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Reclaiming Tolay Lake

On the second day of 2016, I have gathered with Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria Tribal Councilmembers Lorelle Ross and Gene Buvelot to observe the southern view from the eastern ridge of Sonoma Mountain, about seven miles east of Petaluma.  From this world-at-your-feet platform, the smooth blue expanse of San Pablo Bay rises against the high rises of San Francisco's financial district, with the peaks of Mt. Diablo and Mt. Tamalpais visible on the water's fringes.

The main object of these indigenous leaders' attention, however, is a far smaller body of water that historically occupied a 200-acre depression directly beneath the ridge.  For thousands of years, this shallow lake, today known as Tolay, was a sacred gathering place for Coast Miwok people – including the ancestors of Ms. Ross and Mr. Buvelot.

The lake had been, as Graton Rancheria Chairman Greg Sarris informed me in a prior conversation, a Miwok version of Stanford Medical Center: a place of extraordinary healing power that called together indigenous people from throughout the region now known as the western United States.

In the 1870s, however, an industrious cattle rancher dynamited the southern berm that held back the lake's water, draining it to San Pablo Bay.   The land became gridded and platted with ranches, cutting off the indigenous people's access to it.

As Sarris, Ross, and Buvelot tell it, traditional doctors would administer healing with "charm stones" at the lake, which would pull sickness, pain, and poison out of people. The stone would be cast into the water, and the sickness would drown. When the lake was drained, thousands of charm stones were discovered, and the ranchers made a business out of selling them to museums and private collectors. Throughout the late-19th and 20th centuries, ranchers plowed up the dried-up lakebed in their fervor to commodify the Indians' sacred stones, until virtually none remained.

This was one in a long line of deadly and devastating insults.  When the Spanish arrived in the late 18th century, they introduced population-destroying diseases and incarcerated Coast Miwok and other California Natives in crowded, disease-ridden labor camps at missions in Petaluma, San Rafael, and Sonoma.  In the mid-19th century, US settlers cut down thousands of these indigenous people one by one, and in massacres known and unknown to history.  The survivors were enslaved; their children were stolen.

The Graton Rancheria's membership, which include descendants of the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo linguistic groups, trace their ancestry to only 14 known survivors of the Spanish and US colonization period.  Their combined pre-contact population had been 20,000-30,000.

These cultures' stubborn endurance, however, ensured that their connection with sacred places was not fully severed.  Shortly after the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department purchased 1,900 acres that includes Tolay Lake, in 2005, the Graton Rancheria Tribal Council saw an opportunity – and took it.

The councilmembers borrowed $500,000 against their future casino and donated it to the County to support the park master plan process.  In turn, they gained an influential role in determining everything from trail locations to the restoration techniques the County Parks Department will rely on to restore the area's streams and vegetation, and the lake itself.  For the Graton Rancheria Indians, the healing place of their ancestors has become an important communal gathering area, and a focal point of their healing in an altogether more modern sense.

“If you don't have a connection with the land, you're lost,” says Lorelle Ross, who has been a Tribal Council member since she was 19 years old in 1996.  “Now, we have kids in our tribe who are growing up experiencing revitalization and re-engagement with this place their ancestors took care of.”

They are not alone.  Throughout the North Bay, the North Coast, and multiple other regions of California, indigenous people are reclaiming stewardship of ancestral territories from which they were once violently evicted.

Reclaiming a Landbase

The struggle of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, as with any sovereign entity, has been defined by access to land.  A major turning point occurred in 1851-52, when treaty commissioners sanctioned by the US Congress negotiated 18 agreements setting aside roughly 7.5 million acres of California territory as reservations for 500 Indigenous nations, whose ancestral landbase was in the midst of being overrun by gold miners and land speculators.  The US Senate rejected the treaties and imposed an injunction of secrecy on them.

