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California’s ‘Capital Tribe’ Reclaims Stolen Land

Jesus Tarango Jr., right, president of Wilton Rancheria, is hugged by his son Jesse.

Jesus Tarango Jr., president of Wilton Rancheria, is embraced by his son Jesse during a dedication ceremony for a Native American monument at Capitol Park in Sacramento in 2022.

(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

When the Wilton Rancheria Tribe recently reestablished control over a 77-acre tract outside of Sacramento, tribal Chairman Jesus Tarango Jr. couldn’t help but smile.

“Days like this don’t come around very often,” Tarango said to himself. “This is a historic day for my people.”

For years, Tarango elders fought to stay on their ancestral territory in the Sacramento Valley, but the U.S. government repeatedly reneged on its promises: officials sold their land to private buyers and even canceled their status as a federally recognized tribe.

Today, some of the land stolen from her people in the unincorporated community of Wilton — about a half-hour south of the state Capitol — feels like home again.

The tribe deeded the land to a federal trust Monday. Tarango described it as a victory for the Indigenous LandBack movement in California and showed how patience and perseverance can pay off for other tribes working to reclaim lost territories and respond to their demands. desire for self-determination.

“Home” means something different if you’re a descendant of the Miwok and Nisenan tribes who lived and looked after this part of Northern California only to see it fall into the hands of outsiders, Tarango said.

He describes his tribe as “a river people.” They regard the Cosumnes River and the many streams that flow over the rocks and meander along the forested banks of their homeland as sacred sources of life and energy. These waters also flow through them.

Residents of Wilton Rancheria, the only federally recognized tribe in Sacramento County, identified with the reacquired property along Green Road long before the tribe purchased the largely undeveloped site from a private owner for $1.925 million in 2020. The land is part of the original land that the U.S. government purchased in 1928 to establish the rancheria, or small reservation.

But at the beginning of the 20th century, Californian natives had already suffered the confiscation of their traditional villages and the violent repression of their culture. So, being allowed to live on federally designated land – in a region where they had been proud stewards of nature since time immemorial – represented a bittersweet step.

The rancheria was meant to belong to its residents forever, a place where tribal citizens such as Tarango’s great-great-great-grandfather Alec (or Aleck) Blue, a cultural leader and healer, did not have to fear further displacement. But Congress stole from them again when it passed the Rancheria Act of 1958, which ended land trust obligations to dozens of California tribes, including the Tarango. The tribes were deprived of federal recognition and had no authority over the lands that had been created in their names.

The Wilton Rancheria Nation only regained federal recognition in 2009, after a long campaign by tribal elders, including the president’s mother, Mary Tarango. These victories gave the tribe the legal status it needed to restore tribal control over the 77 acres.

“Our tribe had to go and fight… struggle – to recover our lands,” says Tarango. “It was a stroke of the pen that took that away from us, but it took us 50 years to regain our federal recognition.”

At Monday’s ceremony to place the tribe’s title deeds into a federal trust, Amy Dutschke, director of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Pacific region, said “it’s a good day when we can restore tribal lands for the benefit of tribal citizens. »

But even on an occasion ripe for celebration, Tarango said, he felt compelled to share this dark history with the tribal citizens in attendance.

“I made it a point to remind people: When the government came in, they stripped you of your identity, they stripped you of your language, they stripped you of your appearance, and the most important thing that What they did was strip you of your land,” he recalls.

Tarango says the tribe plans to open a senior center on their reclaimed land in the coming weeks, where older citizens can help rebuild those lost connections – telling stories and passing down their wisdom to younger generations. Long-term goals include building a cultural center and a gazebo for traditional dancing and games.

“It’s really going to serve as a village, as it would have done 150 years ago, but in today’s world,” Tarango says.

Tarango also hopes the good news will make non-Native Californians aware of the damage that has been done and help them understand how reclaiming even small portions of ancestral lands can serve as a balm for an entire people.

When Gov. Gavin Newsom apologized to Native Californians in 2019 “for the many instances of violence, mistreatment and neglect that California has inflicted on tribes,” Tarango and his cousins ​​were on hand to bless the occasion with traditional songs.

Newsom’s words appeared to be the first steps toward repairing the harm caused, Tarango said, but he isn’t content with just apologies.

What full atonement would look like is still up for discussion, but in the meantime the tribe is in the process of acquiring additional land by the end of the year, he said. The tribe will then seek to create trusts for these properties as well.

Tarango chokes up on the phone as he talks about the sacrifices made by his mother and other elders to assert the tribe’s right to decide its own destiny.

While he looks forward to working with local county officials to keep the trust lands, he hopes above all that these lands will help build the resilience of his people.

“We have never been able to recover from the generational trauma our people faced,” Tarango says.

“This land that is coming back into our hands – it is ours to do as we want – it will serve as a healing ground for my people. It’s almost like putting yourself back together and becoming whole again.

California Daily Newspapers

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