How this tribe got their coastal California lands returned
Members of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians. (Photo by Terray Sylvester)

The Kashia Band of Pomo Indians has called the coast along what is now Sonoma County, California, home for more than 12,500 years. There, the “People from the Top of the Land” occupied lands that stretched out about 30 miles along the coast near Fort Ross and about 30 miles inland.

Like many California tribes, the Kashia were violently removed from the best portions of their lands during the formation of the U.S. In 1915, the Kashia were allocated just 41.5 acres of land for their reservation. But in 2015—100 years later—the Kashia regained ownership of the heartland of its culture: 688 acres of land on the Pacific Coast.

“We’re a coastal people,” says Kashia Chairman Reno Keoni Franklin. “A number of our ceremonies are related to the ocean.” In summer, the Kashia traditionally collected seaweed, abalone, mussels, and urchins from coastal villages. Winters were spent upland, where they hunted and gathered foods, medicinal plants, and basketry materials. The Kashia carefully managed their lands and coasts to ensure that life under their stewardship thrived.

European incursions changed the Kashia’s way of life. After California became a U.S. state in 1850, Indians were hunted down, massacred, enslaved, raped, and driven from their lands. In 1915, the U.S. government allocated 41.5 acres of nearly waterless land, of which only 12 acres were buildable—and none was directly on the coast—as the Kashia’s reservation had been.

The tribe’s access to their life-giving coast had been restricted. “We had to ask permission to go to our gathering places,” Franklin says. “That was a big hurt for us.” At first, people who lived along the coast were understanding; then newer owners cut off access. “Only one or two landowners would allow us to go out,” Franklin says. “We were losing our ability to go to our lands.”

So the tribe made a plan: purchase a nearly 700-acre property from a family with whom the Kashia had a longtime relationship. That family, the Richardsons, had lived there since 1925. They “were the ones who always said yes to access requests,” Franklin says. “They came to us and said, ‘We want to sell it, but we’d rather [sell] it to you.’”

But the non-gaming tribe had few resources, so it partnered with Trust for Public Lands to work through the process of acquiring the land, securing funding, and ensuring the tribe would hold the deed. “Our trust’s mission is very specific: We help to protect land that is important to human communities,” says Brendan Moriarty, a project manager with the trust. “The Kashia’s cultural identity centers on the coast. … It was important for the Kashia to regain their coastal lands.”

“When you go into a deal like this … you have to go in with people with whom you share commonality,” says Franklin. “It was important to educate [them] about what Kashia is, about all the things that make up who we are as a people.”

The Trust, which Franklin says was part of a team of “amazing people” who labored under occasionally trying circumstances over five years to close the deal—including in one case, recreating a year’s worth of work in 10 days—understood that the Kashia’s cultural survival required the ability to manage their ancestral lands. “You have to be able to cut grass, to cut trees,” and to eradicate invasive species, he says.

To reclaim management privileges of the ancestral lands, as well as ownership, the tribe had to navigate state and local land-use regulations. Through negotiations with Sonoma County and the California Coastal Commission, easements were granted for the tribe to perform management and rebuild traditional roundhouses on the property. The approval of those easements was “a righting of a wrong when the land was taken from the people,” says Franklin.

As part of this deal, the Kashia agreed to link a 1-mile-long interpretive trail on their lands with the broader California Coastal Trail, a network of public trails that stretches along the Pacific coast. “We also want to tell history from the tribal point of view, so we wanted to have the coastal trail,” says Franklin. “But, when it’s time for ceremony, that trail has to close.”

Today, the Kashia Coastal Reserve is owned and managed by the tribe. Franklin believes this to be the first time that a tribe in the U.S. has held a private deed—as well as management rights—to their ancestral lands. The key to success was identifying and forming relationships with entities that respect the Kashia's rights. Franklin hopes this experience could serve as a model for other tribes.

“When we bring elders out to the property, even my own grandmother, they ask me, ‘Do we need to get permission to go out to the property?’ I tell them, ‘No, we own this property—people have to ask us for permission to come here.’ The impact of that realization will be felt for generations.”

Now, the tribe is preserving and restoring the property to a condition that’s as close as possible to before Western contact. And, out of respect for a nearly 100-year-long relationship, family member Bill Richardson will live his life out on the land he and his family returned to the original owners.

In July 2016, several months after the deeds and other paperwork had been signed and filed, about 300 people joined the Kashia to celebrate the return of their lands. “We invited dance groups from other Pomo tribes that have roundhouses, as we have a shared religion,” Franklin says. “When we danced on that property for the first time, it was probably the most powerful moment that our tribe has experienced in the last 100 years—to have the sound of our clappers and our whistles, and hear the wind through the feathers of our dancers.”

“That was the moment when the land was ours.”

Debra Utacia Krol wrote this article for The Decolonize Issue, the Spring 2018 issue of YES! Magazine. Debra is an independent journalist.