SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When her mother was in a Placer County hospital with the kidney infection that would take her life, Geri Camp received a final request.
“I’m dying,” Camp’s mom told her, so matter of fact through the tears. “Will you do my ceremony?”
Now 59 and an elder of the Colfax-Todds Valley Consolidated Tribe, Camp has carried on her mother’s treasured moon ceremony for girls starting their menstrual cycle in the backyards of family and friends — whoever has the most space.
In April, her tribe became one of the only non-federally recognized tribes in California to successfully reacquire a piece of their ancestral land. So when she looked out at the 40-acre forest now called Yo’ Dok’im Pakan-Gerjuoy North Fork Preserve for the first time this month, her eyes lit up with the possibilities: weekend camping trips, medicinal plant gathering, hammocks, and moon ceremonies that girls will remember well into their adult lives.
“Out here it’s natural … the ancestors are here,” she said, resting on a fallen Douglas fir. “They can know when they have a daughter and she gets her cycle, they can bring her here and that they’re in the original place it all started.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom made working toward ancestral land return a state policy in 2020 when he issued a directive encouraging agencies to improve tribes’ access to traditional territory that is on state land, through co-management or acquisition. But successful land return cases are rare across the state as opportunities remain out of reach for many tribes, particularly those without federal recognition.
Approximately 12,635 total acres of land in California have been returned to Native American tribes with state involvement, the majority coming within the last five years. Since Newsom announced this policy, the pace slowed to some 1,500 acres, according to publicly available data gathered from state and tribal government sources.
After issuing the policy, Newsom established the Truth and Healing Council, a group of tribal leaders tasked with examining the state’s treatment of tribes and making recommendations for reparation. He created the post of Assistant Secretary of Tribal Affairs, and committed $100 million in the state budget for tribal initiatives as part of the administration’s broader conservation strategy.
Details on that spending are still forthcoming. But even amid challenges of the pandemic era, community leaders and advocates see a disconnect between Newsom’s words and the policy in practice.
Tribes are struggling with the state’s labyrinthine land use bureaucracy, which lacks a designated system to connect them with available lands. Leaders of less resourced tribes are often left hoping for a serendipitous relationship with a sympathetic non-profit or local official. Or they’re simply left in the dark.
“It feels like it’s got to be some kind of cosmic coincidence, where I meet the right person, and we have the right conversation, and it just happens to work,” said Shelly Covert, spokesperson of the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan Tribe. She has been working with Nevada City staff to get a small plot of ancestral land back.
“I know government is slow and there’s some good folks out there who have good intentions. But the truth is, we are maxed on the stretchability of our little rubber band … some tribes are so inundated that they don’t even know these things exist.”
California tribes currently hold 635,739 acres, less than 1% of the state, in reservation lands. Around a dozen of California’s 110 federally recognized tribes and more than 80 tribes on the state Native American Heritage Commission list have reacquired ancestral territory in what’s known as fee simple ownership, meaning not reservation lands.
Federal recognition entitles tribes to benefits like housing and education, while a spot on the California Native American Heritage Commission list means they must receive consultation and protection of cultural sites under state law.
These cases of land return include the hand of state government — from grants, cooperation with land trusts, to mitigation of the environmental impact of highway construction and other public works. Pacific Gas & Electric alone returned several thousand acres of land to tribes in the wake of bankruptcy proceedings after its equipment caused devastating wildfires.
Clyde Prout III is chairman of Colfax-Todds Valley Consolidated Tribe, which is comprised of Maidu and Miwok peoples, also known as Nisenan, and has 333 enrolled members. It has been over 50 years since Congress sold the Colfax Rancheria and terminated their tribal status over the protests of his ancestors.
Only a year ago, Prout’s cousin made a bold ask to the Placer Land Trust — would they consider donating it to the tribe? The organization had recently purchased privately owned land near the north fork of the American River with a $200,000 grant from the Wildlife Conservation Board, and leaders of the trust responded enthusiastically.
The land transfer became official in April, with an expectation that the tribe will keep the land in conservation apart from construction of roundhouse ceremonial structures.
Prout works by day as a stylist at a Colfax barbershop and his list of to-do’s is impossibly long, from preparing for upcoming tribe events to clearing out space on the preserve for parking. He hopes their case can serve as a model for other less-resourced tribes to receive land back, and Placer Land Trust leaders agree.
“In the Land Trust world, this is something that is becoming more prevalent,” said Jeff Darlington, executive directer of Placer Land Trust. “It’s kind of one of those things where you don’t know how important and doable something is until you really think about it. It definitely was not on the radar. But now it is and I think for most land trusts that’s the case.”
