Designated months that recognize Native American heritage and governor-appointed advisory councils are opportunities for Californians to reflect on the history of our state’s Indigenous peoples, but they are not enough for us to right historic wrongs. suffered by the tribes of California.
In 1851, the state’s first governor declared “that a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinct.” Many California Indians survived the colonization genocide in California but were nonetheless deprived of their traditional way of life by being dispossessed of their land and culture.
Californians now have the opportunity to start righting these historic wrongs thanks to Governor Gavin Newsom’s initiative known as the 30 × 30.
30 × 30 is also a global effort to address the planet’s biodiversity and climate crises by protecting 30% of land, inland waters and oceans by 2030. Newsom issued a decree in 2020 that puts the California on track to lead this endeavor. A key part of the governor’s effort must be to restore tribal ownership and control over land stolen during the state’s white settlement. But another essential part of the 30 × 30 initiative must be to restore the health and vitality of the rivers and native fish of California.
We need strong commitments as the state finalizes the 30 × 30 implementation in its Pathways to 30 × 30 document, released as a draft this week.
Rivers are an integral part of Native American culture in California. Many tribes in northern California are defined by their relationship to rivers. The name of the Yurok tribe, for example, means the people “downstream”, reflecting the importance of the homeland of the tribe at the mouth of the Klamath River to their identity. Likewise, the tribe’s name Winnemem Wintu means the people of “middle water”, whose ancestral lands along the McCloud River watershed were inundated by the construction of the 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 there. The native language of the Hoopa tribe on the Trinity River lacks words for north, south, east, west, as tribe members define their location by where they are with reference to the river.
The rivers and the salmon they feed form the hearts and souls of many indigenous people in California. But our rivers are sick. Dams and water diversions on the Klamath, Trinity, Sacramento, Eel rivers and many others have decimated salmon runs and caused outbreaks of toxic algae. Salmon populations are a tiny fraction of what they were 50 years ago, when tribesmen fished hundreds a day. Today, the trauma of mass fish kills on the Klamath and elsewhere has left deep scars on the tribal people who honor the salmon as part of our communities.
The Pathways to 30 × 30 document calls for strengthening tribal partnerships. To do this, he must make the restoration of these mighty rivers a priority.
Newsom has made commendable progress in supporting the removal of PacifiCorp’s aging dams on the Klamath River. But more needs to be done. The state must protect and restore the floodplains, estuaries and riparian forests that allow rivers to move. It must use its authority to reduce harmful water diversions made possible by a racist water rights system put in place in the 19th century. And it must respect tribal sovereignty over the management of the rivers, lands and fisheries that define their cultures.
We look forward to working with the state to strengthen these goals during the 45-day comment period on the Pathways draft document and as 30 × 30 moves from vision to reality in California.
Morning Star Gali is a member of the Ajumawi group of the Pit River Tribe in northeastern California. She is the tribal water organizer for Save California Salmon and advocates for issues of Indigenous sovereignty. Kate Poole is the Senior Director of the Nature Team at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where she leads efforts to protect and restore freshwater ecosystems at the local, state and national levels. Distributed by CalMatters.org.