The Oil Spill in California Lends Urgency to Demand for Indigenous Land Stewards

Moomat ahiko,” which translates to English as “breath of the ocean,” is a song sung by the Tongva — one of the Indigenous peoples of Southern California — and their relatives. Moomat Ahiko is also the name of the first ti’aat (sewn-plank canoe) built by the Tongva in over a century.

The word for ocean used by the Acjachemen — another of the coastal Indigenous peoples of the land now known as California — is also moomat, and they honor and respect the ocean as sacred.

Both the Acjachemen and Tongva hold the ocean in deep respect and continue to honor it through song and ceremony. They live in relationship with their environment and continue to always show respect to their lands and waters. Their traditional territories include the eastern shores of the Pacific Ocean, the West Coast of North America within the state of California, in what is now called Orange County. Historically, they lived in village sites near rivers, streams and springs, including the village of Genga (Banning Ranch) near the Santa Ana River and the coastal cities of Newport and Huntington Beach, where an oil spill is currently threatening an already fragile ecosystem. While some Acjachemen and Tongva community members still live in these ancestral homelands, many have been priced out of their own homelands for generations and now live far away from their ancestral lands and waters after centuries of displacement.

On October 1, a massive and deadly oil spill began. The cause of the spill is still being confirmed, but evidence from the spill shows that a commercial shipping vessel dragged its anchor, pulling on a pipeline and ripping it open, spilling oil into the ocean. An oil sheen on top of the water was observed that night, but it was 12 hours later that Amplify Energy, the owner of the pipeline, reported it to state and federal officials. The company has estimated that the ruptured pipeline released 126,000 gallons of oil into the ocean, onto the beaches and into the wetlands of Orange County.

The areas most affected by the spill are within an Acjachemen and Tongva cultural corridor that stretches from what is now known as Huntington Beach down to Crystal Cove. Prior to colonization, this area was highly populated, and multiple Acjachemen and Tongva villages spanned the coast. Now, tribal community members are actively working to reclaim and restore relationships with coastal lands and waters in this cultural corridor.

California coastal Native nations have spent thousands of years in a direct ceremonial and accountable relationship with the ocean and have respected and cared for the ocean and coastal waters, which provide habitat to a vast array of wildlife, including fish, whales, sea turtles, and birds that depend on a healthy and clean environment, for millennia. These coastal lands and waters are essential to the cultural, spiritual and physical well-being of coastal Native nations. Offshore oil and gas drilling and exploration off the Pacific Coast puts these coastal lands and waters — and the plants, animals, ecosystems, and communities that depend on them — at risk from oil spills and other damage.

The sustainable, reciprocal relationship these tribes maintained with the coastal lands and waters in their homelands was forever changed with the onslaught of colonization. The first acts of environmental injustice and environmental racism in California occurred when Spanish soldiers and padres (the priests at the missions) landed on the coasts of Southern California in 1769. Indigenous Peoples were often forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands, and traditional ways of living sustainably in right relationship with the local ecosystems were discouraged or outright prohibited by the settler-colonists.

The introduction of non-native plant and animal species brought from across the ocean to establish and maintain colonial outposts in the “New World” had a devastating impact on the local ecosystems and the Indigenous communities that relied upon these ecosystems for survival. The 150+ Native nations with ancestral territories in California have been fighting since those first acts of violent displacement to protect the lands and waters within their ancestral territories and undo the environmental damage caused by the introduction of new species and systems of agriculture that did not consider local ecologies or long-term principles of sustainability.

In recent history, extractive industries such as gold mining and oil and gas extraction continue to threaten culturally and environmentally significant lands and waters, and tribal communities continue to respond.

Huntington Beach, 1926. View up the coast from the Huntington Beach Pier.

California was first claimed by Europeans in 1542 by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and again in 1579 by Francis Drake. Cabrillo would die in California on the Tongva island of Pimu, also known as Catalina. These early European explorations and mappings did not result in the colonization of California until 1769, when the Spanish began forcing California Indians to labor at missions, presidios (forts) and ranchos (where domesticated animals such as cattle were raised).

The European and U.S. view of California has always been as a resource for extraction in a trans-Pacific global economy. After the settlement of California by non-Indians, the extraction of resources without relationship, consent or care for the environment — whether for ranching and agriculture, gold, oil or water — began at an intense speed. As a resource, California was claimed for European nations, and the wealth of its land and oceans continues to be extracted. The Acjachemen and Tongva are the survivors of colonial and capitalist extraction. Despite their dispossession, they continue to work for the protection of their lands and waters.

The California missions were the first European effort to extract California Indians through forced labor and incarceration. The goal of the missions was to remove the Indians from their environments and make them useful for colonialism, indoctrinate them in Christianity, and become a labor force that would extend the Spanish empire and protect their claim from other foreign incursions. Spanish colonialism was followed by Mexico’s expansion of ranchos and the privatization of land. The ranchos continued the mission’s project of extracting the labor of California Indians and drastically increased the number of non-native species. The U.S. waged war against Mexico and claimed California as its own in 1848. Americans found gold and commenced in an effort to exterminate the Indians of the state and established laws to enslave their children, all for the purposes of resource extraction.

