Theresa Harlan has a vision. As the adopted daughter of a Coast Miwok family who lived for generations at the cove on Tomales Bay known as Laird’s Landing, she has a personal stake in the Point Reyes National Seashore. Her family, the Felixes, were the last Coast Miwoks to leave the west shore of the bay. Now, she is fighting for the park to recognize its modern Indigenous history, a story she says has often been ignored.
The park’s webpage on Coast Miwok history asks visitors to “imagine” the experiences of Miwok people. “You don’t need to imagine, especially when the families were here as late as the ‘50s,” she said.
Her vision for Laird’s Landing involves protecting it in the National Register of Historic Places, rebuilding the structures her grandfather built, and transforming the cove into a living cultural center for Coast Miwok and other Indigenous communities. Such a site “would show everyone, not just Natives, how you coexist in a sustainable way that provides a way of life for plants and animals,” she said.
She wants the site renamed Felix Cove, in honor of her family history.
Signage and interpretive materials should “show the humanity of my family,” she said. “Otherwise, people can only go off of their imagination.”
Without concrete support from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, of which she is not a member, or from the park, whose management plan she opposes, Ms. Harlan faces an uphill battle. But she has made some strides, securing park superintendent Craig Kenkel’s word that the structures built by her family are safe from demolition, and helping the park create interpretive signage that will soon be installed at the cove.
Ms. Harlan has worked as a curator and consultant for various Native American arts organizations for much of her life. She directed the C.N. Gorman Museum of the Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis in the 1990s, edited a book of photographs by Indigenous photographer Dugan Aguilar, and curated several exhibitions of Native artists. Now that she has retired, she is working toward getting her own family’s story told.
The Felix family lived in coves up and down the western shore of Tomales Bay, from Pelican Point down to Fruit Tree Cove. Ms. Harlan’s great-great grandparents Euphrasia and Domingo Felix first lived at Felix Cove in the mid-19th century, joining other Tomales Bay Indians who had been expelled from Nicasio Rancheria by settler James Black. Over the decades, the family worked as cooks on the Kehoe, Shafter and McClure ranches, until Ms. Harlan’s grandmother, Bertha Felix Campigli, died in 1949. A few years later, Sayles Turney and James Lundgren, the dairymen who ran the K Ranch, tried to evict the family from the cove.
Victor Sousa, Ms. Harlan’s uncle, fought the eviction in court, asserting squatters’ rights and attempting to prove his family’s longstanding history on the land. The case made it to the state supreme court, where Mr. Sousa lost because the family had no records of paying property taxes.
Elizabeth Harlan, Ms. Harlan’s mother, was born and raised at the cove, but by the time the family adopted Theresa—who was born in New Mexico and has roots in the Kewa and Jemez Pueblos—they lived in Napa, where Ms. Harlan was raised. “I see myself as picking up from my uncle’s work,” she said. She’s motivated by what she called the “incredible disappointment” Mr. Sousa must have felt when the family was displaced.
Earlier this month, Ms. Harlan visited Laird’s Landing, so named for two pioneer dairymen who first leased the land, which would later become the K ranch, from the Shafters, who owned much of the peninsula. The tiny cove is shaded by eucalyptus and cypress trees; a few yards back from the beach stand three wooden structures—a modest house, a smaller cabin, and a weathered white boathouse.
After the Felixes were evicted, artist Clayton Lewis took up residence at the cove, building his own additions and structures, including a foundry and painting studio. Mr. Lewis died in 1995, and the park has since razed his additions. In 2017, as part of recognizing the Point Reyes Dairy Ranches Historic District, the park began restoring the decaying structures that were built by the Felix family.
Ms. Harlan is working with local historian Dewey Livingston, who has written numerous successful National Register nominations on contract for the park service, including the dairy ranch listing. Mr. Livingston, who wrote the book on ranching history at Point Reyes, said the site was previously evaluated as being significant mainly to ranching history, because it sits on the historic K Ranch and was home to ranch workers—the Felixes. But, Mr. Livingston said, “I had always advocated Laird’s Landing for its Coast Miwok history.”
