She says the discrimination and racism she grew up with was more subtle than what her parents experienced.
"I feel like I get to live through a time when I have the honor of responsibility," she says. "There's not a bounty on my head. I'm not forced to stand at the back of the line due to segregation. It's a different time. It wouldn't be right if I didn't take the privilege I have, which is born from the sacrifices of those that came before me, to try to advance our community."