Like the billions of dollars of gold that were extracted, billions of dollars’ worth of oil have been extracted from California tribal homelands and waters since colonization. The wealth extracted from tribal homelands comes at great cost not just to California Indian peoples but to the planet. As Tongva and Chumash activist Jessa Calderon explained in an Instagram post, “What our families maintained for thousands upon thousands of years, Western uncivilization has managed to destroy in a couple hundred years.” The devastation to Acjachemen and Tongva homelands since colonialism is beyond explanation.

Acjachemen and Tongva Peoples have maintained respectful, reciprocal and sustainable relationships with the coastal lands and waters of what is now known as Orange County since time immemorial. The recent oil spill in these tribal homelands makes it clear that the time to end offshore oil drilling and all extractive industries and rematriate (or restore) tribal lands and waters is now.

In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom officially apologized to California Native Americans for the state’s role in the attempted genocide of California Indian peoples and established the California Truth and Healing Council via Executive Order N-15-19. The goal of the Truth and Healing Council is to “bear witness to, record, examine existing documentation of, and receive California Native American narratives regarding the historical relationship between the State of California and California Native Americans in order to clarify the historical record of this relationship in the spirit of truth and healing.”

It is essential that these narratives include the ways in which California Native Americans have experienced centuries of environmental injustice as a direct result of settler-colonial and state policies dating back to the mission era.

Last year Governor Newsom announced the 30×30 Initiative and the Native Ancestral Lands Policy. The conservation-oriented 30×30 Initiative is the first of its kind in the nation to establish the goal of conserving 30 percent of the state’s lands and coastal waters by 2030 as a mechanism for addressing climate change and fighting species extinction and ecosystem destruction. The policy acknowledges that “since time immemorial, California Native Americans have stewarded, managed and lived interdependently with the lands that now make up the State of California.”

The purpose of the Native Ancestral Lands Policy is to encourage state agencies, departments, boards and commissions to “seek opportunities to support California tribes’ co-management of and access to natural lands that are within a California tribe’s ancestral land and under the ownership or control of the State of California, and to work cooperatively with California tribes that are interested in acquiring natural lands in excess of State needs.”

California must support tribal land rematriation throughout the state as part of the 30×30 Initiative, the Just Transition Roadmap, and any other state policies developed around conservation and climate change. Continuing to prioritize resource extraction from land and people is not the path toward racial and environmental justice.

A California-based environmental justice organizer known as “mark! Lopez” told Truthout, “When we see the ocean being poisoned, we feel that pain because it is the same poison we have in our lungs and blood and any solutions we move forward must heal us all.”

Lopez, who is the Eastside Community Organizer and Special Projects Coordinator for the group East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, added:

When we look at the oil spill, some may say all the ships backed up in the bay are the reason, so the solution is that cargo needs to move through the region faster to prevent ships from dragging their anchors across oil pipelines on the ocean floor. Others may say this is why we shouldn’t have pipelines on the ocean floor, and instead they should be buried. These are false solutions, and like all false solutions they only serve to reinforce capitalism and the ongoing colonization of the land, water, air, and our peoples here and across the hemisphere. Some may look at the oil spill and be shocked by the disaster, but we know that even without this catastrophic spill the everyday functioning of these systems creates crisis in our communities, from the extraction both on Native land we call our neighborhoods here in LA; to First Nations lands in Canada and Indigenous lands in the Amazon and up and down the coasts; from the everyday “small” leaks that are the collateral damage of a faulty system; to the mega refineries up against our communities; to the burning of fossil fuels to move goods including crude oil on ships, trucks and trains contaminating our communities. The system, and its false solutions, consistently reinforces itself.

We cannot undo the damage that has already occurred as a result of colonization. But we can collectively work to make sure that it does not continue. We must prioritize the phaseout of fossil fuels on land and water and end offshore drilling in our coastal waters. In terms of the immediate crisis in Orange County, Acjachemen and Tongva leaders must be involved in all stages of the strategic planning and clean-up efforts in our homelands. No one knows these lands and waters like we do, and our voices must be centered in these conversations.

Long-term strategies and solutions must be developed in collaboration with, and the consent and leadership of, Indigenous peoples and Native nations. There can be no “just transition” without Indigenous voices and values centered in the conversation and leading the way. The link between biodiversity hot spots and Indigenous peoples is clear. As cited by the Sacred Lands Film Project, a 2008 World Bank Report asserted that while Indigenous people make up just 4 percent of global population, “traditional indigenous territories encompass up to 22 percent of the world’s land surface and they coincide with areas that hold 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity.”

There were no oil spills on land or water in our homelands prior to colonization and the issuance of the papal bulls known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which legitimized the enslavement, genocide and forced removal of Indigenous peoples from their homelands around the world.

There were no man camps or people-trafficking rings prior to colonization. There was no massive-scale environmental degradation resulting in the death of thousands of plant and animal relatives in the name of “progress.”

Land return is a necessary step in the process of reconciliation and healing promoted by California’s governor in his 2019 apology to California Native Americans and his subsequent orders, and an essential component of any Just Transition plan.

Returning Indigenous lands and waters to the Indigenous peoples who have been in the right relationship with their homelands since time immemorial must be a central component of any long-term strategies for creating a better world for all of us.