California plan would give $100m to Indigenous leaders to buy ancestral lands

Governor Gavin Newsom on Friday proposed giving California’s Indigenous nations $100m so they can purchase and preserve their ancestral lands.

The proposal is part of his pledge to make sure nearly one-third of California’s land and coastal waters are preserved by 2030. But rather than have the government do all of that, Newsom said Indigenous leaders should have a say in what lands get preserved.

“We know that California Native peoples have always had an interdependent relations with land, waters, everything that makes up the state of California,” Newsom said. “Unfortunately we also know that the state has had a role in violently disrupting those relations.”

The money is one piece of Newsom’s $286.4bn budget proposal. The state legislature would have to approve the spending before it could happen.

The funding would not function like a traditional state grant program, where the state decides who gets the money and how they can spend it. Instead, natural resources secretary Wade Crowfoot said the administration is “committed to developing a structure or a process where tribes are deciding where these funds are going”.

“There’s so much that we need to learn, obviously, from the tribal communities about how to do this,” Crowfoot said. “We’ve disconnected ourselves from all the tribal ecological knowledge that we need to heal and care for the lands.”

He added, “We heard loud and clear in our consultations with more than 70 different California Native American tribes a strong desire from tribal governments to play a leading role in restoration and conservation efforts that benefit tribal communities and honor their connections to the lands and waters.”

The proposal comes amid a growing Land Back movement to return Indigenous homelands to the descendants of those who lived there for millennia before European settlers arrived.

Aside from buying land, nations in California could also use the money for programs that address climate change and workforce development.

Crowfoot spoke during a meeting of the California Truth & Healing Council, established by Newsom in 2019 to “clarify the record” of the “troubled relationship between tribes and the state”.

Indigenous leaders were enthusiastic about Newsom’s proposal, but worried how it would work in practice. In some cases, nations have competing claims over the same land. Deciding who will get the money to purchase that land would be difficult.

Kouslaa Kessler-Mata, a member of the Truth & Healing Council, said the state needed to have a policy in place to resolve those conflicts “so that we don’t just wake up one day and say, ‘Oh, guess what? Right now, that land that you thought was in your ancestral territory is now being acquired by someone else.”

Caleem Sisk, chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, noted some nations – like hers – are not recognized by the federal government and have few resources of other nations that are federally recognized.

“We’re not in any position to really compete with them for a grant,” she said.

Crowfoot said he did not have a “quick and easy answer” to some of the council’s concerns. He said ultimately the state will need “some sort of consultative body to help us shape this funding to be able to work through that”.

Newsom signed an executive order in 2020 directing that 30% of California’s land and coastal waters be preserved by 2030. He has called that goal a “mandate”, saying it is important for California to reduce the effects of climate change.

Crowfoot echoed that sentiment Friday, saying preserving land would allow more plants and soil to “actually absorb that pollution from the atmosphere and store it in the land”.

“Nature is needed in this effort to combat climate change,” he said.

Under Newsom’s budget proposal, the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) would manage the new Indigenous funding commitment.

This year, CNRA and its entities have awarded funds for various projects such as the Ocean Protection Council which funded $1.3m to the Wiyot Tribe for the purchase and restoration of 48 acres of its ancestral land. The funding also helps to strengthen coastal resiliency across the Humboldt coastline.

Other CNRA-funded projects include youth access grants worth up to $773,000. The grants were distributed to the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, Robinson Rancheria of Pomo Indians, and the Wiyot Tribe.

In January, a group of ten nations residing on the northern California coast reclaimed parts of their ancestral land, including ancient redwoods. Save the Redwoods League, a nonprofit conservation group transferred more than 500 hectares (1,200 acres) on the Lost Coast to the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council.

The group has since been responsible for protecting the land dubbed Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ, or “Fish Run Place” in the Sinkyone language.

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