Indigenous Voices Sustaining California’s Past and Future

Indigenous voices share stories of protecting the places and ecosystems we love from harm.

California has always been a unique and special place. The highest peak and lowest valley in the contiguous US contribute to California's unique geography, providing a variety of climates which have allowed plant and animal life to thrive. Rivers flowed with fresh water and fish and vast grasslands exploded with flowers, supporting thick clouds of migrating butterflies. On the coast, ecosystems abounded with life and shores were filled with the highest abalone diversity in the world. These rich resources supported diverse Indigenous People who have inhabited California for thousands of years through shifts in drought, fire and climate. 

Over millennia of observation and practice, California’s Indigenous People learned to steward ecosystems to reciprocal benefit. Relationships to species like salmon ensure they move through the rivers and bring nutrients from the sea to forest ecosystems. Cultural burning of grasslands return nutrients to the soil and creates a fire break allowing plants and all who depend on them to thrive. Responsible harvest of abalone provides food and cultural resources while ensuring continued harvest not just for the next year, but for perpetuity. California was not a wilderness, but a cultivated cultural landscape, tended to by its Indigenous People. 

Today’s California looks very different. In a few hundred years following colonization, the landscape has been remarkably transformed. Dams prevent salmon from migrating upstream and deprive regions of water. Bans on good fire created years of fuel and reduced natural fire breaks, creating harmful fire conditions which put ecosystems and communities at risk. Overexploitation and misuse of resources put hundreds of plant and animal species on the endangered species list in a short period of time including several species of abalone. The resources stewarded by Indigenous People of California were used by settlers to fund and fuel industrialization and the vast city-scapes and agricultural areas which now cover nearly half of the state’s area. As a result, California and our planet are in a climate and biodiversity crisis threatening human ability to thrive on Earth. 

For the past couple of decades, a growing number of scientists, environmentalists and policymakers grapple with solutions for a sustainable future. From renewable energy sources, reducing greenhouse gas emissions to finding new ways to sequester carbon, one solution to the growing environmental crisis has been severely overlooked and underutilized: supporting Indigenous land stewardship. 

Indigenous People, which represent a wide diversity of nations and cultures globally, make up around 5% of the human population yet protect 80% of Earth’s biodiversity, while doing little to contribute to climate destruction. Lands managed by Indigeous People and local communities are more biodiverse, reflecting Earth’s oldest and most effective form of conservation. As global organizations like IPBES, IPCC and COP are increasingly recognizing the invaluable contributions of Indigenous People to mitigate climate change and biodiversity loss, it is clear that space must be made in the environmental movement for Indigenous voices. For the benefit of us all, California’s Indigenous People must be uplifted to continue land stewardship practices which both proceed and lead the mutual fight to protect people and places we love from harm. 

This subject took the stage at the 2022 Ohana Festival, where the Storyteller’s stage provided a platform for Indigenous peoples to be heard, representing a first step in making space Indigenous voices in the Southern California environmental movement.   

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The Original Stewards

“There have always been stewards of this land, and we are the original peoples” - Dr. Joely Proudfit

A Payómkawichum descendant, professor, policy advisor and author, Proudfit has spent decades researching tribal sovereignty and social justice issues.

“[We’re] talking about saving the planet, honoring the waters, protecting the environment, but often we overlook the people.”

For most who have settled in the US, the concept of protecting people as part of the environment may be unfamiliar. Issues such as climate change, pollution and deforestation clearly point to humans as the cause. This is reflected in the rising popularity of renaming the Holocene (meaning “entirely recent”), our current geological age beginning after the last ice age, the Anthropocene (meaning “new man”), or the age of humans, defined by the alteration of Earth’s biodiversity and systems by industrialization. 

Part of the issue stems from a framework that for hundreds of years has underpinned the actions of Western society, built upon the idea that man has dominion over nature and the value of ecosystems and resources can be measured by what they can provide to humans. This stands in contrast to a relational worldview, at the heart of nearly all Indigenous cultures, which puts humans equal with life and places, to be cared for as relatives and equally as irreplaceable.

