News & Views

California: Partnering with Native Americans for Innovative Stewardship Strategies

Clint McKay does not point at sacred things. In the rolling hills of Sonoma County, speckled with patches of trees above sprawling vineyards, he gestures with his chin toward a green mountain that rises above all else. His people call it Kanamota, he explains; the ‘Human Mountain‘. It’s one of the Wappo People’s holiest places, their entry point into this world.

“To us, that is where our creation story began,” says Clint. “You are absolutely in the heart of Wappo territory here.”

We are also standing in the heart of the Pepperwood Preserve, a 3,120-acre swath of protected land in the middle of some of the most expensive real estate on Earth. Originally gifted to the California Academy of Sciences by Kenneth Bechtel of the Bechtel Corporation, Pepperwood is now a living laboratory for the natural sciences, the site of a cutting-edge field research facility and soon – if they can reassure neighbors of its safety – an experiment to bring back some of the fire management strategies that the Wappo used in order to maintain rich mosaics of biodiversity in their landscape-scale gardens and to favor particular species of plants, trees and foods important to local people.

“Everything we would ever want was right here, and acorn was our staple,” says Clint, who favors acorn meat from the black oak. “Waterfowl, deer; our rivers and our streams were loaded with salmon; seeds and berries and wild grapes; potatoes and onions, bay nuts.

“We didn’t have to go anywhere.”


A view of Mount St. Helena , or, Kanamota to the Wappo People, from the Pepperwood Preserve, a research institution integrating traditional knowledge into its land management strategy to achieve more resilient outcomes. Photo courtesy of Pepperwood Preserve

Clint McKay (Dry Creek Pomo / Wappo / Wintun) and his wife Lucy (Dry Creek Pomo / Northern Sierra Miwok) are members of an inter-tribal Native American Advisory Council convened by the Pepperwood Preserve in order to integrate Native perspectives and biocultural knowledge into its land management, habitat restoration work and educational programming. It’s part of a major shift in Pepperwood’s thinking about the concepts of ‘preserve’, of ‘knowledge’ and of community engagement; a multi-year push to combine Native and Western science and land management in authentic, holistic and complementary ways.

“We started this dialogue to ensure that we are being respectful of the Native resources on this land and to employ their knowledge systems for stewardship,” says Dr. Lisa Micheli, Pepperwood’s Executive Director. “We need to be working with the people who have the real experience to manage our lands.”

Returning to a Land They Never Left

Across California the area’s First Peoples are reclaiming their roles as expert stewards of the state’s land, water and resources. As drought and fires ravage under-managed and overgrown public and private lands in the Golden State, innovative partnerships like the one at Pepperwood are re-integrating Native lifeways with the landscapes and rewriting the rules that have long marginalized Native Californians. Land trusts, foundations, state parks and conservationists are seeking connection with Traditional Knowledge holders and land-based stewardship ethics and blending them with modern ecological and botanical sciences, creating a potent new paradigm with the power to transform land management and Native rights from sea to shining sea.

“This work is happening on multiple levels, regional and local, even national,” says Beth Rose Middleton, an Assistant Professor of Native American Studies at UC Davis. “Every land trust should be thinking about having a formal MOU with Native Tribes.”

The Amah Mutsun Tribe is blending information from several academic disciplines with their Traditional Knowledge in order to restore lands within their ancestral territories and to revitalize their cultural connections with the land

Just as Pepperwood is rethinking their approach to conservation based on the richness of traditional knowledge, local tribes are rethinking their own strategies for protecting ancestral lands. Some are working in partnership with private land owners to create cultural conservation easements to protect sacred sites and vulnerable biodiversity. Others are forming partnerships with major universities and regaining access (and even title) to lands expropriated from them during the devastations of colonization. The Mountain Maidu of the Sierra Nevada, a collective of Maidu tribes and community organizations, formed the Maidu Summit Consortium to help re-acquire part of their homeland which had been granted to the Pacific Gas & Electric Company at the turn of the century and became earmarked for return to public use. After nearly a decade of effort, the Maidu Summit Consortium regained Humbug Valley in 2013. They are now working jointly with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop and implement a comprehensive management plan.

“This is a historic opportunity to learn from each other and to build a legacy alliance for the protection and enhancement of the Humbug Valley using traditional ecological knowledge as well as the best modern science,” said Charlton Bonham, Director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Other tribes, meanwhile, are finding ways to engage with state and federal parks, and are even establishing their own land trusts, fusing both culture and conservation. This strategy is especially important to many local tribes who are currently without a landbase. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band have been working in partnership with the Sempervirens Fund, one of the oldest land trusts in the world, to support the development of the first tribal land trust in the Bay Area. Like Pepperwood, this relationship has enriched both sides and is supporting a whole suite of creative new approaches that bring Native Peoples and traditional ecological knowledge back into relationship with the land. In 2013, the newly formed tribal land trust completed it’s first deal to conserve collectively, and in perpetuity, 96 coastal acres of land near Año Nuevo National Park and Big Basin Redwoods (Santa Cruz County). This acquisition represents the first time that the Amah Mutsun Tribe has held land communally since the late 1700s. Nearby, on State Park land, is an area believed to be the “first contact” Ohlone village site described by the Portola Expedition, where the Amah Mutsun are now engaged in collaborative management to bring back rare, culturally-important plants that are being choked out by invasive brush.

