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In light of the racial reckoning that is taking place in America and coming on the heels of the revelations about John Muir, I thought it was time to visit the role of land conservancy.

For the second time in five years, conservationists have helped two tribes in California regain some land. On the surface that sounds great – Native people getting their ancestral lands back. With all due respect, let’s look at how this played out in Sonoma County when then tribal Chairman Reno Franklin joined with the County of Sonoma and The Trust for Public Land.

The 688-acre parcel was described as being “gifted” back to the Kashia Tribe, but in actuality, it was sold by the Richardson family, who accepted an offer of $6 million dollars; $500,000 came from the tribe.

This is a beautiful piece of the California coast with scenic Highway One meandering in front of it. Unlike most tribal land, there are no markers or signs that declare it Kashia land. Looking into the details of the land exchange document of June 2015 by the Coastal Conservancy entitled “Richardson Kashia Acquisition and California Coastal Trail Extension – Project No. 15-011-01”, you will find that there are so many restrictions put on the land by the conservationists that the tribe can do little more than assign pathways.

The project summary clearly spells out that the land can’t be used for economic development or for housing, something many Kashia residents would like, especially because it looks out over the pacific, and is part of their ancestral lands

To the north and south, white people have large developments with private access to fields and common areas. There is no chance for the Kashia to do this. There can be no development, no lodging to help with economic development but there will be walking trails and local native plants will bear signage attributing them with Kashia names and uses. Some Kashia citizens say, “We just wave at it as we drive by.”

A similar land return just occurred in Monterey. This time the Esselen Tribe is the recipient of land also imbued with many restrictions. The Los Angeles Times reported, “A $4.5 million land deal, brokered by Portland-based environmental group Western Rivers Conservancy, will return a 1,199-acre parcel of wilderness along the Little Sur River to the tribe in the name of conservation and cultural resilience. The transfer will mark the first land returned to the Esselen since they were displaced centuries ago.”

The Esselen Tribe is not a federally recognized tribe, however, their non-profit organization will hold the land in fee for the tribal members and they will have to follow a management program to keep the land. The tribe announced that they will build altars and a community house. They also expressed their hope to rebury their ancestors.

If these organizations can raise the number of funds they’ve demonstrated the need for so far, I think it’s time to help Native communities invest in lands that will benefit future generations and not be small tokens of Indian islands with little hope for economic development.

It’s time to let Native people decide what they want to do with their traditional lands, especially in a state where genocide was the official policy of the United States government.

In theory, conservationists helping Indians get land back seems like a good idea. But to this Indian, it looks like another form of colonization. In fairness, the Kashia in Sonoma County will be granted access to a section of the coast for the tradition of gathering seaweed. That’s mighty White of those folks.

The paternalistic attitudes imbued in these land agreements keep tribes’ hands tied behind their backs without offering any equity by treating Tribes as Sovereign Nations.

While ceremonies and other cultural practices are vital to tribes and Native communities, so is the ability of a tribe to take care of their people. Health care, education, housing and jobs are all a part of being a sovereign nation. Partnerships and alliances are needed.

Why not begin a new era that includes the leadership of tribal members on these boards?

How about respecting and supporting the rights of sovereign nations to decide what is best for their future?

In the “land of the free and home of the brave,” it’s the least conservationists can do.

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This essay does not reflect the view of Indian Country Today; voices in our opinion section represent a variety of reader points of view. If you would like to contribute an essay to Indian Country Today, email the opinion editor, Vincent Schilling at

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