Reclaiming, Restoring and Preserving Indigenous Relationships

 | Still from "Tending Nature" episode "Cultivating Native Foodways with the Cultural Conservancy"

The third and final season of “Tending Nature” connects us back to the Earth. It brings us to diverse environments across California, including the northern coastal prairies, springs in the Mojave Desert, fertile soil in the Capay Valley, and even the Presidio of San Francisco, an oasis of green space flanked by urban neighborhoods. Native tribal leaders, scientists, activists, and elders demonstrate how traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) helps protect and restore culturally and ecologically significant landscapes and how it provides a critical perspective when examining today’s environmental challenges, including climate change, development, and sustainable farming.

Preview of "Tending Nature" Season 3
Tending Nature Season 3 (Preview) Media Manager

Throughout this season, the wisdom, lessons and stories from Indigenous peoples across the state revolve around the theme of land: reclaiming ancestral homelands and sacred sites, rethinking agricultural practices, and reinvigorating new landscapes. When it comes to protecting and advocating for land, Native communities still face challenges from the long-standing impacts of colonization. Many communities continue trying to regain land that was forcibly taken post-contact. Others are trying to restore areas devastated by industry or exploitation, such as ancient petroglyphs or ancestral villages that eventually became byproducts of industrial manufacturing. 

"[The land] belongs to all of us, not just one person to go out and harvest to take for themselves.” 
Ted Hernandez, chairman and cultural director of the Wiyot Tribe

The concept of land is viewed differently in the Indigenous mindset. As articulately stated by Cultural Survival, an organization that advocates for Indigenous people’s rights: “Many Indigenous groups refer to their unique relationship with their particular territory as ‘I belong to this land,’ as opposed to the classic Western articulation, ‘this land belongs to me.’ The statement is political and emotional as well as philosophical; it is the foundation of the Indigenous worldview and informs the traditional way of land in its entirety.” The concept of owning land — rather than stewarding — is one that has had ramifications since the era of Manifest Destiny. As Ted Hernandez, chairman and cultural director of the Wiyot Tribe, emphasizes about land: “It belongs to all of us, not just one person to go out and harvest to take for themselves.” 

In recent years, we have started to see a public shift in perspective regarding Indigenous lands and peoples. In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newson issued a formal apology on behalf of the State of California for the historical violence, discrimination and exploitation of California’s Natives communities. Places across the state are calling for the removal of names and monuments of perpetuators of genocide, such as Junípero Serra or John Sutter. This movement extends beyond Native peoples as well — take, for example, the widespread call to remove statues of confederate leaders, or UC Berkeley’s decision to remove the name of John Henry Boalt from its prestigious law school. (Boalt was a proponent of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and publicly known for his anti-Chinese racist sentiments).

Watch a preview of “Guarding Ancestral Grounds with the Wiyot.”
Guarding Ancestral Grounds with the Wiyot (Preview) Media Manager

In addition, we are also seeing a return to Indigenous land acknowledgement and recognition of Native place names. “Guarding Ancestral Grounds with the Wiyot” shares the story of how the tribe recently made history with the return of Tuluwat, an island in Humboldt County’s Arcata Bay that was successfully returned to the Wiyot after decades of negotiation. Tuluwat has both a painful and inspiring history. The site of the horrific 1860 “Indian Island Massacre,” it is also considered by the tribe to be the center of the universe. Reclaiming this land not only helped restore the island’s natural environment but also helped heal the community. The tribe advocates for the use of the name Tuluwat, as opposed to the historical names of “Indian Island” or “Gunther Island,” in an effort to return it to its Indigenous identity. 

“You would not sell your mother. We cannot sell our Earth.”
Cheryl Seidner, tribal elder and former tribal chairwoman of the Wiyot

The episode also details the tribe’s successful efforts to block the construction of wind turbines on the sites of Bear River (Tsakiyuwit) and Monument Ridge, a project that would have resulted in detrimental environmental and cultural impacts to a sacred site. Despite the tribe’s commitment to green energy, the destruction would have outweighed the benefits. As Cheryl Seidner, tribal elder and former tribal chairwoman, emphatically stated during public hearings for the project, “You would not sell your mother. We cannot sell our Earth.”

Watch a preview of “Preserving the Desert with NALC.”
Preserving the Desert with NALC (Preview) - Media Manager

On the opposite side of the state, members of the Native American Land Conservancy (NALC) are also advocating to protect sacred sites in the deserts of southeastern California. The mission of the organization is to acquire, preserve, and protect Native American sacred lands through protective land management, educational programs, and scientific study. “Preserving the Desert with NALC” brings us to the Mojave Desert, where the Conservancy is actively engaged in ecological restoration efforts, including restoring sensitive habitats from off-road vehicle use, removing graffiti from sacred monuments and petroglyph sites, and protecting desert tortoises and other native plant and animal species. 

