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Dive into the history of Point Reyes National Seashore in northern California with us. It’s one of the most iconic national parks in the region, known for rugged sweeping beaches and the famous tule elk. We’ll recount the waves of colonization that violently upended the lives of the Coast Miwok peoples who lived there – and one Indigenous woman’s struggle to preserve her family history. The story of Point Reyes is a story about how the forces of colonialism continue to shape the fate of public lands in the United States.
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Featuring Theresa Harlan, (Kewa Pueblo/Jemez Pueblo), adopted daughter of Elizabeth Campigli Harlan (Coast Miwok), founder and executive director of The Alliance for Felix Cove Music Credits Making Contact Staff: “Whose Point Reyes?: A Battle for the Future of Public Lands” Parts 1 and 2 Credits:
Theresa Harlan, (Kewa Pueblo/Jemez Pueblo), adopted daughter of Elizabeth Campigli Harlan (Coast Miwok), founder and executive director of The Alliance for Felix Cove
Making Contact Staff:
“Whose Point Reyes?: A Battle for the Future of Public Lands” Parts 1 and 2 Credits:
Lucy Kang: On today’s Making Contact, we’re going to take a look at the only national seashore on the West Coast. This is a place that’s been described as a “paradigm of coastal California beauty:” Point Reyes National Seashore.
A few years ago, the National Park Service reviewed its general management plan for the first time in nearly three decades.
And that sparked fierce debate around the plight of the tule elk. Environmentalists said the elk were dying because they were fenced in to protect cattle ranches inside the park.
And that has opened up an important conversation about the Indigenous history of this land and where it’s headed.
So we’ll spend most of our time today with a story that first aired on KPFA in 2021. Just a quick heads up that this story has some brief descriptions of abuses under Spanish colonization.
Here’s reporter Sam Anderson.
Sam Anderson: Are those the tule elk out there? Oh wow.
Peter Byrne: I don’t think we can go any closer.
Theresa Harlan: No, we should stay right here.
Sam Anderson: I’m standing on a grassy bluff at Tomales Point in Point Reyes National Seashore. It’s a sunny July day, and I can see the waves of the Pacific Ocean from where I’m standing.
I’m at the northernmost edge of Point Reyes, which is a triangular shaped peninsula that juts out from the northern coast of California, about 40 miles north of San Francisco. It’s run by the National Park Service.
This is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the area: winding roads, dramatic sweeping beaches, and wild animals like elephant seals, bobcats – and the famous tule elk.
Today I’m here with investigative journalist Peter Byrne and Theresa Harlan, an Indigenous woman adopted by a Coast Miwok family who are descended from the original inhabitants of this land. And we’ve just spotted a herd of tule elk.
I’m watching the fog roll gently across the landscape. And there are these rolling hills dotted with wildflowers and different types of grasses and brush. And twelve elk in the distance grazing. And right beyond them is the Pacific ocean.
If you’ve never seen them before, tule elk are majestic. They’re tall and slender with tawny brown fur and a big ruff of darker brown fur on their chest. The males can have antlers that can grow up to four feet tall.
Tule elk are a federally protected species. They were at the brink of extinction by the end of the 19th century, but were reintroduced here at Tomales Point, which the state of California declared an elk preserve in 1970.
But the elk here today aren’t free to roam like their ancestors did.
Theresa Harlan: So these are the eight foot tall fences.
Sam Anderson: Oh wow.
Theresa and Peter have brought me to the edge of the elk preserve, which is separated by a fence.
Sam Anderson: Can you describe this fence for me?
Theresa Harlan: It’s a wire metal fence that’s eight feet tall on big posts.
Sam Anderson: And does it run the whole width of the peninsula?
Peter Byrne: Three miles across from the bay to the ocean. Yes. You can’t get around it.
Sam Anderson: The fence cuts Tomales Point off completely from the rest of Point Reyes.
From the ten elk that the state reintroduced to Tomales Point, the herd has grown to hundreds. But now the tule elk in the preserve are dying of thirst and starvation.
Why is this fence here in the first place? Why does it cut off the tule elk herd at Tomales Point from the rest of the peninsula? And why did the National Park Service build it?
The answer lies with another four-legged animal on this peninsula.
At any given time there’s several thousand of them, roaming the pastures across Point Reyes.
