“Can Native American Tribes Protect Their Land If They’re Not Recognized by the Federal Government?” D. Utacia Krol, The Revelator
“State laws and policies in California have made some progress possible, but many tribes still lack legal recognition and struggle to maintain their cultural heritage and the environment. Louise Miranda Ramirez has fought to protect her ancestral lands and cultural sites for most of her 60-plus-year lifetime.
‘It’s so hard to save our lands and ancestors when we’re living in areas with people who make lots of money and don’t care about us,’ says Ramirez, the tribal chairwoman of the Ohlone/Costanoan Esselen Nation, known as OCEN. Ramirez and her fellow leaders have a rough task on their hands: Their traditional lands encompass Carmel, Pebble Beach, Big Sur, Asilomar and other highly coveted — and uber-expensive — communities along the Central California coast and Coast Ranges. Preserving burial sites, protecting traditional gathering areas from development and preventing villages from being bulldozed was at one time virtually impossible, as the tribe lacks federal recognition.
Nearby, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band is addressing similar issues. ‘Creator gave us the responsibility to care for Mother Earth and all living things’ says Chairman Valentin Lopez. The Amah Mutsun’s lands lie within the contemporary northern Salinas Valley, portions of San Benito County and Pinnacles National Park. ‘We knew that we had to find a way to exert stewardship over those lands to restore our relationship with the land.’ Like Ramirez’s tribe, Amah Mutsun is also not federally recognized.
California has the largest number of non-federally recognized tribes in the United States…In 1851-52, shortly after the state entered the Union, the country negotiated 18 treaties with California tribes guaranteeing lands and other rights. But the Senate refused to ratify the treaties, leaving most California Indians without land or legal protections. Only Natives who ended up on small settlements called rancherias eventually received federal recognition, which didn’t all last.
Then, in the 1950s, Congress terminated 109 tribes across the country, including 41 California tribes. Some of those tribes have never been restored. Today 55 tribes in California lack federal recognition, more than 20 percent of non-recognized tribes nationwide, according to the Government Accountability Office.
One of the best-known examples of how non-recognized tribes’ rights get overrun concerns the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. The 125-member tribe in Northern California has called the McCloud River home for millennia, but saw its lands taken by the federal government in the 1940s when Shasta Dam was constructed. Many of the tribe’s village, burial and cultural sites soon disappeared under the reservoir’s rising waters — and the salmon runs, upon which much of Winnemem’s culture and food supply is centered, are gone.
So where does this leave tribes like OCEN, Amah Mutsun and Winnemem? Ironically enough, the tribes have turned to the state of California, which in recent years is finally making up for its history and recognizing the environmental and cultural advantages of working with all the Indigenous peoples within its borders.
In fact, the situation is better for tribes in California than on the federal level, says Angela Mooney D’Arcy. She’s the executive director of the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples, an organization that advocates for Native peoples and helps them to build their own advocacy structures… One of D’Arcy’s goals is to showcase how Indigenous peoples can similarly use state laws and policies to reclaim lands. Amah Mutsun and other California tribes have created land trusts — nonprofits that work with landowners and agencies to preserve important cultural and ecological sites… Non-recognized tribes are still navigating choppy waters, though. D’Arcy points out that California cities and counties are the next level of government that needs education on inherent sovereignty, and federal and state policies can come into conflict when non-recognized tribes exert their rights.”