Beyond land acknowledgements: Decolonization in the Sierra

Claire Kasinadhuni

Claire Kasinadhuni

CivicSpark Climate Fellow

Our work here at Sierra Business Council revolves around strengthening the communities of the Sierra through environmental and economic resilience. But we’d be poor advocates of the region if we failed to acknowledge the history and current role of the original stewards of the Sierra Nevada. From the Maidu to the Miwok, the Niesenan to the Shoshone, the Paiute to the Washoe, and all the other diverse cultures throughout the region, the Indigenous peoples of Sierra Nevada were the original caretakers of this landscape, and they are critical partners that should be respected and involved in this region’s future. 

Growing up in Edmonds, Washington on Coast Salish Land, I had no clue who the Coast Salish People were until I was a freshman in college. I became involved with Students for the Salish Sea, a student-led organization focusing on indigenous rights and watershed protection. The experience involved a crash course on Indigenous solidarity work and general information on local Indigenous Tribes. I learned whose land I was living on, their continued existence in the face of the most severe adversity, and the intertwining of people and place since time immemorial. I learned about the complexities around federal recognition and the abundance of life and harmony that existed before colonization.

Before then, my knowledge of Indigenous Communities came mostly from colonialist-centered history books painting Indigenous forced removal as an inconvenience in the greater push for American exceptionalism. But in my work with Students for the Salish Sea, I learned that places had names long before colonialism took root in this continent. And I also learned the names of tribes that the history books never mentioned (they were all clumped under the term “American Indian,” and they all seemed to have been from a State further east. Emphasis on the ‘have been’ because a large part of my minimal education on Indigenous communities was their identity mired in the past.) 

Today I live on Washoe land (Wašiw). Moving to the Sierra was an opportunity to learn about the land’s history and about its past and current stewards. Washoe territory extends from the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to areas as far east as Pyramid Lake in Nevada, including Lake Tahoe and the upper valleys of the Truckee, Carson, and West Walker Rivers. The gold rush in California ended up changing the landscape dramatically, as did logging, fishing, and other natural resource extraction, upending the balance and harmony the Washoe People have been a part of since time immemorial. The Washoe People experienced ‘encroachment’, which is the term used for gradual land stealing. Slowly settlers took over the land inch by inch until the Washoe Tribe had lost all of their land. This story is less stinging than learning about the Paiute for example, who were brutally murdered for their land, but it nevertheless is a government-supported injustice. 

Learning about this history has made me think differently about the Sierra region. It seemed at first like a getaway fantasy. I thought about the High Sierra as some hidden, isolated, perfect, gem. In reality, the land is marred with human hunting and ‘Indian extermination’ that destroyed families, desecrated land, and murdered people. It’s painful to recount and read about the history of this region. It fills me with dread and guilt. How can I continue to play on this land when it holds this history? How can I address this atrocity in more than a symbolic way?

Throughout college, I took more history and natural history classes that centered on the experiences of people of color. I learned that most of the things I was taught growing up were whitewashed, told from the perspective of the colonist rather than the colonized. And I learned about decolonization, the process of deconstructing colonial ideologies (like the superiority of the colonizers – in this case, the US – over the colonized – in this case, Indigenous Tribes). 

Decolonization involves two things: addressing unbalanced power dynamics and creating more equitable and just systems that improve the lives of the colonized while also valuing indigenous lives, knowledge, culture, and stewardship of the land. As I become invested in the Sierra region through my work at Sierra Business Council and through the time I spend outside exploring the trails, mountains, and forests of the Sierra, I know that the decolonization of this region is an important part of its future. And it’s not something that just happens at a conceptual level. It needs to be followed by action and an acknowledgment of how settler privilege (as defined below) has shaped this region.  

“Whether one participates in settler colonialism is not entirely a matter of when or how one’s ancestors came to the U.S. Having settler privilege means that some combination of one’s economic security, U.S. citizenship, sense of relationship to the land, mental and physical health, cultural integrity, family values, career aspirations, and spiritual lives are not possible—literally!—without the territorial dispossession of Indigenous peoples.” (SOURCE)

It’s common practice these days to speak a land acknowledgment and have people declare who’s land they stand on, but we have to do more. Conversations have expanded around Indigenous experiences and trauma, and people are starting to realize who has lived and lives still on the land they currently occupy. But this is just the beginning of the conversation. I am by no means an expert. I am not Indigenous. But I do think that in order to resist performative actions around Indigenous acknowledgement, we have to go deeper. What about after the land acknowledgment? What do we do once we learn who’s land we occupy? There are lots of options out there, and that is when we must turn to those we are acknowledging. A land acknowledgment without action is just a statement. It’s time to teach Indigenous history, create space for Indigenous leaders, and we must demonstrate the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives through action.

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