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Weaving together Indigenous food sovereignty, land rematriation, and land stewardship

Image: Gathering at the native garden at the Ecofarm Field Day, 5/10/22, taken by Eve Devillers.

On May 10th, 2022, in collaboration with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band (AMTB), Amah Mutsun Land Trust (AMLT), and EcoFarm, Pie Ranch held a field day exploring the concepts of Indigenous food sovereignty, land stewardship, and land rematriation. The event highlighted the ongoing cultural resource management programs of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and Land Trust in collaboration with Pie Ranch and other organizations on the Central Coast, featuring speakers from the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, Amah Mutsun Land Trust, Deep Medicine Circle, Pie Ranch, State Parks, and UC Berkeley. The field day was held on the traditional and unceded territory of the Quiroste tribe, of whom there are no known descendants. The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band is stewarding these lands in honor of the Quiroste people, and invite all other Ohlone and Indigenous tribes and allies to join them. Field Day guests were able to see the fruits of Pie Ranch and AMTB/AMLT’s partnership since 2014, including the collectively tended Native Garden at Pie Ranch, the facilities that host tribal gatherings, and the post-fire work happening on Pie Ranch’s hillsides and waterways involving the removal of invasive species like eucalyptus trees and the revegetation of these areas with native plants. We also visited the native plant propagation project at Cascade Ranch and all participated in the signing of the revised Memorandum of Understanding between Pie Ranch and AMTB/AMLT.

“Food sovereignty is an affirmation of who we are as indigenous peoples and a way, one of the most surefooted ways, to restore our relationship with the world around us.”

Winona LaDuke

Food sovereignty, as defined by the first global forum on food sovereignty in Mali, 2007, is “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems” (Declaration of Nyéléni, 2007). Instead of focusing on the demands of markets and corporations, it centers on the needs of those who produce, distribute, and consume at the heart of the food system. 70% of the world’s food is grown by families, peasants, and Indigenous farmers, despite the behemoth that is the corporate food industry (Mihesuah et. al., 2019). Indigenous food sovereignty takes into account not just the rights to the land and the ability to control a food production system, but also the responsibility to nurture the cultural and spiritual relationships to the elements of the food system (Mihesuah et. al., 2019). While some tribes engage in agriculture and horticulture, some, like many Californian tribes, tend the environment to support their food systems. Elizabeth Hoover, an Associate Professor of Environmental Science, Policy & Management at UC Berkeley, interviewed Indigenous peoples across the country to see how they defined food sovereignty for her book From ‘Garden Warriors’ to ‘Good Seeds’; Indigenizing the Local Food Movement in 2014. She found that food sovereignty included the restoration of physical, cultural, and spiritual health in many communities. Indigenous food sovereignty encompasses land access, education, economic independence, growing culturally appropriate foods, relationships between peoples, the land & food, tribal self-sufficiency, and much more. Seed saving is a critical element to Indigenous food sovereignty, which involves protecting the rights of farmers to save and use seed, fighting against patents, and valuing farm-saved seed. Indigenous peoples view plants and animals as kin, and believe they are tasked by the Creator to care for them; this concept is known as kincentricity.