Every place inhabited by humans has its own history with Indigenous people and colonization. In California, public education has deprived many of that history, a practice that perpetuates harm to Indigenous people and settlers alike, and one of the many issues Dr. Proudfit has worked to address. While the recent renaming of “Columbus Day” to Indigenous People’s day has shed some light, it is important to move beyond renaming and address the practices that have led us here and the systems which perpetuate them. To talk about Indigenous voices in California, it is important to acknowledge California's relationship with Indigenous People and lands. 

Confronting California’s Past

Beginning in the 1600s’ with a brutal epidemic of disease brought by Europeans and followed by Spanish colonization and the violent and oppressive California mission system beginning in 1769, California lost at least 90% of its Indigenous population and began to undergo apocalyptic environmental change. Spaniards began clear cutting lands for agriculture, spreading species like Mediterranean mustard which continue to negatively impact native plant communities today. Ranching practices continued under the Mexican government. 

Then came the gold rush, the annexation of California as a US state, and a catastrophic period of death and ecological destruction. Deemed the “California Genocide”, a state-funded militia exercised its goal of exterminating and enslaving California’s remaining Indigenous population. Similar to the story of Native Nations in other parts of North America, Indigenous Peoples were subjected to the erasure of population, language and culture for the ultimate goal of land dispossession. Today, young California Indigenous children are still taught a false, harmful version of their own history and parents like Dr. Proudfit take on the additional burden of properly educating both their children and in many cases, the schools. 

While incredibly diverse, Indigenous cultures and languages are largely place-based, as land and people mutually influence each other over millennia. In California over 100 languages were spoken, each with their own descriptors of land and life embedded into language and culture. Practices like the California Genocide and the residential school system that followed caused a catastrophic loss of language diversity and cultural knowledge with the intention of integrating Indigenous People into westernized society. A key factor was access to Indigenous lands and resources, which abound here in California, and this land acquisition was made possible either by force or trickery, as in the case of California’s 18 lost treaties.

The formation of National and State parks happened through forced removal of Indigenous People, but importantly also resulted in the ecosystem losing its people and all people.

Not only did California’s Native Nations lose their land, but the land lost the people. Millenia of regimens that gave California its resource-rich, parklike nature was no longer practiced. Instead, the cultural landscape of California was slowly replaced by development, agriculture, and by “wilderness”- fragmented areas set aside for environmental protection. While natural areas across the world are desperately in need of protection, environmentalists and ecologists often fail to incorporate the Indigenous People who are an integral part of that ecosystem. This practice can be traced back to the myth of “virgin wilderness” encountered by settlers. The formation of National and State parks happened through forced removal of Indigenous People, but importantly also resulted in the ecosystem losing its people and all people. Now, in today’s California, all people are losing the fields of wildflowers, parklike meadows, healthy forests and sandy coastlines that make the state special.

To protect our environment, we need to bring people back into the equation who, as Dr. Proudfit states, are often overlooked. Overlooked in our public education systems, history, in politics, and in the environmental movement. It is time to bring Indigenous voices, language, and culture back to the front lines of environmental policy and practice. 

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Protecting Our Places

“When you protect a native site, it protects everybody” - Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Nestled between San Diego and San Clemente sits San Onofre State beach, and the world-famous surf break Trestles. Described as the heart and soul of San Onofre, this collection of surf spots was named for the trestle, or wooden bridge that surfers passed under to access the break. However, this place had a name long before- over 8000 years before it was called Trestles, it was Panhe “place at the water”, a village site of the Acjachemen. 

In 2005, the California Transport Corridor Agency (TCA) intended to construct a toll road through San Onofre State Park, which would destroy miles of pristine coastal habitat and ruin the surf break at Trestles. While surfers fought to protect their wave and environmentalists fought to protect one of the last undeveloped beaches in southern California, the Acjachemen fought to protect Panhe, a sacred site now occupied by the Camp Pendleton Marine base, San Clemente, San Onofre State Park and beach. While multiple stakeholders joined to fight the toll road, ultimately it was Panhe that saved Trestles. 

