California’s Indians still here, still making progress. But there’s a long way to go

In the late 1960s, I remember my parents being very supportive of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the American Indian takeover of Alcatraz Island, American Indian rights and justice, and for the American Indian newspaper Smoke Signals.

I also remember my parents taking our family to the Chaw’se Indian Grinding Rock, Tuolumne Rancheria and Grindstone Indian Rancheria to attend the roundhouse ceremonies and cultural dances. I remember visiting the urban Indian centers and friendship houses in San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento. These experiences helped to form my focus on education, culture, languages, traditions, environmental justice and the meaning of “place.”

Here is what I have been taught by the elders of the greater Sacramento region and Kern Valley: Never forget where you come from, get your education, be of service, protect our sovereignty and use pen-to-paper as the new modern tool of change.

These are the tribal elders I most admire and learned the most from: My parents (Leona and Harry Begay), Rose Miranda, Marie Potts, Rachel Joseph, Ben Nighthorse Campbell, Bill Franklin, Margaret Dalton, Sonny Reyes, Wayne Redhorse, Bertha Norton, Susan Masten, and many others. From the 1970s to 2010, these tribal elders made significant impacts on cultural preservation, self-governance and economic development for indigenous tribes.


Today, I see many California tribes investing their resources in the basic needs of their tribal communities: housing, health, education, economic development and employment. But tribes are also focused on the preservation of their culture and heritage, protection of their traditional cultural landscapes and sacred water, tribal language programs and emergency response, as well as government-to-government consultation. There are also specialized tribal programs that focus on support services for mental health, Indian child welfare, suicide prevention, domestic violence, family legal support services, people with disabilities, vocational rehabilitation and substance abuse.

During the past 25 years, California tribes have become more self-reliant. Our California federally-recognized tribes have made major strides in economic development, cultural preservation, environmental justice and government-to-government consultation, which has resulted in improved public policies, laws and economic development opportunities.

In the early 1980s, I visited reservations in Southern California with Dana Pierce-Hedge, an Indian education director. I saw the poor living conditions many of the tribes experienced on these reservations. Today, what a contrast it is. No more blue tarps and old tires on single-wide trailer homes. I see improved housing, access to safe drinking water, schools, health care services, paved roads and businesses, as well as some reservations with casinos. But there is also incredible tribal governance and leadership that continues to evolve, and it’s not an easy journey.

In California, we have non-federally recognized tribes and public domain allotment landowners who need access to improved housing, health services, education, employment and economic opportunities.

My home is in Kern Valley on the village site called “yii-tii-en-ep” (where the flat water lives). Twelve Tubatulabal families live on this 160-acre public domain allotment that was awarded to my great-grandfather, Chief Steban Miranda, under the 1887 Dawes General Allotment Act. Since the Tubatulabal Tribe is not federally-recognized, we do not receive any federal or state resources for improving roads, housing and other services. My Tubatulabal cousins have to travel two to three hours to receive dental and medical services from tribal health centers at the Bishop Paiute and Lone Pine reservations.

I don’t know the conditions of most of the more than 300 public domain allotments in California. But in Kern Valley, where we have 10 allotments held in trust by the U.S. government, poor housing and living conditions persist for the people living there, similar to what I saw on the California tribal reservations of the 1980s.

Today, we continue to hold our traditional and evolving ceremonies: the bear dances, big times, bird songs, hand-games, elder gatherings, youth camps, traditional harvesting and fishing, canoeing, traditional walks, inter-tribal pow wows, roundhouse ceremonies, sweat lodges and the face wash ceremony, among many others.

I teach my young grandnephews that we can Google or YouTube all that is written, but our “in-person” experience of our traditions is much better. In my Tubatulabal Pahka’anil dialect: “Hallakii” – we are still here.

Dr. Donna Miranda-Begay is the former tribal chairwoman of the Tubatulabal Tribe. She is the also author of two books: “Tribal MICS IT: Tribal Gaming Minimum Internal Controls for Information Technology,” and “’Tribal Perspectives’ of the Tübatulabal Baskets in the California State Parks Museum Resource Center: Tübatulabal Tribe.”
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