The Fight for Rattlesnake Island: Preserving Pomo Heritage

Rattlesnake Island, a serene 56-acre landmass nestled in California’s Clear Lake, has been at the center of a long-standing dispute that underscores the broader challenges of cultural preservation and land rights.

This article takes a closer look at the incredible efforts of the Elem Pomo tribe to reclaim their sacred site from private ownership. By doing so, it sheds light on the important issues surrounding indigenous heritage and environmental stewardship that we all need to be aware of.

The Historical Background

The Pomo Indians of Northern California are one of North America’s oldest tribes. Human bones found on the Clear Lake shoreline have been carbon dated and have been shown to be over 8000 years old. These are, to date, the oldest human remains ever discovered in California.

The land called “Pomo Country” once encompassed the California counties of Mendocino, Lake, and Sonoma and was inhabited by 70 different tribes. The Pomo Nations were a traditional fishing and gathering society that later achieved worldwide recognition for their basketry.

It is no secret that the Pomos had millions of acres of land stolen from them and that the Pomo people were systemically murdered. Their battle to regain that land and also maintain a cultural heritage that is over 8,000 years old rages on to this day.

European settlement, coming from the Spanish mission system to the south and Russian fur traders to the North, began encroaching on Pomo land shortly after the Gold Rush of 1849. To make room for European expansion in 1851-52, a treaty commission visited California and signed 18 treaties with California tribes, which reserved about 8.5 million acres for the aboriginal peoples. These treaties were never ratified by Congress. They “accidentally” got lost in the archives of the U.S. Senate. Instead, four small reservations and a few small “rancherias” were established, whose purpose was more in the nature of internment camps than trust land: to get the Indians out of the way of the flood of American whites. California Indians were made to walk their own ‘trail of tears” from ancestral lands in Pomo Country to reservations in Fort Bragg and Round Valley.

The Pomos were used for indentured servitude. The 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians allowed ranchers in the Clear Lake area to use Indians for forced labor, and many were treated badly. Pomos also suffered from militias that hunted Pomos for the $5.00 bounty that California had placed on each individual Indian person.

Two abusive Americans, Charles Stone and Andrew Kelsey (for whom the Lake County town of Kelseyville is named), captured and/or purchased hundreds of Pomo Indians, forcing them to work as slaves on a large ranch they had acquired in 1847. When a Pomo slave lost a horse and feared retribution, five Pomo men attacked and killed both Stone and Kelsey. The people fled to the hills, expecting the American soldiers to come. They hoped to meet these troops in a peaceful Council and explain the conditions of brutal slavery that had led to what they had done.

In May of 1850, a detachment of Army regulars led by Capt. Nathaniel Lyon entered the Clear Lake area to punish the Indians for the killings. Unable to find the band of slaves who had fled, they attacked a small Pomo village on an island on the north side of the lake-later called “Bloody Island” by the Pomo. This island was formerly the sacred ceremonial site for Indians around the northern part of Clear Lake. Men, women, and children, unable to flee, were massacred by the U.S. Army there. On their way home, the troops continued their bloody actions, massacring every Indian group they encountered.

Pomos has not forgotten this incident. Just one month ago, in April 2006, Pomo leaders won a court injunction against the Kelseyville School District. The courts forced reluctant Kelseyville High School administrators to change the name of the school’s team – the Kelseyville “Indians.” Indian activist Clayton Duncan had said in court that naming the team the “Indians” was akin to having a “John Wayne Gacy Boy’s Camp.”

Many Pomo escaped from government-sponsored internment camps/reservations and made their way back to their own traditional village lands, which somewhat correspond to the sites of the tiny federally-recognized reservations that they have today. By the turn of the century, more than two-thirds of California Indians who had been pushed onto small rancherias to get them out of the way of immigrants had lost these small patches of land and were homeless or had moved to cities to work.

In 1906, the 18 treaties of 1851-52 (reserving 8.5 million acres), which the Senate somehow lost, were finally found. Congress authorized an investigation of the California Indians’ situation, and public reaction eventually supported the passage of annual appropriations to purchase 9,000 acres of land for landless Indians. Some 54 rancherias were established as federal reservations, almost all of them small areas of land around an existing impoverished settlement. For the Pomos, the land was purchased in Lake, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties. These lands were often the undesirable, arid, isolated areas that no one else wanted. On quite a few, no one (including no Indians) lived there for many years; they worked at wage labor in towns and the San Francisco Bay area.