They’re here to supply the 24 beef and dairy ranches that operate in the national park. The land is owned by the federal government, and the park service issues reservations or special use permits to the ranchers. About a quarter of the park is used for active ranching.
The fence effectively separates the tule elk from competing with the cows for food and water. And as a result, it benefits the ranching operations in the park.
You might be surprised to hear that there’s cattle ranching happening in a national park. It’s a complicated arrangement, and not a very common one. Point Reyes is one of just a handful of national parks that allow for-profit ranching on their land.
To better understand the situation, we have to take a step back in history. Ranching on Point Reyes was established well before the creation of the national park. Here’s rancher Ted McIsaac.
The ranch he operates today is located in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a section of land outside of the park but managed by the national park service.
Ted McIsaac: My family settled here in 1866.
Sam Anderson: 1866. Wow, so that was a long time ago, huh?
Ted McIsaac: Couple of years ago, yeah. [laughs]
Sam Anderson: Point Reyes National Seashore was established by Congress in 1962, nearly a century after Ted’s family started ranching.
Ted McIsaac: Well, it’s almost 50 years ago since the park was developed. And back then, when they wanted to convert it into a park, the ranchers were not really terribly for it. But they sat down and made an agreement with the government that if we sell the land to the government, we want the right to be able to continue ranching on our own ranches. Basically that’s how it got done.
Sam Anderson: Congress purchased all the lands and waters in Point Reyes from private owners for $57 million. Later on, the National Park acquired more land to form the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, including the McIsaac ranch, in 1983.
Sam Anderson: And how much did the park pay for your land?
Ted McIsaac: Um, it was about $2 million.
Sam Anderson: Oh wow. That’s a good chunk of money.
Ted McIsaac: Yeah.
Sam Anderson: Two million dollars in 1983 is the equivalent of about $5.5 million today. Other ranchers received similar buyouts.
Today, Ted McIsaac and his family continue to raise beef cattle on their ranch, and they pay a fee to the National Park Service to use the land. He wouldn’t tell me exactly how much, but said that it’s less than market rate rent.
Ted says his operation today runs pretty slim. He has a permit to run 190 cattle, but is currently only keeping 140 because of the drought.
Before ranching arrived, Point Reyes was an intricate coastal prairie that was home to the Coast Miwok peoples, who lived on this land for thousands of years before the arrival of the first Europeans. They called this peninsula Tamál Húye.
To find out more about the Indigenous history of the land, I called up a member of the Coast Miwok Tribal Council of Marin, which is not a federally recognized tribe.
Joseph Sanchez: Oppun towis. Good morning. My name is Joseph Sanchez. I’m a Coast Miwok descendant, from a separate band called the Huukuiko. And that’s basically from the Nicasio area. My family actually resided in Tomales Bay. That was a large village of Coast Miwok Indians, right there at Marshall-Marconi area, the east shore of Tomales Bay. And, yeah we were there for thousands and thousands of years.
Sam Anderson: That is – until the Europeans arrived.
Fast forwarding to the mid-1700s, Spanish colonizers created the mission system, a series of outposts across the coast of California, including Mission San Rafael in Marin.
The Native peoples of California, including the Coast Miwoks, were forced to assimilate and coerced into slave labor for the missions. Spanish missionaries aimed to stamp out Indigenous culture and history. The missionaries saw them as less than human.
Joe Sanchez reads me a passage from the book A Cross of Thorns by historian Elias Castillo, writing about Junipero Serra, the priest who was in charge of the missions at that time.
Joseph Sanchez: Serra wrote, quote, “In the midst of all our little troubles, the spiritual side of the missions is developing most happily. In Mission San Antonio, there are simultaneously two harvests at one time. One for wheat, and of a plague among the children, who are dying.” So that says a lot to me.
Sam Anderson: Whoa, wait, just to pause there, there’s two harvests, one for wheat and one of a plague. Why would he call that a harvest?
Joseph Sanchez: Because they were baptized, and those children are going to heaven.
Sam Anderson: Whoa.
Joseph Sanchez: Very dark. But that’s Serra. Who was a Saint!
Sam Anderson: In fact, the population of Native peoples living in the missions declined from 87,000 to 4,000 in just over 30 years. Serra was declared a saint by the Catholic Church in 2015. Yet during his life he actively encouraged the brutalization and dehumanization of the Native peoples in California. Statues of him were erected and then toppled in recent years by antiracist activists.
