Garth Sundberg: History repeats as organized racism thwarts Trinidad Racheria’s vision

Trinidad Rancheria Tribal Government would like to address the opposition and racism surrounding our inherent right to self-govern and to develop our trust lands. 

The Tribe is often portrayed negatively in the press, maligned, and the recipient of ugly comments. In the paragraphs that follow, we would like to share our journey to develop, provide for our Tribal Members, and be true to our Mission Statement. 

“SOO-NEE-HLEK” Translated to English, this Yurok term means, “I dream.”

This was the overarching inspiration for the Charette Event or design fair that Trinidad Rancheria held in 2011. 

The Tribe was ready to dream, ready to create a blueprint for future development that provided the basis for growth that best serves the health, safety and general welfare of the tribal community. After years of struggling and trying to find a way to develop the Tribal Government capacity to provide for their Tribal Members, the Tribal Leadership embarked on a journey to ensure that they would be able to do this. It was apparent that the Tribe needed a plan. We were able to get grant funding to create a comprehensive plan.

The Tribe prioritized the Cultural Resources Element to identify policies to protect the Tribe’s cultural heritage, including language and traditional ceremonies, archaeological sites and cultural landscapes such as traditional gathering areas and ceremonial sites, and spiritual places both on lands owned by the Tribe and other lands within the traditional ancestral territory.

Economic Development was a very important part of the planning. The Trinidad Rancheria is a disadvantaged community that is surrounded by a very affluent community. The surrounding ocean bluffs are highlighted by extravagant homes inside the City of Trinidad, developments outside of the City, including homes that range from one million dollars and upwards, as well as the Westhaven community east of the City of Trinidad on Westhaven Drive. Many of these residents have relocated from Southern California and are only here seasonally. Others have been here for 20 to 30 years or more, which is not a long time in an historical context.

What became apparent from the Tribe's open invitation to the surrounding community to attend the design fair was that a large percentage of this community did not share or support the Tribe’s vision and dream. 

So here we are almost nine years later and we are very disappointed and sad to say that we do not have the support of the City of Trinidad and a majority of this community, including our current Humboldt County Supervisor, Steve Madrone. 

Some members of the community have formed a group called “Humboldt Alliance for Responsible Planning, (HARP)." From the HARP website, the listing of “current Issues” include: Trinidad Rancheria Hotel, Highway 101 Interchange, Trinidad Water Supply, Long-Term Development in Trinidad/Westhaven, and Trinidad Harbor Land Ownership. Each of these issues, with the exception of Long-Term Development in Trinidad/Westhaven (which is “under development”) focus on opposition to Trinidad Rancheria Projects. 

We do not see any other projects listed on their website, which leads us to believe they are only targeting Trinidad Rancheria. The following is a direct quote from Bryce Kenny Legal Counsel for HARP published in the Times-Standard on March 2, 2020: “HARP is totally committed to doing whatever we can to see that the hotel does not come to existence… We will be pursuing that vigorously.” 

In another matter involving the Rancheria, Bryce Kenny was quoted as saying, “the answer cannot simply be that the tribes always win. Right?” This statement cannot be misinterpreted and is racially biased.

In the last nine years, the Tribe has been successful in moving the Trinidad Rancheria Interchange Project forward to the Environmental Phase. While we do not have the space in this letter to document all of the negative and discriminatory attempts to stop the project, we do want to call out a recent attempt to prevent the Tribe from receiving State Environmental Funding to move into the next phase of our project. 

Numerous letters were sent to Humboldt County Association of Governments (HCAOG) and the California Transportation Commission (CTC), opposing the Tribe receiving State funds for environmental planning for the interchange. 

This effort was led by HARP and Supervisor Madrone. In the last few days, we have also learned that Supervisor Madrone has filed a Public Records Request with Caltrans to receive all information regarding the Trinidad Rancheria Interchange Project. Of course, this is not a problem for the Tribe because we have nothing to hide. What it demonstrates is that Madrone is targeting Trinidad Rancheria. Since his campaign to unseat Ryan Sundberg, outgoing Humboldt County 5th District Supervisor, Madrone has persisted in falsehoods, taken credit for projects that he did not accomplish, and made it his mission to discredit Trinidad Rancheria. We call this out as racism and a personal vendetta.