In this context, it is critical to protect the ‘living relatives’ that are seeds from being contaminated or imprisoned. Indigenous food sovereignty is built on local knowledge of the land, and the dynamic body of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), built over generations.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is the cumulative body of knowledge of Indigenous people, encompassing local knowledge of the land and animals, land and resource management systems, social institutions, and world view. At the field day, Elizabeth Hoover explained that TEK is dynamic, not static, and adapts to new technological and sociological changes. The application of TEK is known as traditional resource and environmental management (TREM), which includes practices like pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, selective harvesting, and selective burning. Fire was the most significant tool for many tribes, like the Quiroste, who used it to create complex habitat mosaics that enhance biodiversity and the availability of resources (Lightfoot et. al., 2013). When Spanish settlers arrived on these lands, what they saw as the natural environment was actually a landscape carefully tended for thousands of years, with extensive coastal prairies managed through fire by the Quiroste tribe (Lightfoot et. al., 2013). Rick Flores, Director of Horticulture and Curator of the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program at UCSC, explained that the distinction between “wild” and “domesticated” plants is a gradual transition. While Indigenous tribes in California did not domesticate crops, they did cultivate the environment, which shaped ecosystems in a profound way. Also known as proto-agriculture, or practices of promotion growth and/or reproduction of native plants by methods of cultivation, this creates a long-term stable adaptation of plants and ecosystems, while not fully domesticating species. But because these ecosystems co-evolved with human systems, the colonization of these lands, the prohibiting of burning, and the stopping of the TREM practices that the Quiroste had done for thousands of years has caused the landscape to change drastically.

While community-based efforts are the foundation of food sovereignty and Indigenous food sovereignty, Pie Ranch’s Jered Lawson presented an example of working within the system to create regional food sovereignty, and the challenges that come with attempting political change. The People’s Food and Farm Project is an ongoing effort intended for a 2024 political campaign, with a vision of greater food sovereignty in the Bay Area. Intended to be a community-led process, the People’s Food and Farm Project plans to establish a public funding mechanism and regional governance entity for food and agriculture, that is accountable to Bay Area residents. This project’s goals are to focus on marginalized communities and food system workers, who are most discounted by our current food system, and to build coalitions and political power based on community engagement for the political campaign. While it faces the challenges of making political change, this project intends to extend the community efforts to create a more just and sustainable food system in the Bay Area region.

“In 2005, tribal Elders came to a tribal council meeting and said: ‘We have to get back to caring for the land. Creator never rescinded our obligation to take care of Mother Earth.’”

Chairman Valentin Lopez

Guests at the event were able to see the native plant beds at Cascade Ranch, where the AMLT is propagating native grasses in beds to restore the coastal prairie in Quiroste Valley Cultural Preserve, just a few miles north. This project is in collaboration with State Parks and University of California researchers. The Quiroste Valley Cultural Preserve was created in 2008 to protect cultural resources, restore the native vegetation, and re-implement TREM. The Quiroste tribe’s management practices maintained open coastal prairie landscapes through extensive burning, documented by members of the Spanish Portola mission in 1769 (Hylkema & Cuthrell, 2013). However, after colonizing, the Spanish prevented burning of the landscape by law, and native people were forcibly taken to the missions and had their connection to the land severed. The Amah Mutsun are now working to restore the Indigenous knowledge that was lost, and continue the path of their ancestors (Lopez, 2013). At the field day, Chairman Valentin Lopez of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band; Mark Hylkema, State Parks Santa Cruz District Archaeologist, Cultural Resources Manager, and Tribal Liaison; and Rob Cuthrell, Research Associate with the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, spoke about the collaborative research done at Quiroste Valley.

Rob Cuthrell explained how he found high contents of silica phytoliths, microscopic plant remains that can be preserved in the soil for thousands of years, in depths of the soil indicating the presence of long-term grasslands in Quiroste Valley. A solely lightning-induced fire regime would not cause frequent enough fires to support a long-term grassland, which depends on frequent disturbance like fire (Hylkema & Cuthrell, 2013). Quiroste Valley was an ideal location to monitor vegetation succession in the absence of fire, and over decades there was a clear encroachment of Douglas fir and coastal scrub into the remaining coastal prairie (Cuthrell, 2021). Now, the AMLT is working to restore the coastal prairie, which is a threatened ecosystem on the California coast. At Cascade, AMLT staff and volunteers are working to propagate native grasses, and plant plugs and seeds in Quiroste Valley to bring back the coastal prairie. AMTB stewards are working on fuels management, and hope to bring back fire as a management tool in the valley to steward the prairie long-term. The AMLT propagation project is an example of how TREM practices can be integrated to generate new management protocols of open spaces and public lands. Chairman Lopez emphasized the trust and relationship building that are needed to facilitate this land stewardship, and the need for land access in perpetuity.

