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  • Writer's picturePeter Yolles

Indigenous Wisdom: Making Space for Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Updated: Aug 11, 2023

The fog above Tomales Bay was just lifting as our group descended the path towards the historic shoreline home of the Felix family. A family of badgers poked their heads out of the grass to watch us. The mother of our guide, Theresa Harlan, grew up on this property, hard on the westside of Tomales Bay and now within the Point Reyes National Seashore. Marshall Beach, a favorite summer swimming spot with a natural sand beach, was nearby and was also home to a native family. Theresa described how every cove with reliable fresh water held a Tomalko family, the indigenous descriptor for the people who lived along Tomales Bay. Most know them as Coast Miwok, a term created by early ethnologists.

Theresa Harlan, a descendant of the Felix Family (third from left) at her family’s ancestral home on Tomales Bay.

Theresa’s family endured a common pathway of tribal people being separated from their land. After countless generations across two millennia, the Spanish arrived bringing diseases along with the California Mission system that enslaved and converted many tribal people. (Source: Chief Marin) Following the 1849 gold rush and establishment of the State of California, white dairy farmers were granted leases and established the first dairy farms to serve the expanding population. The Shafter and Howard families divided up the lands in Point Reyes and prospered until the 1906 earthquake when demand for their dairy products declined. (Source: National Park Service) In the early 1900s, armed white dairy farmers went cove-by-cove displacing many of the native families at gunpoint, many of whom had to evacuate by boat across the Bay to survive (Source: Ethnographic Notes on California Indian Tribes, III Ethnological NotesOn Central California Indian Tribes, edited by Robert F. Heizer, 1967.) Theresa’s family managed to stay until 1964 when they were displaced by a court-ordered eviction and a local white artist Clayton Lewis moved into their family home; he remained until his death in 1995. In the 1960s and 1970s, the National Park Service began acquiring parcels to create the National Seashore, which included the lands at Felix Cove. Following the death of Lewis, the National Park Service has left the location unprotected, even as the vandalized family home and shed remain the only original structure from the 19th century in Point Reyes.

Listening to Theresa Harlan’s family memories at Felix Cove, Tomales Bay.

Today, Theresa is attempting to re-indigenize and rematriate their family homelands. Theresa says they don’t want to reclaim ownership. Rather, they would like access and rights to conduct family gatherings and community ceremonies, to reconnect with their land and waters of Tomales Bay, and create a living history center. (Source: Alliance for Felix Cove) This effort is part of a “land back” movement to restore cultural connections to their historic lands and water that help define their culture and identity.

California and the Bay Area in particular have seen some recent examples of success to restore the land and co-management to native tribes.

  • In the East Bay, the Sagorea Té Land Trust has received two parcels of land in the last two years. The first was a 1/4 acre parcel in East Oakland. Then recently, they announced the return of 43 acres in the East Bay hills. (Source: Sagorea Té Land Trust)

  • In Marin County, the Coast Miwok Tribal Council’s non-profit arm Huukuiko, acquired 26 acres in Nicasio after 150 years. (Source: Marin Independent Journal). “Nicasio was known as ‘Etcha Tamal by the Coast Miwok. The tribal council plans to build a sweat lodge and a roundhouse for ceremonies on the property. Educational programs on Native American culture also are planned.”

  • California State Parks has enabled co-management agreements for its parks, including some with native tribes. State Parks also signed an agreement with the Yurok tribe for co-management of its North Coast Redwoods.

  • National Park Service issued new policy guidance for co-stewardship with tribal groups of its parks.

As we sat talking on the beach at Felix Cove with Theresa, her husband, and friends, it was easy to imagine what life might have been like for the Felix family and their neighbors in simpler times. The waters of the cove were gentle and still. An osprey’s calls pierced the sound of water lapping the shore. Hopefully with tribal participation and knowledge, lands and waters can be regenerated with Traditional Ecological Knowledge rebalancing the natural world’s relationship among humans and nature.


Thank you for reading my recent post and following Echo River Capital.

- Peter

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