Triumph and Vision: the Tachi Tribe Environmental Protection Agency

A map of the Tulare Basin from 1853.

“I am haunted by waters.”

– Norman Maclean

“We have to keep vision in place along with practical reflections.”

— Cornel West

In the spring of 2024, I met top members of the Tachi Yokuts Tribal Environmental Protection Agency at their offices on the Santa Rosa Rancheria near Lemoore CA. During the extremely wet winter a year earlier, the great Tulare Lake had once again overflowed its dams, dikes, levees and ditches, as it does every once in a while despite all the efforts of government and agribusiness, and spread to its full size of 800 square miles just south of the Rancheria, The return of the lake brought new faith and determination to these extraordinary people, who have lived here since long before the coming of the Europeans whom they have barely managed to survive.

I happened to have visited the Santa Rosa Rancheria long ago in 1966, when it consisted of a few shacks, most houses on wheels and cars on jacks on dusty dirt roads. The Yokuts people, composed of 60 tribes before Spanish arrival in the late 18th century, had inhabited the entire San Joaquin Valley from the Sacramento Delta to the Tehachapi Range and a chunk of the Sierra foothills. Their language, part of the Penutian group, spread throughout Central California from the Southern Valley Yokuts to the Modocs on the Oregon border. An estimated 20,000 Tachi Yokuts lived around Tulare Lake, the largest lake west of the Mississippi, in what is now Kings County, an area about the size of Rhode Island, located between Fresno and Bakersfield, devoted for the last century to the production of cotton. Tulare Lake was the center of California Native religious life prior to the coming of the missions.

“We are the people of the lake,” Ken Barrios, Tachi tribal cultural liaison, told me.

After the Spanish arrived, the Tachi Yokuts suffered the common fate of California Indians: enslavement and suppression of culture and religion by the missions and haciendas,  and epidemics that killed most of their tribe; later, from the US settlers and gold miners, genocidal attack, removal from their homeland to the west side of the valley and to Fort Tejon for a time, and flight to the Sierra foothills as Yokuts villages throughout the San Joaquin Valley were destroyed by American yeomen farming families.

In 1921, the government gave 40 Tachi a 40-acre rancheria, where they lived below the poverty line, many “in tule huts, tin houses, old cars and chicken coops,” while they watched cotton growers drain their sacred lake. At that time, the average education was at the 3rd grade level and most of the people were farmworkers. By the 1980s the rancheria had grown to 170 acres, 200 people were living there and the average education was at the 8th grade level. With the arrival in 1988 of the federal Indian Gaming Regulation Act, the Tachi opened a bingo parlor that became quite successful and in 1994 the Tachi Palace Casino brought in slot machines. The casino now employs 1,500 people in a vast casino/hotel/restaurant complex and the average educational level in the tribe has risen to high school and college graduates.

Today, 750 Tachi and 150 non-Native residents of the Racheria look out on land that has subsided an average of six feet due to a century of agribusiness over-drafting of groundwater from the drained bottom of Tulare Lake. However, now they confidently assert that they can control their destiny and bring back the lake, permanently.

“Before the white man,” Hank Brenard said, “California was tribes taking care of each other. They all had the same religion, and it came from the Yokuts; it was eradicated by churches in the Valley, but it stayed up north, with the Hupa, Karok, Yurok, and others.”

Brenard , director of the Tachi Environmental Protection Agency, is himself from the Bear River Band, located near Eureka. He was hired because of his expertise, gained in the decades’ long struggle of tribes along the Klamath River to remove half a dozen hydroelectric dams to restore the native fishery.

“We are water people,” Barrios said. “We are people for Tulare Lake. The Tachi was in charge of the rituals on the lake in the old days, he added. “They ask us, ‘Who do you consider the people?’ The Tachi regards everyone as ‘the people.’ We hire everyone, we have over 2,000 employees. And the benefits (for non-tribal employees) are as good as our tribal members.”

“We put all people first,” Brenard added.

The first thing Brenard and Barrios wanted me to know was that there is a distinct tribal viewpoint: “If you had a lake, you wouldn’t have homeless, you’d have campers.

Your attitude toward a homeless person is ‘shame on you.’ Our attitude is ‘shame on us.’ We have a tribe.” Barrios added.

“We won’t leave. Everyone else will,” Barrios said.

“If it takes 50 or 500 years, this tribe can bring back life to the valley. This valley has history that needs to be remembered.”

And the key to restoring life to the valley, he left no doubt, is the return of a permanent Tulare Lake.

“The people who live here welcome the tribe and its environmental management. The biggest difficulty is between Tachi and absentee agribusiness owners,” he said.

The two largest farmers in the Tulare Lake Basin are the Boswells, three generations of whom have resided in a mansion in Pasadena, and Sandridge Partners, whose owner, John Vidovich, lives on the San Francisco Peninsula.

The Tachis are the most local of all Kings County residents and contribute to the general welfare. To improve air quality, about as bad as it gets in the state, the tribe is helping local school buses and electrical vehicle systems. They are applying for grants for electric vehicles to set up an electric bus station and to train mechanics for electrical vehicles.

Among other gifts, the tribe regularly contributes money to the police but has yet to get acknowledgment for it.

“The County staff works well with the tribal staff,” a staffer said, “but not at the decision-making level.”

The Tachis own 3,600 acres of land in the Tulare Lake Basin, yet they don’t have a seat on any of the boards of the five water districts in the basin. The districts argue that because the land is owned by a sovereign government and half of it is in trust with the federal government, the tribe doesn’t meet their ownership criteria for voting membership.

It is nearly impossible for an old-time Anglo resident of the Valley to imagine dislodging the control of the corrupt combine of the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the State Water Project, the Army Corps of Engineers, and agribusiness oligarchs the size of the J. G. Boswell Co. (largest cotton grower in the world) and Vidovich.

Jim Boswell and Clarence Salyer (the former second largest grower in the Tulare Basin) by various means had compelled the federal Bureau of Reclamation to exempt the growers of their part of the San Joaquin Valley from the 160-acre limitation on contracts for federal water; they were major proponents of the State Water Project, which delivers water to the region without any acreage limitation; they were among the major successful opponents of the Peripheral Canal project for Sacramento River water to bypass the Delta; and they successfully promoted the Army Corps of Engineers rather than the BOR to build dams to drain the lake and store irrigation water on the four rivers that flow into the Tulare Lake Basin because the Army has no 160-acre limitation.

But today, Native Americans have laws on their side. The passage in the 1970s of the most important federal environmental laws – the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts – along with similar laws in California including the all-important California Environmental Quality Act, together with the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 that legalized casinos on reservations (now worth more than $40 billion a year to the tribes), have increased the tribes’ power and prestige in a number of ways. But before the casinos, Californians should recognize the heroic labors of Rupert and Jeannette Costo for decades of research against tremendous opposition from the Catholic Church and various local and state entities to write about genocide in the missions.