As you read these words, one of the Northern California East Bay Area’s wealthiest men is getting away with an act of cultural genocide. Construction crews employed by wireless technology magnate John Nady began trenching grading, excavating, and building atop Rattlesnake Island in Lake County, California last week, in the latest phase of Nady’s seven-year-long effort to build two houses on the sacred grounds of the Elem Pomo tribe. Reportedly, private security guards flank the construction area in case of any attempt by the Elem and their supporters to occupy the island, as occurred during a previous developer’s attempt to build there in the early-’70s.
Rattlesnake Island is a lush 56-acre expanse in Clear Lake – California’s largest freshwater lake – located just outside the sleepy Highway 20 town of Clearlake Oaks. For more than 14,000 years, the Elem’s home has encompassed an area in and around southeastern Clear Lake. For more than 6,000 of those years, Rattlesnake Island has been the Elem’s cultural and religious center.
Elem cultural leader Jim Browneagle best summed up the significance of Nady’s project to his people in a Free Speech Radio documentary that aired on 140 stations across the country on Thanksgiving. The documentary borrowed its title from a previous piece I published here at counterpunch.org, “The Struggle for Rattlesnake Island.” The radio piece is available online. “If there’s a home built right there, it’s gone — the sacredness of it,” Browneagle said. “We’re going to do the best we can to prevent that. We want to preserve it as it is, without homes. It’s really the last sanctuary of our nation.”
Nobody is stopping Nady yet, least of all officials at the County of Lake. The message rolls out from the county’s Lakeport offices that wealthy outsiders are permitted special exemptions from the law, for no other reason than that they are wealthy and aggressive. The construction proceeds only because the Bay Area mogul received a special extension of Lake County’s normal grading season from County Community Development Director Rick Coel.
According to Lake County Supervisor Denise Rushing, Coel granted the extension after Nady threatened to sue if he didn’t get his way. The section of the county’s grading code that Coel invoked, which may henceforth be known as the One Percent Exempt Provision, has rarely been used in the County and must be based on some sort of necessity.
The necessity in this case, from the perspective of Nady and his supporters in Lake County’s decision-making apparatus (cronies is a less kind way of putting it), seems to be that a new organization called Friends of Rattlesnake Island sued the County in November to try to force Nady to file an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in Lake County Superior Court in January. Nady apparently would like to complete the project prior that first hearing, thereby rendering the entire lawsuit moot.
Supporters of Rattlesnake Island attempted to secure an injunction on Monday against any further construction activity by Nady, but the judge at Lake County Superior Court struck down the motion on the grounds that Nady’s legal team did not have adequate notice to contest it. A similar motion may be brought again in the coming days.
In the meantime, the pillage is ongoing. As of this writing, Nady’s team has poured a concrete pad for an outdoor bathroom. They also conducted trenching associated with a septic system, which Nady had previously started to build in 2005, even though the County had not yet granted him a permit. The LakeCo Supes ordered him to halt the project at that time. Nady ignored the order and continued developing the septic system. The Supervisors promptly obtained a restraining order, and Nady halted the construction.
In September, the LakeCo Supes had just overturned a unanimous Planning Commission decision requiring that Nady file an EIR related to his project. The vote was 3-2 in favor of overturning the Planning Commision ruling, thereby granting Nady a grading permit. All three Supervisors who voted in Nady’s favor cited his “private property rights,” which they maintain supersede all other considerations in this case.
Yet, Jim Browneagle had just provided a detailed Power Point presentation at the Supervisors’ meeting three weeks prior, in which he authoritatively demonstrated that the Elem are the island’s rightful owners, even under strictest application of the US government’s own property laws. I published a piece on that Supervisors meeting in the Anderson Valley Advertiser here: Moreover, Nady had prevented the county’s own archaeologist, Tom Gates, from taking any materials off the island for lab analysis, as is required under the California Environmental Quality Act. Thus, the county has been was unable to determine the “significance” of the lithic scatter Gates found at the site. Elem traditionalists, who of course have extensive oral knowledge of the island, maintain that Nady’s building site.
CEQA also mandates that tribal monitors be present when their cultural artifacts are at risk of being disturbed by a development. Yet, at the time of the examination of the island by Gates, the county archeologist, Nady specifically forbade any member of the Elem Pomo to be present as a tribal monitor, and the County went along, according to Elem traditionalist and former tribal vice chairman Batsulwin Brown.
“I was told by Tom Gates that [Nady] did not want any Indian from Elem on his land,” Brown said. “I requested a monitor during the 10-minute meeting the tribe held with Tom Gates. He said Nady would not allow anybody from elem to be present.”
