John Corbett: We must acknowledge the history that got us here

Trinidad Rancheria, City of Trinidad, and the Settler Community. For the record I am a member of the settler community, (third generation Humboldter) and I have no financial relationship with the Trinidad Rancheria or the City of Trinidad.

The Trinidad harbor was one of the few privately owned harbors in California. The history is that Bob Hallmark owned the pier for many years and struggled with low revenues and an increasingly smaller fishing fleet because of regulations. The pier had grown old and the wood was deteriorating. From an earlier period there were toxic discharges. There were failing septic tanks. He attempted to sell the property for a significant period of time. This is not surprising as the costs of running a modern harbor district have generally proved to have too little a financial return to run as a private business. The City of Trinidad had the choice to purchase the pier and support it like Eureka has done for their harbor. The City chose not to buy. Humboldt County and other harbor districts did not want to buy into the severe problems with a limited revenue base. The pier would rot away and no one would have money to remove the rotting pier wood. Access would be restricted for safety reasons. The Trinidad Rancheria purchased the pier, cleaned up the toxics, refurbished the septic tanks. They had as a key goal keeping a working harbor for fishermen. Public access was maintained or increased. The truth is they did more than the county and city ever did. Rather than litigate water rights the Tribe negotiated a water service contract and has funded improvements to the water system. Over the years there has been support for police services between the city and the Tribe. In summary cooperation has worked.

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Brief History: After being expelled from the lands they had occupied bands of Native Americans were roving the community with no work, no assets, were unable to adequately provide clothes and gather food were not allowed to live anywhere. In 1906 the Trinidad reservation was set up to provide a place to live and a refuge. By 1908 additional land was added because of the large number of homeless Native Americans. A third wave entered the reservation in 1917. The Native men had left to fight in World War I and the remaining women, children and old men, unable to defend themselves, were expelled from their village in Trinidad. This created an impoverished and underfunded 100 percent welfare state. Using the exclusive authority as specified in the U.S. Constitution the President and Congress created the Trinidad Rancheria in the usual fashion. The land was one-half of 1 percent to 5 percent of the original holdings. They were set up a refuge free from the interference by State Governments, counties, cities and the settler population. This was cheaper than the military garrison at Fort Humboldt established to protect Native Americans from settlers. A Tribal council form of government was established and given full governmental powers of self-determination which includes exclusive land use authority. This was in exchange for all their land and the terms should be considered dictated. Problems developed because the government welfare program was grossly underfunded. 

Food, clothing and housing were only provided at a very low level of just barely getting by. In the last hundred years No record can be found of the City of Trinidad or Humboldt County ever writing letters to support an adequate federal budget for the Trinidad Rancheria and to provide better food rations, clothes and housing for their people. The Bureau of Indian Affairs solution was any aid shortfall should be covered by Tribal business. The Tribe was told, you got your reservation make your own money.

Many want their form of land use imposed even though the Tribe was promised they made the final decision. I am personally disinclined to argue that we should break another promise to the Native Americans for moral reasons. Such arguments challenging the right of a Tribe to exercise governmental decisions on reservation property have not been successful since the 19th and early 20th century. 

Water: Of course Trinidad should complete their water plan to prevent scarcity rationing and at the same time allow reasonable water development. A cursory review of the water data suggests there is actually an easy way to solve this problem and still answer drought concerns. It will be a test of the sincerity of the parties if it is allowed to develop. It is wise to remember that reservations are created with implied water rights. Any water hookups and system improvements after 1906 are legally held to have received notice of the reservation and their water rights and the subservient nature of these settler water rights. That means in a water shortage the Tribe would receive their water and the city would get what is leftover. Rather than litigate the Rancheria chose to work with the City through contracts which help fund the system and has participated in upgrades the City could ill afford. The two entities are so small it is important for their economic stability to work together. Currently, the reservation is considering on site wells and other streams. If this provides the water the issue is ended. If not it is recommended that both the Rancheria and the City should commission an independent legal analysis from a water rights experienced law firm and the development of a multiyear federal court litigation budget to determine the rights and quantities of the parties. While the cost of $10,000 to $15,000 for such an opinion seems expensive, it is far less than the annual water rights litigation costs. It will further show the financial advantages of cooperation. 

In conclusion, Trinidad and the Rancheria by cooperating have a beautiful harbor, better quality water system and have been able to aid each other across the board over the years. A conflict fueled by a settler land use rights movement rooted in the 19th century to exert their will over the Tribe by breaking government promises of Tribal land use control is an approach guaranteed to create bad will and ultimately fail.

John Corbett is a McKinleyville resident.


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