In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer

Land rematriation, also known as “land back” involves reconnecting relationships to the land that were severed by colonialism. There are many ways of rematriation: nourishing the land, people, and community; healing bodies, lands, relationships, and balance; restoring land and relationships; learning/unlearning; and restorying, or retelling the story of the land and its people. Catalina Gomes, a Ramaytush elder with multi-tribal lineage, spoke about how she is working with POST and Deep Medicine Circle to rematriate lands. She explained how land rematriation can also include relearning and restoring Indigenous languages; there are only 100 known words of Ramaytush, but other nearby languages and archives are being used to build more. To rematriate these lands, it is important to bring back native plants, like hazelnuts and elderberries, and native animals like elk and beavers. Alexii Sigona, an Amah Mutsun tribal member, former tribal steward, and PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, described several examples of “land back.” The Big Sur Esselen tribe got nearly 1,200 acres of land back through a state grant facilitated by the Western Rivers Conservancy, where they can hold ceremonies, be long-term stewards of the land, and be able to pass it on to the next generations (Jackson, 2020). The Yurok tribe has sustainably managed forests and sold the carbon offsets to generate funding for the tribe’s rematriation work (Smith, 2021). The Sogorea Te’ Land Trust has utilized private funds to rematriate land in urban areas in the East Bay and involve the community in restoration (Anderson, 2019).

But how can you participate in Indigenous land rematriation if you live in a city or small land parcel? There are voluntary ‘land taxes,’ sometimes known as ‘real rent’ that any person can choose to pay, which will support native nations and/or organizations in the area. Cultural easements are another way of land rematriation through the legal system, which can involve giving up development rights on the land, and sharing access or land rights to tribes in perpetuity. This is particularly helpful for non-federally recognized tribes, like the Amah Mutsun, who do not have land or legal protections. California has the largest number of non-federally recognized tribes in the United States, due to policy decisions by the federal government, and the California state government acting as one of the worst offenders in opposing the rights of federally and non federally recognized tribes (Krol, 2019). However, recently the state of California has made progress to improve the rights of Indigenous people. In 2011, Governor Edmund Brown Jr. issued an executive order that all state agencies had to consult with tribes (recognized and unrecognized). In 2014, the California State Legislature passed A.B.52 - tribal amendments to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that stipulates that cultural impacts have to be added to the environmental assessment process, and public agencies must consult with tribes for this process. The concept of land “ownership” is alien to Indigenous peoples. It is akin to owning another being or relative. Nevertheless, many non-federally recognized tribes have to work within these western systems to gain back access to their homelands. The Amah MutsunTribal Band and Land Trust doesn’t “own” any land, but they have access to 30,000 acres. Through strong partnerships based on trust and respect, the AMTB/AMLT are able to regain connection to and ability to care for the land, and enact their visions for stewardship.

Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the relationship of the three sisters - corn, beans and squash - that Indigenous peoples have planted in mounds together for millenia, as a metaphor for the way TEK and the scientific community can work together (Kimmerer, 2016). Corn represents traditional elders’ knowledge - an intellectual scaffolding of deep understanding of the world, based on extensive experience. Beans represent contemporary scientific approaches, ways that enrich traditional knowledge with explanation backed by the scientific method. Squash represents the climate that allows multiple species to grow, or the climate that allows traditional knowledge and contemporary science to work together to enhance our understanding of the world. Kimmerer adds a fourth sister: wise humans, who plant and guide the whole enterprise. In the “weaving together” portion of the field day, Elizabeth Hoover spoke about how both western science & traditional ecological knowledge are methods of reading the land, they just read the land in different ways, and how “being a respectful bean” can allow relationships with tribes to grow. Centering Indigenous partnerships is critical in moving forward our scientific understanding, political change, sovereign food systems, spiritual well being, and ecological restoration.

