Publisher’s View: Reparations

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In Mendocino County, 523 acres of rugged forest is studded with the ghostlike stumps of ancient redwoods harvested during a logging boom that eliminated 90 percent of the species on the West Coast. But about 200 acres were spared the saw, still dense with old-growth redwoods.

The land was the hunting, fishing and ceremonial grounds of generations of Indigenous tribes like the Sinkyone until they were largely driven off by European settlers. Earlier this year a California nonprofit reunited the land and its original inhabitants. Save the Redwoods League, which acquired the property as part of a deal with Pacific Gas and Electric Company, transferred it to the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a group of 10 native tribes whose ancestors were forcibly exiled by European American settlers. 

Fundamentally,we believed that the best way to permanently protect and heal this land is through tribal stewardship,” Sam Holder, Save the Redwoods League’s chief executive said in a New York Times interview. “In this process, we have an opportunity to restorebalance in the ecosystem and in the communities connected to it.

For more than 175 years, tribal members didn’t have access to the land they’d used for hunting, fishing and ceremonies. As part of the agreement, the forest, known before the purchase as Andersonia West, will be called Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ – pronounced tsih-ih-LEY-duhn“Fish Run Place” in the Sinkyone language.

“It is rare when these lands return to the original peoples of those places,” Hawk Rosales, an Indigenous land defender and former executive director of the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, told the Times. “We have anintergenerational commitment and a goal to protect these lands and, in doing so, protecting tribal cultural ways of life and revitalizing them.”

Save the Redwoods League’s action should spread like a healing kind of wildfire to other such organizations, particularly The Nature Conservancy, which has been beset by allegations that it operates as an “good ole boys club” that discriminates against women and manages its properties as if they were private estates for staffs’ exclusive use.  These “nonprofits” should offer lands they’ve been gifted to their original inhabitants to serve as protectors. Spindrift, Bishop Pine Reserve, Romero Ranch, and lands in the Central Valley should be transferred to representatives of the Coastal Miwoks, Pomo, Sierra Miwok, and other dislocated tribes.

Responsibly relinquishing its properties would transform TNC, and the historically white-dominated conservation movement, as much as the recipients. If done properly, providing sufficient resources to damaged tribes to engage in self-determined cultural and environmental protection practices, TNC can reinvent itself as a champion of environmental justice.  And what better way to fulfill its charge to safeguard nature for the benefit of future generations than to return them to descendants of past generations from whom they were taken.