Lush greenery growing in Bonanza Spring.  | Still from "Tending Nature" episode "Preserving the Desert with NALC"
Lush greenery growing in Bonanza Spring. | Still from "Tending Nature" episode "Preserving the Desert with NALC"

Traditional ecological knowledge of desert ecosystems requires extensive knowledge of unique and often fragile ecosystems. Bridget Sandate, a Chemehuevi tribal member, describes that while many people think of the desert as a playground (think off-road vehicles, festivals and illegal camping), to her it is so much more than that. “It’s our grocery store, it’s our church,” Sandate said. “And that’s why we come out here.” 

This episode reveals ways that intertribal community members work hard to protect sacred sites and preserve irreplaceable environments. One way to ensure the protection of these areas is through land acquisition projects. In 2002, the NALC, supported by the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians, was able to successfully purchase a 2,560-acre preserve known as the Old Woman Mountains. Tribal members are able to restore the natural and cultural resources on this culturally significant area through TEK, as well as use the preserve as a sacred and healing landscape. 

Watch a preview of “Reclaiming Agriculture with the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation.”
Reclaiming Agriculture with the Yocha Dehe (Preview) - Media Manager

In addition to protecting sacred sites, this season of “Tending Nature” is also about rethinking relationships with introduced species and revitalizing new landscapes. “Reclaiming Agriculture with the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation” shows how the tribe applies Indigenous stewardship principles to the production of olive oil. While olives are not native to California and can be considered a “colonized” species, the tribe grows them with sustainable practices (including high-efficiency irrigation, crop rotations, the use of beneficial insects, and no pesticides) and distributes the oil locally, providing an option for restaurants and buyers to purchase a product that is organic, local, and not contaminated like many imported olive oils. Tribal Chairman Emeritus Marshall McKay describes that the use of a non-native plant, grown sustainably to benefit the land, the tribe, and the surrounding community, in itself is a sign of resistance and resilience.

The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation also shares a history of reclaiming land and identity. In 1907, the tribe was forcibly relocated to reservation land, formerly named Rumsey Rancheria after the original landowner (a name that was given by the federal government). The tribe began to regain their ancestral lands in the 1980s and in 2009 they legally changed their name to the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, which means “home by the spring water” in their ancestral language. “Séka Hills,” the name of their olive mill, is named after the rolling blue hills of their homeland. McKay reflects on the legacy of their history with hope for the future: “Through sustainable farming practices, the land will give us strength to move forward.”

Sara Moncada (Yaqui/Irish), chief program officer at the Cultural Conservancy, left, and Melissa K. Nelson (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), president and CEO of the Cultural Conservancy, right, tending plants together. | Still from "Tending Nature"
Sara Moncada (Yaqui/Irish), chief program officer at the Cultural Conservancy, left, and Melissa K. Nelson (Turtle Mountain Chippewa), president and CEO of the Cultural Conservancy, right, tending plants together.

The final episode, “Cultivating Native Foodways with the Cultural Conservancy,” is also a story of land acquisition, revitalization, and making environmental areas accessible, particularly for Indigenous peoples who have been removed from their homeland. The Cultural Conservancy, a Native-led nonprofit whose work revolves around traditional ecological knowledge, co-stewards a teaching garden through the Indian Valley Organic Farm and Garden in Marin County, hosts Native food workshops, and maintains a Native heirloom seed library. 

The Cultural Conservancy’s president and CEO Melissa Nelson emphasizes that the organization focuses on food sovereignty, or “the ability to feed ourselves and to honor our traditional foods.” This episode reiterates that through industrialized agriculture, seeds have become commodified, commercialized, hybridized, and adulterated with chemicals and pesticides. The Native seed library project helps move away from that commodification and reconnects community members to heirloom seeds. The Cultural Conservancy also recently acquired a new 7.8-acre farm in Sebastopol named Heron Shadow for a project that will expand seed sovereignty, teach TEK to future generations and return Indigenous land to Indigenous hands. 

Old Woman Mountains in the Mojave Desert | Still from "Tending Nature" episode "Preserving the Desert with NALC"
Old Woman Mountains in the Mojave Desert | Still from "Tending Nature" episode "Preserving the Desert with NALC"

Connecting with the land may not feel easy right now, especially during a global pandemic. But landscapes do not solely have to be in open spaces or be as large as the Old Woman Mountains Preserve. Even urban environments are teeming with life. Wherever you are, “Tending Nature” reminds us of the importance of recognizing that you are a part of the ecosystem, or in the eloquent words of Sara Moncato, the Cultural Conservancy’s chief program officer, you are “not a member of it, not above it, not outside of it, but echoing within it.” This final season emphasizes the importance of remembering those connections, of acknowledging Indigenous presence, and respecting natural resources that do not “belong” to anyone, but rather are a part of all of us.

Top image: A tray of heirloom seeds in the Cultural Conservancy's seed library.

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