Ancestral lands back in the hands of Kern River Valley tribe that had lived there for thousands of years

September 7, 2023
by Lois Henry
Ranging from 2,500 feet to 4,800 feet in elevation, the old Quarter-Circle-5 Ranch is now owned by the Tubatulabal Tribe. It creates a natural wildlife corridor between South Fork Kern Valley and the highlands of Kern Plateau. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Canebrake Ecological Reserve is in the distance. Western Rivers Conservancy / Kodiak Greenwood
Lois Henry

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A Kern River Valley Native American tribe that has lived along the branches of the north and south forks of the Kern River for millennia, has ownership of a piece of its ancient homeland for the first time since it was grabbed up by settlers back in the 1800s.

The Tübatulabal Tribe got the deed to about 1,240 acres of mostly untouched land northeast of Isabella Lake on Aug. 31. The land was part of the old 2,274-acre Quarter-Circle-5 Ranch north of Weldon at the end of Fay Ranch Road. The other piece of the ranch, about 1,040 acres, was deeded to the Kern River Valley Heritage Foundation, which also owns the nearby Hanning Flat Preserve.

“It’s inspirational for us,” said Robert Gomez, tribal chairman. “This heals old soul wounds for us since the incursion of the 1800s. It makes us feel like a community having land back that means something to us.”

The tribe’s portion of the property includes the old ranch house, an a meadow with a hot spring and rights to the Fay Creek, Gomez said. The land is covered by a conservation easement so can’t be developed for housing or most commercial purposes. But the tribe has a number of ideas that would allow public access for fishing, hiking and other uses, he said.

The acreage is rife with archeological sites, including an ancient village that was once known as Kwolokam Ap, the place of the duck, Gomez said. .

Before settlers arrived, there were an estimated 1,200 Tübatulabal members living in the Kern River Valley, he said. Today, there are about 160 members still in the valley and 400 scattered through the state.

“It was never a very big tribe but based on our linguistic documentation, we’ve been here about 5,000 years. Researchers said they can tell because our language hasn’t changed hardly at all. It hasn’t been diluted by other languages.”

Despite that, the tribe was never recognized by the federal government. It has been working through that process and expects to submit paperwork to the Bureau of Indian Affairs by the end of the year, Gomez said.

Tribal members are excited to do a full assessment of the land, he said. But first they will hold a private ceremony to celebrate and come together as a community. A public “grand opening”  of the land is expected next spring, he added.

The acquisition of the Quarter-Circle-5 Ranch was facilitated by Western Rivers Conservancy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of rivers and streams. The purchase was funded by two state government foundations, the Wildlife Conservation Board and Sierra Nevada Conservancy, according to Peter Colby, a spokesman for Western Rivers.

Both pieces of property are key to the health of the South Fork of the Kern River, Colby said.

“The south fork of the Kern River is heavily diverted for ag purposes,” Colby said. “That river is suffering a lot and Fay Creek is an important tributary.”

Quarter-Circle-5 Ranch was home to the Tübatulabal Tribe for millennia, as evidenced by numerous bedrock mortars and other artifacts scattered throughout the ranch. Western Rivers Conservancy / Kodiak Greenwood

He said from the Quarter-Circle-5 Ranch, Fay Creek flows to the Canebrake Ecological Preserved, owned by California Fish and Wildlife. Canebrake Preserve provides an untouched swath of habitat for aquatic animals and birds.

“So, Fay Creek is very important for that preserve as well,” Colby said.

Fay Creek flows downstream to the adjacent Canebrake Ecological Preserve and drains to the Kern River. Western Rivers Conservancy / Kodiak Greenwood

While access will likely be somewhat limited to protect the site’s artifacts and sensitive habitat, Colby said this was an exciting acquisition for Western Rivers because of its proximity to the Los Angeles basin.

“From our standpoint, we hope there will be public access to both these properties,” Colby said. “Probably not where you just drive up and walk around. It will probably be by arrangement with a group so the access is compatible with natural and cultural resources.”

Bruce Vegter, president of the Kern River Valley Heritage Foundation said his membership is looking forward to assessing its portion of the Quarter-Circle-5 ranch as well.

Though some Heritage lands near the town of Lake Isabella have been almost fully opened to public access, its Hanning Flat property remains open upon request for students and small groups. He expects the Quarter-Circle-5 land will be handled similarly.

Both Gomez and Vegter praised Western Rivers and the other agencies for their work on acquiring and helping to protect these lands.

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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