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California tribes reclaim 200 miles of coastline and will manage it using tradition

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

In California, five Native tribes will reclaim their right to manage and protect more than 200 miles of coastal land. They'll do work like monitoring salmon migration and testing for toxins in shellfish. They'll also be educating others about their traditions.

MEGAN ROCHA: Tribes have obviously been stewarding these areas, you know, since time immemorial.

PFEIFFER: That's Megan Rocha. She's on the leadership council of the Tribal Marine Stewards Network, and she's executive director of Resighini Rancheria, a tribe of Yurok people. When we spoke the other day, she told me there's valuable Indigenous traditional knowledge that can be used to manage the land, methods that differ from how land has been managed more recently.

ROCHA: The way seaweed is harvested, for example, you know, there's a particular approach. It can be picked multiple times a year.

PFEIFFER: Harvesting mussels is another example. Rocha says the state of California restricts mussel harvests to just a few months each year.

ROCHA: But through traditional knowledge, we know that you can harvest mussels for nearly all year. It's just where you gather them and how you gather them.

PFEIFFER: These 200 miles of coastal land are part of the ancestral territory of these five tribes. That's why they wanted to be able to manage the land again.

ROCHA: Tribes feel like it's their inherent responsibility. And, you know, people have been displaced because of the practices from the state of California and just development over the years. And so there's always been this, like, pull and need and responsibility to manage and take care of these places.

PFEIFFER: Two hundred miles of coastline is a lot of land. Do they have the resources and money to manage it?

ROCHA: No, most tribes do not have the financial resources. This is the model that we're using so that the state of California can invest in Indigenous communities so that we can build that capacity and assume that, like I said, inherent responsibility to become stewards. It is a large area. And that's the ultimate goal, is to steward the entire ancestral territory. And we're doing that, you know, a piece by piece at a time.

PFEIFFER: This partnership comes after years of advocacy from Indigenous tribes. How did you react when you heard that it was finally happening?

ROCHA: Oh, I'm beyond overjoyed. And it brings tears to my eyes, you know, thinking about all the hard work that's gone into this. This really started many years ago, when the state passed the Marine Life Protection Act and looked to put in a network of marine-protected areas along the entire California coast. And in that process, there was no recognition of the unceded rights of tribes to continue to gather and be connected to these places.

And so it started off very adversarial. I was involved in helping design the marine-protected areas, but there was a consistent message that tribes were not going to stop using these areas and continuing to harvest and that the state really didn't have the legal authority to stop that. To sort of come to this place where we're collaborating, we're talking about co-management, the state is investing in these tribal communities, it's just - it's amazing. And I'm really hopeful.

PFEIFFER: Megan, another important aspect of your work is cultural education; not just educating officials and scientists but young Indigenous people, too. What do you most want lawmakers and the general public to understand about what you consider the benefits of Indigenous knowledge?

ROCHA: I think it's important for them to understand that there's different ways of knowing and caring for the land. And obviously, it's worked for thousands and thousands of years. We're in a climate crisis now. We're seeing the die-off of really important ecological and cultural species. We're seeing warmer oceans. And, you know, we really need to look and listen to the people who've been taking care of this land forever. We need to uphold - you know, the children - they really are going to be the future caretakers - to make sure that they know where they come from, that they have pride in who they are, that they hold this knowledge and are able to continue it on is extremely important.

That's the biggest part about this work is returning tribal stewardship, but it's also about cultural lifeways, providing tribal workforce development opportunities. And all of that really underlines the concept of community healing and health and wellness for communities that have really been marginalized and pushed out of the places that they've been forever.

PFEIFFER: Megan Rocha is a member of the Tribal Marine Stewards Network leadership council and executive director of Resighini Rancheria, a tribe of Yurok people. Megan, thank you.

ROCHA: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mallika Seshadri
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.