In the early 1950’s, the U.S. government began its termination campaign. In California, the Rancheria Act of 1958 said that all rancherias (reservations) would be offered the choice of termination or not. The BIA encouraged tribes to vote to terminate themselves and promised the Pomos that if they voted to terminate, the BIA would make road improvements and bring in water and electricity. The alternative, as tribal leaders saw it, was that the tribes would be terminated anyway, so the Pomo rancherias reluctantly voted to terminate themselves in hopes that their lands might be improved to a point where they could support themselves. Terminations continued through the 1960’s. During this period, 38 tribes were terminated in California, and tribal members were encouraged to sign away their official status in an effort to assimilate Indians into “mainstream” society.

The Indian Self Determination and Education Act of 1973 allowed tribes and rancherias to regain federal recognition. A landmark case for Pomo Country came in 1979 in Tillie Hardwick vs. United States. This became a class-action lawsuit and victory in 1983 restored federal reservation status (but not the lands lost in the interim) to 17 rancherias, which include many, but not all historic Pomo settlements.

In Lake Country, there are now five separate rancherias of varying sizes. Three of these settlements have a casino. Indian people make up 4% of Lake County’s population, and although many live in seemingly impoverished conditions on Rancherias, many do not.

The Elem Indian Tribe of the Southeastern Pomo people is located on the shores of Clear Lake, California. The Elem Tribe is one of the oldest Tribes in Native America. Carbon dated native artifacts have validated southeastern tribes’ occupation in the Clear Lake region at 4,000 to 8,000 years. The population of the Elem tribe is 250 citizens with 80 currently living on 50 acres of traditional lakeshore lands.

The Southeastern Pomo Nations were governed under a traditional “matriarch society.” This tribal council system has historically presided over the natural resources and the social, economic, political, and religious activities of the Elem Pomo Nation. Its council leaders were comprised of family chiefs, matriarchs, and religious and community leaders who were appointed and/or elected by tribal clans. The Council had authority and responsibility for law and order of the people and aboriginal lands resources and had established a monetary system.

In 1960, the Tribe received electricity on the Reservation, and in 1969, after a group of students from the Bay Area visited the Reservation, they were appalled by the poor living conditions. They took the story to the media, and as a result, the BIA instituted a 1971 housing program and also forced a template of the “Indian Reorganization Act” (IRA) Constitution and bylaws on the Tribe. Tribal members were pressured with the threat that Elem members might lose the new homes and sanitation if they did not adopt the IRA Constitution. Thus, the Elem tribe adopted a constitution that usurped traditional tribal governance.

In 1949, a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agent falsely represented the Elem Tribal leadership in a federal court. The agent pursued land claims, stating that “he was the Agent representing the Elem Tribe.” Unfortunately, the agent did not notify the Elem Tribal Leadership in writing of the land claim court action, nor did he offer any tribal member the opportunity to appear in Federal Court as a witness. As a result of the BIA activities, the Elem band lost claim to over 80,000 acres of land, including the Elem Island Tribal Ceremonial Grounds, the area now known as Rattlesnake Island. Emeryville manufacturing executive John Nady bought the island in 2003 and plans to build at least one home there. The Tribe wants to stop development on the 58-acre wooded island, which is located just 50 yards offshore from the Reservation, and also preserve its sacred sites for the Elem Pomos, whom they allege have inhabited the island seasonally until the 1970s. “We feel that’s our island,” says tribal leader Ray Brown.

Since October 2004, Nady and the Elem band have been locked in a battle that pits cultural preservation against private property rights. Nady made it clear he intends to proceed with his plans and has begun digging septic trenches on the island, which is against the objections of the Lake County Planning Department. Nady has said that he appreciates tribal members’ desire to preserve what is sacred to them, but they need to consider his rights as well. County planners mistakenly issued septic permits to Nady but asked him to wait to implement construction until the matter could be heard at a County Planning Commission meeting.

The ownership debate dates back to 1874 when Rattlesnake Island was erroneously sold by the federal government after its parcel number was accidentally inverted, said John Parker, an archaeologist who spent 20 years studying the area’s history. The Tribe is considering litigation to right that mistake. Parker, who is actively supporting the Tribe’s efforts to preserve Rattlesnake Island, said it is home to one of the most significant American Indian archaeological sites in Lake County. He is nominating the island for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. There are at least six “dense” archaeological sites on the island, including the ancient village of Elem, Parker says, and artifacts, including human bones, are scattered throughout the island.

