SACRAMENTO -- Five California tribes will reclaim their right to manage coastal land significant to their history under a first-in-the-nation program backed with $3.6 million in state money.
The tribes will rely on their traditional knowledge to protect more than 200 miles of coastline in the state, as climate change and human activity have impacted the vast area.
Some of the tribes' work will include monitoring salmon after the removal of a century-old defunct dam in the redwood forests in the Santa Cruz mountains and testing for toxins in shellfish, while also educating future generations on traditional practices.
The partnership comes three years after Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom apologized for the state's previous violence and mistreatment against Indigenous peoples. Newsom said the state should allow for more co-management of tribes' ancestral lands.
Megan Rocha, who's on the Tribal Marine Stewards Network's leadership council, said these coastal areas hold cultural significance for various tribes, making the partnership monumental.
"It's focused on tribal sovereignty," she said. "So how do we build a network where it provides for collaboration, but again, it allows each tribe to do it in the way that they see fit and respects each tribe's sovereignty."
The network plans to create agreements between tribes and with state government for managing these areas.
Rocha is also executive director of Resighini Rancheria, a tribe of Yurok people that is part of the network.
She worked with other tribal leaders, members of nonprofit groups and the state's Ocean Protection Council, which coordinates activities of ocean-related state agencies, to develop a pilot program for the network that was years in the making.
In 2020, Ocean Protection Council staff recommended the agency set aside $1 million toward the pilot program to support the network in conducting research, reaching out to tribes and creating plans for the future.
The council voted Thursday to provide an additional $3.6 million which will support the groups in their continued efforts to monitor coastal and ocean resources, offer educational opportunities to tribal members, and pass along cultural knowledge to younger generations.
Taking inspiration from similar partnerships in Australia and Canada, the groups said they hope other networks bloom across the United States.
Leaders plan to expand the network to include more tribes throughout the state, Rocha said. California has 109 federally-recognized tribes, the second highest number in the country behind Alaska. But there are also many tribes that aren't federally recognized.
Multiple tribal leaders referenced Newsom's public apology in explaining part of why the network's public launch is happening now. In recent years, U.S. officials have committed to collaborating with tribes on managing public lands.
Creating a network of tribes to steward areas with the backing of state government money and nonprofit support breaks new ground in the United States, said Kaitilin Gaffney of the nonprofit Resources Legacy Fund.
"I think we're going to look back in 20 years and be like, 'Oh, we were there. That was where it was started. Look what's happened since,'" she said.
Some tribes in California and around the nation have had their rights to ancestral lands restored under the Land Back movement.
About 60 attendees from nonprofit groups, tribal nations and the Ocean Protection Council gathered in Sacramento to commemorate the network's public launch last week. Leaders thanked experts, advocates, tribal leaders and public officials who made the launch possible.
Valentin Lopez, chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, which is part of the network, said climate change has forced governments with a history of exploiting Indigenous lands to acknowledge tribes' deep-rooted knowledge of protecting ecosystems.
"We're in the crisis mode," he said.
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