A Coast Miwok family’s fight for recognition at Point Reyes

Theresa Harlan’s family was forcibly removed from their home in the 1950s. Today, she wants the Park Service to acknowledge her story.

On a calm bright Saturday in mid-November, supporters of the Alliance for Felix Cove, an organization that seeks to bring attention to contemporary Coast Miwok people and their history at California’s Point Reyes National Seashore, gathered to celebrate the launching of a tule-reed boat. Redbird Willie, a Pomo artist and ecologist, made the canoe by hand, using local tule reeds and traditional cordage, adhering as closely as possible to traditional Coast Miwok style. As the boat was reverently carried down the ramp, two Native Hawaiian activists sang the music of their culture, a show of the wide inter-Indigenous support at the event.


Theresa Harlan (Kewa Pueblo/Jemez Pueblo), the adopted daughter of the last Indigenous Coast Miwok family to reside on this now-dispossessed shoreline, and her husband, Ken Tiger, stepped carefully into the boat. Together, they paddled out into San Francisco Bay, restoring the lived relationship between the bay and the Miwok people that has long been missing.

Harlan’s family, the Felixes, had lived at Felix Cove for generations, until they were forcibly evicted by ranchers in the 1950s. Not long afterward, that land became part of the Point Reyes National Seashore, a unit of the U.S. National Park Service. 

Theresa Harlan (Tewa), the adopted daughter of the last Indigenous Coast Miwok family to reside on Felix Cove.
Courtesy photo

The Coast Miwok people have lived in Tomales Bay for thousands of years. Even now, cabins that belonged to the Felix family still stand among the bishop pines along the foggy shoreline of Tomales Bay among, in full view of the passing sea lions and leopard sharks.

At Point Reyes today, the European settlers’ ideas of wilderness and ranching are celebrated, but the story of the Miwok people has long been missing. Since September 2021, however, Harlan, the founder and director of the Alliance for Felix Cove, has spearheaded the effort to reclaim her family’s legacy and secure a future for the Coast Miwok people in Tomales Bay.

High Country News caught up with Harlan recently to talk about family and contemporary Indigenous history — the themes that fuel her determination to push the Park Service to recognize Felix Cove. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

High Country News: Your efforts have been a declaration that family and connection to place matters — that family history matters, especially in the context of recognizing contemporary histories of Indigenous people. Can you tell us about your background and your family’s history at Felix Cove?

Theresa Harlan: During my childhood, I spent a lot of time looking at my mom’s photo albums. When our family would come to visit, they always talked about these stories of the bay and how the Felix Cove house was filled with laughter and lots of funny stories and kidding and joking. They never talked about the eviction.

My sister had visited the house at Felix Cove while she was a toddler, but I had never visited the house with my mom. And a lot of my older relatives, who are now gone, they just didn’t want to see the house again, because it was not their home the way that they remembered it. Eventually, I visited the house after my mom passed. My husband and I would go back visit, look at the house, think about it. My older cousins wanted to know: When can they go back? When can they go inside? They wanted to know about our house. And then a friend told me that the new (park) superintendent was coming: “You should invite him to come see the house and invite him as your guests.” I gathered family members, and we invited Superintendent Craig Kenkel to visit the house.

I started building a relationship with the superintendent, but I realized that I needed more than just one single voice. We really needed an organization. We really needed an alliance; we needed allies. That’s why we created the Alliance for Felix Cove last September. 

Bertha Felix, Harlan’s grandmother, with the cabins that belonged to the Felix family and Tomales Bay in the background.
Courtesy of Theresa Harlan

HCN: Point Reyes National Seashore is a unit of the National Park Service and a place where a more colonial agriculture and ranching heritage is remembered. What specific actions would you like to see the Park Service take to protect and Felix Cove’s Miwok history? And what is at stake if they don’t?

TH: I would like to see a Felix Family Historical District that would include both Felix Cove and Marshall Beach, because our family had homes, and Marshall Beach — my mom’s aunt lived at Marshall Beach. My great-grandpa built houses at Felix Cove and two homes at Marshall beach.

