Published: August 2010
Native Lands
Something remarkable is happening in Indian country: Tribes whose lands were once taken from them are setting an example for how to restore the environment.
By Charles Bowden

The Santa Clara Pueblo is among a growing number of tribes across the United States—of 564 recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)—making moves to bring back land crushed over generations of human use. Native American reservations cover 55 million acres of land (compared with 84 million acres controlled by the National Park Service), though most of these acres are not managed as wilderness or wildlife preserves. But something remarkable is emerging in Indian country. Those whose lands were once taken from them, those once dominated, often brutally, by the U.S. government, are setting an example for how to steward the environment.

In 1979 the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana became the first in the nation to set aside tribal land—92,000 acres of the Flathead Reservation's mountains and meadows—as wilderness. Since then, the Nez Perce have acquired 16,286 acres of ancestral lands in northeast Oregon that they will manage solely to benefit fish and wildlife. The Assiniboine and Sioux tribes in northeastern Montana are working to bring back bison on the Fort Peck Reservation. In Minnesota the Chippewa, or Ojibwa, have restored a ravaged walleye population at Red Lake. And on the Fort Apache Reservation in Arizona the threatened Apache trout is finding a new home, and the forest is now managed with ecology, not just lumber, in mind.

Santa Clara Pueblo's conservation program had an unlikely beginning. Late one evening in May 2000 a controlled burn to remove underbrush in nearby Bandelier National Monument went awry. The so-called Cerro Grande fire wound up devouring 235 buildings in the towns of Los Alamos and White Rock and eating more than 47,000 acres, including the upper part of Santa Clara Canyon. The fire even spread to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, though no radiation was reported to have been released from its nuclear facilities. When the smoke cleared, the Santa Clara Pueblo closed the canyon, long a tourist attraction, and announced that it would take over management of its land from the BIA.

Today the scent of pine and juniper floats in the morning air under a blue sky. The valley rolls out a green tongue of trees in the slot canyon, tracing a path toward the Valles Caldera. The tribe has removed the invasive, exotic tamarisk and Siberian elm and Russian olive from 650 acres along the Rio Grande and restored 75 acres of wetland. In the burn area above the canyon 1.7 million seedlings have been planted, including ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, blue spruce, Engelmann spruce, and white fir. Where Turkey Creek joins the main stream, the signs of elk are everywhere—gnawed bark on wind-felled aspen, droppings in the snow—and ancient beaver dams molder under recent growth. Fifteen years ago the last beaver left this canyon. Now the tribe hopes that with the restoration of streamside growth, the beaver will return and once again start the cycle of dams, ponds, and eventually, as silt fills the impoundments, meadows—a rhythm as old as the mountains.

The pueblo's recreation director, Stanley Tafoya, says simply, "What we are trying to do is restore our resources. The older people want their grandkids to enjoy the canyon we once knew."

That said, there is no Eden to restore. The North American landscape encountered by European invaders was hardly a pristine wilderness. Early human hunters may have helped wipe out mammoths and other megafauna at the end of the Ice Age. For thousands of years after that, Native Americans manipulated the land for their own needs with dams, canals, and fields. They regularly cut and burned the forests to clear land for farming and hunting.

In modern times, some tribal lands became littered with junk, and a few tribes opened solid-waste dumps to bolster their income. In Santa Clara Canyon the disappearance of the beaver was almost certainly hastened by tribal members. Even today, the land is grazed by the tribe's cattle. But in the hope of restoring the streamside vegetation and the beaver, the tribe has begun fencing livestock out of wetland areas and adopted a grazing management plan.

Where conservation efforts are gaining ground, they're often funded by cash from gambling and other enterprises. The Santa Clara Pueblo, for instance, owns and operates a hotel-casino, the Black Mesa Golf Club, and the Dreamcatcher Cinema in nearby Espanola. And of course some native people are as disconnected from the land as the typical American suburbanite, driving giant pickup trucks and killing the dark hours watching DVDs. Yet this is a culture that has lived close to the land for centuries and whose elders tell stories that reach into a time beyond the imagination of industrial civilization. There remains a faith among Native Americans that they can rediscover the ground where their ancestors knew how to talk to gods.

On a stretch of foggy coast 200 miles north of San Francisco, less than 2 percent of the original old-growth redwoods survived the relentless logging of a few decades ago. The trees did better than the native people, who were hunted and slaughtered in the exuberance following the mid-19th-century gold rush. Their land was eventually claimed by timber companies. Now the tribes that formed a consortium to protect the land are working together to steward and restore 3,900 acres of the Sinkyone wilderness along the Lost Coast—lost because Highway 1 is forced inland here by the rugged terrain. At Sinkyone they have established a precedent—an intertribal wilderness area where trees will never be commercially harvested again.

The ground underfoot is brown litter. The trees tower, and everything is shadow. For a long time the Lost Coast was lost to Europeans. Early Spaniards couldn't find a decent harbor and were beaten back by storms. Before settlers arrived, the Sinkyone Indians lined the valleys with villages, made redwood dugout canoes that featured carved lungs and hearts, and rode the waters hunting sea lions and other beasts. They saw the giant trees as fellow members of the community, the condor as a messenger from on high. The Sinkyone are a people who "fix the world" every year through a series of ceremonies. One of their stories is that the creator made the world and patted everything down, and then "bad men were not satisfied and tore it down, tore up the ocean banks, tore up the trees, tore down the mountains. Since that time we have had to sing and dance every year to make it right again," according to tribal beliefs.