The Felix family paints a picture of the complex relationship between ranchers and ranch workers in the park. “My family worked for ranchers,” Ms. Harlan said, “but there were different levels of power.”
For Ms. Harlan, the issue of agriculture on the peninsula—now hotly contested as the park updates its plans for managing the land—is separate from but related to her efforts with Laird’s Landing. Though she said she has a close working relationship with Mr. Kenkel, she also has been a prominent voice among the activists calling on the park to eradicate ranching. She said as a taxpayer, she doesn’t like knowing her dollars go toward subsidizing the same community that evicted her family.
Last month, Ms. Harlan was the first speaker at a “Debunking the Myths of Point Reyes National Seashore” webinar. Like the Coast Miwok Tribal Council of Marin and a slew of environmental and animal rights activists, Ms. Harlan objects to the park’s handling of the tule elk. The fenced herd at Tomales Point experienced a significant die-off last year because of poor forage quality, and activists argue the elk are being allowed to die to meet the needs of ranchers.
“As Native people, we believe we’re related to all things. The elk, they’re our relatives,” Ms. Harlan told her audience. “If you identify as Native, then all of that comes into play for you.”
But although she shares a common cause with elk activists and environmentalists, she comes to the movement from a far more personal place.
“I wanted to remind them of the Indigenous history of Point Reyes,” Ms. Harlan told the Light about her presentation at the webinar. “I wanted to share the story and counter the history of ranching with my family’s history.”
The chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, Greg Sarris, said he championed Ms. Harlan’s efforts but was limited in the help he could provide her. Ms. Harlan is not an enrolled member of the tribe, which closed its doors 20 years ago. He said he’s aware of the significance of Felix Cove and will continue to work with the park service on managing the site.
“We are overseeing that, it is part of our aboriginal territory, and the park and everybody else has to defer to the tribe,” he said.
Ms. Harlan understands Mr. Sarris’s position, but she hopes the park will consider developing relationships with other Coast Miwok people who are not part of Graton. “I think that everyone should be at the table,” she said. “It’s 78,000 acres of land. There should be a multiplicity of voices.”
She is not the only Coast Miwok whose efforts to make changes in the seashore have been hampered by a lack of federally recognized tribal affiliation. Graton has a government-to-government relationship with the park, and must sign off on any Indigenous initiatives, leaving unenrolled individuals and groups like the Miwok council limited in their abilities.
For its part, the park is focused on preserving the three original buildings at Felix Cove and has no clear vision for the future use of the site, park archeologist Paul Engel said. But one project is underway: the park has designed and built an interpretive wayside on the Felix family, and is currently determining the most appropriate placement for it.
Mr. Engel said it’s difficult to imagine the kind of full-fledged interpretive center Ms. Harlan envisions at Felix Cove, but not impossible. He said the park is constrained by the remoteness of the site, which has no restroom, water or electricity.
“Overall, I think we’re on the same page as Theresa Harlan,” Mr. Engel said. “This is a really important history and we would like to make the public more aware of it.”
On her recent visit, Ms. Harlan pointed out the spots where her grandfather’s barn and corral once stood, and where she’d like to see the trees Clayton Lewis planted cleared away. She wondered aloud what would have been happening at her family’s home at the same time in the afternoon 75 years ago.
“Maybe a chicken was getting plucked, or bread was getting made, or berry picking,” she said. It was a sustainable life, and the family grew or pulled from the waters most of what they ate. They grew beans, potatoes, radishes, carrots and tomatoes, and when they wanted halibut, abalone or oysters, they’d go out fishing.
When Ms. Harlan encounters hikers or kayakers at the cove, she tells them about her family’s history there, and is always met with interest. “They’re glad they know the history,” she said.