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California and Shasta Indian Nation collaborate on historic land back plans

The Klamath River winds through newly planted land that was submerged under Copco Lake just a few months earlier in 2024.
Klamath River Renewal Corporation
The Klamath River winds through newly planted land that was submerged under Copco Lake just a few months earlier in 2024.

The agreement marks a significant moment for the tribe, which has been without a land base for over 100 years.

On June 18, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that the state is working with the Shasta Indian Nation to transfer 2,820 acres in Siskiyou County back to the tribe. It marks a significant moment for the tribe, which has been without a land base for over 100 years.

The land lies at the heart of the Shasta Indian Nation’s ancestral homeland, which they call K’íka·c’é·ki,; until very recently, part of this land was submerged under the Copco 1 reservoir, a narrow lake east of I-5 and just south of the Oregon-California border.

“This is the culmination of over 16 years of consistent pressing forward and struggle to get to this point,” said Michael Olson, council member for the Shasta Indian Nation. “It’s a very amazing time for us.”

The acreage is contained within the Lower Klamath Project, a series of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River. It was formerly owned by the utility PacifiCorp. Copco 1 and two other reservoirs were drained at the beginning of this year; the three remaining dams are being deconstructed this summer.

Olson witnessed the uncovering of sacred sites as the lake was drawn down and has been serving as a cultural monitor for the Shasta Indian Nation during dam removal.

“It’s the center of the Shasta world,” he said. “It’s a very important area for all of us, but working there, it has become more important to me as time has gone by as I work there—just to be in that area.”

For California, the land transfer marks another milestone in the state’s effort to right the wrongs of the past. Just over five years ago, Governor Newsom issued a formal apology “for the many instances of violence, mistreatment and neglect inflicted upon California Native Americans throughout the state’s history.” Returning land is one of several initiatives intended to help repair relations with the state’s tribes.

Starting in the 1850s, ancestors of the Shasta Indian Nation suffered violence at the hands of gold miners, settlers, and the U.S. army. By the early 20th century, they had patched together a land base in the remote and rugged but fertile valleys along the upper Klamath River. Then, plans for the hydroelectric project intervened. People were forced off their land by eminent domain and village and ceremonial sites and fishing grounds were flooded to create Copco Lake and the other reservoirs. Since then, the Shasta Indian Nation has been without a land base.

“You know it’s one thing to be a native person; it’s another thing to be a native person that doesn’t have any access to your tradition and culture, and have that spiritual piece cut off,” said Sami Jo Difuntorum, culture preservation officer for the Shasta Indian Nation, during a meeting with Governor Newsom earlier this month.

The governor toured the dam sites and met with several members of the Shasta Indian Nation on June 5.

Olson described the meeting with the governor as a “whole new level of engagement” with the state. “We appreciate that so much, and we’re looking forward to a strengthening partnership with them,” he said.

It was the governor’s first visit to the area since the reservoirs had been drained.

“I think he was generally impressed with the scale and the progress and very optimistic for the future,” said Mark Bransom, chief executive officer at the Klamath River Renewal Corporation. Dam deconstruction is proceeding at least two weeks ahead of schedule, and thanks to the efforts of crews with Resource Environmental Solutions, the reservoir footprints have transformed from muddy expanses to a vegetated mosaic of green, purple, and orange.

The timing of the land transfer is still uncertain, as are details about public access to the river and adjacent land once it occurs.

"The intent of the settlement agreement is that the transferred lands be managed for public interest purposes such as fish and wildlife habitat restoration and enhancement, public education, and public recreational access," said Bransom. Several new recreation sites are being planned along the “hydroelectric reach” where the dams, infrastructure, and reservoirs once were.

The tribe has several plans for the land, including the creation of a public “heritage trail” that will highlight Shasta Indian Nation culture and history, along with plants that are important for food, medicine, and ceremonies. There will also be an interpretive center at the decommissioned Copco 2 power plant.

Olson is looking forward to establishing a food sovereignty program, “where we will be working to make sure food plants are reintroduced to areas where they haven’t been for over 100 years.” Having access to these foods will benefit the health of tribal people, he added.

The land transfer is a “game changer” for his people, said Olson. “The return of the land is very amazing, but I’m also looking forward to us being able to return to the land,” he said.

Juliet Grable is a writer based in Southern Oregon and a regular contributor to JPR News. She writes about wild places and wild creatures, rural communities, and the built environment.