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The Struggles Of Local Sacred Sites

It was 520 years ago this week that a lost Italian seaman flying the Spanish flag washed ashore on the Bahama Islands, three-quarters of a world away from where he thought he was, and became known as one of history's greatest navigators. When Christopher Columbus and the other crewmembers of the Pinta, Nina, and Santa Maria arrived in the Western Hemisphere, roughly 100 million people lived here, dwelling on landbases from the tip of Alaska to the tip of South America. Their cultures were as staggeringly diverse as the lands they inhabited.

Thanks in no small part to Columbus, that diversity — and the tens of millions of people whose individual lives embodied it — were devoured in the centuries that followed by the insatiable maw of European capitalism, which ate Indian flesh to feed its global expansion.

According to the conservative estimates of Spanish surveys, an estimated eight million people lived in the places where the Colombus' crews feverishly sought new sources of gold, silks, and slaves: the Caribbean Islands and the eastern shores of parts of mainland South America. During Columbus' tenure as “viceroy and governor” of the region from 1493 until 1500, he instituted policies of slavery (encomienda) and the systematic murder and rape of the Taino population. Dominican priest Bartolome de Las Casas was the first European historian in the Americas. In a 1496 survey, he estimated that over five million people had been exterminated within the first three years of the Columbus' rule.

In addition to inflicting a nearly unfathomable scale of death on indigenous peoples, Columbus was perhaps the premier slave trader of his time. Before he sailed the Atlantic, he was a slave trader for the Portuguese, transporting West African people to Portugal to be sold as slaves. He initiated the first Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and he ratcheted up this lucrative enterprise to a far greater extent upon his arrival in the so-called New World.

Columbus remains one of only a handful of individuals whose legacy commands its own national holiday in the US. Yet, it would be difficult to think of anyone whose legacy in this hemisphere is less worthy of celebration, whose legacy more represents brutality, greed, excess, exploitation and materialism.

In recognition of Columbus' role in the more than five centuries of conquest and genocide that have followed, supporters of Native people's sovereignty have sought for several years to reclaim the holiday as Indigenous People's Day.

In recent days, First Nations people throughout the hemisphere participated in events to mark the occasion, including ceremonies, educational workshops, and protests against Columbus Day parades. One dramatic example took place in San Francisco last week. A Columbus Day Parade protest was part of the “Anti-Colonial, Anti-Capitalist Convergence,” which also marked the 11th anniversary of the US-NATO invasion of Afghanistan. The protest also supported Ohlone traditionalists who object to the East Bay Regional Parks & Recreation District's desecration of Ohlone sacred sites.

Speaking of diversity, according to William R. Hildebrandt, in his book California Prehistory Colonization, Culture, and Complexity, this part of Northern California had the greatest linguistic diversity ever recorded on the planet. While the First Nations people of California's North Coast were not immediately impacted by Columbus' brutal misadventures, their later subjugation is part of the same historical currents — imperialism, capitalist land speculation, and the quest for gold and profitable commodities — that swept a certain Spanish trading expedition across the Atlantic 520 years ago.

In spite of overwhelming odds, many of the Pomo, Wailaki, Cahto, Yuki, and other Native people whose ancestry has been rooted in the areas now called “Mendocino County” and “Lake County” for thousands of years have maintained their traditions and continue to carry on struggles to defend their lands and dignity. Their cultures are inextricably linked to the lands they have historically inhabited, so their survival necessarily depends on preserving those lands. At any given time, however, these lands face countless threats.

Struggles to defend “sacred sites” seem to have a renewed momentum here in Northern California in recent years. For example, a 107-day occupation of ceremonial and burial ground for native tribes in Vallejo last year, which was under threat of development, resulted in the establishment of a cultural easement and settlement agreement that gave the tribes “legal oversight in all activities taking place on the sacred burial grounds.” This campaign helped bolster and inspire sacred sites struggles throughout the West Coast.

Sacred sites include efforts to protect former village sites, stop desecration of burial grounds, and prevent illegal sale and trade of ancient artifacts and burial items. Here are some examples of sacred sites struggles happening in Mendocino, Lake, and northwestern Sonoma Counties.

