The myth that the first peoples of this region lived in segmented tribal territories somehow clearly marked and separated from those used and occupied by other tribal groups has re-surfaced again, in this case in a March 28 guest commentary in the Sierra Star. The reality is much more complex, rich, and interesting.
In 2004, the North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians began one of the most thorough and extensive ethno-historical studies ever conducted by a California tribe. The study entailed significant financial investment and nearly two years of primary and secondary research. More than 7,000 local, state and federal documents were analyzed and scores of personal interviews were held with tribal citizens and non-natives.
A final 400-plus page report, detailing the use and occupancy of lands around the present-day City of Madera by the North Fork Mono and our interaction with other peoples who shared those lands, from pre-contact to the modern era, was delivered to the tribe in the summer of 2006.
The research project and report represent the tribe's commitment to better understand and relate North Fork Mono history, culture and values both among our citizens and to others within the community.
Summing up our tribe's connection to the proposed casino site north of Madera, the report stated: "Researchers have concluded that the (North Fork) tribe has maintained a continuous relationship to the lands in the vicinity of the present-day City of Madera. The details of this relationship are rich, complex and layered, spanning from aboriginal times, through the historical period, and continuing as a significant contemporary nexus for the tribe, in the 20th century and to the present."
The impartial experts at the U.S. Department of the Interior/Bureau of Indian Affairs reached the same conclusion after nearly a decade of thorough study and analysis, agreeing that the tribe has an historical connection to the land near Madera. As a result, the federal government agreed to place the land of the proposed casino in trust for the North Fork tribe in December 2012.
But our Tribe was never alone in these lands.
Because the valley floor was extremely hot in the summer months and subject to regular flooding (before the land was irrigated and dams built), the Native peoples of the region made more permanent homes in the somewhat temperate climate and landscape of the foothills of the adjacent Sierra Nevada Mountains, but spent considerable time on the Valley floor, an area of inter-tribally used lands and waters.
Here our ancestors, together with those of neighboring tribes, hunted large game, fished and gathered foodstuffs along the rivers. The Mono people were at the center of what has been called the 'Indian Ring' -- a circular regional interface and migratory circuit (between the foothills/Sierra and valley floor) that encompassed most of the area's tribes and constituted the center of ceremonial and social life.
This system of sharing allowed all local tribes, including the North Fork Mono, to extract subsistence from the diverse environments afforded by the region during different seasons.
A 2005 letter from the Chaushilha Tribe of Yokut Indians endorsing the North Fork casino project echoed these sentiments fully: "Our existence in the area is known through out the centuries by many historians, and it is also known that other aboriginal first Americans maintained villages within our boundaries and through out the Central Valley. With this history both our sovereignties are maintained."
The North Fork ethno-historical study addressed the issue of historical "territoriality" concluding: "The term 'use and occupancy' more accurately reflects the complex reality of Indigenous peoples' relationships to the land and to each other than do Eurocentric notions of territory, title and ownership."
We are proud of the collaborative, inter-dependent role the Mono people played throughout time as regional economic players, beginning as key participants in the extensive trade complex that spanned the San Joaquin Valley and beyond in the pre-settlement period then as the first farmers of the region on the Fresno River Reservation operated by federal agents in the 1850s near the current City of Madera and eventually as the first migrant workers of the region on ranches, allotments and farms extending into the foothills of the Sierras.
The North Fork tribe is clearly and inextricably linked throughout history to both the lands of the City and County of Madera and the people with whom we share these lands. Together we developed many of the enduring institutions of the region.
This spirit of transparent, constructive, respectful collaboration continues today in our effort to bring jobs, business opportunity, community investment and economic growth to our tribe and region through the proposed casino project. The significant connections that bind us together as friends, relatives, partners and neighbors are more important than the petty differences that purport to separate us.
Editor's note: The March 28 guest commentary against the Mono Tribe's proposed casino being built near Madera that Elaine Bethel-Fink is refering to, was written by Jerry Brown, tribal chair of the Yukut Tribe. Prior to the 2008 letter in opposition of the casino, the Yukut Tribe wrote a letter in support of the casino on the valley floor,alluding to the historic shared-use of the lands around Madera by many native peoples. In 2008, the year the Mono casino opposition letter was written, a Chukchansi Community Grant of $100,000 was awarded to a group called "Chowchilla Tribal Organization." Although we are unaware of the existence of another tribal group in Chowchilla, a direct link between the Chaushilha Yukut and the Chowchilla Tribal Organization remains unclear.