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Know the West

Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini say it’s time to return Diablo Canyon lands to Indigenous hands

The tribe, also known as the Northern Chumash, are requesting the return of their coastal home, currently occupied by PG&E’s nuclear power plant.

The Diablo Canyon power plant stands at the edge of the continent, above cliffs that plunge into the Pacific Ocean. A turbulent saltwater discharge flows from the nuclear plant and is lost in the foam of waves pushed in by the wind and tides. The pumping and heating of the ocean water kills fish and other marine life, and yet much of the area remains ecologically robust: Otters still clasp hands among kelp beds, oystercatchers nest on the rocky shore, and sea lions chase down herring and rockfish. Badgers and coyotes den in the hills of coastal chaparral, while gray whales pass close to shore on their annual migrations. The only piece that’s missing is the coast’s first people, the Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini — and they are determined to return. 

 

The tribe descends from the villages of the Diablo Canyon lands and the Pecho Coast — including territory currently owned by PG&E and used for its power plant.

“When we talk about Diablo lands, we’re really talking about our home,” Tribal Chairwoman Mona Tucker told HCN. “Not just our homeland, but our home where our grandparents’ grandparents are from.”

“When we talk about Diablo lands, we’re really talking about our home.”

The Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini, also known as the Northern Chumash, sent a letter last month to California Gov. Gavin Newsom requesting the return of the Diablo Canyon lands.

The Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini believe this is the moment for California to make amends for a long slate of historical wrongs, including the loss of their land. Newsom apologized to Native Californians in 2019 and has proposed a budget of $100 million for assisting tribes with buying back land. Newsom’s administration also created a tribal land transfer policy that requires investor-owned utilities like PG&E to identify which tribes originally lived on or adjacent to that land before any attempts are made to sell or otherwise dispose of the property. They are “expected to negotiate a transfer to the tribe before putting the land on the market.”

Seagulls fly over Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in Avila Beach, California. The Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini Tribe has made a request to Governor Newsom to assist them in the return of the Diablo Canyon Lands, where the tribe can demonstrate thousands of years of inhabitation.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Newsom’s office did not respond to HCN’s request for comment, but Tucker said that the governor has been receptive and willing to listen to the tribe’s position. She noted that the tribe’s goals for the land are consistent with Newsom’s conservation goals, and that the Northern Chumash have a memorandum of understanding with the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County to develop conservation easements and ensure public access. Tribal members intend to spearhead the effort to conserve the land and waters that their ancestors shaped and cared for, and hope to set an example for others.

TUCKER’S GREAT-GRANDMOTHER, Rosario Cooper, was the last known Tiłhini language speaker. In the early 1910s, she worked with ethnographer J.P. Harrington to preserve her knowledge of the language, songs, stories and lives of the Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini. In her notes, Cooper mentioned the villages and families of the Pecho Coast, including several in the Diablo Canyon area. One of the villages she identified, Tstyiwi, has been the focus of historic preservation in a collaborative project between the Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini, Cal Poly and PG&E, which won a 2018 California Governor’s Historic Preservation Award. 

Tstyiwi and villages like it are built upon middens — mounds of shells, bones, tools and other pieces of peoples’ lives. A village sits upon its midden like a coral polyp atop a reef, both built upon the foundations of their ancestors. The middens at Diablo Canyon affirm that the Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini have been present here for over 10,000 years, going back to the rising of the oceans and birth of the coastline as its seen today.  

The arrival of Spanish missionaries in the late 18th century upended the lives of California’s Indians, bringing coerced conversion, forced labor, disease and genocide. Later, during the Ranchero or Spanish land grant period, survivors endured the fragmentation of their homelands when the Spanish (and later Mexican) governments seized huge areas of Indigenous land and gave it to Spanish and Mexican settlers. The Diablo Canyon lands and villages were taken without the consent of the Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini and became the Rancheros Pecho y Islay and San Miguelito. The U.S. annexed California from Mexico in 1848, when Cooper was 3 years old, and these rancheros were sold around and broken up into smaller parcels of private property. 

The rugged coastline between Avila Beach and Diablo Canyon. “These unceded lands were taken from our tribe without consent, agreement or compensation, and should rightfully be returned to us,” Chairwoman Mona Tucker stated in a letter to Governor Newsom.
George Rose/Getty Images

In the 1960s and ’70s, Pacific Gas & Electric bought the Diablo Canyon lands intending to build a nuclear power plant. Its construction was controversial from the beginning, and the power plant became a center of anti-nuclear protest and civil disobedience. Those protests primarily focused on the environmental impacts and risks associated with nuclear energy. The Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini, however, also had to face the destruction of a historic village site. Tucker said cultural artifacts likely still exist beneath the plant and the buildings surrounding it. 

In 2016, PG&E announced that it planned to decommission the plant by 2025. The Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini sought to participate in the decommissioning process to ensure that cultural resources were properly preserved and that the land was returned to them. PG&E began discussions with the tribe, but then the decommissioning process stalled out. Nuclear advocates have championed Diablo Canyon as a low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels, particularly given current worries about the reliability of California’s electrical grid. The California Legislature responded by passing SB 846, which extends the life of the reactors for another five years, though the bill does acknowledge tribal interests in the land and recommends that PG&E and state agencies “consult and work collaboratively with local California Native American tribes.”

Tucker said that the plant’s operating status does not change the tribe’s position that the land needs to be returned. She points out the plant’s industrial footprint occupies only 100 acres out of a total 12,000 acres, and the process of reclaiming that land can begin now. 

“We are a small tribe with a big vision, and we’re relentless,” Tucker said. “We are the best people to protect this.”

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.