Sally Bell was ten years old on the morning 150 years ago when white men came to her home near Needle Rock. They wiped out her family and cut out her baby sister's heart, which they tossed into the brush where Sally hid. "I didn't know what to do. I was so scared that I guess I just hid there a long time with my little sister's heart in my hands." When Sally's words were finally taken down in the late 1920s, the visiting anthropologist described her as "blind, senile, sees spirits in rafters."

Sally Bell's name became a rallying cry in the 1980s, when the Georgia-Pacific lumber company sought to topple some of the last surviving old redwoods in a 90-acre grove that now memorializes her. Environmentalists chained themselves to trees, the cutting stopped, and then something like change came to the Lost Coast. In 1985 a court ruling put an end to clear-cutting on 7,100 acres of timberland, about half of which was added to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. Native people, loggers, and environmentalists sat down to help thrash out a plan for the other half. The original agreement set aside some areas as reserves, with the remainder to be harvested after a few decades of rest. But the tribes held out for a different plan.

Priscilla Hunter, one of the founders of the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, put her foot down and insisted that the land simply not be exploited again—a stance that almost destroyed the agreement and led to ill feeling. After years of meetings and with a heavy dose of obstinacy, the council became the leading force in the efforts of various state parks and nonprofits to retire patches of woodland so that the historic forests could return.

In 1997, after more than a century of dispossession, the council acquired the 3,900 acres of Sinkyone land and turned it into the country's first intertribal wilderness area. "It was time for our people to get land back so that we could protect it," Hunter says. "The coastline and the redwood forests are sacred to the tribes. That's where our people gather food and medicines, and the mountains are a place of ceremony where we can go and feel the power of our Mother Earth. The elder redwood trees are very powerful to us in a spiritual way."

In cooperation with California State Parks, the council is restoring a stream known as Wolf Creek, which runs through nearby Wheeler, an abandoned logging town, in hopes of beckoning back a salmon run. Old logging roads have been removed by the council and the state parks, and the land is beginning to heal. Upon a low ridge, redwoods twist and writhe, their limbs shaped by winds off the sea, almost a chorus of wood singing songs that modern humans are only slowly learning to hear.

Across the continent in southern Florida, another tribe once pegged for extermination is trying something similar. During the 20th century about half of the Big Cypress Swamp and the neighboring Everglades was destroyed for cities and farms. Invasive trees such as the melaleuca and the Brazilian pepper threaten what remains. A federal and state plan signed into law in 2000 promised a massive effort to revive the wetlands by restoring more natural water patterns, but until recently the plan remained stalled for lack of funding. So the Seminole Indians developed their own Everglades initiative, electing to take 2,100 acres of Big Cypress Reservation land, systematically remove the invaders, flood it to approximate what were once normal flows, and bring back some of the wild ground.

For tribal members, the Big Cypress Swamp and the Everglades are rare relics of the very earth that once saved them from genocide. When the Spanish first landed in Florida during the expedition of Juan Ponce de León in 1513, the area was home to 250,000 natives, whom the Spanish came to call cimarrones, meaning "wild ones." By the 18th century the Indians were known as the Seminole, and they stuck like a fish bone in the throat of American might. In 1819 the U.S. acquired Florida from Spain for five million dollars, then dropped more than $30 million on the Seminole Wars. When the gore ended, about 4,000 had been exiled to what is now Oklahoma, and maybe 300 remained hiding in the swamp. For most of the 20th century their descendants eked out a living as tourist attractions around Miami or in the Everglades, wrestling alligators, performing dances, and making trinkets for visitors.

The big turnaround came in 1988, when Indian gambling was sanctioned. Today every man, woman, and child in the tribe of 3,500 members receives a healthy percentage of casino profits. In December 2006 the tribe cut a $965-million deal that bought up almost all of the Hard Rock Cafes and casinos in the world.

This prosperity is allowing them to save a fragment of the Big Cypress that was never developed because it was unsuitable for agriculture; citrus groves, cattle farms, and vegetable fields cover the rest of the reservation. "That means bringing back more of the animals, giving it the traditional look of the land," says Brian Zepeda, director of Florida Seminole Tourism. "The cypress trees were once so large and dense they formed like a fort created by nature."

Zepeda leads the way through the swamp, carrying a machete to help clear a path. Sabal palms, pop ashes, and willows share the space with the cypresses. It is early in the dry season, and the ground underfoot feels firm, though it buckles in the low, wet spots. Deer dart on the edge of the forest, and a remnant of the endangered Florida panthers—maybe 20 of a possible state population of a hundred—holds out on the Big Cypress Reservation.

Wild sour oranges, introduced by the Spaniards, persist as well. The Seminoles roast them to bring out their sweetness. In one part of the reservation that's under restoration is a raised spot in the marsh, a former settlement where natives hid from soldiers in the safety of trees at the end of the last Seminole War.

Zepeda says he used to wrestle alligators. "But I got older, and the alligators still stayed young," he says.

And that is the song of the Big Cypress and the Everglades—the nation got older, and this land, now coming back around the abandoned village, recalls a world that was newer and fresher.

The project covers little more than 2,000 acres, compared with the entire Everglades, which comprise more than four million. And it is migrant laborers, not Seminoles themselves, who have been hired to remove the exotic species. (This is also true at Santa Clara Pueblo.) It would be easy to dismiss the effort as a tiny gesture.

But this would hardly be the attitude of an alligator or a cypress.

In a canal snaking around the area under restoration, an alligator leaps from the water in the sunlight and snatches a fish. The canal, part of the huge water-drainage effort that destroyed much of the Everglades, is little more than an industrial ditch. And yet the alligator lives here, beautiful as it arcs in the light—wild, throbbing life in a world going to concrete, condos, and freeways.