It takes several rough, bumpy roads and traveling through private gates to get to Yo’ Dok’im Pakan from Interstate 80. In the towns along the freeway, from Colfax up to Auburn, an extended community of thousands know Prout’s family.
Each time he visits the land, Prout is reminded of how hard work can pay off. Inhaling the scent of the air, he had just one word.
Distrust runs deep
Despite a particularly horrific history, California is home to the nation’s largest population of Native Americans, with more than 600,000 people identifying as Native according to census figures. Enrolled membership in the state’s many tribes ranges from five to 4,000 people.
During the 1700-1800s, the mission system and ranches of Spanish, Russian and Mexican colonization served as forced labor camps where as many as 150,000 Native Americans died from disease, starvation, and torture. It was early American rule, however, that marked their deadliest period of California history.
Government-sanctioned genocide peaked during the Gold Rush and plunged the population to 30,000 from 1846 to 1873, according to historian Benjamin Madley’s “American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe.” Indian killing expeditions, carried out by state militias, were bankrolled by state and federal lawmakers.
The first elected governor of California, Peter Burnett, infamously said in his 1851 State of the State address: “A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct.”
By the beginning of the 20th century, the Indian population declined by 90%. Meanwhile, 18 federal treaties negotiated with more than 100 California Tribes in 1851 to grant 8.5 million acres in reservation land — in exchange for relinquishing rights to 66.5 million acres of traditional tribal territory — was rejected by the U.S. Senate, which kept the action secret for decades.
When it came to light 50 years later, almost all treaty lands had been overrun and settled by non-Indians. Small reservations and rancherias for California Native Americans were created piecemeal by various Presidential executive orders and Congress. Those were chipped away at during another shift in federal and state policy in the 1950s.
Today virtually every state agency has a tribal consultation policy, yet distrust continues to run deep. In a symbolic step meant to repair the relationship between tribes and the state, Newsom formally apologized in 2019 for historical “violence, exploitation, dispossession, and attempted destruction of tribal communities.”
Soon after, his 2020 statement of administrative policy encouraged state agencies to “seek opportunities to support California Native American Tribes’ co-management of and access to their traditional lands” and “work cooperatively with California Native American Tribes that are interested in acquiring natural lands in excess of State needs.”
California’s Natural Resource Secretary Wade Crowfoot said his agency, which is leading the policy’s implementation efforts, acknowledged there is “a lot of work ahead” and that more resources are needed to effectively implement the governors “north star” vision.
“We are focused on helping institutionalize across our departments that own land to identify opportunities to transfer lands that were ancestral lands per the policy, so I’m really looking forward to in coming year because more points of progress,” Crowfoot said.
Efforts to consult tribes in decisions takes time, he said. The goal is a paradigm shift so “that in future years and decades, this outlasts certainly our leadership of the agency but also outlasts Newsom’s leadership, and it just becomes the standard way of doing business.”
Policy in practice
Since Newsom put $100 million in the upcoming state budget this April for tribal initiatives related to this policy, many community leaders are hoping for investment in tribes’ capacity to work with state bureaucracy and training for state employees to better work with tribes.
Angela Mooney D’Arcy, founder and Executive Director of the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples in Los Angeles, said she has seen some state agencies profess commitment to environmental justice yet create unnecessary barriers for tribes, like considering them ineligible for land management opportunities and grants.
“Even where various state agencies are funding the conservation of these lands in perpetuity, it has been incredibly challenging to work with some of them,” said Mooney D’Arcy. “In my opinion, there is a bit of an outdated and underestimated understanding of what California Native American tribes want and are capable of doing.”
Antonette Cordero, an attorney at UC Berkeley’s Environmental Law Clinic who served 20 years with the California Attorney General’s Office, said it hasn’t come as a surprise to any Native person that even the progressive state of California is moving slowly to return land.
“You can’t meaningfully implement a new policy without actually putting some money behind it,” Cordero said. “You can’t have the same people doing the same work and expect a different outcome because you say you want a different outcome.”
For the Colfax-Todds Valley Consolidated Tribe, having these 40 acres of land is a single stop on their long road to cultural revitalization. Much of it will be through education, in a tribe that happens to skew very young. Prout is 31; Camp is a grandmother of 19 and great-grandmother of 9.
“I remember one of my little cousins was going to school and they had to do a project on Native Americans. She was like ‘I’m doing the Maidu!’ and I’m like ‘Fool, you are Maidu,’” said Prout with a chuckle.
He beads jewelry, just got into traditional dancing, and is actively recruiting for the tribe’s drumming group.
“This is a living thing and that’s what I think people forget… we’re still trying to carry our culture forward.”