John Nady is the founder of Nady Systems, an East Bay company that makes wireless microphones and guitars. Nady, who owns a home in Clearlake Oaks, said he plans to build a 1,000-square-foot log house on the island that primarily will be a place for a caretaker to live. He said he also plans to build a bathroom at a different location on the island. He said he has no other building plans for the island, which is valued at $2.5 million on county property tax rolls. The island is largely covered with brush, vines, and bay and oak trees. The northern section is heavily forested, and the logs, trees, and rocks are covered with moss that turns bright green with the winter rains. “To my family and to me, it represents nature in its most pristine and pure form,” Nady said. Nady also said that he’s willing to work around any archaeological artifacts, but the island is his, and he’s going to build it there. He had plans to start building this year, but those plans were stalled at the Lake County Planning Department after the Tribe notified officials of the island’s archaeological significance. He already has a barn on the island that is home to 30 sheep, 10 goats, and a llama. Nady was able to build the barn last year without environmental oversight because county planners were unaware of the island’s importance. He nearly was granted a building permit for the log house, but Jim Brown, the Tribe’s acting administrator and informal historian, protested. Lake County planner Penelope Shibley says that Nady deliberately tried to skirt regulations designed to protect archaeological sites. She said Nady twice went in to apply for septic and building permits last year, first in April and then in September. The first time, Nady was told he must do an archaeological survey and that any excavation must be overseen by archaeologists. Nady had a study done but never turned it over to the County. When Nady came in the second time, a new planner dealing with his request was unaware the island was archaeologically significant, and Nady didn’t mention his prior application. Nady denies this and says that the first archaeological report was done after minimal excavation at the island and that a subsequent archaeologist found it was “inadequate and misleading.”

Planning officials asked Nady to submit an environmental impact study before building, a request which he appealed to the Lake County Planning Commission. On January 5th, 2005, the appeal hearing was conducted in the County seat in Lakeport. In attendance were tribal members from around the country, environmentalists, and news media.

The facts of the case came out, and both sides mounted arguments that spoke to rights under the Constitution. Through these arguments, the ashes of age-old disagreements were stirred, and new information also came to light. The Elem Indian’s case was two-pronged. They stated that the land was stolen from them by the BIA agent (mentioned earlier in this paper), who made unsubstantiated negotiations on their behalf. They said that Rattlesnake Island is actually Indian land, which was part of the original settlement provided to them by Congress. Their second line of defense concerns the island’s status under federal and California as a sacred burial ground and also its capacity to meet the standards for classification as a historic site under state and federal law.

Nady’s case also rested on an interpretation of “rights.” He said that property rights were also sacred and that he had exercised due diligence, following all laws, when he purchased the site. He took an environmental stance in his defense, saying that he intended to preserve the island’s pristine beauty. He put a copy of an email into evidence. The missive had been sent by the tribal administrator who was meeting with the island’s previous owners to discuss establishing a casino that significantly weakened the Indians’ claims that they wanted to preserve artifacts on the island. The island’s previous owners also took the stand during the proceedings, saying that in the 27 years that they owned the island, Indians had only used it for ceremonial purposes on one occasion in 1977.

As stated above, Nady had an environmental impact study conducted but did not submit it to the County. He then engaged a second archeologist, a person who happens to be on the County’s approved list of archeologists. This person said that he found no significant archeological remains on Rattlesnake Island. Another archeologist, John Parker, who is working for the Indians, had quite different findings. The Nadys’ attorney then attacked the credibility of the Indian archeologist.

When it was all over, Nady’s request to build was not upheld. This does not mean that he cannot develop the island, but it does mean he must turn in an archaeological survey and conduct an environmental impact report before proceeding.

The requisite forms for Rattlesnake Island have been sent to the State Historic Preservation Office for review and comment. The Office has completed their initial review and has determined that Rattlesnake Island not only appears to be eligible for National Register status, but also appears to meet the qualifications to be designated as a National Historic Landmark.

So, the Battle for Rattlesnake Island rages on. Resentment towards Indians in Lake County, California, has been fueled by this controversy, as well as the conflict over Kelseyville High School’s team name, and most importantly, the culture clash that has emerged as Indians’ newfound casino wealth has elevated them economically, while the whites who make up the greatest majority of this remote County’s population struggle to survive, many relying on marijuana cultivation and methamphetamine production to make ends meet. 

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