Even though certain laws are on the books that are designed to protect sacred areas, including NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, administered by the Department of the Interior), the legal system remains almost hopelessly skewed against Native people. The private property regime that predominates in the US ensures as much. Even private property laws themselves are quite often interpreted in such a way as to deprive Native people of basic protections. See the example of Rattlesnake Island below for an especially clear case-in-point.

As a result, Native people have to pick their battles. Even in cases where they win, their victories tend to be only temporary. Quite often, their success depends on meaningful solidarity in these struggles from non-Native people. Such solidarity begins with a genuine attempt to understand the specific issues Native people are facing. It must also include reckoning with the fact that they continue to be colonized by the dominant society — something for which Columbus Day provides a perfect opportunity.

Westport-Union Landing

When the California Legislature proposed to close dozens of state parks earlier this year, one of those put on the chopping block is a park that's of particular historic importance to Native people on the Mendocino Coast: Westport-Union Landing State Beach. This 58-acre park is located along three miles of coastline 19 miles north of Fort Bragg.

Nicole Eleck, a Wailaki woman who lives outside of Fort Bragg, and who founded the group Save Westport Union-Landing, explains: “Westport-Union Landing State Beach is important because Native Californians have been coming here since the beginning of time. The State Parks made an agreement with the Tribes of Mendocino and Humboldt County to allow free camping and traditional use by all Native Americans. The State Parks [proposed] closing 70 parks across the state and Westport-Union Landing State Beach made the list because it is not profitable. The reason it does not profit is that Native People predominantly use it and do not have to pay.”

Eleck and other Native people organized against the park closure. As an act of protest, they conducted a multi-day camp-out there in June that included a bear dance and pot luck. Eleck personally sustained her camp for more than two weeks, generating a great deal of attention on the park's behalf.

The Cahto Tribe, the traditional people of what is now known as “Laytonville,” stepped in and began working with state parks officials on a contract allowing them to manage Westport Union Landing State Beach, thereby saving it from closure. It would be the first time a Native tribe has ever managed a California State Park. The negotiations are not yet finalized.

Ma'kawica — Kashia Pomo Village Site

A pair of extremely large wine corporations have proposed what would be the two largest forest-to-vineyard conversions in the history of the State of California, which would take place right in the heart of the Kashia Pomo people's ancestral homeland, just outside the small northwestern Sonoma County town of Annapolis, which is located about 85 miles north of San Francisco, just below the Mendocino County line.

By far the larger of the two is Premier Pacific Vineyards’ (PPV) “Preservation Ranch,” a proposal to deforest more than 1,700 acres of redwoods and Douglas firs across dozens of ridgetops on a 20,000-acre parcel near the far northwestern boundary of Sonoma County. The smaller of the two projects — which would nonetheless be the biggest forest-to-vineyard conversion ever in the state — is being proposed by the Spanish wine corporation Codorniu, acting through its American outpost in the Napa Valley, Artesa. The company proposes to clear roughly half the forested acres on 324-acre parcel located on a broad ridge just southeast of Annapolis.

In addition to clear-cutting the redwoods, Premier Pacific and Artesa would rip out the trees’ roots, chemically sterilize the land, and deep plow the land with vertical forks prior to install their vast rows of premium grape varieties — chiefly, Pinot noir. The Gualala River watershed, already horribly damaged following decades of prodigious logging in the region, would only be further decimated by siltation and run-off. The possibility that the fish will ever again return to the river to lash it into whiteness, would grow much dimmer.

The Artesa project is located on land where an important Kashia village was located, known as Ma'kawica. Although Artesa has attempted to deny the existence of the village, knowledge of the site has been preserved as part of the cultural memory of the Kashia people. It was also documented by the famous anthropologist Samuel Barrett, who described it in his 1908 book The Ethno-Geography of the Pomo and Neighboring Indians.

The Artesa project, which has been on the drawing board for more than a decade, was approved by state forestry officials in May. A coalition of environmental groups — the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, and Friends of the Gualala River — have responded by filing a lawsuit on the grounds that Artesa did not adequately conduct an Environmental Impact Review, particularly in regard to their intentionally shoddy archeological research. We'll continue to follow the lawsuit here in the AVA.

