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'Our Rightful Place' 

The Yurok Tribe reopens Chah-pekw O' Ket'-toh Visitor Center under historic deal with state

click to enlarge (From left) Yurok Tribal Councilmember Mindy Natt, Tribal Chair Joseph James, Walt Lara, Yurok Tribal Councilmember Sherri Provolt and California State Parks North Coast Redwoods District Superintendent Victor Bjelajac cut the ribbon to formally reopen Stone Lagoon Visitor Center under Yurok tribal management.

Photo by Carly Wipf

(From left) Yurok Tribal Councilmember Mindy Natt, Tribal Chair Joseph James, Walt Lara, Yurok Tribal Councilmember Sherri Provolt and California State Parks North Coast Redwoods District Superintendent Victor Bjelajac cut the ribbon to formally reopen Stone Lagoon Visitor Center under Yurok tribal management.

On April 7, the Yurok Tribe reopened Chah-pekw O' Ket'-toh (Stone Lagoon) Visitor Center in a historic ribbon-cutting ceremony, the event marking an unprecedented agreement between California State Parks, Parks California, Redwood National Park and the Yurok Tribe.

For the first time in state history, a tribe has been put in charge of operating a state-owned visitor center under an agreement that will see the tribe inform tourists about local history from an Indigenous perspective.

"It's a proud day for the Yurok Tribe in setting the stage for how the state of California should work with Indigenous tribes," said Yurok Tribal Chair Joseph James. "It's a celebration of the Stone Lagoon Visitor Center, but it's even more than that, too. ... We're getting back to balance and becoming whole and being able to tell our story here in Yurok Country in Chah-pekw village. It's a beautiful day, it's a bright day and I look forward to our partnership here moving forward."

Attendees celebrated in the sunshine, some taking a canoe out for a ride on the sparkling lagoon and others enjoying massive portions of salmon cooked over an open fire. Walt Lara, a Yurok tribal member from Cha-pekw, snipped the ribbon to officially reopen the center in front of more than 150 tribal and state park officials. He was flanked by James, Yurok Tribal Councilmember Mindy Natt, Yurok Tribal Councilmember Sherri Provolt and California State Parks North Coast Redwoods District Superintendent Victor Bjelajac.

"The lagoon knows me, the ocean knows me, the beach and all the land here knows me and I know it very well," Lara said before the ribbon-cutting. "On behalf of all my ancestors and my family, we want to welcome you here to this place."

The reimagined visitor center includes access to Yurok interpreters and displays that discuss the tribe's connection to the lagoon. The center will also host a variety of cultural activities, including canoe-making, basket-making and storytelling events. It was originally slated to reopen last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused a delay.

Rosie Clayburn, the Yurok Tribe's heritage preservation officer, told the Journal the center gives the tribe the opportunity to change the narrative surrounding Indigenous lands. Clayburn said many "great" archeological or government projects were desecrating to tribal people. She hopes the center will educate both tourists and locals about how much repatriation of artifacts and restoration of culture means to the tribe.

"Chah-pekw O' Ket'-toh, as we call it, Stone Lagoon is a significant place for Yurok people: It's a place of ceremony, it's a place of descendants who still have close ties to this village and come from here," Clayburn said. "Visitor centers in the state parks or visitor centers in general that aren't tribally operated don't tell the true story and they don't tell it from our perspective. Now we're able to do that."

Stone Lagoon sits on the tribe's ancestral territory. The 2-mile-long body of water played a critical role in World Renewal Ceremony dances that were outlawed in the 1800s by the U.S. government in a failed attempt to smother Native American religious practices.

In 2012, Yurok leaders restored a Jump Dance and a Boat Dance — both part of the World Renewal Ceremony — at Chah-pekw. The ceremony begins on a boat in the lagoon and ends on park land. The jump dance helps bring balance to the world, according to James.

The tribe continues cultural preservation efforts through educational programs, language programs and protecting sacred species, such as the California condor (Prey-go-neesh in Yurok). Speakers at the event celebrated the fact that later this month the Yurok Tribe and Redwood National Park will release four condors into the North Coast skies. The flock will be the first of the critically-endangered species to fly the region since the late 1800s.

Yurok families lived in Chah-pekw and Cho-kwee villages near the Stone Lagoon for generations before European settlers came to the area during the Gold Rush and began killing and displacing indigenous peoples. Despite this, the Yurok persisted and descendants of these villagers are still here today, including Provolt, who was instrumental in helping the visitor center reopen under tribal control.

"It feels really good to regain our rightful place as the primary caretaker of Chah-pekw O' Ket'-toh," Provolt said. "I know our ancestors would be proud that we are making positive change for future generations of Yurok people and Natives throughout the state."

Bjelajac said it is important for government officials and agencies to acknowledge where they have gone wrong in the past, citing Gov. Gavin Newsom's historic 2019 apology to Indigenous people in California for government-led genocide and forced acculturation. Especially in light of these historic wrongs, Bjelajac said he hopes positive government-tribal relationships continue.

"I hope public land managers from all over California and the entire U.S. use the partnership between the state park and the [Yurok] tribe as a blueprint to build solid working relationships with sovereign tribal nations in their regions," Bjelajac said in a press release. "Our partnership on the visitor center, renaming of Sue-meg State Park and condor restoration projects are only the beginning. I know we will embark on many more equally exciting endeavors in the not so distant future."

Carly Wipf (she/her) is a freelance reporter based in Eureka

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