Additionally, over the past nine years the Tribe has been successful in moving forward with the Hotel Project, which has been extremely controversial in this community. Approval of the Environmental Assessment required the BIA to request a Coastal Consistency Determination from the Coastal Commission. HARP Representative David Hankin testified in San Diego on behalf of HARP. Supervisor Madrone wrote a letter in adamant objection to our project. The Vice-Chair of the Coastal Commission, Steve Padilla, actually went on record and admonished the Representative from HARP, David Hankin, for showing a cartoon caricature of the Tribe and the City of Trinidad. 

In this cartoon, the Tribe was represented as the Hotel and was choking water out of a pipeline or hose representing the City. During the meeting, the Commission Vice-Chair also scolded David Hankin for using a discriminatory cartoon and said it was extremely inappropriate. 

All you have to do is go on the HARP Facebook page and see the racist comments attacking the Tribe that indicate the Tribe is just a money-hungry machine driven by a few greedy people. Members of HARP, Supervisor Madrone, and Bryce Kenny (HARP Legal Counsel) and others, do not miss a City of Trinidad Planning Commission Meeting or a City Council Meeting to ensure the City does not enter into an agreement with the Tribe for water. Recently, City Leadership drafted an MOU for discussion purposes in a City Council meeting. This draft MOU was an effort to keep the City-Rancheria relationship moving forward on our request for water as well as the City’s request to place a storm water vault on the Tribes property in the Trinidad Harbor area. 

Steve Madrone, Bryce Kenny, David Hankin and other HARP members were adamantly opposed to this MOU. A motion had been crafted before the meeting to not enter into the MOU with the Tribe. Consequently, the dialogue between the Tribe and the City has come to a standstill.

With the City of Trinidad’s unwillingness to commit to providing water to the Rancheria, the Tribe felt the need to submit a request to Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District (HBMWD). The District General Manager received approximately 37 letters regarding our request. Numerous Trinidad and community residents, including HARP members were on the Zoom meeting. There were two positive comments but the rest were opposing the projects and citing fear of drought, development, and sprawl. 

Steve Madrone actually contacted the general manager of Humboldt Bay Water District before the meeting and indicated that the community was opposed to the project. 

We find this to be an unsettling deja-vu. Indian People have experienced this over and over again. It is an overwhelming sense of something that should not be familiar at all - discrimination, prejudice, systemic racism and a lack of social justice. 

The Tribe has endured attacks on our integrity, character, environmental stewardship and cultural relevance. The Tribe has been accused of pumping effluent into the ocean, not valuing mother earth, not embracing environmental best practices, pollution of the viewshed and numerous other offences that don’t deserve recognition. 

This community is trying to prevent Trinidad Rancheria from embracing Self-Determination and our rights as a Tribal Government.

In June of 2019, Governor Newsom issued Executive Order N-15-19, which included recognition of past depredations and prejudicial polices against Native Americans and a formal apology from the State to California Native Americans. 

Here we are a year later, a nation in turmoil due to systemic and institutional racism against people of color. 

There is no place for racism in our nation and it is our duty to highlight that our local community is actively engaging in the same behavior.

The Trinidad Rancheria has been a Federally Recognized Tribe since 1917. The Tribe has only in the last three decades been able to find a way to be self-sufficient and develop their lands, tribal law and ordinances, and provide for their people. And now what do we find? 

We have found that history repeats itself. Indian people experienced genocide, colonization, loss of home lands and so much more. The white invaders did not want the Indian people to be in their way, they wanted everything for themselves, and would kill to take what they wanted.

Today our message to the City of Trinidad, HARP, Steve Madrone and others who have made it your mission to stop the Tribe’s development is: educate yourselves, understand that your biases, your prejudice, and your discrimination is just as bad as what happened over two hundred years ago, and what is happening in our nation today. We are committed to our Vision and our pathway forward for future generations. It is our sovereign right.

Garth Sundberg is chairman of the Trinidad Rancheria.



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