California tribe competes with the state to restore its homeland

  • Yellow Creek flows through Humbug Valley before joining the North Fork of the Feather River on its way to the Sacramento River and the San Francisco Bay.

    Bud Turner / Feather River Land Trust
  • Beverly Benner Ogle believes her Maidu Indian people deserve the right to own and manage Humbug Valley, the last of their ancestral homelands unspoiled by development.

    Jane Braxton Little

Updated 9/22/11

Everywhere  she  looks in Humbug Valley, Beverly Benner Ogle sees the past: On the banks of Yellow Creek, her Maidu Indian ancestors still dance in spring celebration. In the tall timothy grass, her grandmother, a girl again, plays with the children of white settlers. On a grassy knoll near towering pines, her mother plays violin at the dance hall.

Now, for the first time in her 70 years, Ogle can also see a future for the Mountain Maidu Indians, here at the headwaters of California's Feather River. More than 150 years after they lost their land to settlers, the tribe may be poised to get some of it back.

Humbug Valley currently belongs to Pacific Gas and Electric Company. It's one of nearly 1,000 parcels that have been designated for new ownership following the utility giant's 2001 bankruptcy. The Maidu Summit, a coalition of nine Maidu grassroots organizations, has applied for this chunk of ancestral land. "If we get this valley back, our people will bring it to the way it was and carry on our traditions," says Ogle, the Summit's vice chairwoman.

However righteous their claim may be, the future of Humbug Valley does not rest upon atoning for past wrongs. The new owner must demonstrate the ability to manage the 2,300-acre valley and conserve its forests, grasslands and trout-filled streams "in perpetuity for public purposes," according to the bankruptcy agreement. The Pacific Forest and Watershed Lands Stewardship Council, a nonprofit group created in 2003 through the bankruptcy settlement process, will assign ownership, giving careful consideration to financial and management capacity. Ric Notini, director of the Council's land stewardship program, says that it expects to decide late this year.

Meanwhile, the California Department of Fish and Game has filed a competing application that would make Humbug Valley the 111th wildlife area managed by the agency, which has a $539 million annual budget.

The Mountain Maidu are a federally unrecognized tribe of around 2,000 people living south of Lassen National Park in the Feather River watershed. They have very little money and virtually no recent experience managing large tracts of land. But their determination to demonstrate the value of their traditional ecological knowledge has won them widespread support among local environmentalists, statewide fishing groups -- even county and national forest officials.

California Indian tribes were collectively guaranteed over 800,000 acres of land in state-sanctioned treaties that were either broken, lost or never ratified. If the Maidu win Humbug Valley, it will be the first time ancestral lands have been returned to an unrecognized California tribe. That would set an important precedent for other non-recognized tribes, encouraging them to pursue claims to lands with cultural and sacred sites, says Lorena Gorbet, who represents the United Maidu Nation on the Maidu Summit. "These are social justice issues over a cultural disruption that's still going on today."

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