Working with California’s Native Peoples to reestablish edible landscapes actively tended to by humans can help to rehabilitate neglected lands while improving water and biodiversity conservation

Led by charismatic Tribal Chairman Valentin Lopez, the Amah Mutsun have attracted a brilliant cadre of academic allies including ecologists, archaeologists and paleo-ethnobotanists, both native and otherwise, inspired by the Tribe’s vision of restoring resiliency to landscapes on the central coast to pre-European contact conditions. The vision of the Amah Mutsun Land Trust “is of a future where our people and all people may once again drink safely from clean and clear, flowing waters; hunt from healthy herds of elk and deer; and harvest salmon and abalone from resilient fisheries.” The Amah Mutsun also have a 55-acre ‘relearning garden’ at nearby University of California at Santa Cruz, a collaborative effort to assist the Tribe in their work toward “cultural revitalization, recuperation and relearning of dormant cultural knowledge.”

“Traditionally our people never owned the land. It’s not about ownership, it’s about stewarding land in our traditional ways, and that’s what we want to do,” says Chairman Lopez. “That’s why these partnerships with parks and trusts and foundations are so important to us.”

Kaylena Bray (Seneca) and Rose von Thater (Tuscorora/Cherokee)at the Indian Valley Organic Farm and Garden at the College of Marin, Indian Valley campus in Novato, CA, featuring the Cultural Conservancy’s (TCC) Native Foodways program work and community

Kaylena Bray (Seneca) and Rose von Thater (Tuscorora/Cherokee) at the Indian Valley Organic Farm and Garden at the College of Marin, Indian Valley campus in Novato, CA. The Cultural Conservancy’s Native Foodways program reconnects urban communities to Native agriculture in innovative ways. Photo by: Melissa K. Nelson


The People of the Basket

Inside of the Dwight Research Center at the Pepperwood Preserve, a gleaming state-of-the-art research facility for conservation science, Clint and Lucy McKay sit quietly weaving baskets.

Eventually Clint, the Chair of the Californian Indian Basketweavers Association, says, “People always ask me what’s so important about baskets?”

“Absolutely every, every aspect of our life is centered around a basket. We are born into this world and put into a basket.” He describes baskets that are wound so tight that they can hold water; ceremonial baskets, woven ‘baby boards’ and baskets used for bathing children. There are specific baskets for gathering, cooking and serving foods, and other ones for catching fish and birds. “Seven different types of baskets were used in the preparation of our acorn soup,” he says.

“We are the people of the basket.”

This intricate basket, considered to be a living ancestor by the Native Americans in and around Sonoma County, California, holds detailed historical, ecological and cultural knowledge

Making such intricate baskets, of course, requires a biodiverse landscape and robust ecological systems. For the right sedge and willow and native grasses to thrive, the entire web of biodiversity must be healthy and resilient and water must flow free and clear. Far from being passive hunters and gatherers on the land, Clint and Lucy’s ancestors engaged in reverential gardening at the landscape level, employing various horticultural techniques including weeding, sowing, tilling, burning and selective harvesting, all done with intention and ceremony.

When Native American tribes set out to revitalize their cultures, baskets are often the starting point and serve as invaluable repositories of biocultural knowledge. Woven into a basket are stories, language, ceremony, land-use and territory, ecosystem health, history and precise artistic technique. What types of grasses or reeds were used and how were they harvested, and from where? What were the Native words for these materials and how were they dyed? These were some of the questions asked by Tribal Chair of Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria Joanne Campbell, who has traveled to several European museums to study some of the only remaining ancient Miwok baskets in the world. Only three original Coast Miwok baskets are known to exist in California—baskets from this region are so rare that it is often referred to by scholars as “the black triangle” of baskets. Through careful study and research, Joanne, along with several other practitioners, are part of a new generation who are once again weaving in the Coast Miwok tradition.

Lucy McKay (Dry Creek Pomo / Northern Sierra Miwok) works with her granddaughter on a basket inside of the research center at the Pepperwood Preserve. The once endangered tradition of basket-weaving is enjoying a revival as new generations of weavers are once again able to practice traditional land stewardship to bring back the plants

The inspiring efforts of the Native Peoples of the San Francisco Bay Area to reconnect with their cultures and ancestral territories is a primary theme of The Christensen Fund’s grantmaking strategy in the Bay Area. And as California increasingly suffers from overdrawn and polluted aquifers, growing climate chaos and neglected ecosystems choking from invasive species, one of the state’s best hopes to build resilience may be to connect with the deep knowledge of the First Peoples who still live here. Meanwhile, after a long sleep, the landscape in this sacred part of the world is once again hearing gathering songs and prayers by Native harvesters of sedge, and weavers are bringing new baskets – and a new community – to life.

“What Indian people contribute is enormously nuanced and deep,” says Ben Benson, the Cultural Resources Coordinator at the Pepperwood Preserve. “It has taken us a long time to realize the knowledge and value that they bring.”