“Two hundred years ago, the Russians came. The ‘Undersea People.’ Why did we call them that? Look.” He gestures to the sweeping Pacific, stretching to the horizon behind him. “That view had stayed the same for thousands of years. Until a mast appeared, and then a boat. The Undersea People. From that day forward, everything changed for us.”
Years of negotiations, fragile alliances—built, destroyed, repaired—and the hopes and dreams of a people have led to this day: the transfer of nearly 700 acres of Northern California coastal prairie and redwood forest back to the Kashia, its historic caretakers.
On paper, the deal was closed in December of 2015. But today—a windy Saturday in June 2016—marks the tribe’s ceremonial return to the coast. Hundreds of people, Kashia and non-Indians alike, have congregated here along a quiet, rural stretch of Highway 1 in northern Sonoma County to dance, pray, and mark a defining moment 150 years in the making. It’s hungry work, and Kashia volunteers have prepared a traditional feast for the guests—some of whom have traveled hours to join the celebration.
“I don’t know how else to explain it: it’s like a home I’ve never been to before, but I can feel. I know this is where I belong,” says Billyrene Pinola, a Kashia, her voice breaking with emotion. Later, Pinola will don traditional dress to perform a ceremonial dance alongside her granddaughter Laila; now she’s standing and marveling at the scene around her. “This is not just a piece of land to us. It’s family. If you don’t know your cultural history, your language, your land, you lose your identity. This property brings us back home.”
Once, the Kashia thrived here. In colder months the tribe lived in upland villages, hunting and gathering in the abundant forests and grasslands. When the seasons turned, they moved their camps closer to shore to fish and harvest abalone, mussels, urchins, seaweed, and salt. They made jewelry from shells and wove grasses and fibers into intricate baskets. The surrounding ocean, forest, and hills were their grocery, their pharmacy, and their university.