Hundreds of years ago, the land north to the Feather River in the mountains of Plumas and Lassen Counties was filled with villages of native Mt. Maidu people. After the Gold Rush, prospectors, developers and government agencies took over their land. Their population dwindled and the tribe lost access to the land for traditional practices. Now, the Mt. Maidu people are working with an old adversary to regain formal stewardship of their homeland. Reporter: Lisa Morehouse
This story starts before towns we see on a map today even existed. Before Greenville or Taylorsville, this land was filled with the villages of native Mountain Maidu people. Gold Rush prospectors, developers and government agencies honed in on their land. The Maidu population declined, and so did their access to the land for traditional practices. But now, Mt. Maidu are working to regain formal stewardship of their homeland.
Danny Manning walks up a steep hill near Taylorsville, on Indian trust land that's been in his family for generations. To the right, it's dark -- thick with trees and other growth. But the left side is open and clear, with neat piles of thinned brush, which a crew will carefully burn in the fall.
Manning is the Assistant Fire Chief of the Greenville Rancheria, which is like a reservation. He brought in a small fire crew to tend this land using traditional native methods and philosophies.
"When we first started doing this project, you couldn't see 20 feet in front of you, but now you can see 100 yards up the hill," says Manning.
Manning's crew is taking out sugar pines and brush, providing space for oaks to encourage the growth of acorns, a traditional Maidu food source. All throughout this region, Manning says, grow plants for teas, and even poison oak remedies.
"Anybody else would walk through here and say, 'this is beautiful, nice land,' but we look around and see stuff we might use, and we still use it."
Land stewardship, he says, is essential to Maidu survival. But there is very little land in Mountain Maidu ownership, except for some private land, and some that's held in trust by the U.S. government. Many Mountain Maidu aren't part of federally recognized tribes. Plus, there's a long history of attempts to keep Maidu from their cultural and ecological practices.
"My grandma's generation -- they weren't able to practice their native ways, they were in boarding schools," Manning says. "A lot of it was almost lost forever. But we're coming back in a big way."
One sign of that comeback is on a much larger project spanning over 2,000 acres in Plumas and Lassen National Forests. That's where Maidu and the U.S. Forest Service -- historically, not your typical allies -- are co-managing land. In 1998, Congress awarded the Maidu Culture and Development Group a pilot project here to use traditional ecological knowledge on this land.
Lorena Gorbet says there's a reason the land always provided the Mt. Maidu all the materials they needed for daily living.
"It was because we took care of the land and everything on it, and it took care of us."
Gorbet says communicating that with the Forest Service was tough at first.
"They said what are you going to do, when are you going to do it, what's your time frame, what's your budget? We said we won't know what the land needs [until] we go out and talk to it and listen to it, and it will tell us what it needs and when it needs it."
"We are a federal government agency, so we do have a lot of policies and direction that we have to follow," says Wade McMaster, Tribal Relations Program Manager for Plumas and Lassen National Forests. "And if you look at how tribes do things, it's more from the heart and from the spirit. That's been kind of a learning experience for us to try to get that integration to work."
Maidu have planted grey willow, eradicated noxious weeds, cleared thick brush, and cut timber. But there've been major gaps in the work, due to internal arguments among Maidu themselves, and conflicts over the contract with the Forest Service. Now, they've resolved their differences and work has resumed. This month, Danny Manning and a Maidu crew from the Greenville Rancheria are thinning and piling in the Plumas and Lassen National Forest, just like they did on his family's trust land. And the Forest Service and Mt. Maidu are working together on a traditional burn to enhance bear grass growth.
Maidu are also hoping to practice native ecology on an even bigger scale in nearby Humbug Valley.
"This vast valley was plum full of Maidu villages. My grandmother said at night time you could see many flickering fires around this great valley," says Beverly Ogle.
Ogle is with the non-profit Maidu Summit Consortium and can trace her Humbug Valley roots back at least five generations. The area is owned by PG&E, but unlike other nearby valleys, it was never flooded for hydroelectric power, so it's relatively unspoiled. And, as part of PG&E's huge bankruptcy settlement after the state's energy crisis, Humbug Valley will be conserved, and may be donated to a new landowner. The Maidu Summit Consortium is vying for ownership.
"I would like to see it fall back in the hands of the Mountain Maidu people, so we can once again be stewards of this land," says Ogle. "It'll never be the same, but pretty near."
In the consortium's proposal, the group envisions this land as a vast park, where they can demonstrate and share native ecology and culture with the public, and protect cultural and sacred sites.
But the Maidu aren't only contenders.
Bill Somer of the California Department of Fish and Game says the department has identified this property as "an important value in terms of the fish and wildlife values, the size of the parcel and how it fits into the landscape."
Fish and Game, which has worked on a fishery in the valley for decades, hopes to manage Humbug as a wildlife area. Somer says they're a stable state agency, with specialists who manage over a million acres in California. If they become the landowner, they hope to involve Maidu in protecting cultural resources. But the Maidu have lots of supporters in their bid, including the Forest Service.
"I almost beg, at least this small part of this world, return it to our Maidu people so we have a land base where we can practice our culture," says Beverly Ogle.
A non-profit stewardship council is overseeing proposals and making recommendations about Humbug Valley's future. A final decision by the state Public Utilities Commission is most likely a couple years out.