Sacred Lands II–The Yurok

The Yurok Indians in Northern California, decimated by the 1840s gold rush and white settlement, lost or swallowed up by timber companies and Federal agencies and actions, regained federal recognition and 5,000 acres—or one percent—of their traditional land base in 1986. The tribe is now 5,000 strong, and, according to YES Magazine, holds 100,000 acres of tribal lands.

How they acquired and are paying for the land—largely through carbon cap and trade offsets—is a story in its own right. But the fact that the land is being owned and used communally, for the benefit of the tribe (and for all of us in their environmentally sustainable usage of it), is what is remarkable–could be revolutionary.

For four hundred years we—majority white Americans—have preached the gospel of private land ownership. We used treaties and war to get the first large swaths of Indian lands, and then nineteenth and twentieth century policies to grab more. The Dawes Allotment Act was aimed squarely at making Indians individual landowners—and turning over “surplus” lands to whites. Boarding schools broke up extended families and preached the nuclear family; and termination and relocation in the 1950s were blatantly aimed at moving tribal people away from tribal ownership and use of native lands.

From the beginning of these Untied States, the idea of private property was a supreme value. The wealthy came from Europe to establish plantations; the poor came to gain a piece of ground. The Constitution limited the vote to white men who owned property.

The new Americans could not understand a world in which land was held in common, like the air we breathe and the water most of us drink (Nestles now leads the way in making water privately owned, but that too is another story).

The popular historian Simon Winchester has a new book, Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World. The Yurok story would be a fitting American epilog to this long story of the human push to measure, divide, and individually own portions of the earth. Fitting, because Winchester ends his story on notes of reversal, of old but still popular Scandinavian cultural notions of land’s commonality, and of modern Scotland’s efforts to turn the Lairds’ estate holdings into communal holdings by the people who live on them.

The Yuroks are using their communally owned 100,000 acre’s sacred sites, treating the landscape with fire as their ancestors did, and working to restore fish runs in the rivers. The idea that the land—and air and water—are precious and in some measure “owned” or held commonly might be the most revolutionary lesson in their California revival.

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p.s. The Yuroks are not the only tribe buying back land, or using the California carbon program. From Yes Magazine:

“Following in the Yurok’s footsteps, 13 other tribes and Alaska Native corporations from across the U.S. now participate in California’s cap-and-trade program, from the White Mountain Apache in Arizona to the Passamaquoddy in Maine. As of September 2020, 78.9 million carbon offset credits were issued to tribes or Alaska Native Corporations for forest projects through California’s program; about half of all forest offset credits issued.”

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