“One of our elders seven generations, things would get better. I’m the seventh generation. It’s time for things to get better.”

Chairman Valentin Lopez

Image Above : Three sisters planting, artwork by Garlan Miles.

Image: Walkthrough of Native Garden, 5/10/22, taken by Eve Devillers.

Image: Event Guests exploring the AMLT Native Grass beds at Cascade Ranch, 5/10/22, taken by Jasmine Curcio.

Speaker List:

Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band

Alexii Sigona, Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Member & PhD Candidate at UC Berkeley

Rick Flores, Director of Horticulture and Steward of the Amah Mutsun Relearning Program (AMRP) at UCSC

Nathaniel Vasquez, Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Member

Rob Cuthrell, AMLT Research Associate

Joshua Higuera-Hood, Amah Mutsun Land Trust, Cascade Propagation Steward and Amah Mutsun Tribal Band Member

Leonard Diggs, Director of Farming and Ranching Opportunities at Pie Ranch

Jered Lawson, Co-Founder and Director of Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives at Pie Ranch

Nancy Vail, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Pie Ranch

Catalina Gomes, Ramaytush Indigenous Ohlone Elder, Founder of Muchia Te’ Indigenous Land Trust

Charlotte Sáenz, Director of Creative and Learning Development at Deep Medicine Circle

Elizabeth Hoover, Associate Professor, Dept of Environmental Science, Policy & Management at UC Berkeley

Mark Hylkema, Santa Cruz District Archaeologist at State Parks

Further resources suggested:

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Tending the Wild by Kat Anderson

From ‘Garden Warriors’ to ‘Good Seeds’; Indigenizing the Local Food Movement by Elizabeth Hoover

Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States, edited by Devon Mihesuah and Elizabeth Hoover

The Anatomy of Injustice by Rupa Marya

California Indians and Their Environment by Kent Lightfoot and Otis Parrish


Anderson, D. (2019, April 30). These indigenous women are reclaiming stolen land in the Bay Area. YES! Magazine. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from

Cuthrell, C. [AMLT Cascade] (2021, September 30). AMLT Collaborative Research at Quiroste Valley Cultural Preserve [Video]. Youtube.

Declaration of Nyéléni. Nyeleni. (2007). Retrieved June 6, 2022, from

Hylkema, M. G., & Cuthrell, R. Q. (2013). An archaeological and historical view of Quiroste Tribal Genesis. California Archaeology, 5(2), 225–245.

Jackson, A. (2020, July 30). After 250 years, Native American tribe regains ownership of Big Sur ancestral lands. CNN. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from

Kimmerer, R. W. (2016). Braiding Sweetgrass. Tantor Media, Inc.

Krol, D. U. (2019, March 12). Can Native American tribes protect their land if they're not recognized by the federal government? The Revelator. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from

Lightfoot, K. G., Cuthrell, R. Q., Boone, C. M., Byrne, R., Chavez, A. S., Collins, L., Cowart, A., Evett, R. R., Fine, P. V., Gifford-Gonzalez, D., Hylkema, M. G., Lopez, V., Misiewicz, T. M., & Reid, R. E. (2013). Anthropogenic burning on the central California coast in late holocene and early historical times: Findings, implications, and Future Directions. California Archaeology, 5(2), 371–390.

Lopez, V. (2013). The Amah Mutsun Tribal Band: Reflections on Collaborative Archaeology. California Archaeology, 5(2), 221–223.

Mihesuah, D. A., Hoover, E., & LaDuke, W. (2019). Indigenous food sovereignty in the United States restoring cultural knowledge, protecting environments, and regaining health. University of Oklahoma Press.

Smith, A. V. (2021). Heartland: The Yurok tribe reclaims its ancestral territory in Northern California. Trust for Public Land. Retrieved June 6, 2022, from

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