West Coast
The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo, California, is on the traditional lands of the Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini, who are hoping to have the land returned to them. Photo by Lionel Hahn /Abaca Press/Alamy Stock Photo

CA - Returning Diablo Canyon Lands to Indigenous Hands

The Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini in California have requested the return of their coastal homelands, currently occupied by a nuclear power plant.

This article was originally published in High Country News, a magazine about the American West’s environment and communities. Read more stories like this at hcn.org.

The Diablo Canyon power plant stands at the edge of the continent, above cliffs that plunge into the Pacific Ocean near Avila Beach, California. A turbulent saltwater discharge flows from the nuclear plant and is lost in the foam of waves pushed in by the wind and tides. The pumping and heating of the ocean water kills fish and other marine life, and yet much of the area remains ecologically robust: sea otters still clasp hands among kelp beds, oystercatchers nest on the rocky shore, and sea lions chase down herring and rockfish. Badgers and coyotes den in the hills of coastal chaparral while gray whales pass close to shore on their annual migrations. The only piece that’s missing is the coast’s first people, the Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini—and they are determined to return.

The tribe descends from the villages of the Diablo Canyon lands and the Pecho Coast—including territory currently owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) and used for its power plant.

“When we talk about Diablo lands, we’re really talking about our home,” says tribal chairwoman Mona Tucker. “Not just our homeland, but our home where our grandparents’ grandparents are from.”

The Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini, also known as the Northern Chumash, sent a letter last month to California governor Gavin Newsom requesting the return of the Diablo Canyon lands. The tribe believes this is the moment for California to make amends for a long slate of historical wrongs, including the loss of their land.

Newsom apologized to Indigenous Californians in 2019 and has proposed a budget of US $100-million to assist tribes with buying back land. Newsom’s administration also created a tribal land transfer policy that requires investor-owned utilities like PG&E to identify which tribes originally lived on or adjacent to that land before any attempts are made to sell or otherwise dispose of the property. They are “expected to negotiate a transfer to the tribe before putting the land on the market.”

Newsom’s office did not respond to request for comment, but Tucker says that the governor has been receptive and willing to listen to the tribe’s position. She notes that the tribe’s goals for the land are consistent with Newsom’s conservation goals and that the Northern Chumash have a memorandum of understanding with the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County to develop conservation easements and ensure public access. Tribal members intend to spearhead the effort to conserve the land and waters their ancestors shaped and cared for and hope to set an example for others.

Tucker’s great-grandmother, Rosario Cooper, was the last known Tiłhini language speaker. In the early 1910s, Cooper worked with ethnographer J. P. Harrington to preserve her knowledge of the language, songs, stories, and lives of the Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini. In her notes, Cooper mentioned the villages and families of the Pecho Coast, including several in the Diablo Canyon area. One of the villages she identified, Tstyiwi, has been the focus of historic preservation in a collaborative project between the Yak Titʸu Titʸu Yak Tiłhini, California Polytechnic State University, and PG&E. In 2018, the project was among the California Governor’s Historic Preservation Award recipients.

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