Wade Crowfoot came west after college for what he describes as his “big, bright California adventure.” Like many others, the native of Michigan fell hard for the beauty of the Golden State and never looked back. He’s been here ever since and now serves as secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency.
Crowfoot oversees an agency that protects the health and biodiversity of those California landscapes that inspired him to move here—from more than 1,000 miles of coastline to high mountains and vast deserts—and manages the largest state parks system in the United States. Beyond its environmental role, the agency is also charged with preserving California’s historical and cultural resources.
In carrying out its mission, the natural resources agency works with the state’s Native American tribes in what Crowfoot characterizes as an increasingly collaborative relationship. “Working in natural resources has been a journey for me and one of the key points of learning has been the breadth, the diversity of California tribes,” he says. “What we know as California once had the highest density of Native Americans living in any part of the United States before European contact. A remarkable diversity of tribes, a remarkable cultural legacy. And the most important thing for everyone to understand is that these tribes are still here and thriving in many ways.”
Crowfoot discussed different aspects of the state’s relationship with its Indigenous people and the ways that California is addressing past injustices while building new tribal partnerships.
Confronting a Tragic Past
Crowfoot says that upon taking office in 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom quickly set a new tone by inviting Native American leaders to the future site of the California Indian Heritage Center in West Sacramento. A collaboration between the state and tribes, the center will tell the story of California’s Indigenous history and cultures. Under a centennial oak tree, the governor delivered a formal apology on behalf of California for past injustices. The apology was part of an executive order in which Newsom also established the California Truth & Healing Council to address the troubled history between tribes and the state.
“There’s a history and legacy of disconnect and discrimination and even genocide, which was a state policy that founded California,” says Crowfoot. “Governor Newsom read from an address by the first governor that put a bounty on the head of Native American women and children. That was a really important and powerful moment. But the governor and tribal leaders agreed that an apology was important, yet still symbolic. That we needed to do a whole lot to reestablish relationships and partnerships between California and the tribes.”
Retelling the Story
Crowfoot says that one priority is to formalize partnerships with the tribes at California’s state parks. Memorandums of understanding have been finalized to expand tribal access to parks throughout the state for ceremonial and gathering purposes. And by working more closely with the tribes, the state also hopes to better incorporate tribal perspectives to correct and update how history is interpreted at the parks.
At Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, for example, Crowfoot says that state parks has partnered with local tribes to develop the Iipay-Tipai Kumeyaay Mut Niihepok (Land of the First People) outdoor exhibit, which tells the story of the region’s Kumeyaay culture. Nearly 800 miles to the north at Humboldt Lagoons State Park near Eureka, Crowfoot says that the Chah-pekw O’ Ket’-toh Stone Lagoon Visitor Center is fully—and exclusively—staffed with members of the Yurok tribe. It’s the first tribally operated California state park visitor center and has exhibits that describe the Yurok’s ancient cultural connections to the lagoon area.
“We need to support tribal leaders as they share their story. Nobody can tell California’s long history of thousands of years better then native peoples… And when that happens it’s very compelling. Too many Californians, too many visitors, don’t understand the diverse tribal cultures of California. Understanding and exploring those cultures makes the visitor experience richer. It’s another dimension of California that we can share.”
The Importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge
California tribes’ deep knowledge of the land has been passed down through the generations. Crowfoot says that Native Americans lived in balance with the state’s ecosystems, keeping the environment healthy prior to European colonization that began with the establishment of the mission system in 1769. But many areas of the state have been significantly degraded over the ensuing centuries. Crowfoot believes that tribal understanding of the environment, known as traditional ecological knowledge (or Indigenous traditional knowledge), can work in tandem with Western science to better protect and restore California’s ecosystems.
“Western science doesn’t have all the answers,” Crowfoot says. “Sometimes the best management practices are those that were refined over thousands of years. I’ve seen staff scientists, PhD biologists and ecologists, who are just blown away by the knowledge and expertise that tribal members have about ecosystems. In my experience, our best-trained scientists still have a lot to learn from our tribal members, our tribal practitioners.”
To better understand the impacts of climate change, California invests in its own climate assessment—the only state to do so. As part of that multimillion-dollar investment, Crowfoot says the state now funds traditional ecological knowledge efforts and incorporates those perspectives into the assessment.
There’s also on-the-ground collaboration: Crowfoot says that at the site of the proposed Dos Rios State Park near Modesto, the state is working with local tribes to bring back native plants used for traditional practices such as basket weaving. A major goal for the park is to restore vital floodplain habitat at the confluence of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers, and traditional ecological practices, such as the controlled use of fire, will help guide environmental management. As Crowfoot pointedly asks, “Who better to partner with, to work with, to learn from to restore the health of our ecosystems than the stewards of those places for such a long period of time?”
The Tribes Take the Lead
Throughout the state, tribes are playing a growing environmental role in California. Tribes in the California desert, including the Fort Yuma Quechan Indian Tribe, the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, and the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians, hope to establish the 660,000-acre Chuckwalla National Monument adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park. The proposed monument would increase public access and also better protect an assortment of sacred cultural sites.
Crowfoot says the state endorses efforts led by the Northern Chumash Tribal Council to designate the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary along the Central Coast. He pointed out that the state maintains a network of more than 140 marine protected areas and the sanctuary would extend protections into thousands of square miles of federal waters off San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
“We’re very supportive,” he says, “and really balancing the protection of these environmental and cultural resources with the need to generate offshore wind power in collaboration and partnership with tribes. The Chumash marine sanctuary is a really great example of the tribes leading and state government and federal government getting in line to follow this tribal leadership.”
Crowfoot says the state is also backing the Tribal Marine Stewards Network, an environmental alliance currently comprised of five California tribes: the Tolowa Dee-Ní Nation and Resighini Rancheria on the North Coast, the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians in Sonoma County, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band (whose territory includes parts of several counties), and the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians in northern Santa Barbara County. These tribes work to manage, protect, and restore 220 miles of coastal areas within their ancestral territories. The network aims to promote environmental health, while also encouraging traditional cultural practices and food sovereignty.
“We’ve learned a whole lot from the tribes about management in our various ecosystems along the coast,” says Crowfoot. “Whether it’s rocky intertidal habitat or sandy beach habitat or deep-water habitat, these tribes have a lot of information and knowledge about how to assess the health of coastal ecosystems. Now we’re actually utilizing that knowledge by supporting the Tribal Marine Stewards Network.”