Alarmed over the decline of a traditional food source, a Northern California tribe acts to restore grasslands, bringing youth and elders together in the process to ensure their cultural practices are transmitted to the next seven generations.
The Pit River Tribe is a confederation of 11 bands of Native people in what’s known as the “100-mile square”: seven parcels of reservation land and other lands in four Northeastern California counties. In the millennia before European contact, the bands lived in prosperity. The land, the air and the water provided everything Indigenous peoples needed to thrive.
Pronghorn, deer, crayfish and other endemic foods formed a vital part of the bands’ diets. Game meats provide essential proteins with low fat content, which make them a healthier option to cattle and sheep. Properly managed, these species are also sustainable. Also, maintaining healthy populations of game herds requires maintaining their habitats, which further contributes to a sustainable ecosystem — all of which help support tribal cultures and communities.
Settlers gave the Pit River — and the tribe that shares its name — its distinctive label by observing the bands’ ancestral means of hunting. “We used to dig deer traps along the game trails or along the river,” says Ray Alvarez, who’s from the Hewisdawi Band. “They’d dig a nice deep pit and line it with spikes, and they’d cover up the top. Deer and pronghorn would plunge into the pits, and you’d come by and harvest it.”
Along with using pronghorn, deer and other animals for meat, hide, water bags, rope, shelter, rattles, tools and other uses, the Pit River bands have developed a relationship with the animals, the birds, the fish and the lands that they have called home for more than 10,000 years. “You learn to respect the animal more,” says Lewis Alvarez, a member of the Hewisdawi Band, whose homeland is the XL Ranch near Alturas in Modoc County. “They teach you tranquility, to use all your senses.”
“We were grateful for the deer to sustain us,” says Gregory Wolfin, the tribe’s environmental specialist.
“We were poor growing up, but the land provided for us... A lot of times we ate more deer meat than McDonalds.”
“We were poor growing up, but the land provided for us,” says Ray Alvarez. “A lot of times we ate more deer meat than McDonalds.”
But, when the settlers came, all that changed. Cattle, donkeys and other domestic animals brought by the new American residents also fell victim to the hunting pits. Soon, the practice ended, replaced by guns also brought by the settlers.
However, respect for the animals who are giving of themselves for humans — not to mention the high-powered rifles used in place of the ancestral pit hunting — still registers strongly on the hunter’s mind. “That gun is a tool to be respected,” says Ray Alvarez. “If you don’t respect it, it can hurt you, it can hurt somebody else. You can give a bad shot to the animal, and that’s the last thing you want to do to an animal that’s given its life to you, to make it suffer.”
Settler farming and ranching practices also exacted a heavy toll on both animal and land health. Wolves were eliminated to protect cattle. The cattle, in turn, laid waste to unfenced riparian zones along creek and riverbeds, and even polluted once-pristine water with fecal matter. “The wolves would patrol the riparian areas and keep other animals at bay,” says Ray Alvarez. But now, “the animals eat all the vegetation.” This same vegetation is what holds the bank together for stabilization, he says.
“It’s a delicate balance,” says Ray Alvarez.
The animals who shared the lands with the Native peoples were disappearing — and with them, significant parts of tribal culture, history and lore. “Ray Alvarez’s family watched the antelope migrations for years,” says Wolfin. “They noted high mortality rates of animals; they were being hit on the roads when their migration corridors were blocked.”
Also, the once-open grasslands were overtaken by juniper and other such shrubbery species. Pronghorn antelope prefer open areas, so they can see predators approaching, and the trees provide cover for coyotes, mountain lions and other predators.
Fences also endanger ruminants and other species. “Antelope don’t like to jump over fences,” says Ray Alvarez. “They’ll go under the fences.” However, CalTrans and private landowners have installed hog wire, which is composed of welded grid fencing, to prevent entry. “The babies get stuck in the squares,” says Ray Alvarez. “We found 15, maybe 20 baby antelope stuck in the fence who died when they couldn’t get through there.”
The tribal council met to determine what should be done. They developed a solution: Start a wildlife restoration program. The tribe, which already collaborates with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on conservation efforts, obtained a grant from the agency for a wildlife restoration project.
The Pit River Tribe engaged the Integral Ecology Research Center to help build their research programs. IERC conducts research on several sensitive wildlife species to aid in conservation of both species and ecosystems. “Our role is related to the hunting program,” says Greta Wengert, IERC’s co-director. “We’re building the internal capacity of the tribe to develop their own wildlife monitoring program as part of their habitat modification to support pronghorn and other species,” including rodents, mammalian species like bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, and deer, birds and other endemic species. IERC staff have helped set up trail cameras so tribal environmental staff and local cultural practitioners could keep track of pronghorn and other species movements. Once the two-year project is complete, IERC will turn the system over to the tribe to manage.
Another component of the project involves removing juniper from pronghorn migration corridors that discourage pronghorn from entering or staying. The tribe is also removing hog wire and installing smooth wire to provide the pronghorn safe passage.
“I think the project hinges on cultural revitalization,” Wolfin, who is enrolled in the Illmawi Band and serves as his band’s representative and is also affiliated with the Atsugewi Band, both part of the Pit River tribal area.
The tribe also engages youth to be part of the project. “It’s the first opportunity we had to work with youth,” says Wengert. “They are excited and eager to learn and to add to what their elders already taught them.”
“We’re pulling in elders to engage with the youth,” says Wolfin. “Sometimes there’s a mental block from our youth being caught up with social media.”
Wolfin says that the project is utilizing “citizen science” to help tribal youth understand traditional ecological knowledge, known as TEK, and how it works to sustain their homelands.
“I’m glad they’re teaching my grandchildren, and their generation will know too,” says Lila Parrish of the Hewisdawi Band.
Because federal funding for more such grants won’t be available after this grant is done, Wolfin says the tribe is searching for additional funds so they can work with CDFW to finish project details, so future generations will be able to live with, and be sustained by, their homelands and the species that share those lands.
As the pronghorn and other species recover, so do tribal communities. “We’re sustaining our way of living,” says Wolfin. “We want to ensure that the practices that sustained people since time immemorial are transmitted to the next generation. We don’t want to lose touch with who we really were.”