To honor their ancestors and benefit future generations, the Coast Miwok are trying to get some of their land back. 

The Coast Miwok Tribal Council of Marin, a group that formed last year, is mobilizing and meeting with community groups, and they have ambitions to acquire property for a living cultural center. They met with Lagunitas School students and the San Geronimo Valley Planning Group last month, and on Sunday over 140 people attended a presentation hosted by the San Geronimo Valley Community Center. The five-man tribal council tells a story of cultural resilience that is both uplifting and heart wrenching, and their message is clear: We are still here, and we intend to grow.

“Today is historical for us—to give voice to who we are, why we are and where we want to be,” chairman Dean Hoaglin said. “My ancestors’ prayers were answered because I’m still here, and I’m still living the culture. And our intent is to reconnect with our ancestral lands.”

The need for a cultural center arose after the ceremonial roundhouse at Kule Loklo, a replica Coast Miwok village in the Point Reyes National Seashore, was taken down in 2019 by park staff. The roundhouse’s roof was decaying, and the federally recognized tribe, the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, wanted to see cultural interpretation take a different form. 

Graton Rancheria chairman Greg Sarris said that Kule Loklo represented a historical setting, and it was created by non-Indians who wanted to “play Indian or be Indian.” He acknowledged there was debate about its purpose within the tribe, but ultimately, he advised the park to take the roundhouse down and leave the center pole. Today, only the wooden bones of the roundhouse remain, and the annual Big Time Festival at Kule Loklo is canceled.

Members of the tribal council in Marin see the roundhouse at Kule Loklo much differently than Mr. Sarris. For them, it is a sacred place, with a living spirit. Since the days of Bun Lucas, a Kashaya Pomo who officiated dances after it was built in 1976, and Lanny Pinola, another Kashaya Pomo who worked as a cultural interpreter for the park, countless ceremonies have been held there. Kule Loklo and the annual festival was a place for Native Americans who weren’t accepted into the Graton Rancheria to dance, sing, make crafts and connect to their roots.

“It’s been hard for us not to have that available, not to have that ceremonial space,” Mr. Hoaglin said. “That land is calling us. Our ancestral land is calling us home.”

Indians traditionally don’t deconstruct a roundhouse; they ceremonially bury it, like a family member. To see it left to rot, like a deer on the side of the road, makes headman Jason Deschler angry.

“We’ve never had the Graton members be involved, yet they were involved in the destruction of our mother’s womb—that’s how we look at it. The roundhouse was a living spirit,” he said.

A living cultural center would show Miwok practices through hands-on experiences rather than a museum setting. It would be a place to perform ceremonies, share traditional ecological practices, help preserve language, teach kids and give a home to relatives who don’t belong to the Graton Rancheria.

The tribal council toured the former San Geronimo Golf Course and saw some beautiful spaces for a cultural center, but they are waiting to hear back from the property owner, the Trust for Public Land. They are partnering with the Multicultural Center of Marin to form a nonprofit that will make it easier to raise money and work with other groups. 

Mr. Deschler has taken the role as headman in the valley, so he will be the liaison and lead projects there.

The council is made up of five men who are descendants of Tom Smith or Maria Coppa, two elders born in Marin in the 1800s. All five members have verified their lineage through census records or certifications of Indian blood. Their ancestors lived in tribelets from Sausalito to Bodega Bay; they were baptized in Tomales Bay and buried in Marshall.

To understand what drives the council, it helps to better understand their history. Joe Sanchez tells the story of a paradise before European contact: Old-growth redwoods towered over 300-feet high, miles-long masses of monarch butterflies stretched through the sky, flocks of birds blocked the sun for an hour at a time, and fish were easily grabbed from the streams. 

The Coast Miwok tended the land based on knowledge from millennia of observation and experimentation. They cared for stands of oak trees and collected acorns, and they lit small fires to kill pests and renew habitat—a lesson California could learn from today, Mr. Sanchez said.

“It allowed us to live for thousands of years in harmony with the world, with the atmosphere, with the ecological place we are in,” he said.

Their story took a dark turn with colonization. California Indians were enslaved by the Spanish Catholic missions, and disease killed many people. From 1846 to 1871, their population plummeted from 150,000 to 30,000. After the Mexican American War, the Mexican government promised the Coast Miwok 80,000 acres of land around Nicasio, but the State of California did not recognize that part of the peace treaty, which was used to settle the war.

“That peace treaty was very significant,” Mr. Sanchez said. “It was something that was done in good faith, but unfortunately was not honored. That was a big loss to us, and we’ve been feeling it ever since.”

When California became a state, the first governor’s solution to conflicts between miners and Indians was to exterminate the Indians. “Our American experience has demonstrated the fact, that the two races cannot live in the same vicinity in peace,” Governor Peter Burnett said in his state of the state address. “That war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected.”

The genocide continued, and in 1880 the commissioner of Indian affairs reported only 60 Coast Miwok living in Marin. One of them was Mr. Sanchez’s great-great grandmother in Nicasio; his family continues to hold reunions on Tomales Bay.