Californians have an opportunity to begin to repair historic wrongs endured by the state’s tribes with a plan to protect the environment.
By Morning Star Gali
Morning Star Gali is a member of the Ajumawi band of the Pit River Tribe in Northeastern California. She serves as the Tribal Water Organizer for the Save California Salmon and advocates for Indigenous sovereignty issues.
Kate Poole, Special to CalMatters
Kate Poole is a senior director on the nature team at Natural Resources Defense Council, where she leads efforts to protect and restore freshwater ecosystems at the local, state and national levels.
Designated months that recognize Native American Heritage and governor-appointed advisory councils are opportunities for Californians to reflect on the history of Indigenous peoples in our state, but they are not sufficient for us to redress the historic wrongs suffered by California’s tribes.
In 1851, the state’s first governor declared “a war of extermination will continue to be waged between races, until the Indian race becomes extinct.” Many California Indians survived the genocide of colonial settlement in California but have nonetheless been deprived of their traditional way of life by being dispossessed of their lands and culture.
Californians now have an opportunity to begin to repair these historic wrongs through Gov. Gavin Newsom’s initiative known as 30×30.
30×30 is also a global effort to address the planet’s biodiversity and climate crises by protecting 30% of lands, inland waters and oceans by 2030. Newsom issued an executive order in 2020 that puts California on a path to lead this endeavor. A key part of the governor’s effort must be restoring tribal ownership and control of lands stolen during white settlement of the state. But another critical piece of the 30×30 initiative must be restoring the health and vitality of California’s rivers and native fish.
Rivers are an intrinsic part of California’s Native American culture. Many Northern California tribes define themselves by their relationship to rivers. The name of the Yurok Tribe, for example, means the “downriver” people, reflecting the importance of the tribe’s homeland at the mouth of the Klamath River to its identity. Similarly, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe’s name means the “middle water” people, whose ancestral lands along the McCloud River watershed were flooded by the construction of Shasta Dam.
Many of California’s most iconic rivers, such as the Smith River, have original names that are the same as the tribes that lived on them. The native language of the Hoopa Tribe on the Trinity River lacks words for north, south, east, west, because tribal members define their location by where they are in reference to the river.
Rivers, and the salmon they sustain, form the heart and soul of many of California’s Indigenous peoples. But our rivers are ailing. Dams and water diversions on the Klamath, Trinity, Sacramento, Eel and many others have decimated salmon runs and caused toxic algae outbreaks. Salmon populations are a tiny fraction of what they were 50 years ago, when tribal members caught hundreds per day. Today, the trauma of massive fish kills on the Klamath and elsewhere have left deep scars on tribal peoples who honor salmon as part of our communities.
The Pathways to 30×30 document calls for strengthening tribal partnerships. To do so, it must make restoring these mighty rivers a priority.
Newsom has taken laudable strides by supporting removal of Pacificorp’s aging dams on the Klamath River. But more must be done. The state must protect and restore the floodplains, estuaries and riparian forests that give rivers room to roam. It must use its authority to reduce harmful water diversions enabled by a racist water rights system established in the 19th century. And it must respect tribal sovereignty over management of the rivers, lands and fisheries that define their cultures.
We look forward to working with the state to strengthen these goals over the 45-day comment period on the draft Pathways document and as 30×30 moves from vision to reality in California.