The discovery of gold precipitated California’s booming population and put California on the roadmap to entering the Union as the 31st state. However, pioneers and prospectors did not settle in a “wilderness” devoid of people. Prior to the Gold Rush, there were roughly 300,000 indigenous people living in California. Contrary to the belief of early colonialists, the abundant California landscape they “discovered” was not naturally pristine, but had been actively managed through the use of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), passed down through tribal families throughout the millennia. Indigenous people significantly shaped the California landscape they lived on through the use of fire, hand tools, and thousands of years of familiarity with local ecosystems. These practices were so successful that the tended landscape of California supplied all the sustenance, fibers, and medicines the indigenous populations relied on without the need to explicitly develop agriculture or till the soil.
Among the 500 indigenous tribes of California, each has unique beliefs, landscape connections, and history that is deeply intertwined with the native animals, plants, and rivers surrounding their ancestral homelands. The lives of these indigenous people were drastically changed by the Gold Rush, which led to their mass displacement and the exploitation of the resources that formed the foundation of their culture. Many indigenous people were forced off of their land by the miners and decimated by the diseases brought on by the settlers. A pervasive culture of racist hatred amongst miners led to widespread acts of violence against indigenous populations.
Gold Rush effects on the indigenous people of California did not begin and end in the 19th century. Continued lack of access to resources and land stewardship opportunities in the present day has perpetuated the impacts. Toxic materials that remain in the soil, water, and food web as a remnant of the Gold Rush-era prevent indigenous California tribes from engaging in their traditional ceremonial activities such as fishing and collection of medicinal and ceremonial plants.
The Sierra Fund’s Vision for strengthening the capacity of First Nations to employ Traditional Ecological Knowledge on Ancestral Homelands
California’s indigenous populations did not disappear with the Gold Rush. They are still here and the Gold Rush continues to impact these First People. Addressing impacts on indigenous people and supporting cultural perpetuation is critical to ensuring that the rich diversity of California’s ecosystems and communities is not lost. Traditional tribal leaders have begun to come forward, seeking partnership and support as they attempt to rebuild their culture and repair the environmental damage that has changed the very substance of their communities.
The cruel history of California’s colonization makes it fortunate that California’s indigenous people are still here, working to revitalize their cultures, prevent their dialects from disappearing, tell their stories, and share their heritage. The desire of the First People of the Gold Country to create pathways of access to land and resources, including clean water, contamination free fish, basketry materials and other items associated with traditional culture and sustenance must be supported to advance an ethical paradigm of restoration.
The inclusion of Tribes in restoration projects is all too often an afterthought, or is approached as a “check-the-box” necessity of California law. Failing to provide avenues for meaningful Tribal involvement marginalizes the Original People of the Sierra Nevada and perpetuates cultural invisibility.
The Sierra Fund recognizes the innate synergy between ecological and cultural restoration and is working to build bridges between Western scientific and Traditional Ecological Knowledge so that as community partners The Sierra Fund can collectively increase the capacity of the Sierra Nevada region to restore resiliency. The Sierra Fund advocates with state leaders and technical experts that First Nations are explicitly recognized as key technical experts in restoring ecosystem resiliency in the headwaters and beyond and that conversations always include First Nations on whose ancestral homelands projects are planned. The Sierra Fund strives to develop pilot projects that foster the vitality of landscapes and the people who inhabit them. The Sierra Fund believes that multiple benefits flow from the involvement of Tribes in the restoration of their ancestral lands, including the revitalization of indigenous culture, the return of ecological resilience, and the re-creation of a tangible connection to place.