Every landscape tells a story. It’s Johnathan Costillas’ job to read it.
And by now, it’s a habit. On a drive through Lake County, Costillas finds himself taking note of creeks and rivers. He instinctively notices bunch grass or redbud bushes that are native to the area.
“I'm constantly looking at the ground,” he said, now inspecting a spot along a creek by the road. “I look down all the time now to see if I can find anything, whether I'm on a hike or just a walk to the store.”
On their own, small details from the world around us might seem insignificant. But Costillas, a member of a tribe in the Bay Area called the Tamien Nation, says they’re indications that an area was probably historically important to Native people.
It’s been a few years since Costillas first became a tribal cultural monitor. He now works for the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake, a tribe whose ancestral lands spread throughout Lake County, an area right by the southern tip of Mendocino National Forest that is around a two-hour drive from Sacramento.
It’s still fairly new work for the tribe. Its cultural resources department, which his position is part of, was formed only a couple years ago. But Costillas says it’s growing quickly, as is the need. It’s particularly true for tribes in rural areas like Lake County, where large swaths of natural land have remained undisturbed until recently.
“There's more opportunity for employment as a travel monitor,” he said. “It's starting to spread, and all these different tribes are starting to make their own departments.”
Throughout California, people like Costillas inspect land for signs of Indigenous history. This helps developers avoid destroying places of cultural importance, or where artifacts left by Native ancestors might be found.
These protections didn’t always exist. Federal laws forbidding developers from digging up burial grounds came into existence in the 1980s. In California, it also became illegal to take and sell Native cultural artifacts from public or private lands — a law that accompanied the passage of the California Environmental Quality Act.
“Once they’re destroyed and gone, we don’t get that back,” said Robert Geary, who is the tribe’s historic preservation officer and a member of the Elem Indian Colony of Pomo Indians.
But protections for non-burial sites of cultural importance, like ancient village sites, were left out of these laws. That was until 2014, when a California law passed requiring developers to involve tribes in their planning.
“California is basically on its own and is kind of setting the trend, I think, for having the tribes be able to address concerns,” Geary said.
But years later, enforcement of these laws is spotty. Geary adds that “there’s really no regulation, as far as anything that happens with it.”
And Costillas remembers one particularly egregious instance as recent as 2018, when a developer bulldozed a Native burial site in West Sacramento.
The Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake, alongside other tribes in the area, have made extra efforts to monitor their ancestral lands. They’ve led workshops to educate local officials about the law and the county sheriff's office has become perhaps an unexpected partner in the process.
But Geary says that if this law is going to work in the long run, there needs to be a change in local, state and national attitudes about Native lands as a whole.
“If your arm gets amputated, it's still your arm — even though it's been taken away, that's still yours,” he said. “Well, the land is the same way, and your connection to the land … you're always connected to that place.”
Breaking laws, creating new ones
In recent years, Native communities have won more protections for their ancestral lands.
Universities and museums across the country have been required to repatriate many of the cultural items and ancestral remains they once held for research. And the 2014 California law pushed this conversation even further.
Sherry Treppa, chairperson of the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake, says the law’s passage was a long time coming.
“Tribes finally had a voice because they had resources after gaming became popular and legal,” she said. “Having attorneys, having the ability to do things like protect sacred sites, wasn't common until tribes actually, you know, started having money.”
For the first time, the law recognized tribal governments as the experts of their ancestral lands. It required developers to consult with a tribe when assessing their plans’ environmental impact on an area.
There’s a long history of laws aimed at wiping Native cultures out of existence. Geary remembers them from his own childhood. He was born in 1970, when many Native ceremonies and religious practices were illegal in the United States.
“I started dancing in ’75,” he said, referring to ceremonial dancing. “So, as a five year old, I was still breaking the law.”
These laws have an impact decades later. Geary says there’s often a lack of understanding when enforcing new laws about ancestral lands.
“That's the biggest problem that we're having, is getting the scientists or even the agencies to look at tribal communities as experts,” he said.
One issue that surfaces as a result, Geary says, is that state agencies often limit their understanding of Native land to areas like reservations. But this clinical approach ignores Native experiences.
Geary says that a reservation is often a whittled-down representation of the vast expanses of a tribe’s ancestral territory.
“That's why I think it's really important for the agencies to understand [that] the Indigenous people that are from that area, they're the experts,” he said. “It's not the archeologists.”
Tribes often have information about these areas of land that state agencies don’t, like information passed down orally through tribal members about where ancestors once lived.
