Busy times for Tubatulabals of Kern Valley

Richard Walker, Today correspondent
3/28/09

LAKE ISABELLA, Calif. – It’s a Saturday morning, 10 a.m. and Donna Miranda-Begay convenes the meeting.

In the next six hours, she and the Tubatulabal Tribal Council will discuss a meeting between the region’s tribal governments and the state Department of Water Resources. They’ll plan their participation in an annual community event and review the new tribal brochure. They’ll discuss progress on grant applications, and a project with IHS to improve water service on Tubatulabal allotment land.

Then, discussion of an on-site meeting on the Kern River with U.S. Forest Service archaeologists, an application for housing funds from the state Department of Housing and Community Development, and an upcoming visit by BIA consultants Greg Blomstrom and Bill Wilkinson to discuss possible funding for improvements to fencing, roads and utilities. Then, members, including youth, will raise issues of concern.

A typical day for the leadership of the Tubatulabals of Kern Valley.

Chairwoman Miranda-Begay and the council work at a frenetic pace trying to improve
living conditions on their allotted land, protect cultural resources and develop economic opportunities. They are hopeful that, in an Obama administration, their efforts to obtain federal recognition will succeed and empower them to accomplish even more.

They are getting some support toward that goal.

A U.S. Forest Service official has endorsed Tubatulabals’ efforts to obtain full federal recognition.

In a Dec. 6 letter to Miranda-Begay, District Ranger Rick Larson of the Sequoia National Forest Lake Isabella office wrote that the Tubatulabals “continue to practice their traditional governance, language, ceremonies and focus on new economic development opportunities for their tribal nation.”

Larson wrote that the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, regularly works with the Tubatulabal tribal government “to ensure the protection of their sacred sites and artifacts, provide support for traditional gathering of native plants and other foods, and the preservation of their history and culture.”

“The Tubatulabals of the Kern River Valley continue to exercise their land management by making use of the land, working with the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs and U.S. Indian Health Services to obtain water, housing, utilities, resource management funding and support for road maintenance. The rural and isolated location of these tribal allotments have been a hindrance to preserving their language and culture, but today, the Tubatulabals are ‘still here’ and have an established language program.”

Larson wrote that federal recognition would help the Tubatulabals obtain required resources to continue to effectively manage the land and protect their language and sacred sites.

“We wish you and the tribe success in obtaining recognition,” Larson wrote. “I look forward to our continued working relationship.”

Larson presented the letter to Miranda-Begay at a Dec. 6 tribal membership meeting. He was accompanied by Forest Service archaeologist Dennis Dougherty and tribal liaison Dirk Charley. They presented Miranda-Begay with a second letter, supporting Tubatulabal’s future grant applications for public funding to help support programs that include protection of cultural and sacred sites; education and language; and health, housing and sustainable economic development opportunities.

The following day, at the request of Kern County Veterans Advisory Council member Robert Gomez, Miranda-Begay and Tubatulabal Vice Chairman John Elliott attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Bakersfield National Veterans Cemetery.

At the ceremony, Elliott, Gomez and Miranda-Begay met Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Wesley R. Jones. Miranda-Begay also talked to U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, about support for Tubatulabal’s federal recognition.

On Dec. 20, Tubatulabal was reunited with William Otay, 90, a Tubatulabal elder who lived in Kern Valley until age 7 when he and his family moved to San Jose. Miranda-Begay met with Otay, his daughter, granddaughter and niece in San Jose.

Otay shared his parents’ account of the U.S. Army’s 1863 massacre of 35 Tubatulabal men falsely suspected of planning an insurrection. Many of today’s Tubatulabals are grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those men.

He told of life on the South Fork of the Kern River. He told of gatherings, traditional ceremonies and the language of the Tubatulabals – Pakanapul – being the first language learned and spoken. He told of harvesting gooseberries on the Miranda allotment; pine nuts, or tubats, in the lower mountains; and salt grass, which was used as a medicine and source of salt.

He also provided valuable family information; documents include names of those who participated in the signing of a June 18, 1851 treaty.

Otay has agreed to participate in an oral history program. While he does not fluently speak Pakanapul, he knows and understands basic phrases and words. That’s important, because the last fluent speaker, Jimmy Andreas, died July 30.

Miranda-Begay gave Otay a gift of saat, or Indian tea.

“It was great to see William recall some of the Pakanapul language,” she said. “William is looking forward to visiting Kern Valley again, probably in spring 2009. … William has excellent recall and is a great storyteller. It was like being on a time machine, so many wonderful memories of Kern Valley and his life experience. We welcome him and his family into our tribal circle.”

Tubatulabals of Kern Valley has an office at 12600 Mountain Mesa Road, Mountain Mesa, and provides cultural, educational and social services to its members. It operates the Pakanapul Language Program and partners for other services with the Lake Isabella Tribal TANF office, Owens Valley Career Development Center, and other agencies. It is working with the BIA and IHS to improve housing and water quality on the allotments.

With full federal recognition, Tubatulabals of Kern Valley would be able to provide many of those services on its own. For example, the Native American Graves Repatriation Act empowers federally recognized tribal governments to obtain ancestors’ remains and burial objects that are held in archives, museums and universities.

With the assistance of Tachi Yokut, which is federally recognized, the Tubatulabals obtained ancestral remains found along the Kern River six miles north of Kernville in 1968-69, and kept in the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology.

A reburial ceremony was held in December.

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