We want the house and its interior to be restored. We want to have access to the house, to have gatherings at the house. We want to establish a living history center and ecological garden.

The park, at one point, had a plan for an Indigenous archaeological district, but they shelved it and have since pushed forward with a historic ranching district. So all these commercial ranches — where we get organic milk, organic cheese — they have the historic-district status. They get the tax write-offs, they get the benefits of our taxpaying money for support for their roads, the fences, their buildings. I would like to see the ranches out of there because they are not compatible with the protection of ancestral grounds. They’re not compatible with the protection of our plant and animal relatives.

We hope that someday we can sit around the table and talk about the future of the family home. In the meantime, we want to tell our family story and create ways in which people can build relationships with land and water.

HCN: As an Indigenous woman, could you talk a bit about why it’s important to tell the contemporary history of the Coast Miwok peoples? What are the consequences of only talking about Coast Miwok or other Native peoples in the deep past? 

TH: It’s so important to tell the story of contemporary lives because it’s our reality. It’s the real, lived experience. My mom was born and raised there. I was raised on those stories. My cousins were raised on those stories. And my family, my Uncle Vic, fought for that house.

To come from family that survived three waves of colonization — survived the mission, survived the Mexican ranchos, survived and were adept at working on the American ranches — and then were evicted. The Alliance for Felix Cove was created to pick up (Uncle Vic’s) work to say that he mattered, my mom mattered, my grandparents mattered, their grandparents, their ancestors mattered. They made it all the way into the 1950s. And they would still have been there if they weren't evicted.

That story matters because it shows how California Indian people, Tomalko people, pushed and persisted and lived. They just lived as best they could, raising their families. And that’s the importance of our story. As a photo curator of Native photography, I’ve always said family albums and the pictures they hold are so important. 

Supporters of the Alliance for Felix Cove launch a tule-reed boat made using local tule reeds and traditional cordage.
Hewitt Visuals


HCN: I was personally moved by the scene of a tule boat on San Francisco Bay and by seeing your silhouettes against the green-blue of the bay water. It just struck me as such a visceral act of reclaiming in an area that often fails to acknowledge living Indigenous people. Could you talk about the specific significance of revitalizing tule boat culture and how that ties in with the future of Felix Cove?

TH: I was thinking about how my mom used to talk about how she would row across the bay. She’d talk about how you had to be sure on foggy days to row evenly with muscle strength. Otherwise, you could row yourself in a circle and not know it because the fog was so thick. Or how she would row two or three times before the afternoon winds would come up. And how, how even two years before her death she said, “You know, I think I still could row across the bay.”

Thinking about her, I thought: Why not hold a row across the bay in commemoration of the Felix family and all the Coast Miwok families that were rowing across the bay every day, multiple times a day? I was talking with (San Francisco-based group) The Cultural Conservancy, and it was suggested that we build a tule canoe. They gave us funding, and we talked with Redbird Willie, the artist, and he agreed to build it.

Part the vision of the Living History Center and the ecological garden is also to create a place for the what if. What if my mom's family wasn't taken into the missions? What if they weren’t given Spanish names and Spanish language replacing their Tamalko language? My mom was a gifted musician and singer. Maybe she would have been a singer. Maybe my uncles would have been canoe builders. You know, what if? The tule canoe really is the what if.

Something that’s in the works is to our Indigenous youth kayak and navigation program, we’re going to get off the ground in 2023. That that will combine the aspects of the tule canoe we made with providing skill bases for Indigenous youth so that they can become fluent on the water — to have those relationships with the water like my mom and my family did.

Theresa Harlan and her husband, Ken Tiger, paddle out into San Francisco Bay.
Noah Schlager/High Country News

Editor Note: This story has been updated to correct Theresa Harlan's tribal affiliation and the spelling of Point Reyes National Seashore Superintendent Craig Kenkel's name. 

Noah Schlager (Mvskoke, Florida Cheraw, Jewish) is an editorial intern reporting from unceded Coast Miwok lands in Northern California. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.