This topic was the subject at the Ohana Festival’s Save the Trestles panel, which featured Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a leading expert in environmental justice in Indian country. Gilio-Whitaker, of the Colville Confederated tribes, was a journalist for years before following this story.

 “It was such a powerful story because of the converging of diverse interests which included the environmental community, the surf community and the indigenous community. We don’t often see these kinds of different interests coming together. Everyone had their own agenda for protecting this place, and that created a common conversation”, said Gilio-Whitaker.

Recognizing the unique coalition of stakeholders forming, she decided to follow the story and wrote her master’s thesis on the saga, Panhe at the Crossroads: Towards an Indigenized Environmental Justice Theory. The study of environmental justice is intended to address how environmental harm disproportionately affects marginalized peoples. While this is true for Indigenous people, Gilio-Whitaker recognizes that this fails to encompass the unique experiences of Indigenous People caused by colonization and ongoing settler colonialism. While environmental justice is crucial to addressing harm to all marginalized communities, the relational worldview of Indigenous Peoples and a unique connection to place cause additional harm. This includes higher rates of suicide and depression, increased rates of murder and abduction, physical health impacts from lack of access to cultural foods and lifeways, and legal impacts of land dispossession and destruction. This is the subject of Gilio-Whitaker’s book As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock.  

“When you protect a native site, it protects everybody” - Dina Gilio-Whitaker

While the fight to Save Trestles played out, one unique characteristic about San Onofre park emerged. Oftentimes in development projects, harm to places and ecosystems is “mitigated” by protecting other places as a trade-off. This was the case of San Mateo campground, sitting within the state park, created as mitigation for land used by the San Onofre nuclear generators. The toll road project proposed mitigations, but due to the protection of Panhe designated as a sacred site by the California Native American Heritage Commission, it was determined that Panhe was not replaceable and could not be mitigated. 

“It was because of the existence of Panhe as a sacred site that lent this heft to protecting this site. Many people believe that had it not been a Native American sacred site, it may have turned out differently in this case”, reflects Gilio-Whitaker. 

In 2008, the Coastal Commission denied the permit to build the toll road. Today, the surf breaks at Trestles are still intact, millions of people visit San Onofre state beach, and Acjachemen people still gather at Panhe annually to celebrate their ancestors. In 2020, Governor Newsom signed AB 1426 into law, preventing further road construction through the area. 

Gilio-Whitaker reminds the audience, “When you protect a native site, it protects everybody. It’s another layer of protection when you’re talking about protecting ecological systems of all kinds. Protecting native rights is the protection of everyone's rights.”

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Sharing the Pond

“All of our teachings, all of our stories tell us about us being the responsible ones, the ones that have the ability to make changes.” says Rebecca Robles on the California Indian Voices Panel at the Ohana festival. 

Robles is the chairwoman of the Acajchemen people on whose lands the Ohana Festival took place. She and her family have been fighting for decades to preserve sacred places like Panhe on Acjachemen lands, which are now Orange and Los Angeles counties. While the fight to save Panhe was successful, for the Native Nations of Los Angeles and Orange counties especially, saving sacred places is a never-ending uphill battle. 

“There are no federally recognized tribes in LA county or Orange county. That is simply due to economics, but that doesn’t stop our people from protecting what you love and what we love”, says Dr. Proudfit as she introduced Robles to the stage. 

The Acjachemen and other Native Nations within LA and Orange counties such as the Tongva, Kizh, Tatavitam, Serrano and others do not have federal recognition, meaning the federal government does not recognize them as sovereign nations and has no legal obligation to them. 

