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The Movement Towards Restoring Ancestral Homelands to Indigenous Peoples

Caressa Nguyen lives by the words of the Zapatista Movement: “Another world is possible. The world we want is one where many worlds fit.”

The daughter of a Vietnamese refugee, Nguyen descends from Northern Sierra Miwok people, the original inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada mountains since time immemorial, and immigrants from the Philippines whose ancestral roots are in Iloilo. Her lineage, a balance of various cultural identities, has shaped her worldview and made it easier to empathize with cultural behaviors in different social settings.

“Knowing your culture(s) equals more ways to express oneself,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen’s ancestral land situates amid the woodlands and foothills of Ione. Among the hills of oak trees and sprawling yellow grass where native grasses once thrived stands four houses built by Nguyen’s great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather. Behind the property runs a creek where her cousins, aunties, and grandmothers would forage for berries and medicinal plants. As a gatherer in her tribe, Nguyen appreciates the biodiversity and splendor of nature, especially the meadows around her.

“Some of my favorite memories are walking through the damp forest with hand games songs carried through the trees during our annual Big Time celebration,” Nguyen mused, remembering the traditional Acorn Harvest gathering of the Miwok people.

In 2014, Nguyen submitted a letter of interest to her tribe’s cultural committee and was proudly selected to sit on the committee as their youngest member. From that moment forward, Nguyen embraced every opportunity provided to her. She represented her tribe in government consultation and conducted research, walking alongside Miwok elders, while bearing witness to the environmental degradation largely due to bad policy. During her fieldwork, Nguyen realized the unequal access and distribution of land and territory to tribes.

“The Ione Miwok are an under-resourced tribe. It wasn’t until 2020 that our lands were accepted into federal trust. Many of our elders do not have letters behind their name,” Nguyen said. “I knew what I wanted out of my education then. That is how Sacred Lands, Native Hands was born.”

Founded in 2017, Sacred Lands, Native Hands focuses on restoring ancestral homelands to Indigenous peoples for traditional stewardship, protection, and perpetuation of a regenerative future. Grounded in Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK), the organization engages with tribal governments to support land back efforts and to spread awareness of environmental issues facing Indigenous communities.

One of their current projects includes #ReclaimMiwokLands, a campaign that raises funds to secure 480 acres of land violently stolen during the California Gold Rush. Known as the Indian Grinding Rock Historic Park, the land in Amador’s Pine Grove is home to the Miwok’s sacred “Chaw’se” or “mortar cup,” the largest contiguous ‘grinding’ or ‘pounding’ rock in North America. It was a village site where remnants of the tribe’s acorn grounding can be found, a staple food for the Miwok and significant to their culture. Today, the meadow surrounded by incense cedars and pines is under preservation to protect how it looked a thousand years ago.

Committed to tribal environmental advocacy, Sacred Lands, Native Hands encourages the incorporation of IEK in governmental environment planning and discussions around climate change. The organization hosts community-based classes that share IEK with people living on Indigenous lands.

Also in development is a campaign to highlight the mismanagement of water resources that have outlawed traditional fishing methods. In lobbying for tribal fishing rights, Nguyen hopes to show the importance of protecting salmon in California waterways and restoring the relationship between humans and nature.

“Indigenous peoples the world over relate to and protect land, the water, air, and animals around them. The natural world ties us back to our deeper humanity. Relating to the natural world is our birthright that colonialism seeks to rob us of.” Nguyen said.

Nguyen stresses the need to maintain a strong, foundational knowledge of how the United States came to be — a country founded on the forcible seizure of Indigenous land and built upon the backs of enslaved Native Americans and Africans. In the case of Filipino Americans, understanding this history in relation to U.S. colonization in the Philippines and examining their positionality as settlers in the United States is essential in the movement to restore ancestral homelands to Indigenous communities, Nguyen said.

For Nguyen, education and awareness are at the root. In exploring different worldviews and reflecting on shared histories, solidarity is possible.

“There are other ways of living and being, and honoring the indigenous ways of the land that we all walk upon can help reach a better world together, not a divided one,” Nguyen said.

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