“You're not just looking at what's been found now,” he said. “You're taking into account what hasn't been found.”
A ‘huge learning curve’ for law enforcement
Lake County’s sheriff and coroner Brian Martin says he didn’t know much about tribal lands until attending a training in 2016. He’d grown up in the area, but he says that, like many schools throughout the United States, his education didn’t involve much Native history.
“I would say it was absolutely new to me, and absolutely a huge learning curve,” Martin said. “I grew up here knowing we had Indian tribes, but that was the extent of my knowledge.”
It didn’t prepare him for the job he’d have years later. Martin says that in California, a sheriff’s office often enforces laws on tribal lands.
“We represent them, and they don’t have a choice,” he said.
As a result, there had been a history of “fairly adversarial relationships” between local tribes and law enforcement.
“Quite frankly, we hadn’t taken the time to understand or show that we’re interested in issues going on in tribal lands,” he said. “We would just show up and we would be law enforcement … and that was the extent of interactions in a lot of situations.”
He says this attitude was often shared by developers in the area, who started construction without much thought for tribes.
But Martin says that the training and continued conversations with tribal leaders transformed his work. The impacts were startlingly immediate: It was only a few days after the 2016 training, which focused on some of California’s new laws, that the county charged a man who was found collecting Native cultural artifacts, alongside other concerns.
“That was something that wouldn't have even been recognized before we had the training,” Martin said.
Enforcement isn’t always that straightforward. Often, Costillas says people who break these laws are developers still unaware of their existence.
From time to time, Costillas says he’ll discover a new construction project while driving through town. He’ll approach the workers, ask a few questions and realize the group hasn’t contacted a tribe about their work. In those cases, he’ll have to intervene.
“Since I've been here six months, it’s happened three or four times,” he said.
It’s taken some time to get developers on board.
“Sometimes they get annoyed with us just because they think we're there to stop work,” Costillas said. “But I think that cultural sensitivity training or talking to them and being active with them really helps build that relationship, rather than just standing around or telling them what to do.”
‘Our history is our land’
What happens after a cultural item is unearthed — something that was never intended to be dug up in the first place?
It’s a question Geary says tribes all over the country are trying to answer.
“It's a hard discussion to have because culturally, for us, when it was there, it stayed there,” he said.
But as development of ancestral lands continues, Geary says tribes are doing their best to adapt.
“Our cultural way of looking at it really now has to change because we really have to protect those items and make sure that they make it back to the land that they were taken from,” he said.
Costillas says that, before moving to Lake County, he didn’t realize the significance of this issue. But now, it’s on his mind constantly.
Sometimes, he sees an arrowhead on the ground as he’s walking around Lake County. When he does, he’ll occasionally bury it. If he doesn’t, he worries someone else might take it for their own collection, or sell it.
He saw this in a Facebook post in March, where a man said he had arrowheads he wanted to trade.
“I also look on YouTube — you can find people looking around Lake County and taking stuff, things like that,” he said. “You’ve got other states that allow that kind of stuff.”
For now, the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake’s approach usually involves storing found items. If something was discovered on a construction site, they’ll often rebury it in the area after construction is complete. The tribe is also considering opening up a cultural museum in the future where it could keep items of particular importance for educational purposes.
But at the end of the day, Costillas says the goal of his job is preventing these items from being unearthed at all.
“These things are meant to be in the ground,” he said. “They weren't really meant to come up in our way.”
There’s a lot of work left for the tribe. Geary’s team often monitors sites not just for themselves, but also for smaller tribes in the area who don’t have the resources.
But slowly, their message is taking root — even among community members.
Geary recalls an experience with one local who recently decided to return a collection of dozens of cultural items to the tribe.
“It was just things that he had found on his property over the years,” he said.
The importance of returning these items is a lesson he’s taught many times. At this point, he has a hundred metaphors to get non-Native people to understand.
“I try to explain to them that those are the history of the people that are from there,” he said. “Someone's grandfather, great grandmother, had that, you know, that's connected to them and now that you have it, they don't have that anymore.”
His main point: There’s a reason that tribes — despite facing rejection and pushback — don’t give up on these protections.
“Our history is in the land,” Geary said. “That’s what we’re trying to protect.”
CapRadio provides a trusted source of news because of you. As a nonprofit organization, donations from people like you sustain the journalism that allows us to discover stories that are important to our audience. If you believe in what we do and support our mission, please donate today.