Tolowa Dee-ni’ Seek Return of Reservation Ranch

By Caroline Griffith

Until the arrival of miners in 1852, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ lived in harmony with the land now known as the Smith River Plain. In 1853, the land was claimed by those in pursuit of gold, with no consideration of those who had lived on the land for millennia before their arrival. Between 1850 and 1857, multiple massacres in the Smith River Valley (including one at the village of Yan’-daa-k’vt which remains the second most deadly recorded massacre in U.S. history) killed hundreds of Tolowa Dee-ni’. 

After being forcibly moved to the Lower Klamath River Reservation at Fort Terwer, and then moved back when Fort Terwer was destroyed by a flood, the Tolowa Dee-ni’, as well as Yurok and Wiyot, were moved to the Smith River Valley and what became the Smith River Reservation. It didn’t last long, though, because in 1868 the federal government abandoned the Smith River Reservation and moved all of the inhabitants to the Hoopa Valley Reservation. Throughout the next century the Tolowa Dee-ni’ were given land only to have it taken away, and lost recognition from the federal government then fought to regain it. The 1983 Tillie Hardwick case restored recognition and the tribal government of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, but despite the treaties that had been signed, much of their ancestral land was already private property.

Now, the land that was at the heart of the original 40,000 acres Smith River Reservation is up for sale and the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation is working to get it back. Known as Reservation Ranch, this 1,668 acre property is on the market for $12.95 million. The same family has owned the land for the six generations since Europeans settled the area. The property includes three miles of river frontage and, as the real estate listing boasts, “The ranch is home to an abundance of wildlife, including Roosevelt elk, deer, ducks, and geese. Several sloughs create a vibrant estuary ecosystem. This is a true sportsmen’s paradise! Reservation Ranch is truly a multi-dimensional property. Offering an established dairy operation, room to expand into a variety of interests, and in a location that’s beyond compare.”

Absent from the real estate listing is any mention of the environmental impact of generations of cattle ranching and destructive agricultural practices, including violations of the California Water Code and multiple violations of the California Coastal Act. 

The California Coastal Commission has notified the property owners of violations including: unpermitted development of levees and roads directly across tidal sloughs and wetlands; placement of construction waste and cow carcasses in and/or adjacent to tidal sloughs and streams; damming of tidal sloughs and wetlands; dredging and channelizing of tidal sloughs and streams; and removal of major riparian vegetation. Additionally, the business has allegedly blocked public access to the sea, tidal sloughs and public trust lands for decades. Depending on the outcome of the Commission’s proceedings, the owner may be subject to fines of up to $11,250 per day, for a maximum of five years, for each violation. The judgement of Commission will have 

Water quality issues from lily bulb farming are a major concern on this, and neighboring, properties as is the possible connection between cattle ranching and Treponeme associated hoof disease (TAHD), a novel hoof disease that has plagued the dairy industry for decades and has recently been discovered in elk in Del Norte County. Regardless of the challenges of rehabilitating this property, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ feel they are up to the task. As their website states, “The Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation is hopeful to reclaim this invaluable unceded ancestral land. As the true and rightful stewards of this property the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation is passionate and eager to begin environmental restoration and cultural resource protection initiatives. The Tribe envisions great potential for collaborative work with non-profits and colleges and/or universities on the extensive restoration this property will demand.”

The Nation is seeking public support and allies in their effort to rematriate. More information can be found at