Indigenous tribes work with Swedish and CSUN scholars to thrive in California
By Marianne Love, Correspondent
In four years, researchers in the San Fernando Valley and Sweden will have documented how Indigenous societies survived ongoing challenges they face due to climate change and ‘colonialism,’ the historic attempt to wipe out tribal cultures in Southern California.
California State University, Northridge history professor Natale Zappia and a team of Swedish researchers are splitting a $1.43 million grant from the Swedish Government Research Council for Sustainability to compare the experiences of the Chumash, Tataviam, Kiz-Tongva-Gabrieleno and Kumeyaay tribes in Southern California to those of Nordic Sápmi, whose Sámi people still herd reindeer as did their ancestors.
“The Swedish grant is unique and exploratory in nature,” Zappia said. “With historians, the nature of our research is more focused on narratives and direct collaborations with Indigenous communities.”
The project is being overseen by Zappia, with project partners from the Chumash, Kiz-Tongva-Gabrieleno, Tataviam, and Kumeyaay tribes, whose cultures have inhabited broad regions of Ventura, Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties for thousands of years.
These tribes not only survived climate change and colonialism — they are thriving.
“All of them are here,” Zappia said of native tribes in Southern California. “Their landscapes have been colonized, but they are still engaging in climate resiliency projects, and their ecological knowledge informs scientists.”
Jesus Alvarez, a member of the local Fernandeno Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, has a gardening background. He said that despite their devastating history, many Indigenous people are involved in staying connected to the land.
“We are a landless tribe, and that’s a sad thing to say,” he said.
But Alvarez is involved in efforts to understand the land and its history. He has been part of the LA Landscape History Project, which, among its many goals, is mapping the ancient Los Angeles River. And now he is involved in historical aspects of the Swedish grant.
“The (land) is part of who they were,” Alvarez said of the region’s tribes. “When you are eating a peach from your tree, there’s nothing better than that. … You recognize the engagement of land. You understand the seasons, it’s really profound. It should be going back to that. Bring the whole family together (to understand) the disconnection from the land. It’s special to do that.”
The connection between historic Indigenous practices that are centuries old, and modern-day practices that address climate change, are very real, Zappia said.
“Native communities are actually collaborating with Cal Fire and state agencies to (share their knowledge of) how to burn landscapes traditionally, because that actually leads to less fires.”
The Swedish grant is an effort to understand how Indigenous societies in Orange, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties survived when faced with devastating challenges caused by the twin forces of colonialism and environmental change. The four-year research project is aimed at producing a book, building an innovative website and holding international workshops at which Native partners in the U.S and Sweden can exchange ideas.
Zappia, who is part of the international team of researchers who will share data, said lessons for surviving dramatic change can be found in the experiences of Indigenous people.
Among them are the Sámi people, whose ancient territories still stretch through northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula in Russia.
Climate change threatens the world’s biodiversity. Researchers hope that, in exploring the past, this project could help apply historic Native practices to modern-day climate change.
The grant is also about building relationships and supporting Native tribes through funding, workshops, and opportunities to discuss and spread the word about the tribes’ approaches to the climate and environment.
Underlying the grant is the idea that incorporating native solutions in a rigorous way could provide answers.
Zappia’s team also collaborated with a multi-institutional team of scholars on the LA Landscape History Project, in which Alvarez is also involved, that looks back at least 6,000 years. The project helps to see into the past, connecting it to the present, Zappia said.
“If you play around with the map, you can see the landscape change and what has remained,” Zappia said. “Much of it, of course, has changed. But there are certain pockets, both Indigenous as well as ecological pockets, that still continue or have adapted.”
From the Swedes’ perspective, the idea is to investigate how Indigenous nations maintained cohesion and passed on their knowledge despite the destruction, via colonial expansion, of the environment in which they lived — and which nurtured them.
Professor Gunlög Fur, deputy vice chancellor for sustainability at Linnaeus University in Sweden, called the project “urgent,” in that it “recovers traditional ecological knowledge, and puts it to use in a most densely populated area, heavily affected by climate warming.”
Fur said they hope that looking at efforts to recover ecological knowledge through Indigenous traditions will “deepen” understanding and how people respond to climate change and loss of biodiversity, “by sharing practices between and among Indigenous communities and with non-Indigenous neighbors.”
Fur added, “We hope that this will also contribute to strengthening Indigenous claims for protecting fragile environments.”
Native tribes around the world have survived using traditional prescribed burning and farming practices. Experts say these are akin to sustainable farming, sustainable forestry and sustainable herding.
In California, Zappia said, Indigenous communities continue traditional practices such as gathering acorns in the fall, and using managed farming and managed fishing techniques — practices that go back thousands of years.
Indigenous people “survived by doing what they had always done, and now they are getting more recognition — partly because of the awakening of mainstream cultures, but also because of climate change,” Zappia said.
“They need to know these stories. If you don’t have the stories and you don’t have the culture, sustainability is not going to work. Climate change isn’t going to work without people buying into it. And you need to have a framework — history.”
One important aspect of the separate LA Landscape History Project, as it relates to the Swedish grant, is that it builds and creates a partnership with Indigenous collaborators from Southern California and Los Angeles.
Alvarez, of Fernandeno Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, said his tribe is looking at the possibility of getting land to preserve and use for ceremonial events. He hopes they can work with children to educate them about the losses the tribe has seen over the centuries.
“It wasn’t long ago that cultures knew farming, knew the land,” Alvarez said. “Even the school system is set up for harvesting times — that was based on that lifestyle. So I like the idea of going back and doing that. I’m excited. It needs to be done, it’s going to be done and it’s going to click with everyone.”