Sunday, November 27, 2011

2011-11-27 "California Indians could regain ancestral lands" by Brian F. Codding, Ron W. Goode from "San Francisco Chronicle"
 Brian F. Codding is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology and a researcher at the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. Ron W. Goode is a soapstone artist, storyteller and tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe.
Some California Indian tribes have the potential to regain their ancestral lands and restore age-old relationships between people and the environment in the Golden State.
 An unlikely turn of events has opened up this historic opportunity. PG&E's 2001 bankruptcy resulted in the formation of the Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council, a nonprofit organization designed to distribute lands PG&E agreed to donate as part of its settlement agreement. Now, after years of being denied rights to their traditional lands, tribes have the opportunity to recover some of what was previously theirs.
However, tribal entities are not the only parties interested in these properties. Federal and state agencies, county governments and other interested organizations are submitting competing bids.
 The council's board of directors met this month to decide who will receive the latest round of divested lands - unfortunately, none of the board's recommendations side with traditional tribal owners this time. Hopefully, the council will do better for the tribes in our state in the future.
At the heart of this issue is the question of who will better manage and care for these lands. While rival organizations suggest they are more stable and better suited to take stewardship, many of these agencies don't have good track records of management themselves. Many of California's open spaces are choked with overgrowth leading to systemic ecological problems and the perpetual threat of wildfires. Arguably, the present condition would never have come into being if it weren't for over 100 years of fire suppression policies that prohibited California Indians from burning their ancestral lands.
Because California's plant and animal communities evolved alongside California Indian burning strategies for millennia, California's ecosystems require burning at a scope and scale consistent with these practices. As such, the health of California's native vegetation is tied to the vitality of native burning. Many land managers including the U.S. Forest Service have begun to understand this insight and are working with tribes to redesign and re-implement burning regimes consistent with the goals of traditional burning practices.
While traditional burning is generally designed to improve the quality and quantity of culturally important resources, burning to encourage the growth and use of cultural resources also provides unintended results that can restore California's ecosystems. Burning in the right place and season will encourage the regrowth of materials used to make baskets - but these well-timed, well-placed fires may also drive out invasive grasses, encouraging the return of other native grasses that are too rare in California. Burning oak understory to reduce acorn pests makes harvesting acorns more efficient - but may also encourage the health of oak stands themselves by reducing parasites and lowering incidences of sudden oak death. Because these resources are actively gathered for subsistence, trade, sale in markets, and the production, use and sale of traditional arts and crafts like iconic California Indian baskets, allowing tribal entities to restore more of California's lands could benefit tribal livelihoods as well as California's ecosystems.
Past misunderstandings and disregard for California's diverse ecosystems and indigenous practices allowed land to be taken away and fire suppression to become law. By returning land to California Indian tribes, the council has a historic opportunity to right past wrongs against native people and ecosystems. In the process, we might learn to be able to worry a little bit less about the threat of wildfires and enjoy an open and healthy working wilderness that few have seen in over 100 years. While no recommendations favor tribes in this latest round, in future decisions, we hope the Stewardship Council will consider returning land to those who are best positioned to care for it - the traditional tribal owners.

John Mink / Center for Multicultural Coopera
Ron W. Goode, North Fork Mono Tribal chairman, leads an educational field trip teaching children about California Indians and the land near one of the tribe's restoration sites at Lost Lake in Fresno County in 2010.

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