A century-old fight for tribal recognition is brewing


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In a feverish quest for wealth, white ranchers and gold miners began flocking to the remote Mono Lake basin east of Yosemite in the 1850s, seizing the ancestral lands of the Native Americans that had existed there ever since. time immemorial.

For the members of the Mono Lake Kutzadika Paiute tribe, it was an attack on their traditions, their culture and their very survival.

They had thrived for thousands of years amid the bounty and hardship of the Sierra Nevada range, surrounded by its wildlife, water resources, and sacred places, as a spring that women used for them. purification rituals and which was adorned with rock carvings.

Today, 150 years after the defeat of the culture of Mono Paiute Lake, the tribe has grown from 4,000 members to just 83. Tribal chiefs also face the long and costly process of gaining federal recognition of their status as a tribe. Native American – a necessary step to establish a land base, a measure of sovereignty, and to qualify for assistance with health care, education and the protection of sacred sites.

“Stress is an understatement,” said Charlotte Lange, 67, president of the tribe who, although not recognized, maintains a tribal organization and holds monthly meetings in Lee Vining, a small town known as the Eastern gateway to Yosemite along US 395 near Mono Lake. “We just want a place to call home, and time is running out.”

Charlotte Lange, 67, president of the Mono Kutzadika Paiute Lake Tribe, sits for a portrait on a bluff overlooking Mono Lake on February 4 in Lee Vining. The tribe is one of about two dozen unrecognized and landless tribes in California.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

“It breaks my heart to hear the elders of the tribe worry that they won’t live long enough to see this happen,” she said. “Eight of our seniors have passed away in the past year and a half alone. ”

Lange wants federal officials to appreciate more of the long and difficult history they are trying to overcome.

California’s Native American population grew from 150,000 to 30,000 in the mid-1800s, according to Benjamin Madley, UCLA historian and author of “American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873.”

California’s native population has rebounded to around 150,000, many of whom belong to the 110 tribes recognized by the state’s federal government. These groups are able to determine their own fate, and in many cases, that fate has involved lucrative gaming palaces.

Archival photograph of two women from the Kutzadika Paiute tribe of Mono Lake.

File photograph of two women from the Kutzadika Paiute tribe of Mono Lake provided by tribe member Ronda Swager, 37, who lives in Lee Vining, California.

(Ronda Swager)

The Mono Lake Paiutes are among about two dozen unrecognized and landless tribes in California who have petitioned for federal recognition by the Home Office’s Office of Indian Affairs.

Few of these efforts are likely to be successful, experts say, as they typically cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, require extensive documentation and research by anthropologists, historians and tribal members, and can take a decade or more.

“Fortunately, the Mono Lake tribe is well documented and has a strong case,” said Dorothy Alther, an attorney for California Indian Legal Services, who represents the tribe on a voluntary basis.

“But these things take years,” she added. “It’s about following the federal rules and regulations that keep changing, and the tribal lawyers that come and go.”

The Mono Lake Paiute had much to celebrate in September when Rep. Paul Cook (R-Yucca Valley) introduced a bill that would bypass the petition process by asking Congress to extend federal recognition to the tribe. It raised expectations, to expire at the end of the session.

Cook has become a San Bernardino County Supervisor, and it is still unclear whether his successor, Rep. Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear Lake), plans to resubmit the bill.

“If Obernolte doesn’t resubmit the invoice, we’ll find someone else to do it,” Alther said. “In any case, we would like the bill to be as bipartisan as possible.”

Lange remains hopeful, in part because of President Biden’s appointment of New Mexico congresswoman Deb Haaland to lead the Home Office. If approved, Haaland would make history as the first Native American to oversee an agency that manages millions of acres of public land and the powerful Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Critics among Indigenous groups, however, point out that each new administration is committed to doing better on Native American lands, but rarely delivers on its promises.

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Snow covered tuff towers at Mono Lake.

Snow covered tuff towers at Mono Lake in Lee Vining.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Without federally protected land, members of the Mono Lake Paiute tribe are scattered across the state. But their spiritual centers remain near the Alkaline Mono Lake, almost a million years old, in the shadow of the jagged eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada.

The tribe gets its name from its traditional word for what was once a high protein food source, the tiny black alkaline flies pupae that line the shore of Mono Lake. They have a crunchy, nutty flavor which makes them very easy to snack on when dried.

The ancestors of the tribe adapted to life in the high altitude valley with short growing seasons by irrigating villages, harvesting pine nuts and hunting American antelopes and hares for food and skins for clothing.

During long treks on a network of roads in the Sierra Nevada, they protected their skin from mosquito bites and sunburn by coating themselves with a layer of mud.

Reminders of their presence – millstones, arrowheads, and stone carvings known as petroglyphs – are found throughout the region and are considered sacred by Native Americans.

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Morning clouds drift over Mono Lake.

Morning clouds drift over Mono Lake in Lee Vining.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The fate of Mono Lake Paiute is too common a story for tribal communities in California, Madley said.

“Despite the signing of 18 treaties in the 1850s,” he said, “the US Senate refused to ratify any of them.”

“This is because state officials and media outlets have asked their congressional delegation in Washington to vote against the treaties,” he said. “Their argument being that the land was too precious because it could contain gold, woods, water and ranches.”

“After the discovery of gold just north of Mono Lake in 1859,” he said, “ranchers released hundreds of cattle into the area to sell to miners looking to get rich.”

After that, he said, “there was a series of massacres in the eastern Sierra Nevada”. They included the slaughter of a large group of men, women and children on the northern shores of Mono Lake.

In 1904, Congress divided tribal lands throughout the region into lots. These leaflets were given to individual members of “homeless tribes” to generate income from sales and leases.

The new recipients, however, had few defenses against the whites who had mastered the art of making a quick profit. Among them were agents sent from Los Angeles in the 1920s to ensure a reliable water supply for the booming metropolis about 350 miles to the south.

Within a few years, most of Kutzadika’s beneficiaries had sold their land to white foreigners, who often sought water rights.

In 1950, the tribe called for an investigation into their living conditions in the hopes that federal officials could “reserve land for us,” according to records from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Instead, they were told that there was no public land available and that all water resources belonged to Los Angeles.

In 1976, the tribe launched its continued effort to seek federal recognition by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The tribe claims the support of more than a dozen other recognized tribes throughout Sierra Nevada, as well as the Mono Lake Committee, a 41-year-old nonprofit conservation organization.

Support also comes from the Forest Service, which has set aside a Jeffrey pine grove for traditional purposes, and the National Park Service, which allows tribal members to enter Yosemite National Park for free.

The stakes are high. A federally recognized tribe has sovereignty and does not pay taxes. It is also exempt from the following state or county legal ordinances. Yet he is entitled to a full service of local law enforcement and fire departments, hospitals, and road and flood control systems.

He is eligible for assistance from legal programs created to help impoverished tribes recover land lost over decades to tax sales, fraud and violence, and to find new homes for members displaced by disasters such as the wildfire that destroyed dozens of buildings and killed at least one person in the community of Walker, Calif., about 44 miles north of Mono Lake.

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There has always been hope among tribal members for a Mono Lake reserve – a place to preserve the group’s dialect, histories and values ​​for future generations. For some, this dream seems more distant than ever.

Watching Mono Lake as the sun set over the snow-capped Sierra Nevada on a recent weekday, Ronda Kauk, 37, a Kutzadika mother of four and longtime resident of Lee Vining, placed a hand on her heart, trying not to cry.

“It’s hard and it’s sad,” she said, “and it hurts me here.”

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