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How a Coast Miwok Group Is Buying Back a Piece of Their Ancestral Land in Marin

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Two people wearing necklaces walk on an outdoor trail.
Members of the Coast Miwok Tribal Council, Joe Sanchez (left) and Dean Hoaglin, walk on their ancestral land near Nicasio, Marin County, which the tribe purchased with the help of a fundraising campaign earlier in the year.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When Joe Sanchez was 8 years old, his grandmother asked him to make a promise to never forget his California Indian heritage.

She was determined to see the culture live on, after watching her brothers deny their Coast Miwok ancestry, a matter of economic survival in early 20th century California.

Today, at 75, Sanchez is making good on that promise in a more ambitious way than he ever imagined: He’s bought back a piece of his ancestral homeland. In July, he and the Coast Miwok Tribal Council of Marin purchased a 26-acre piece of land in the rural Marin County community of Nicasio, once Coast Miwok territory.

“We needed a place to have ceremony, a place where we could do all those things that we always did for thousands of years,” he said.

It’s believed to be the first modern “Land Back” effort in Marin County, part of a growing movement across California to get land back to the original indigenous people who lived on it. At least a dozen Land Back endeavors have already succeeded, from an island returned to the Wiyot tribe in Humboldt County to the Esselen tribe’s purchase of a 1,200-acre ranch near Big Sur.

‘We’re home’

On a sunny afternoon recently, Sanchez stood in the shade of an oak on the land in Nicasio, which is nestled in rolling hills and covered in tall grasses and brush. He said the tribal council imagines a place where they can bring together people with Coast Miwok roots from around the region.

Sanchez checks on the water line for fruit trees growing on their newly purchased land. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

At the foot of a hill that encompasses much of the property, he pointed out a flat area where they plan to build a dance arbor, a roundhouse and a sweat lodge — places to dance and sing and sit in ceremony without having to ask anyone’s permission.

Sanchez was joined by Dean Hoaglin, a founding member of the tribal council. “It’s beautiful to be on our land,” Hoaglin said. “We’re home.”

After he and Sanchez helped form the council, Hoaglin said an elder told him the ancestors were calling him to the land.

“It’s time that we come back together and that we fulfill what our ancestors always prayed for, and that was for us to come back home and to share the original teachings,” Hoaglin said, referring to indigenous values about how to live in harmony with the natural world and each other.

Hoaglin has spent 30 years teaching traditional cultural practices as part of a suicide prevention program for Native American youth in Sonoma County. He’s planning to retire this year. With the extra time, he wants to plant a garden here on their newly returned land, grow traditional foods and medicinal plants, and teach indigenous land stewardship practices.

Hoaglin and Sanchez dreamed for years of having land, but it didn’t become a real possibility until they created a nonprofit — Huukuiko Inc., named after the Coast Miwok band they’re descended from — and started raising money.

When they found this piece of land in Nicasio for sale, it felt right. So they wrote a letter to the couple who owned it.

“We come to the negotiation table with you carrying the prayers and hopes of our Ancestors,” it read.

They explained it would take some time for them to come up with the $1.3 million the sellers were asking, but offered something unique: “The opportunity to be part of the healing process for us, for our Ancestors, and for the land itself.”

They reminded the sellers that for some 10,000 years those ancestors had lived on this land and throughout all of what’s now Marin and much of Sonoma counties.

The letter worked. The sellers agreed to their timeline, and after two months of furious fundraising they had the money. The bulk of it came from foundations, but there were individual donors, too. One person gave $25 dollars, another $200,000, according to Nancy Binzen, a Marin County resident who managed the fundraising effort and supported the tribal council throughout this process.

“We were kind of riding a roller coaster for a while, but things came through in a big way,” Sanchez said.

In all, 101 people and foundations chipped in, and on July 3 the deal closed.

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The history of Land Back

The history of Native Americans fighting for their land is as old as attempts to take it. But efforts to reclaim ancestral lands have become increasingly visible in recent years.

“Throughout the generations, the fight has always been there,” said Robby Burroughs, the holdings managing director for NDN Collective, a national indigenous-led organization focused on climate justice and racial and educational equity.

More on Land Back

He said the difference today is that as the climate crisis has become impossible to ignore, returning land to indigenous hands is being seen as an effective way to manage natural resources. In California, the state Natural Resources Agency is rolling out a $100 million program over two years for Native American tribes to buy back and preserve their ancestral lands. The funding application process is still being finalized. It’s part of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 30×30 conservation initiative to preserve 30% of California’s land and coastal waters by 2030.

“Land Back is not only a necessary way to repair harm done to indigenous people that’s been ongoing for generations, it’s also a way to save the planet,” said Burroughs, a member of the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians in Northern California.

NDN Collective’s national LANDBACK campaign aims to bring together and support the many individual groups working to reclaim land across the country.

The modern Land Back movement is nourished by the organizing power that came out of the Dakota Access Pipeline Protests in 2016–17, as well as the cultural shifts brought about by the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s also gotten a boost from the appointment of the first Native American cabinet member, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who leads a department that oversees one-fifth of the land in this country. Since taking office, Haaland has streamlined the process for tribes to acquire and consolidate land, reversing a Trump administration policy, and has helped push forward co-stewardship agreements (PDF) for management of public lands with tribes across the country.