The 109 federally recognized tribes in California have ratified treaties that often include a tribal reservation- lands for the preservation of people and culture in exchange for the cession of other lands, negotiated between the US government and another sovereign nation. Though some tribes like the Kumeyaay maintain federal recognition and reservation lands, all treaties negotiated between Native Nations and the US Government have been violated or broken. For the Acjachemen and many other nations in California, treaties were negotiated for the cession of lands but were never ratified- unbeknownst to the Native Nations. The newly formed California government took control of the ceded lands through the 18 treaties, but never upheld them. While many non-federally recognized tribes, including the Acjachemen, have petitioned the government for federal recognition, the process is long, expensive, and in some cases may require the government to grant reservation lands in LA or Orange counties, which have some of the most expensive real estate in the country. In the case of Acjachemen, the petition was denied.

“We’ve become so disconnected we don’t realize we’re in the same pond, that everything we do affects each other. Not just the human beings, the rabbits (...) the abalone that used to live on the cliffs here (...) as indigenous people that was one of our core beliefs, that was the bottom line”, Robles reminds the audience. 

Panhe was a success story, but countless other battles to protect sacred places are still being fought. Indigenous people hold a unique and relational connection with land and all the life within it, which have provided cultural resources for thousands of years, and which can not be replaced. 

“In my lifetime, there’s no more jackrabbits in the fields. That’s one thing I've noticed, there's hardly any animals here”, reflects Robles. 

Over 80% of coastal southern California has been lost to development, representing countless sacred places, resources and lives already gone. By joining together and supporting Robles and other Indigenous fights to protect places from harm, we can make a difference for ecosystems and humans alike. 

“It is very difficult to change, it's almost like you have to swim upstream. But I think if we all do very small things it will make a big difference”. - Rebecca Robles 

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Moving Forward Together

“Nothing about us without us” - Dr. Joely Proudfit

California’s Indian Voices panel served as a reminder that Indigenous people are still here, continuing their original stewardship practices. Dr. Joely Proudfit reminds us how seldom space is made for California’s Indigenous people, and that it is to the benefit of us all to not just listen, but take action to support Indigenous People’s right to continue thriving in California. “Nothing about us without us” she says, as a reminder that Indigenous voices need not only be heard but brought to the forefront of environmental issues. 

Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s research into the Save Trestles campaign sheds important light on just how crucial the legal and community support for protecting sacred spaces is. Panhe, the sacred site of the Acjachemen tribe shows how the unique connection to place Indigenous peoples have can help to protect the places that all Californians love and enjoy today. By advocating for protection of sacred places and native rights, as well as acknowledging the role that these places can play in environmental protection, communities can form more powerful coalitions to stand against environmental destruction. 

In our societies, it is easy to become disconnected from each other and from nature. Rebecca Robles reminds us that all of our actions have a reciprocal effect and that by making small changes as a community, we can enact meaningful change. California’s beautiful places are in need of protection, and Indigenous People have a unique connection, experience and knowledge of these places that can help us bring back a California which is safe and abundant for all.

Before the last ice age, humans have inhabited California. Through thousands of years, Indigenous People of California have developed an irreplaceable connection to life, systems and places. They have developed a relationship to the landscape that not only sustains it, but ensures it thrives for future generations. In a short amount of time California and much of the planet have undergone rapid, catastrophic change. Now as we all seek ways to safeguard the people, places and life that are dear to us, it is important to not only acknowledge original stewards, but to support Indigenous rights, sovereignty and stewardship. Access to land and resources are just as essential for Indigenous cultural preservation as it is for preservation of the land itself, and supporting this reciprocal relationship benefits us all. 

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Key Takeaways
  • Support native sovereignty by defending the Indian Child Welfare Act, which is being challenged in the supreme court and funded by big oil in hopes of eroding Indigenous sovereignty. 
  • Whose land are you on? Research the indigenous stewards of your area and how you can advocate for any challenges they may be facing. An open education about California’s history can provide context and visibility for California’s Indigenous people to help us address the past and form a stronger community. 
  • Colonization has caused the displacement of Indigenous people from their homelands and the theft or forced sale of many sacred items. Consider rematriating resources or artifacts. 
  • By listening to and uplifting Indigenous voices, we can form a stronger and more equitable community and work together to build a brighter future.