Living Downstream

Story Corps

Val Lopez webNon-Federally Recognized Tribes Struggle to Protect Environmental and Cultural Assets 

By Debra Utacia Krol and Allison Herrera

Read more about federally non-recognized tribes.

Valentin Lopez was handed a dilemma: how to honor his elders’ admonition to fulfill an ancestral directive to guard and protect the ancestral lands of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, a small tribe along California’s Central Coast and parts of the San Francisco Bay Area.  

“In 2006 the tribal elders came to a council meeting,” says Lopez, who’s served as chairman of the 600-member tribe since 2003. “They said our creation story tells us the Creator gave us the responsibility to take care of Mother Earth and all living things, and Creator has never taken away or rescinded that obligation. We have to find a way to do that.” Lopez left that meeting “just shaking my head saying, ‘How in the world could we ever do that?’” 

One huge roadblock: Lopez’s tribe lacks federal recognition. Unlike recognized tribes, Amah Mutsun can’t use federal Indian laws such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, also known as NAGPRA or access federal funding to pursue environmental and cultural site protection. And, most of the tribal members have had to move east to the San Joaquin Valley, priced out of their stunningly beautiful—and expensive—homeland, because they don’t have a reservation or other trust lands to call home.

So, how could Lopez honor his word to the elders?

[Photo: Valentin Lopez. Credit: Debra Utacia Krol]

Lopez isn’t alone: Some 55 Indigenous communities in California aren’t on the BIA’s List of Recognized Tribes, the document used by the feds to provide funding and technical assistance to tribal governments for education, health care, governance, environmental protection and many other programs. In fact, California has the dubious distinction of the state with the largest number of unrecognized tribes. Entire cultural groups such as the Ohlone, Esselen, Salinan and other cultures fell completely through the cracks, while others like the Chumash, Mono and Maidu peoples have both recognized and non-recognized communities.

So, how can non-recognized tribes manage to protect their ancestral sites and exert environmental stewardship over their lands? In California, some state laws and policies offer at least some paths to protection.

In September 2011, Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. issued an executive order that requires all state agencies to engage in meaningful consultation with Indigenous tribes in California, whether federally recognized or not.

The California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, was amended in 2014 provisions for tribal cultural protections. And, these cultural provisions apply to non-recognized tribes. Under the terms of the amendment, known to tribes as Assembly Bill 52, California tribes have legal standing to issue a notice for consultation regarding any proposed project covered under CEQA in the tribe’s traditional and culturally-affiliated lands. 

More state agencies, most notably the California Coastal Commission, have enacted tribal consultation policies. And, the state’s Native American Heritage Commission coordinates consultation as well as identifying and cataloging Native American cultural resources with state borders. 

For small, resource-poor tribes such as the Amah Mutsun and the yak titʸu titʸu yak tiłhini Northern Chumash Tribe (also known at the ytt Northern Chumash), whose lands lie about a four-hour drive north of Los Angeles on the Central Coast, utilizing these state regulations can be a challenge. Mona Olivas Tucker, tribal chair of the ytt Northern Chumash Tribe, manages relationships with a variety of state and local agencies. 

Tucker believes that the state’s efforts to support tribes has a mixed record. “I think the Native American Heritage Commission tries very hard to be helpful to tribes federally recognized and  non-federally recognized,” she says. “But I also think they have a giant amount of work and perhaps too small a staff to try to take care of it all; but, they do try pretty hard to help us when we reach out for help.” And, she says, the 30-day period to respond to requests for consultation is insufficient for the number of requests the tribe receives. “We work on a volunteer basis,” says Tucker. “Our tribal office is a spare bedroom here in my house and our tribal hall is my living room.” Each tribal member who helps with consultations handles a different area of San Luis Obispo County.

But, even though the ytt Northern Chumash has a good relationship with the county, working with the feds is a different story. “When you're not federally recognized you have greater difficulty in getting to the conference table for discussions about your area,” says Tucker. “An example is the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management; they have been cordial. But, we're not a federally recognized tribe, so we have the status as a typical member of the public. We don't have a special status with them.” 

Sometimes when the feds come calling, though, it can be a different story. 


“Our tribe is very poor,” says Lopez. “We did not own any land. The vast majority of us cannot afford to live in our territory. And so, we live in the Central Valley versus along the coast or in the Gilroy, Hollister, Morgan Hill area.” In fact, we met in Winton, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, a three-hour drive from the eastern edge of Amah Mutsun land. But the Amah Mutsun elders had issued their orders: resume land stewardship over their lands as they had for more than 10,000 years. Lopez had been praying for a solution when an unlikely would-be partner emerged—the National Park Service.  

“We got a call from the superintendent of Pinnacles National Park,” says Lopez. “He invited us to come in and be part of the park; he had just transferred in from another park where he had a great relationship with the tribe.”

The superintendent told Lopez, “I recognize this is your territory." He offered the tribe a voice at the park.

“When he said those words, we were really happy, recognizing that perhaps this is the creator answering our prayers,” says Lopez. “At the same time, it scared us because we had lost so much knowledge that they expected us to have knowledge about to take care of the plants and animals, and to tell the interpretation story and talk about life as our ancestors had.

“We had lost so much of that knowledge.”

But, in addition to knowledge possessed by living elders, Amah Mutsun had a powerful tool at their disposal: Some 78,000 pages of notes compiled by anthropologist John P. Harrington, collected from the Amah Mutsun’s last traditional leader, Asencion Solorazno (1855-1930). 

The initial call has evolved into a partnership, including conducting cultural burns and nurturing basketry and other culturally significant plants within Pinnacles’ land. 


The situation is different for tribes that aren’t recognized but have allotments known as public domain trust lands, such as the North Fork Mono Tribe. 