The abuses that took place during the mission period happened all along the coast, including right here, in Marin County.
And this history is the backdrop to ranching on Point Reyes. Because it was the Spanish Mission at San Rafael and the friars who managed it, who introduced cattle to the peninsula for the very first time, in the early 1800s.
As California became part of the United States, conditions for Indigenous people only got worse. The mid-1800s, a time when the Point Reyes dairy industry was booming, was one of the darkest chapters yet for Native Americans.
In California, private militias were formed to hunt and exterminate entire Indigenous villages. These militias were then paid by the California government.
Joseph Sanchez: And monies they received for doing so was more than the money they would make doing their normal labor or whatever it was they were involved in.
Sam Anderson: So murder became a profitable industry.
Joseph Sanchez: Exactly. You could rape the mother, sell the children to slavery, kill the father, and collect a reward.
Sam Anderson: The public land that Point Reyes National Seashore sits on is the ancestral territory of the Coast Miwok. It is land that was taken by the Spanish, then claimed by ranchers. And it lies now in a state that publicly funded the extermination of Native peoples.
But in the face of all this overwhelming violence, the Coast Miwok, and Indigenous peoples from many other tribes in California, continue to survive.
Joseph Sanchez: While enduring much hardship at the hands of the invaders, our tribe, the Coast Miwok, have endured and still practice the ways and customs of our ancestors. We have survived and still practice those meaningful customs in our everyday lives.
Amy Gastelum: We’re jumping in to remind you that you are listening to Making Contact. If you like today’s show and you want more information, or if you’d like to leave us a comment, visit us at radioproject.org. There you can access today’s show and all of our prior episodes. Okay, now back to the show.
Sam Anderson: To bring things back full circle: the rise of ranching at Point Reyes happened at the same time the settlers were hunting the tule elk to near-extinction.
Theresa Harlan: Native people, our cosmologies and our epistemologies are about how we are related to the elk.
Sam Anderson: This is Theresa Harlan, who we heard at the beginning of the story. Theresa’s adopted mother is Coast Miwok. Her ancestors are the original inhabitants of Point Reyes, and they have traditionally had a close relationship with the tule elk.
Theresa Harlan: We’re related to all animals, plants and things. So these elk are our relatives. Me as a Native person, I have to say that they are my relatives out there. And that’s one of my concerns for the elk out here is that they’re brought here, and yet they cannot move about to have a healthy environment or foods. And they cannot live a sustainable life.
Sam Anderson: For Theresa, the elk represent her family’s roots in this place. Roots that continue to bring her back to Point Reyes. Her mother’s family home is on Laird’s Landing, or as she calls it, Felix Cove.
I met Theresa at the park to visit her ancestral home. The path to the cove winds down from a grassy hilltop. As we walk, the landscape becomes greener, the trees grow taller, and branches extend over our heads, enveloping us into the forest. The Coast Miwok may have walked this same path for centuries or even millennia.
Theresa Harlan: So all of this was occupied. Marshall Beach, Laird’s Landing that we’re calling Felix Cove, all of that. All of this whole area, just everywhere we’ve been today.
Sam Anderson: Right.
Theresa Harlan: The people have walked, lived their lives, hunted, fished, played, sang, mourned, shared meals. Lived their lives. When I walk down this road, I always think about my mom. This is her little play yard, her walk to school, or walk home, or if they wanted to go out and do other things like berry picking, this is likely the road she took.
Sam Anderson: Theresa says her ancestors returned here in the early 1800s, after surviving the displacement of the mission system.
Theresa Harlan: So it goes way, way, way back before ranchers, sometime after Spanish missions. And so this is their home.
Now we’re getting under the trees. The ferns are bigger, more flowers and oak trees and bay trees. So if you look to your right, you’re gonna see the buildings.
Sam Anderson: Oh, there it is.
Theresa Harlan: So you see the house. You see a little cabin behind the house. And now you can see the shed under the trees.
Sam Anderson: Tucked away under the oak and eucalyptus trees is a small house made from wooden planks, with just two rooms and a front porch. Just beyond the house is Tomales Bay. The waves gently lap against the shore. And you can see the town of Marshall across the bay, where Theresa’s mom was born.