The documents were unsealed more than 50 years later.  Amid the resulting public outcry,  Congress provided a very modest form of redress, passing legislation authorizing the purchase of small tracts of land called “rancherias” on behalf of “the homeless Indians of California.”  In the case of the Graton Rancheria Indians, a 15.5-acre rancheria northwest of Sebastopol was set aside for “the homeless Indians of Tomales Bay, Bodega Bay, Sebastopol, and the vicinities thereof.”

Before long, even this small vestige of the Graton Indians' aboriginal territory was stripped away.  In 1958, Congress revoked Graton's federal recognition (and that of 39 other California tribes), auctioned most of the rancheria land, and turned the residents out of their homes – part of a larger push to “terminate” Indian reservations and thereby hasten the people's assimilation into the dominant US society.

“We became like the White Man: homeless in our own homeland,” Greg Sarris, the Graton Rancheria chairman, explains.

Sarris is a man with a singular resume.  He is a long-time college professor, author, Hollywood producer and screenwriter.  He played a key role in his tribe's restoration to federal status.  In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Graton Rancheria Restoration Act, which Sarris co-authored.  Formerly an English professor at UCLA, he is now the endowed chair of Writing and Native American Studies at Sonoma State University – a position funded by the Graton Rancheria itself.

That endowment, as with other tribal line items, is largely made possible by the Graton Resort and Casino: an $800 million monolith in Rohnert Park, on the west side of Highway 101, that opened in 2013.  Though the casino originally faced an intense backlash from a segment of the local populace, it has earned support from many critics as the tribe's intentions have become better known.  The tribal council agreed to donate $12 million and $9 million in annual revenue, respectively, to Rohnert Park and Sonoma County to offset its impact on public services – part of a compact Sarris negotiated with Gov. Jerry Brown.

The casino underwrites a wide-ranging set of social services for tribal members, including housing assistance, health care, nutrition and health counseling, a cultural resources library, a language preservation program, and much more.  Sarris says that, in contrast to the hospitality and wine industries, which build their wealth on the backs of their workers without acknowledging it, the casino was built and is operated by union employees who earn above living-wage rates.  His tribe is also investing in several agro-ecology food farms that will employ undocumented people and low-risk prisoners at living wages as part of a rehabilitation program.

Amid this larger social justice agenda, the tribe is working to pick up the pieces of a shattered history – a history inextricably tied to the landscape.  Sarris notes that his people's entire historical landbase, including places like Tolay and the Laguna de Santa Rosa, are akin to their holy text.  “Most of the bible, if you want to use that analogy, has been destroyed – has been burned,” he says.  “All we have are shards of the text, bits and pieces of it.  Tolay Lake is a place where we can make a start.”

Part of a Bigger Movement

Because indigenous cultures are inextricably linked to the lands they have historically inhabited,  their survival necessarily depends on preserving those lands, which face countless threats at any given time. In California and beyond, contemporary indigenous people are engaged in battles over mineral rights, water rights, federal recognition, honoring of treaties, repatriation or honorable treatment of sacred sites, healthcare, language preservation, and much more.

In California alone, there are 109 federally recognized tribes and another 78 that are petitioning the Bureau of Indian Affairs for recognition, and often wait decades to receive a verdict.    Many others do not bother to apply for recognition at all, often viewing it as a waste of energy and resources.

Last year, I discussed with Beth Rose Middleton, associate professor in the Department of Native American Studies at UC Davis, several examples of how even Indigenous people who lack federal recognition are also finding ways to exercise sovereignty over their original territories.  Dr. Middleton is the author of Trust in the Land: New Directions in Tribal Conservation, which explores conservation partnerships led by California native nations.  In contrast to many conservation land trusts, which prioritize species conservation that diminishes human contact with land, she notes that Native American-led projects focus on restoring humans' historic role as land stewards.

Such projects provide a tangible way "to right historical wrongs and provide long-term protection and enhancement of lands and waters we all depend upon," says Middleton.

California's first-ever indigenous land trust was born out of a figurative and literal battlefield in the “Redwood Wars.”   In the 1980s, large corporate timber firms – including Louisiana-Pacific, Georgia-Pacific (now owned by the right-wing Koch Brothers), and MAXXAM -- were in the process of felling most of the largest remaining redwoods and Douglas firs on their private lands in California’s north coast.