Mono families obtained Indian allotments after a promised reservation never materialized. Today, the North Fork Mono Tribe has 52 allotments covering well over 10,000 acres of land. The nearby federally recognized North Fork Rancheria, another Mono community, has an 80-acre reservation, or rancheria. 

The Monos’ 1.2 million-acre ancestral land base encompasses portions of Fresno, Mariposa and Inyo counties, including parts of the Sierra Nevada. “We've been here in our area for thousands of years, down in the lower foothills for a good 500 years,” says Tribal Chairman Ron Goode. The Mono have maintained that land, including many  of the more than 8,000 meadows dotting the mountain region. “That’s where the water starts,” says Goode.

In the early 1990s, the tribe began to work on restoration and enhancement of its cultural resources in partnership with three counties.  “We have over 10 different resource spots that we've been restoring since then and many other smaller acreages of land,” says Goode. “Around 2003 we started working with the Forest Service and restoring meadows, and we've been restoring meadows since then.” By 2014, the tribe has restored six meadows, bringing water and both endemic and useful exotic plants back. 

Goode takes us on a tour of one of those meadows. 


It’s a rare almost-clear day in Clovis, just east of Fresno, where Goode and his family have a small deer farm. We can spy the mighty expanse of the Sierras through a thin haze, unlike the grayish muck that passes for open air in the San Joaquin Valley these days. To see where California’s water starts, we make our way up narrow mountain roads. The grasslands and fields give way to groves of oak, manzanita, buckwheat and blackberry. Above our heads, pine and fir trees rise to brush against the blue sky. “Look at black oaks and pine trees,” says Goode.

After about an hour on the road, we reach the small meadow in the Sierra National Forest. Goode reminds us to look up to ensure a dead tree isn’t about to crash on our heads. The deadfall is the result of California’s historic drought, when about 150 million trees perished. Although it proved to be good news for the meadows, the dead trees are a hazard. 

“So why don’t people just cut them down?” we ask. 

“I don't know,” says Goode. “I tried to get them to do that, but you know there was a policy problem. It was not declared a disaster federally, even though it's on federal lands. And Governor Brown declared a disaster, so we get state money. But we can’t get any FEMA funding. Nobody else comes in to help.”

We meander around the landscape. Goode explains the process he and his crews followed to restore the meadow. “We cleared up maybe eight refrigerators and hauled truckloads of stuff, beds and all sorts of stuff, the first time we started working.”

Now, Goode and his crew has restored the meadow. “We can see it's all green,” says Goode. “And how wet it is because the little spring grasses are all right here. We brought the water back by clearing it and opening it up.“ 

Goode points out the spring, a small hole in the damp ground that oozes water. “The idea is to raise the water table back up,” he says. “Most of the meadows were incapacitated. They were not functional. You might have one spring working part of the year and maybe not. Maybe had a spring that was dried for two or three years or longer. So, we began to remove and eradicate what didn't belong on the meadow, such as conifers. And any other plants with too many specimens. It might be too many willows. It might be too many manzanitas. It may be too many of something that didn't belong there in that meadow, had to come off.”

We carefully tread around the deer grass, being cautious of the wet ground, looking for rattlesnakes, detouring around soaproot and wild strawberries. 

“We've monitored the acorns. So right here we're looking at what's called a golden oak. And we have about 40 golden oaks. We have had, had 64 black oaks, but I think it's closer to 60 now because a few of them died or got felled. So, we have close to 100 new oaks coming up. Last year, 2018, was like the best acorn year. And we had over seven trees that were what we call abundant. So, we got bags and bucketsful of acorn out of these trees. It’s been really good.” 

Goode says success is determined by measuring resources. “We monitor those resources whether it be acorn or young oaks. How many oaks do we have? How many young oaks are coming up? How many different plants?” 

“We create lists while we're working out there on the land and identifying the insects and birds and reptiles and animals and trees and shrubbery and all the different plants, medicine plants, fiber plants, food plants.” In the six meadows the tribe maintains, Goode counts up to 160 species per meadow. 


Back along the Central Coast, landless tribes engage in a different tactic. 

Amah Mutsun established a land trust which allows them to establish stewardship partnerships even though they don’t own any of the lands. For example, the land trust was asked by California State Parks to assist with restoration of the coastal prairie in Año Nuevo State Park, in Santa Cruz County. “We currently have 10 stewards working in the field,” says Lopez.  “Those coastal prairies are very important for the insects and the birds and the four-legged creatures,” says Lopez. “They provide much more than a forest does. So today we have MOU agreements that allow us access to over 140,000 acres in our traditional tribal territory. And those MOUs allow us to steward, to tend, to gather, to hold ceremony, to have prayer, conduct education research on those landscapes. 

“We don't own an inch of land but we say our ancestors didn't own land either.”

One essential task the tribal stewards perform is repairing the damage from more than 300 years of fire suppression. “When they stopped fire during the Spanish period, the mission period, Mexican period, in the American period they outlawed fire,” says Lopez. “And so we're out there with the chainsaws to cut down a lot of the trees that have encroached on that coastal prairie. Then, we’re replanting a lot of traditional native plants back out there. Those native plants provide the most biodiverse landscapes that there is in the world.”

Restoring and sustaining California’s biodiversity also supports species worldwide, says Lopez. For example, he notes that wine grapes owe their continued health to endemic California grape species that, when grafted to other varieties, helped wine grapes to recover from a blight. 

“We believe that we know that we have Creator with us,” says Lopez. “We know we have our ancestors with us. If something was to happen, they would they would lose a lot more than we would, because we would still have our ancestors and creator with us.”

“I'm saying quite frequently now that if we're going to ever recover and heal from climate change, it's the Indigenous people that will show the way,” says Lopez, “and our tribe is working hard now to prepare ourselves to be such a leader.” 



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