By Brittany Kleinschnitz& Carrie Tully
During a time when countless social and environmental issues exist in our local and global communities, it can be challenging to know where best to put our activist energy. Many of us know that the most important voices we can be elevating in environmental restoration and sustainability are those of the original inhabitants of these lands. According to Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy, Department Chair of HSU’s Native American Studies, the number one action we can take to mitigate climate disaster is to give land back to Indigenous communities.
Land return is not new to the Humboldt community. In October 2019 we watched the City of Eureka rematriate Tuluwat to the Wiyot Tribe. Through grassroots fundraising, public awareness and support, and a fundamental responsibility to their sacred lands, the Wiyot were able to reunite with the center of their world. Today they continue to tend the earth and waters at Tuluwat, restoring a place that had been polluted, damaged, and in many ways abandoned. Though Tuluwat represents a vital and inspiring success story, there are more opportunities on the horizon.
In June 2020, through a number of grants and after years of organizing, a parcel of so-called Jacoby Creek Forest was transferred from the City of Arcata to Humboldt State University. This forest land, known by the Wiyot as Goukdi’n, holds untold potential. The newly emerging Tribal Forestry program has many collaborative research opportunities for students to look forward to. Yet in the process, the Wiyot Tribe were excluded from any conversations, planning, and execution of the transfer. The topic of rematriation was never broached until Dr. Risling Baldy posed the question: Why?
This question spurred action by both Dr. Risling Baldy and Environment and Community graduate student Carrie Tully, who brought the Wiyot Tribal Council into the conversation. Since then, the Wiyot are now included in communications regarding Goukdi’n, and the project has continued to evolve. The current goals are now twofold: to create an effective co-management strategy between the Wiyot Tribe and HSU, and to legally return the land to the Wiyot, who currently do not own any forested land within their ancestral territory. Some see these goals at odds with one another, but Tribal Chairman Ted Hernandez has a different vision for the future: “The land was always a part of the Wiyot, no matter what. It was what we were supposed to take care of… to nourish it and bring it to health. That’s what our job was. The reason why this is important to me, is for us to receive this back, is to bring it back to the health that it needs… It needs that love and tender care not just from the Wiyot people but the community that surrounds it. Let’s take care of it together.”
While most stakeholders are on board for this partnership, the language around co-management continues to regard the Wiyot as visitors invited to work on HSU land, and sees rematriation as a threat to student research and a far off (if at all possible) goal. Initiatives such as this new co-management strategy and the forthcoming Tribal Forestry program seek to embody the university’s Strategic Plan to “Strengthen relationships and engage with local Tribal Nations and communities through authentic actions, specific planning, accountability, and true collaboration” – but fall short of these sentiments in neglecting the importance of land return as a fundamental act of relational accountability. Dr. Risling Baldy touches on this in a recent interview with For the Wild podcast: “People want the benefits, they want the knowledge, they want to be able to invite Indigenous peoples in – come here and we will extract from you this knowledge… How are you working to uphold their sovereignty and self determination?”
In September 2020 Governor Newsom issued a Statement of Administrative Policy regarding Native American Ancestral Lands, imploring state entities to “seek opportunities to support California tribes’ co-management of and access to natural lands that are within a California tribe’s ancestral land and under the ownership or control of the State of California, and to work cooperatively with California tribes that are interested in acquiring natural lands in excess of State needs.” We are seeing significant calls to action state-wide; where land return is not only considered possible, it is part of a growing opportunity to build climate resilient futures. HSU can lead the way in these actions for true co-management practices that value the sovereignty and self-determination of Indigenous nations.
Not only is land return an authentic action of solidarity with local tribes, it is also a significant step toward the goals of HSU’s environmental programs. Mitigating the effects of global climate change does not come from Western academics and sciences alone. It already is, and will continue to be, led by Indigenous communities. As Dr. Risling Baldy summarizes from her research, “Indigenous knowledges are not a backup plan anymore, they are the plan.”
Divorcing Indigenous sovereignty from ecological management and restoration has never been an effective strategy for land management. We see the legacy of the colonial project through traditional “American” forestry in fire-suppressed and overcrowded forests, which result in high intensity fires and months of toxic air quality. No longer can we neglect the role of human relationships and social justice in environmental science. It is this relationship that created the conditions for the Wiyot and others to thrive on this land – and for the land to thrive with its people – since time immemorial.
Currently, the Wiyot are working on a co-management agreement with the university, and a new subcommittee focused solely on the logistics of rematriation has been proposed by the Tribe and their HSU partners. We will continue to update the community on further developments regarding this process, but for now we leave you with this question from Dr. Risling Baldy: “What are we going to speak into being and make happen in the future?”
To learn more about the Wiyot Tribe’s environmental work, visit https://www.wiyot.us/101/Natural-Resources. To pay acknowledgement to and support Tribal sovereignty for the Wiyot Tribe, visit www.honortax.org.