Theresa Harlan: Straight ahead of us is where my family would have had their bean and potato fields. And then my grandpa would till this area here and plant the vegetable garden, tomatoes and string beans. And then he built a little barn that no longer exists and a little corral. And that’s where the dairy cow. And they keep a hog once in a while for meat. And then there was chickens, ducks running around, chicken coops. So all of this that you see would have been tended. All of this would have been managed.
Sam Anderson: Today the cove is overgrown and wild. The house is still standing, though the inside is dilapidated. There’s graffiti written on one of the walls. A shed nearby is falling apart. Theresa reminisces about what life would have been like for her mom and grandparents here.
Theresa Harlan: So, what you would see is a porch steps that are not here, you would see a laundry line. You might find my grandmother sitting on the porch, processing some vegetables from the garden, or maybe cleaning oysters. You would see the corral and the milk cow over here. You’d see my grandfather walking around, maybe repairing or fixing something. So the house would be filled with voices and people laughing and talking.
Sam Anderson: After surviving the mission system and the displacement and genocide of the 19th century, Theresa’s family returned to live out their lives at the cove. But unfortunately, they would be once more forced off the land.
Theresa Harlan: My grandmother Bertha, she died in 1949. And at the time K ranch was owned by Turney and Lundgren. And a few years after my grandmother died, my Uncle Vic, who lived here with my grandfather, they were served eviction papers.
Sam Anderson: Those eviction papers were served by Sayles Turney and James Lundgren, two successful dairy farmers who claimed to own the land. Theresa’s uncle Victor Sousa was the last Coast Miwok person to live on the 12-acre site of K Ranch – which included the land where Theresa’s ancestors built their home.
Victor brought the matter to court. If he could prove his family had lived on that property since the 1800s, he could make a successful squatter’s rights claim to keep the land.
Theresa Harlan: The ties to the family go back to the early 1800s. And so he had oral testimony at the time. The district attorney for Marin County, William Weissich, took the case as a pro bono case and represented my uncle. And he did a lot of research and collected oral testimony that our family lived here when San Francisco was known as Yerba Buena and a forest.
Sam Anderson: In fact, the Turney v. Sousa case was fought all the way up to the California Supreme Court. But the odds were stacked against Victor from the start.
Theresa Harlan: So unfortunately oral testimony wasn’t allowed and considered inadmissible. My uncle did not have a record of tax payments or tax records. And William Weissich was quoted as saying everyone in court knew the family lived there prior to the 1870s, but they could not meet the requirements of law, Western law, paper law. And I mean, this case of Native families losing land over lack of tax records is a common story all over the United States. Because everything came around them. So people who’ve lived here continuously are not going to have deeds and tax records.
Sam Anderson: Victor Sousa lost the lawsuit – and the cove.
Theresa Harlan: It makes me sad when I think about how my uncle lost his court fight. It makes me sad about what we lost or what was taken from us. But it also makes me devoted to getting the attention needed so that this place isn’t demolished, this place isn’t vandalized. It has the same value as all the other treasured family homes. But it’s not. It’s been neglected since my family left.
Sam Anderson: Today, K Ranch, including Theresa’s family homestead, is historically recognized by the park service and protected from new development. And the park service recently repaired the exterior of the house.
But there’s no signage indicating that it was a Coast Miwok home, or how it was lost. And Theresa is fighting for her family’s history to be part of the official narrative of the national park.
Theresa Harlan: Yeah, this was home. So it is why I’m working so hard to try to get the park and everyone to hold it as dearly as I do and appreciate the historic significance of it as a Coast Miwok-built structure. I would want to know this history.
Sam Anderson: National Park Service spokesperson Melanie Gunn says they have plans to highlight Theresa’s family story as part of efforts to preserve Indigenous cultural history. She says the park service is actively talking with Theresa’s family and that the park is also required to consult with the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, a federally recognized tribe of Coast Miwok and Pomo people. Theresa Harlan and Joe Sanchez, who we heard from earlier, are not members of this tribe.
Melanie Gunn: There was a very specific decision made by the park’s archeologist and cultural resources lead that those buildings, Theresa Harlan’s family buildings, are really significant because of the overlapping time of when they were occupied by Coast Miwok, kind of in the beginning of Spanish ranching and then once it became a state and that transition. So we want to tell that story, and we’ll work with the tribe to do that in the best way possible.
