Tübatulabal tribe celebrates homecoming with return of a slice of its ancestral lands

September 16, 2023
by Lois Henry
Two men walk by a hot spring on land above Weldon that is now owned by the Tubatulabal tribe. Lois Henry / SJV Water
Lois Henry

Share This: 

Tribal members celebrated the return of more than 1,200 acres of their ancestral lands in the jagged hills above Weldon on Saturday in a ceremony marked with gratitude, emotion and prayer.

Chairman Robert Gomez opened the event by thanking a large number of people who helped find, purchase and deed the land back to the Tübatulabal tribe, which has called the Kern River Valley home for more than 5,000 years.

Western Rivers Conservancy was chief among those Gomez called out for their help in obtaining the land. Western Rivers, a non profit dedicated to restoring rivers, helped secure funding through the state  Wildlife Conservation Board and Sierra Nevada Conservancy and facilitated the handover of the land to the tribe.

Among the individuals Gomez named was Niglmoro “Niki” Okuk who he said “called Western Rivers probably a thousand times” on the tribe’s behalf.

Lisabeth Ryder, left, sits with her daughter, Niglmoro “Niki” Okuk at the Tubatulabal land rededication.

Okuk’s connection to the Tübatulabal tribe runs a circuitous route. She lives in Los Angeles but is from Papau New Guinea where she is a tribal member. Her mother, Lisabeth Ryder grew up vacationing in the Kern River Valley and ultimately did her master’s thesis on the Tübatulabal language.

Okuk strongly supports land repatriation to indigenous people and said she had been doing small fundraisers to help the tribe when she saw an article on Facebook about how Western Rivers had helped get lands back to a tribe in Big Sur.

“So, I called and asked them to help here,” she said. “Little did I know, I had been raising $5 selling tamales when I should have just asked for $5 million.”

She said she was honored to have played a role in the return of the tribe’s lands.

Also on hand was Cynthia Scholzen, granddaughter of the man who had owned the land since the 1970s.

Gomez said Scholzen’s grandfather, Robert Sellers bought the property and “closed it down” keeping it in near pristine condition for all these years.

“This is super emotional for us,” Scholzen told the tribal members. “But everything has its season. Our season is over and we’re grateful for the tribe to have this land and for it to be a part of your soul as it has for ours.”

Cynthia Scholzen sits with family members at the Tubatulabal land rededication ceremony.

The deed to the land has a conservation easement so it can never be developed for commercial purposes. But Gomez told the gathering, they will open it up for cultural and educational uses, for hiking and maybe some fishing. Hunting won’t be allowed.

And as for the hot spring in the middle of a large, open meadow on the land, he said the new use for that will be a surprise.

Gomez reminded the crowd that while the tribe owns the land, it must now maintain it and that will take grant funding and sweat equity from tribal members.

“I’m not shy and I will be calling on you,” he said.

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.


Receive the latest news

Subscribe To Our Weekly Newsletter & Get Email Notifications

Enter your email address to receive INSTANT ALERTS of new articles and to be added to SJV Water’s WEEKLY NEWSLETTER