People chained themselves to trees in the heart of a roughly 7,000-acre parcel Georgia-Pacific was actively logging, located within ancestral territory of the indigenous Sinkyone people. A lawsuit by the Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center, the International Indian Treaty Council, and other parties halted the logging operation.

Those that protected the forest named the largest stand of old redwoods the Sally Bell Grove, after a Sinkyone Indian woman who had survived a massacre of her people as a young girl, then punctuated her story of survival against the odds by living well into the 1900s.

At the outset, many of the forest protectors – transplants from urban life and white, for the most part – easily might have viewed Sally Bell as a token of their struggle. They would soon find out that her legacy was very much alive. In 1986, seven tribes from Mendocino and Lake Counties formed the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, with the intent of acquiring a portion of the Georgia-Pacific land for traditional cultural purposes.

After co-founding the Sinkyone Council, Priscilla Hunter of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians (a federally recognized tribe), and numerous others, led a political and fundraising campaign that involved grants and small donations. In 1997, the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council land trust became the proud owner of 3,900 acres of rugged and beautiful Sinkyone terrain, establishing the first intertribal wilderness park in the US.

The Council's current executive director, Hawk Rosales, notes that the Sinkyone has been a touchstone of a broader social movement, which focuses on restoring land to indigenous stewardship as a means of protecting the land from industrial activity, while also enhancing it through wise human intervention. “We have shown the world that there is a way in which indigenous people can, and will, return to their role of traditional caretakers on the land when given the opportunity,” he says.

There are now at least four other indigenous land trusts in California.  In Oakland, for instance, the first women-led, urban indigenous land trust in the US formed last year.  The Maidu Summit Consortium land trust formed in the early-Aughts on behalf of Mountain Maidu people in the vicinity of Mt. Lassen.

The Mountain Maidu got their breakthrough in the wake of the early-2000s Enron scandal, which forced PG&E into bankruptcy.  Since the early-1900s, the utility giant had owned title to one of the tribe's most sacred areas, Humbug Valley: a miraculously undeveloped 2,000-acre meadowy area southwest of Lassen.  As part of the bankruptcy proceedings, a state judge ordered the utility giant to relinquish thousands of acres it owned to conservation stewards.

In a lengthy process, Mountain Maidu traditionalists demonstrated to the court-appointed stewardship council their worthiness as stewards of their ancestral land. By 2013, the Maidu Summit Consortium had claimed title to the valley from one of the wealthiest and most powerful corporations in the western United States.

In 2014, Maidu Summit Consortium Executive Director Kenneth Holbrook, a 40-year-old Mountain Maidu traditionalist with a broad and boyish smile, led me on a tour through Humbug Valley.  It is a remarkably beautiful place, featuring a meadow fringed by tall conifers, and a soda spring bubbling out of the ground on one end to help form Yellow Creek, a tributary of the upper Feather River.

Yellow Creek flowing through Humbug Valley (photo by Bud Turner/Feather River Land Trust).
Yellow Creek flowing through Humbug Valley (photo by Bud Turner/Feather River Land Trust)

In 1908, Holbrook's great uncle was murdered in cold blood by two California game wardens as he fished in a nearby location.  Roughly 100 years later, key support for the Maidu Summit Consortium's stewardship proposal came from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which regards Yellow Creek as one of the most promising areas in the state for native salmon restoration.

“We're all hopeful that the song of the salmon will return to this valley under our people's stewardship,” Holbrook said.  “Getting the land is really the first step.”

Hawk Rosales says that recognition of indigenous people's knowledge of tending the land has broad implications for environmentalists in general.

“Among various segments of society, I think we now see an increasing interest in restoring a better relationship with nature,” he says. “But without key principles of ancient traditional tribal knowledge, which honor and protect the many complex interrelationships and functions of the natural world, then the well-intended efforts of non-Native groups to restore environmental balance will only go so far."

