Tribal council seeks protection for Miwok sites

06/23/2021

A group of Coast Miwok are calling on Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to reject the park service’s plan for the Point Reyes National Seashore and grant them more say over the park’s archaeological resources, which lie on unceded Miwok land. 

The Coast Miwok Tribal Council of Marin, a network of Miwok descendants that formed last year, asked Secretary Haaland to reinstate an indigenous archaeological district that the park originally proposed to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. The plan was withdrawn and, the council argued, replaced entirely with the Dairy Ranches Historic District that prioritizes ranching history over much longer Indigenous heritage. 

“Deb Haaland should consider this, and take action,” said Jason Deschler, a headman of the council who signed the letter. “It wouldn’t make sense to let this slip away. It would be a slap in the face to us.”

The Coast Miwok were the first human inhabitants of the Point Reyes peninsula, but their land was usurped and claimed by successive waves of Spanish missionaries, Mexican ranch owners and American dairy farmers. The land became public when the National Park Service acquired the ranchland in the 1960s and ’70s, but ranchers have continued to lease much of the peninsula. The Miwok never signed a treaty giving up their land to the Spanish, the American ranchers, or the park service. 

The park works with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, the sole federally recognized tribe that represents Coast Miwok descendants, on a government-to-government basis. The two entities are working on a general agreement for collaborative management of the seashore, including in regard to elk and archaeological sites, but members of the Miwok council have only met with the park as individuals. 

The council, and the 2008 archaeological proposal, reference a series of studies conducted in the seashore by researchers at Sonoma State University. Although researchers have identified more than 150 archaeological sites in the seashore, the park’s confirmed number is lower, and kept confidential to discourage looting. Many of these sites are middens, mounds of sandy soil containing artifacts like shells, bones and food preparation tools, and sometimes human remains and burial items.

Of the confirmed archaeological sites in the park, about a quarter are located within ranching areas, said Paul Engel, the park archaeologist. They are monitored by four volunteer stewards who assess their condition at least once a year. Mr. Engel said the park hoped to get members of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria involved in this process.

Ranching has damaged these archaeological sites in the past. When cattle trample over a midden, they strip away and mix layers of soil, leaving the archaeological materials unstable. “Mixing of the soil isn’t good if you want to understand the history of the site,” Mr. Engel said. 

Overgrazing can also strip away the vegetation that protects archaeological sites, exposing them to the elements and accelerating coastal erosion. Erosion itself is a major concern, and is the main cause of damage to Miwok archaeological sites, Mr. Engel said. 

Though ranching has been damaging important Miwok sites for some time, for Mr. Deschler it’s less about the desecration of individual middens and more about disregard for the land. “It’s not so much trampling in areas where there might be arrowheads out in the fields and stuff like that,” he said. “It’s the removal of boulders and rocks, native plants, medicinal plants.”

Members of the Miwok council, which is not a federally recognized tribe, say they want a seat at the table in discussions with the park service. Individuals from the council have met with the park service, but the park is only required to have a formal relationship with the Graton Rancheria, the federally recognized tribe. When the tribe was recognized in 2000, it established a binding roll, preventing many people with Coast Miwok heritage from enrolling after the fact. A group of these unenrolled Indigneous people formed the council to assert their claim to Miwok identity, heritage and self-determination. 

Mr. Deschler is descended from the Huukuiko band of Coast Miwok, which has deep roots in the Tomales Bay area. He said the council is frustrated that there wasn’t more of a fight to get the archaeological district recognized, and he believes the situation might have been different if members of the council had been part of those discussions. 

“We might be new, but it’s enough time for Graton to know about us, and we deserve to be at the table for consultation,” he said.  

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, enacted in 1990, requires federal agencies like the N.P.S. to repatriate cultural items, including remains and funerary and sacred objects, to the lineal descendants of the affiliated Indian tribes. NAGPRA requires the seashore to involve the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria any time it discovers archaeological materials related to Coast Miwok cultural heritage. 

Buffy McQuillen, the tribe’s historic preservation officer, manages this relationship, responding to any report by the park of disturbance or damage to archaeological sites, as well as any potential new discoveries. They don’t make these discoveries or discussions public, in an effort to discourage visitors who could damage or steal artifacts.  

“These are confidential matters,” she said. “These are confidential resources.” 

Greg Sarris, chairman of the tribe, confirmed the confidentiality of the conversations. “It’s not in the newspapers every time we make a discovery, because we don’t want to encourage people nosing and digging around,” he said. 

Mr. Sarris dismissed the Miwok council’s concerns, suggesting they either didn’t understand the law laid out by NAGPRA, or were politically motivated. He cited the tribe’s longstanding relationship with the park as a federally recognized entity, and said that NAGPRA is always being enforced and the sites always protected. When coastal erosion has posed a threat to archaeological sites, the tribe’s historic preservation team has been on top of the issue, he said. 

“There’s a lot of misinformation that’s stirred up by this group and others,” he added. “We are empowered. We don’t need anything but the law that, in this case, we helped create.” 

The tribe does not oppose the park’s plan to extend ranching leases and cull free-ranging elk, and it was not involved in the discussions around the archaeological historic district. 

Joseph Sanchez, an elder and a headman for the Miwok council, said his group is concerned not about the Graton Rancheria’s efforts, but about the park’s communication.

“It wasn’t necessarily Graton not checking things out,” he said. “It was the park service not letting them know.” 

Melanie Gunn, a spokeswoman for the park, said the idea that the park replaced the proposed archaeological district with the dairy ranches district is “not accurate.” Regardless, she said whenever the park becomes aware of archaeological sites, it protects them as if they were formally listed in the national register.

“One historic value is never ranked more than another historic value,” Ms. Gunn said. “They’re all equally significant.” 

She said the park withdrew the archaeological district application in 2008 because, at the time, the state’s historic preservation office didn’t have the capacity to address it. She said the park determined there was much more historical detail that could be included in the application, and that it isn’t unusual to withdraw an application for that reason.  

Mr. Engel was hired as the park’s first full-time archaeologist in 2010, and he has been gathering information for the last decade. Last year, the park requested funding to update the nomination and create an archaeology management plan focused on Miwok sites, he said. 

According to the park, there are six known archaeological sites within ranching areas that have not been protected from cattle. Of the six, Mr. Engel described four as “less vulnerable” to the types of adverse impacts caused by cattle. The park has plans to protect the two most concerning sites: One will be surrounded by a new fence built to protect a riparian area, and the other will be excluded from the borders of a ranch when the boundary is updated. Mr. Engel declined to specify the ranch that would be affected, because of the confidentiality of the archaeological site. He said the protections would likely go into effect within a year of the record of decision for the park’s general management plan amendment. 

Although the park’s formal relationship and management agreement must be with the federally recognized tribe by law, its officials have met with members of the council. “It’s important to remember that there’s ancestors of Coast Miwok that may have a different opinion than the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria,” Ms. Gunn said. “We recognize that with any group of people, they’re going to have different opinions.” 

In their letter, the Miwok council also opposed the park service’s plan to allow for the culling of elk. Mr. Sanchez said he feels the elk don’t have enough space on the peninsula, but he understands the history of ranching in West Marin. “We have a long history together,” he said. “I want to continue that in a positive way, so that the land works for us and for them.”