As Violet Parrish Chappell and Vivian Parrish Wilder, traditional Kashia elders, have stated:

“That patch over there — Artesa land in Annapolis — that is a blessed place for us. We went there as kids. We picked berries there with our mother. We picked berries for necklaces. There is another place over there with a lot of Manzanita, and that was really important to us. We made spoons from that and also awls to make baskets. These are the things we grew up with. We dedicated our trees not to be cut. The trees in the forest are blessed. The Redwoods give us good medicine from the sap that hardens. It was used for anemia. The young shoots are used for colds. Bark dolls are made from Redwood.

“Everything out there is used for something.

“The reason we are against the disturbance in Annapolis is that place is alive. It is a dedicated area. It is a special area. If they do something wrong there, things are not going to go right. Who will believe us? We are speaking from the viewpoint of Kashia. We have to talk from the viewpoint of our spiritual leader, what we were taught. The non-Indian may not understand — there are things that we Indians can’t touch but can see. Good teachings are spiritual.”

Rattlesnake Island

The Elem Pomo have lived on the eastern and southern shores of the Clear Lake basin for at least 10,000 years, also inhabiting much of the peninsula between the eastern and southern arms of the lake. For a minimum of 5,000 of those years, the Elem's life has centered on an island, roughly 56 acres in surface area, located just off the north shore of the lake's eastern arm (and easily visible from Highway 20 to the southwest on the way into Clearlake Oaks). The island has been the home of five documented Elem village sites, as well as dance hours, cremation pits, human burial grounds — all the hallmarks of the people's religious, cultural and political life.

Yet, in spite of a nearly 200-year history of Euroamerican encroachment into the Pomo nations' ancestral territory, no development had ever taken place on the island — until late last year. John Nady, an obscenely wealthy wireless technology entrepreneur based in Emeryville, has “owned” Rattlesnake Island since 2004. Although neither John Nady nor Lake County have ever conducted an adequate archeological study on this most historically important of sites, as required by the US federal government's own laws (namely, the Environmental Protection Act, which requires that “), Nady received approval from the Lake County Supes on a 3-2 vote to begin construction on the island.

In fact, selective law enforcement is one of the major themes of the saga surrounding Rattlesnake Island for the past 135 years. Even under the US government's own property laws, the Elem are the island's rightful owners. The Indian Non-Intercourse Act, signed into federal law in 1834, establishes that aboriginal land title can only be extinguished by an act of Congress. The initial 1877 patent on the island violated the law, being that it was signed by a state-level official: then-California Governor Irwin. Irwin deeded the land to a pair of wealthy real estate speculator friends of his. The island's new paper title holders claimed, in spite of all available evidence, that the land was uninhabited.

This title has been sold all the way down the historically fraudulent line to Nady, who will shortly begin occupying a vacation home there barring unforeseen legal intervention.

The greatest hindrance to Elem traditionalists' ability to mount effective opposition to Nady's project, unfortunately, has been infighting within the tribe. The historical reasons for this splintering run deep. I'll describe this in more detail in an upcoming AVA. Yet, although Elem traditionalists have been consumed by this inner-tribal conflict, they have still managed to coordinate efforts to raise money for a lawsuit that would overturn Nady's construction, with the goal of removing his construction from the island. The lawsuit is slowly making its way through Lake County Superior Court.

Fort Bragg Trail Project

I wrote about this project in an article for the AVA a few weeks ago, under the title “Coastal Trail or Trail of Tears?” The City of Fort Bragg has been at work for over a decade planning the Fort Bragg Coastal Trail and Restoration Project, which encompasses virtually all of the beachfront land west of the city, north of the Noyo River, and south of the Georgia Pacific Mill site. But many of the Northern Pomo’s most sacred sites, including burial sites, would be desecrated by the trail development.

For a summary of the issue, see the AVA from three weeks ago. Here is an excerpt from an essay that Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Talisha Meluish sent to the UN Special Rappoteur on Human Rights regarding the subject:

“We have been displaced from our lands, with our cultural and spiritual sites desecrated and turned into Parks for tourist' enjoyment while we are prevented from gathering our foods as we have since time began. Yet, we have continued to use and occupy these lands as we have since time immemorial.