Sam Anderson: That acknowledgment comes 70 years after Theresa’s family lost this land when the California Supreme Court upheld their eviction.
When I began reporting this story, I wanted to find out who gets to control the land at Point Reyes, who gets to profit, and what at cost does that profit come to the environment. This story started with the tule elk, but it’s about so much more than that.
At its core, the story of Point Reyes is about how the forces of colonialism and the violence of Indigenous displacement continue to shape the state of California today, 500 years after settlers came to this land for the first time. It’s also about who gets to control the narrative of that history.
Wherever there is a fight over the use of public land in this country, that fight has its roots in colonialism. Because before public land became public, there were people here who lived on this land. Even after the horrors of genocide and displacement, Indigenous peoples are still here, fighting for the chance to shape the future of the same land that was taken from them generations ago.
Lucy Kang: That was reporter Sam Anderson with an excerpt from the series “Whose Point Reyes,” which first aired in 2021 on KPFA.
I had the opportunity to talk to Theresa Harlan from Sam’s story recently. She’s now the executive director, and founder, of the Alliance for Felix Cove.
Theresa Harlan: We’re a nonprofit organization that’s all Indigenous women led. And we are working to rematriate my mom’s family’s ancestral Coast Miwok/Tamal-ko homes at Point Reyes National Seashore.
Lucy Kang: Has the National Park Service, like, installed a plaque or any sort of, like, anything for Felix Cove yet?
Theresa Harlan: No, there’s a mock up of a wayside in which I’ve provided family photographs of our family at Felix Cove. But it hasn’t been finalized. It’s been sitting for a few years. It needs to be installed because we have vandalism events. And so people don’t realize what they see cause the house is, you can see it from the bay or you can hike down to the house. And people don’t know what they’re looking at.
You know, our purpose is to save the house my mom grew up in, which is the last surviving house and structure that was built by Coast Miwok hands.
And without our work and our call for its protection and our work to rematriate it, it could easily decay or park policy is demolition. In fact, the National Park Service tried to demolish it in prior years. But I have the assurance from the current superintendent that he will not allow the demolition of the house.
Lucy Kang: So the public comment period recently closed for a proposal to remove the fence that fenced out the tule elk. Is there anything that you would like to see happen regarding the fence?
Theresa Harlan: Well, absolutely. I’d love to see the fence taken down. The tule elk, who are our relatives, suffer out there. They were never meant to be penned in.
I think there seems to be a trend now in which national parks are turning around and facing that history in their way, reaching out to Indigenous communities. And for governmental agencies to do something like that, 6hat is an incredible shift.
But it’s built from community action. It’s built from the stories being shared. And it’s years and years and years of work that folks have been doing, way before I came on, that have led and contributed to this place that we’re at now, where the tule elk hopefully will be released from confinement.
Lucy Kang: Can you speak about why, like this issue, these issues around the rematriation of Felix Cove, especially in the context of your family’s history there, and also like shifting the narrative around whose history gets to be told when we talk about these lands. Can you talk about, like, why these are important?
Theresa Harlan: Absolutely. You know, this work is important because one, first and foremost, it provides a way that gives recognition and significance to my mother’s life, the lives of her ancestors, that they existed, that they came from a long line of people who lived sustainably and lived in relationship with the land, water, plants and animals, and that they made it all the way through three waves of colonization from the Spanish missions to the Mexican ranchos and the American ranches. And they carved out a life for themselves in their ancestral homelands.
My mother would always say they were pocketbook poor, but rich with food. You know, they could, if they wanted fish, they would just go out and fish. There was deer, abalone, oysters and clams, and, you know, abundance.
And that also there was just an extreme injustice that occurred at Point Reyes, meaning that Coast Miwok/Tamal-ko people were driven off their homelands. At first, they’re driven to the edges of the margins of their homelands, and then, you know, at the whim of a colonial settler rancher, you know, they’re expelled.
It’s important for folks to know the real history and not just a carve out.
Lucy Kang: Well, Theresa, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today on Making Contact. It’s really been a pleasure.
Theresa Harlan: Thank you.
Lucy Kang: And that does it for today’s show. I’m Lucy Kang. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.