Land Tenure History of the South Fork Tule River watershed

The term “land tenure” refers to the conditions under which land is held or occupied.

The S. Fork Tule River originates in the Giant Sequoia National Monument and flows west through the Tule River Indian Reservation.

The original people that “held or occupied” the land within the South Fork Tule River are the Yokuts People. Today, the U.S. Forest Service manages the upper portion of the South Fork Tule River watershed, which falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  The USDA is responsible for developing and executing federal government policy on farming, agriculture, forestry, and food, which includes the management and protection of natural resources. In 2000, President Clinton established the Sequoia National monument from a portion of Sequoia National Forest that contained old-growth giant sequoia groves. Establishment of this monument allowed for permanent protection of the giant sequoia groves, as well as provided protection for all the land and resources contained within the monument. The southern section of the monument surrounds the eastern half of the Tule River Indian Reservation. The Tule River Tribe manages the reservation land within the watershed.

As a domestic sovereign, the Tule River Tribe has an inherent responsibility to provide for the welfare of its tribal members. The Tribe has an established need to protect and preserve the reservation and to provide for the cultural, economic, and self-determination needs of its members in a manner consistent with tribal practices. This responsibility includes establishment of governmental jurisdiction over ancestral land. As one of the first reservations to be established in California, the Tule River tribe has essentially had continuous management of their ancestral land since before European contact, which hasn’t been the case for the majority of tribal nations in the United States, and California in particular….

The U.S. government’s policy concerning negotiations with the tribes of California were fundamentally different from the rest of the tribes in the United States. The U.S.’s policy of moving the Indigenous people “out west” to the lands that no one wanted, could no longer be enacted because there was no land further west that they could be moved to. When California was ceded to United States in 1849, the gold rush was in full swing. The influx of settlers in the region brought greed, disease, and genocide to the Indigenous Peoples. The lawlessness of “the West” allowed for the eradication of the Native Peoples with no legal repercussions. Settlers who were hungry for gold, justified by manifest destiny, had no qualms when it came to the extermination of the Indigenous Peoples of California. During this time, the U.S. government negotiated a series of 18 treaties with the major tribal leaders of California, including the Yokuts, that promised provisions including cattle and extensive tracts of valuable land for reservations totaling 7,466,000 acres. After vigorous opposition, the Senate refused to ratify the 18 treaties and ordered them filed under an injunction of secrecy, which was not removed until years later, leaving the tribes of California without a land base.

Giant sequoia tree section at the entrance of the Tule River Indian Reservation

The first reservation established in California was at Ft. Tejon in 1854 at the base of the Tehachapi Mountains. When the Tejon Reservation failed to prosper, the Native peoples were moved, in 1856, to an area east of the City of Porterville along the Tule River, which was referred to as the “Tule River Farm”. In 1860, Thomas Madden, an Indian service employee, fraudulently gained personal title to the Tule River Farm using state school warrants. The federal government then had to rent the Tule River Farm, paying Madden $1,000 per year. Not wanting to pay that exuberant amount in rent to Madden, the present day Tule River Indian Reservation was established in the South Fork Tule River watershed by executive order of President Ulysses S. Grant on January 9, 1873. The reservation was later enlarged by another executive order on October 3, 1873 to include land from the middle fork Tule river watershed totaling 91,837 acres. Four small settler families, who had land claims within the middle fork watershed, complained that the Native People were causing trouble and wanted the government to pay them to move off their land. As a result the government reduced the reservation back to it’s original size in 1878, which did not include these land claims.


Advertisement after Dawes Act offering up Indian Land. 

In 1887, the U.S. federal government passed the Dawes Act, or General Allotment Act. This policy was aimed at assimilating the Native People into the dominant society by dissolving reservations and communal land ownership. The act allowed for the dividing of reservations into individual 160-acre allotments, to be given to each head of household. Any “surplus” lands were open to non-Indian settlement, and as a result, Native Americans lost approximately 90 million acres of land to settlers. This act had a devastating effect on Native People across the United States, whose social structure does not work with the concept of individual ownership of land. The act was later repealed in 1934 by the Indian Reorganization Act, which allowed for tribal self-government. The Tule River Tribe actively rejected the Dawes Act and continued to manage the land and pay property taxes collectively, and as a result did not suffer a loss to their land base.

Today, the Tule River Tribe manages the land through a blend of traditional and western land management techniques, which include fire management and invasive weed control. The Tule River Tribe is part of the greater community of California concerned with the quality of our environment and is an active member of the California Invasive Plant Council, whose mission is to stop the spread of invasive plants, protect wild lands, and support climate adaptation.Through land management and stewardship, the Tule River Tribe has expressed their inherent sovereignty by fighting to maintain control of their ancestral land and culture. By reclaiming that basic knowledge of what plants and other natural resources are on the reservation, the Tule River Tribe can continue to assert their autonomy over their ancestral land. It is my intention to help facilitate this by establishing a herbarium for the Tule River Tribe for future land management purposes.


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