Yet, in the case of his construction activities last week, Nady did have a monitor present: a member of the Wappo of Napa County, who are not a federally recognized tribe and whose people have no significant historical knowledge of Rattlesnake Island. The move was clearly calculated to give a fig leaf of legal propriety to Nady’s project, even though it entirely violated the spirit of the law.
The Wappo member’s participation in Nady’s project, coupled with the County’s failure to consult the Elem prior to beginning grading activities, has deeply upset Pomo people throughout Lake County. Members of each individual tribe were contacted by Browneagle, and they are all drafting letters of complaint to Rick Coel and to the County Supervisors.
“I actually got ahold of the [Wappo] monitor and pretty much gave him a piece of my mind,” Jim Browneagle says. “When I told him I’m the Elem’s Historic Preservation Officer, and that nobody contacted me, he turned completely around and started apologizing and saying, ‘Well, what can we do?’ I’m going, ‘You’ve already done the worst damage you can ever do. You didn’t even ask us, didn’t even come to us.’”
The Elem do have allies in the Lake County decision-making apparatus, among them the aforementioned Supervisor Denise Rushing, who wasn’t even informed that development of the hotly-contested project was about to commence, even though Rattlesnake Island is in her district. Rushing pointed toward a possible resolution to the ongoing dispute involving Elem, Nady, and the County in an e-mail to Haji Warf, a resident of and member of Friends of Rattlesnake Island:
“Personally, I believe that government should purchase (and should have purchased) this site to preserve it. The state or federal government should have stepped in by now as the amount is out of the county’s capabilities to buy. At this moment, the tribe needs to ask that no further desecration be allowed and that the government at the state or federal level step in.
“At minimum an EIR needs to happen. But the best result of the EIR (saying the island itself is sacred and developing it cannot be mitigated) would still leave us with the only remedy being a suit from Nady or a negotiated agreement whereby the island gets preserved by public purchase. The tribe needs to contact the state in my opinion–they do have a real case for negotiation given that the county hasn’t done the EIR.”
Historically, a thick layer of ideology coats each official legal decision vis-a-vis Rattlesnake Island, this one being no exception. One of the intellectual rationales for Nady’s comes courtesy of Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown, who stated in the Free Speech Radio News piece that aired on Thanksgiving, which may well have come from someone living in Lake County during the more openly genocidal period of the 1860s:
“Without private property rights, we have no civilization. There was no civilization before private property. There wasn’t! There were people that lived. And they operated under certain rules in everything that they did. But they did not have incentive to do things, because private property is the formation of a civilized country.”
Jim Browneagle and others have already attempted to do as Denise Rushing suggested, meeting with Congressman Mike Thompson to try to convince him to sponsor legislation bringing the federal government in to perform eminent domain on Nady’s paper title, thus granting Rattlesnake Island back to the Elem. The “grape-obsessed” Thompson, as the New York Times has called him, wavered at the possibility given that such a course might lead to a new casino being constructed “in Wine Country” (which leaders of the Elem say will never happen on Rattlesnake Island). Thompson then indicated he might be inclined to support such legislation if the Lake County Supervisors first approve of it.
Rushing’s e-mail marked the first time a Lake County Supervisor has openly suggested the same course. As attorney Liam Griffin, a Lake County native, noted in his dissertation: “Application of the federal power of eminent domain is the most practical and equitable solution, and the time to do so is now, before this ancient sacred homeland and sacred tribal landscape is destroyed and lost forever. “We are requesting tribal and public support to prevent the outright destruction of Elem’s 6,000 year old homeland village on Rattlesnake Island.”
Regaining Rattlesnake Island is a matter of far greater urgency for the Elem in light of their present living conditions. Adjacent to the reservation is a small lake of sulphur-infested waters left by a mercury mining company, which practiced open-pit mining for several decades. Six years ago, the US Environmental Protection Agency rated the Elem Pomo rancheria as the third most toxic site in the United States, before it undertook an insufficient clean-up effort. Many who live on the reservation are sickening and dying.
In the meantime, supporters of the Elem have called for an emergency demonstration at Nady’s opulent home in Oakland’s Piedmont district this Saturday, December 17th, which will originate at noon at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre.
More information on how to support the Elem is at www.elemmodun.org.
Supporters have also created a Call to Action, available at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1YWTppsLU8910pvnoBqlb78qYfF6xVgXuSf_9e0bPJQA/edit?hl=en_US.
Will Parrish can be reached at email@example.com.