Last week’s article titled “Cost of Occupation” deserves some discussion, so here goes. If we want to properly honor tribal sovereignty and atone for the forcible taking of Indian lands, it’s important that we understand the geography of traditional tribal territories and how it relates to present-day Indian government.
If we went back to January 1850, before the influx of white arrivals began, we would find dozens of distinct tribal groups occupying the area that is now called Humboldt County. Many of these groups inhabited relatively small locales, such as a few miles of a stream drainage, while others claimed large stretches of coast, bay or river. The different groups had formed complex relationships over time and some of them shared a common language or certain cultural practices, but if you had asked an Indian the word for his or her “tribe,” he or she would likely have given you a very particular name — one that indicated a collection of people and places of extremely close affiliation.
Since then, massacres, forced removals, and other actions by whites have greatly disrupted and sometimes destroyed the fabric, woven over centuries, that bound individual Indians to their tribal group. Various researchers have imposed their conclusions upon the collection of later-day Indians that they found, giving names and assigning territories that often failed to reflect the Indians’ reality. For example, we are taught today that a “tribe” called the Nongatls ranged over the entire drainages of both the Van Duzen River and Larabee Creek. However, interviews (some now a hundred years old) with Indians born near the time of the whites’ arrival indicate that there were actuality at least 15 separate tribal groups, each with its own name and territory, that lived in this vast area. These groups were so heavily attacked and their surviving members so widely dispersed that they ceased to exist as tribal units.
But there are Indians today who can, for example, trace their ancestry to the Kittel tribal group, which occupied the Van Duzen River near Bridgeville, just as there are those who are connected with other groups, such as the Lolangkoks and the Nekannis, whose names most of us have never heard. Many of these Indians are affiliated with the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria, a federally recognized tribe with members who trace their ties to southern and eastern Humboldt County. So, if you happen to live near Bridgeville and want to pay the honor tax, you’ll probably want to send your money to the Bear River Band.
Elsewhere you’ll find several other federally recognized tribal organizations, along with at least one other group, the Tsnungwe Council, that has petitioned for federal status. Each of these organizations represents people connected with some portion of the Indians of Humboldt County, but it isn’t always easy to link this representation with highly specific geographic areas. In some cases, more than one federally recognized organization contains descendants from a particular tribal group. In many instances, individual Indians trace their lineage to more than one group. Determining the most appropriate recipient of your honor tax can take a lot of work.
But doing this work can itself be a way of rendering payment. If we are willing to take the time to peel away the layers of misinformation and to shine the light of research into the obscurity of long-neglected facts, what is the effect? Aren’t we thereby honoring those who not only have had their lands taken from them but, if that were not enough, have also had the story of their people distorted or suppressed? We each live in a place where, almost always, others lived long before us. To learn something of those earlier occupants offers them, and their descendants, what they most deserve, which is our respect.
Jerry Rohde, Eureka