Restoring the Land

Across recent decades, the Sonoma County Regional Parks Dept. has developed a generally well-regarded process of consulting with local tribes.  Its relationship with Graton Rancheria in the management of Tolay Lake Regional Park, however, is entirely unique.  “I think this collaboration is testament to Greg and the tribe, and to the great working relationship we've had, even prior to the Tolay project,” Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart said in an interview.

Much of that collaboration involves planning out the land's restoration.  A Graton Rancheria tribal citizen named Peter Nelson, who is a PhD 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,” he says.

The area surrounding Tolay Lake consists nowadays 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.

Tolay Lake from the south

Whereas stands of gnarly live oaks occupy niche habitats on the Tolay Lake Park grounds today, 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. Colorful bulbs, including those in the Brodiaea genus (a staple food source that California Indians actively cultivated) are now consigned to marginal areas, such as pockets of soil atop rock outcroppings.

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 academic research reinforces this traditional knowledge.  He notes that ecologists and geomorphologists have told him “the land formation of this valley should not naturally hold water, and there is no evidence of land slides, so there must have been a dam constructed by Native people in order for there to have been a lake.”

Even after US colonization, the Coast Miwok continued to conduct multi-day ceremonies at the lake.  Warren Moorhead's 1910 book The Stone Age in North America refers to a letter from Petaluma ranching pioneer JB Lewis.  “When I came here in the early fifties [1850s],” Lewis wrote, “there used to be large numbers of Indians 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 pow-wow.  After the lagoon was drained, they never came back.”

In his archeological surveys, Nelson has even found deposits from the late-19th century showing the indigenous people had outfitted porcelain and glass into traditional basket-weaving tools for use amid the lake's dense stands of willow and tule.  It is a poignant indication of how the land's original people endeavored to maintain their traditional cultures in every way available to them, even as the world they had known was being destroyed and overturned.

“They always wanted to come back,” Nelson says.

An Older Way of Seeing

When I visited Tolay Lake on January 2nd, the old lakebed held no standing water in spite of several solid drenchings in previous months.  The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has developed a plan to restore it in collaboration with the tribe.

“You can't recreate 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,” Lorelle Ross says.

Through the eyes of indigenous traditionalists, the stories associated with every part of the landscape start to come alive.  Many of these stories, those of the last century and-a-half, center on violent disturbances – but also the people's resilience in the face of it. After departing from 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.

On the way, we stop at 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 the North Bay region was home to one of the highest concentration of Indigenous people ever documented in the Western Hemisphere.

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 an ambitious 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 whole 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.  They were exploring building their casino there. As soon as they learned of the conservation groups' intention, however, they donated the purchase option to them outright.  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 Sonoma Land Trust, he points out a former village site, which the California Highway Dept. (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, during the 1950s, when the Highway Department built an extension of Highway 1 through Bodega Bay – and also through some of his people's ancestral burial grounds.  As the relics of his ancestors were excavated and cast aside the highway, he and his relatives scurried to shove them into burlap sacks before the bulldozers could return.

As with the core 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, as with 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 occupies the other side.  Hundreds of cars course past us on the 121 only in the half-hour we spend there.

Tolay Lake Regional Park is currently only open for special events, such as an annual pumpkin festival.  The Regional Parks Dept. will publish the Park Master Plan, funded by the Graton Rancheria, this spring.  It will set forth more details, such as the timing and funding streams for restoration projects.

As with Gene Buvelot, Lorelle Ross' life has paralleled the larger journey of the Graton Rancheria people.  Her grandmother was forced to attend an Indian Boarding School in Sherman Oaks, CA.  When the original Sebastopol-based Graton Rancheria was terminated, their family held onto a one-acre parcel where Ms. Ross' parents raised her in a small cabin.  She says the discrimination and racism she grew up with was more subtle than that which her parents experienced, and that she has especially had far more opportunities than prior generations of her family and her people.

“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 in town.  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.”

(This story originally appeared in the North Bay Bohemian.)

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