“When we’re talking about returning land, often it’s not as radical as it seems,” said Kyle T. Mays, a UCLA professor and author of An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States. “It’s simply that native nations are advocating for the United States to honor the treaties that they have made.”

In Nicasio, Sanchez isn’t buying land as part of a formal tribal nation, but his efforts are bound up with this history all the same.

At the dawn of California statehood, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify 18 treaties that had been negotiated with the state’s tribes (PDF), leaving most California Indians homeless.

Public pressure eventually led to the creation of the Rancheria System, similar to reservations, in the early 1900s. But by the mid-20th century, with its coffers depleted by World War II, the federal government was looking to get out of its financial obligations to tribes, Mays said, including dissolving the Rancherias.

This is when Sanchez made the promise to his grandmother that set him on the path to the Nicasio land.

Not just for the past, but for the future

In 1956, his grandmother took him from his home in San Mateo to downtown San Francisco, where 400 Native Americans from around California were gathered at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium to take a vote on a deal the Bureau of Indian Affairs was offering (PDF): a few hundred dollars per person in exchange for giving up their land rights.

Sanchez remembers people taking to the stage to protest the idea. “‘We’ll lose our sovereignty. We lose everything for a few hundred dollars,’” he recalls them saying.

California’s tribal lands were being liquidated as part of the government’s policy of termination and relocation. Over 100 tribes across the country were cut off from federal assistance. Some were ordered to dissolve their governments and distribute their land. The U.S. wanted to assimilate members into mainstream society, and the efforts led to a mass migration from tribal lands to cities.

Sanchez watched the participants record their votes in pencil on small pieces of paper. Afterward, a BIA official announced the deal had passed.

“Right away I felt the air just go out of the room,” he said.

He was just a kid, who’d never heard the word “sovereignty” before that day, but he read a lot into the silence.

“What I felt at the time was, like, that this had happened before,” Sanchez said. “It was just one loss after another, after another.”

When they got outside, his grandmother knelt down in front of him.

“She stopped and looked at me in the eyes and said, ‘Don’t ever forget you’re California Indian. Don’t ever forget,’” Sanchez said. “And I swore at that time that I would never forget.”

Sanchez has spent much of his adult life trying to honor that promise. He’s studied the history of his people, and in 2020 helped start the Coast Miwok Tribal Council of Marin to preserve that history and culture and to share it.

Now that he and the council have land, they have to figure out how to make their vision for it a reality. They’re looking to people who’ve charted this path before them for guidance. Corrina Gould of the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust in the East Bay is among them.

Gould, who’s been co-leading the nonprofit as it works to return Ohlone lands to indigenous stewardship since 2012, said when her team began this undertaking they didn’t give much thought to the complex logistics involved in pulling it off.

In retrospect, she said she would have asked, “What is it going to look like as we grow to engage in these practices of a government that really disappeared us?”

A person with long hair, earrings and a necklace stands in the shade of a tree.
Corrina Gould, chair and spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, stands in a Sogorea Te’ Land Trust garden in Berkeley. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Navigating the nonprofit world is difficult because it’s at odds with traditional Native ideology, she said. “You still have to follow the policies and procedures and the laws that are governed by the state of California around private land ownership, around getting tax exemption, around doing audits every year.”

Since making connections with lawyers and accountants who are helping them through the process, today Sogorea Te’ manages about 10 pieces of land, mostly in the East Bay.

They’re growing native plants, creating a seed-saving library, doing creek restoration, running a youth program and building resilience hubs, places to store and distribute resources in case of natural or human-made emergencies.

“Now we get to also begin to mentor others that are beginning to do this work as well,” Gould said.

Sanchez and the Coast Miwok Tribal Council of Marin are among those now benefiting from Sogorea Te’s experience. As they figure out how to fund their vision for the Nicasio land, they’re planning to apply for grants and are meeting with more potential donors.

Asked if he has any conflicted feelings about what it took to get this little piece of his homeland back, or about having to ask for charity from others who’ve built their wealth on this land, Sanchez doesn’t miss a beat.

“We’d like to see the county give us the land, but we took it upon ourselves to get what we could when the time presented itself,” he said.

Sanchez said he’s moved by the support they got. “It’s a profound feeling that people came to help us. It’s just extremely powerful, so we’re very grateful,” he said. “But all of this land is Coast Miwok land. Unceded Coast Miwok land. We didn’t sell the land. We weren’t compensated for the land.”

That painful history is never far from his mind. There are reminders everywhere. This county’s name, Marin, comes from the name given to a Coast Miwok leader by missionaries.

Two people look out over a valley filled with green trees and golden grasses.
Hoaglin (left) and Sanchez survey their ancestral lands in the hills outside Nicasio. The tribal council plans to build a roundhouse for ceremonies on the property. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Their Nicasio land is at the heart of what was once Rancho Nicasio, a land grant promised to the Coast Miwok by the Mexican government but later seized by Americans.

From a hilltop on the land, he points out an area nearby where one of the last Coast Miwok villages (PDF) was settled until it was sold off in the late 1800s.

At the end, there were just three dozen Coast Miwok living together here. Those ancestors are part of what draw Sanchez to this piece of land. He wants to hold on to that heritage, and pass it on. “This isn’t just for us, this is for our generations to come,” he said.

He’s always seen the past here. Now he sees a future, too.

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