U.S. bill seeks to recognize native tribe of Mono Lake basin

They were expert hunters, gatherers and basket makers who lived for thousands of years on a trade route over the Sierra Nevada connecting them to the rest of California.

The modern history of the people of Mono Kutzadika Paiute Lake is told primarily through economic hardship, displacement, and a 150-year struggle for federal recognition as a separate Native American tribe – a necessary step in establishing a sovereign land base to be called at home.

Representative Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear Lake) ventured into their ancestral lunar-like landscape of bizarre craggy formations, sleepy volcanoes and jagged peaks on Saturday and broke some good news in an emotional meeting with the chiefs of the tribe whose membership increased from 4,000 to 83.

Obernolte said he plans to introduce a bill on Tuesday asking Congress to extend federal recognition to the tribe.

“It’s exciting – I’ve been fighting hard for recognition for 20 years,” said Charlotte Lange, 67, tribe president, at the start of their first face-to-face.

“We have a long way to go and we will need all the help we can get,” Obernolte said. “Once we have a hearing scheduled on this case, your testimony will be critical.

“It’s because,” he added with a smile, “it’s hard to say ‘no’ to someone in person.”

View from Black Point on the north shore of Mono Lake.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The meeting took place at a community center in Lee Vining, a small town along US 395 known as the eastern gateway to Yosemite, overlooking one of California’s most famous natural vistas. This happened three months after an article about the tribe’s fate appeared in The Times.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that the tribe, like its parents everywhere, was here first, and its members did not see their way of life as the price to pay for living in America.

Yet their culture was wiped out by the invasions of gold miners, cattle ranchers and booming towns in the 1860s that forced them to leave their homeland.

The tribe takes 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.

It is already considered an influential political entity by the local government; the US Forest Service, which has reserved a grove of trees for traditional purposes; and the National Park Service, which allows tribal members to enter Yosemite National Park for free.

But members of the tribe, young and old, fear they will not live long enough to see the tribe achieve federal recognition.

A federally recognized tribe has sovereignty, does not pay taxes, and is exempt from subsequent state or county legal ordinances. He is entitled to a full service of local law enforcement and fire departments, hospitals and road and flood control systems.

It is also eligible for federal aid from legal programs created to help reclaim land lost over decades to tax sales, fraud and violence, as well as healthcare, education and protection of sacred sites.

Snow covered tuff towers at Mono Lake.

Snowy tuff towers at Mono Lake in February.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

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

But 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 tribesmen; and can take a decade or more.

Obernolte, as a deputy member of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples, resubmitted a bill first introduced in September by the then representative. Paul Cook (R-Yucca Valley) to bypass the petition process by asking Congress to extend federal recognition status.

The subcommittee is chaired by representative Teresa Leger Fernandez (DN.M.), a lawyer specializing in the defense of tribal rights.

But the tribe’s struggle is far from over. To become law, the bill must be approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and it requires the approval of the President.

The Mono Lake tribe is supported by more than a dozen other tribes recognized throughout the Sierra Nevada.

“This bill is a good start,” said Kathy Bancroft, responsible for preserving the tribal history of the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone tribe. “What he really needs now is bipartisan support in Congress.”

The tribe is also supported by the Mono Lake Committee, a 41-year-old nonprofit group organized to save and protect the bowl-shaped ecosystem of Mono Lake that is half the size of Rhode Island.

“The Kutzadika were the first voices in the Mono basin, and they are still very present,” said Geoffrey McQuilkin, executive director of the committee. “Their wisdom is essential in creating a sustainable future for this very special part of California.

“We hope this recognition bill will move forward quickly in Congress,” he said.

The tribesmen hope to establish a federally protected homeland near Lee Vining, possibly on public land currently overseen by the United States Bureau of Land Management.

Then there is 800 acres of nearby Mono County woodland that Mono County Supervisor Bob Gardner, a tribal supporter, said the county “would be happy to offer for a dollar.”

Larissa Cortez, 15, had a final word on the congressman as he prepared to leave.

“I’ve been here all my life,” said Cortez, who wore traditional Paiute clothing including pearls and leather moccasins, “and I want you to know that federal recognition is very important to this land and its land. first inhabitants. “

Obernolte would not dispute any of this.

“What do you want to do after you finish high school?” He asked.

“I am going to become a lawyer,” she said, “specializing in tribal cases”.

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