“In 1909, we bought a small piece of land that would become known as the Sherwood Valley Band of Pomo Indians. We have lived as squatters at Noyo and other places within our homelands. Every year the restrictions on use of our old trails and gathering places become stricter. Now the recent developments in our aboriginal territory further threaten what is left of our culture and way of life.

“We have always and continue to be good stewards and caretakers of what we have been given by our Creator, yet the government wants to group us with those that rape and pillage our lands and natural resources through over-harvesting. The Marine Life Protection Act (MPLA) aimed to restrict our gathering rights on the coast and cut us off from many of our native foods such as seaweed, abalone, surf fish, and salmon. These are the foods that have sustained us for millennia.

“The MLPA was the brain child of big industry and Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense and ex-CIA Director. The MLPA does not prohibit oil and gas extraction, but does infringe on our right to fish and harvest. Academi (formerly Blackwater) will police parts of the Coast to make sure that no one fishes in the areas that will be closed. To prohibit us from access to our sacred places is a sacrilege to the ancient religious covenants.

“The Forst Bragg Coastal Trail is being developed using US Department of Transportation Stimulus 'ARRA' funds and by the Koch Brothers. The Koch Brothers have more personal wealth than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 48 countries. They want to turn the mill site that was adversely possessed for 120 years into a picturesque oasis for tourists, including high density housing. The development of this trail is meant to bring in more tourism while the planners want to dig up our historical and cultural sites, or as they call them, 'cultural stuff.'

“They have told us that we should empathize with them because their 'residents haven't seen their own coastline in at least 120 years' due to the mills that have continue to exist on the property;” they say this to us with no respect or regard for the suffering we have endured due to how that land has been used. Not only does this trail threaten our sites but also our gathering on the coast, the land that was purchased for this this trail stands on an old mill site owned by Georgia Pacific that was once Mendocino Indian Reservation. The rights we once had to freely gather on that part of the coast near the river were taken when Georgia Pacific bought the mill. We were given one area where we could gather, and even then we have continued to be harassed.

“The City of Fort Bragg Specific Plan lays out the planned rezone, and a representative noted that they can take tribal prescriptive easements by eminent domain. Destruction to this traditional cultural landscape is systematically dismantling our tribal culture. Now the Tribe has been forwarded a deadline by Department of Transportation via the City of Fort Bragg that state if the tribe does not meet the City's deadlines, that the project will proceed without further tribal input. The fact that Department of Transportation would send the tribal leadership a letter through the City of Fort Bragg is contrary to the federal trust responsibility in interpretation and application.”

Contact the author at wparrish{at}


  1. Nicole Eleck October 19, 2012

    I want to thank you for drawing attention to the struggles of the local Native people of Mendocino County, and more particularly to the Mendocino Coast.

    When I moved to Fort Bragg from Humboldt County I had never felt so alone as a Native person. There are only a handful of Native People that live here in the Fort Bragg/ Mendocino area. I grew up in Eureka and although it is a diverse town, it has the largest population of Native Americans in Humboldt County. When I came here people always asked me if I was from Point Arena, and when I answered that I lived in Fort Bragg they would give me a quizzical look. I remember (on several occasions) asking myself “Where are the Indians?”. When I enrolled my children in school I asked about Indian Education, and the Fort Bragg Unified School District said that there were not enough Natives to qualify for an Indian Education Program, and as a matter of fact they had less than 12 Native Americans FBUSD wide.

    Now I am finally getting to my point… So when I say Thank you, it’s because there are so many people here on the Mendocino Coast that have forgotten the Local Native People. They know there are Native’s that live in Point Arena, Ukiah, and Covelo, but forget that there are Native families still living in Fort Bragg, albeit hard to see. They also forgot or chose not to remember the way we were treated by the settlers of these seaside communities. When you write articles like this it shows people that we are still here, still fighting for recognition, still raising our children, and still embracing and living our culture in a society that has left its own tradition behind for a modern life.

    Thank you,
    Nicole Eleck.

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