Digging Deep to Protect the Roots of Native Lands

In January, First Nations’ California Tribal Fund (CTF) hosted a Stewarding Ancestral Lands Gathering to strengthen connections and build capacity for California-based Native stewardship and protection of ancestral lands.

This event was well-attended by staunch advocates for safeguarding Native lands ― 14 participants from nine tribes and tribal organizations ― at Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, and facilitated by Melvin Consulting, a Hopi-owned and -led firm.

Mary Adelzadeh, Director of First Nations’ Stewarding Native Lands Program, talked about opportunities and resources to advance tribal land rights and interests; staff from the California Wildlife Conservation Board discussed grant opportunities; and Kate Trujillo (Laguna Pueblo), a First Nations consultant and evaluator, covered program evaluation, providing a summary of preliminary findings from CTF’s first Accessing Ancestral Lands grant program.

The California Tribal Fund team poses with the participants and facilitators of the Stewarding Ancestral Lands Gathering.

Participants shared stories of land access and land return. One such story was told by Owens Valley Indian Water Commission (OVIWC), a tribal consortium that works to protect water resources and expand food security for the people of Payahuunadü (“lands of the flowing water” in Nüümü).

OVIWC told participants about their success in acquiring a 5-acre sanctuary called Three Creeks. Now, community members can go out to Three Creeks to enjoy this green and bountiful land. Teri Red Owl, executive director of OVIWC, said youth feel safe on this land ― intended to be a place of healing, cultural revitalization, food, and medicine.

Three Creeks stands in contrast to other areas in Payahuunadü that suffer from a low water table due to the redirection of water to Los Angeles, 270 miles south.

Envisioning a future of healing

During a visioning activity, participants revealed their hopes for bringing back healing to the land and creating a space for tribal members to come home and thrive.

Kyndell Noah and Teri Red Owl from Owens Valley Indian Water Commission draw up their vision for the community they serve in Payahuunadü.

Ron Montez Sr. from Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians said they are working toward returning to ceremonies, honoring elders, and passing on the language and values of the people to the youth. “Creator gives us a reason and a season,” he said. “We are one with nature. We represent the birds. We honor fire and water. We have responsibilities for our people.”

Elizabeth Paige from the Native American Land Conservancy spoke about their work engaging the community with the future in mind. “Native folks are the strongest allies we have against climate change. The next generation will be the decision-makers.”

The challenges ahead

While tribes have increasing opportunities to access funding to re-acquire and steward ancestral lands, participants at the gathering learned about the challenges that continue to reflect the history of Native land struggles.

The state of California has rolled out funding opportunities, such as the Tribal Nature-Based Solutions Program; and on the federal side, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture have programs to support this work, as well. These programs will continue to help facilitate progress for tribes acquiring, stewarding, and protecting the natural and cultural resources on their ancestral lands.

But there are challenges and gaps in these opportunities that can be supported by philanthropy. Participants spoke out about capacity issues related to the small size of tribal operations and tribal nonprofit organizations.

What’s more, technical assistance and training are needed to administer funds and navigate complicated laws. The CTF is strategizing ways to fill gaps that state and federal funding programs are unable to address.

State and federal funds also have limitations and tradeoffs, including longer timelines for land purchases that discourage private landowners from selling to tribes; and requirements for newly acquired lands to be accessible to the public, which may defeat the intention to protect sacred lands.

The vision by Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians for restoration of land, water, and culture.

A collaborative spirit is the key to success

Grantees highlighted the importance of positive and meaningful working relationships with local, state, and federal agencies so that someone who understands the tribal perspective is at the decision-making table.

Relationships are key to this work. Kimberley Johnson from the Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Conservancy stressed that it is necessary for tribal people to continue the arduous work of indigenizing the world of conservation so that non-Native people can become better allies to Native people caring for Native lands.

When funders and non-Native land managers are willing to listen to tribal people, the land can heal and benefit everyone.

At the gathering, there was a consensus that when tribes and tribal organizations can work together, they have more power to make a difference ― whether fighting for water rights or opportunities for tribes to be centered in decision-making about funding or resource management.

Tubatulabal Tribal Chairman Robert Gomez Jr. spoke to the patience required for this work. “Everything takes a long time. Fortunately, tribes are in it for the long haul.”