The Cultural Conservancy, a Native-led non-profit based in San Francisco, is in the early stages of developing an intertribal biocultural center in Graton.
The center will be a “Native place of refuge and learning,” said Melissa Nelson, the Conservancy’s CEO and president.
Nelson, who is also a professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University, envisions a serene, safe space where native people can reconnect with their heritage.
“This farm will provide unique opportunities for the cross-tribal, cross-generational Native community to come together and share native foods, indigenous farming knowledge, stories and songs,” Nelson said. “It will be a safe space, where people can be themselves, without stereotypes or racism.”
Transforming the farm
The Cultural Conservancy purchased the 7.6-acre property in April of this year. The farm contains a farmhouse, barn and work shed, walnut and apple orchards and a meadow formerly used for horse and cattle grazing.
During the next three to five years, the Cultural Conservancy will work with local tribes to transform the site.
The farmhouse will become a meeting center for community gatherings, workshops and classes. Nelson said the workshops will focus on indigenous land stewardship, including soil fertility, planting, harvesting and seed saving, and on native foods production, including processing, ceremony and feasting. Classes will teach traditional arts and crafts, such as basket weaving, woodcarving and dance, she said.
Nelson said her organization plans to restore the meadow using traditional indigenous ecological knowledge and then plant it to Native American food crops, medicinal herbs and organic vegetables.
Among the crops will be corn, beans, squash, potatoes, tomatoes, melons and sunflowers, she said.
“It is a place where we can be quiet, and the land and the plants can speak to us. It will be a refuge where we can connect to the land and the medicinal plants and foods,” said Nelson, who is also a Turtle Mountain Chippawa tribal member.
The food grown on the farm will be distributed to local tribes — Miwok, Pomo and Wappo — and intertribally to Native Americans living in the Bay Area. The surplus will be sold to restaurants or at farmers’ markets.
Everything will be done on a small, intimate scale, Nelson said. For example, meetings and gatherings will be kept small, with a maximum of perhaps 20 to 25 people.
“This is a small property in a quiet neighborhood. We respect the solitude of the local community,” she said.
A commitment to preserving indigenous cultures
In past years, The Conservancy has focused on “returning native lands to native hands” and restoring cultural eco-knowledge and traditions around the globe.
The group’s many projects include sponsoring the first Native American Land Trust in Maui; historic recordings of the Salt Songs of the Southern Paiute; recording Tibetan elders from India; and supporting the Apache Survival Coalition to protect sacred sites on Mt. Graham, Arizona.
More recently, The Conservancy has focused on the native peoples of California and “food sovereignty,” a movement arising in the 1990s that focuses on people’s right to raise culturally appropriate food, using ecologically sound and sustainable methods.
The food sovereignty movement is a part of the larger food movement that, for the last several decades, has seen young people moving back to the land in Sonoma County, raising organic crops with sustainable farming and selling them to the local community at farmers’ markets or through subscription.
In 2012, The Cultural Conservancy became a major partner in the Indian Valley Organic Farm and Garden at the College of Marin in Novato. But although this garden is a place to grow native foods sustainably and distribute them to communities, the land is still owned by the College of Marin.
That’s why Nelson is so excited about the Graton property.
Nelson said the property’s former owner sought out The Cultural Conservancy, and sold the land to them for $650,000, about half its market value.
“She was an elderly woman who wanted her land to go to a Native-led organization,” Nelson said. “She did a national search, and she found us. It was a wonderful gift.”
The Green Valley watershed where the farm is located is the ancestral home of the Southern Pomo, Coast Miwok and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, a tribe that includes both Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo. Following Native American cultural protocol, The Conservancy sought and received the permission of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria before starting work, Nelson said.
She said the group has already held ceremonies to bless the land. They planted oak trees, elderberry and Yerba Buena. The group has also begun repairing the home, updating the plumbing, electrical and septic systems. They have also pruned the orchard and cleared brush.
They haven’t planted any crops yet, however. According to Nelson, Native Americans used to “listen to the land” through the seasons — watching the wind and rain patterns and the migration of animals and birds — before planting their first seeds.
The Conservancy has been doing just that. In March 2020, a full year after the property was acquired, the first seeds will go in.
Where’s the money coming from?
The Cultural Conservancy’s funding comes from private foundations and individual donations, but there are significant start-up costs for the Graton biocultural center, and much work and money will be needed.
The conservancy is already signing up volunteers with professional skills or financial expertise and has received a $250,000 matching grant. They plan to launch a capital campaign this fall.
Nelson is confident that they’ll see the project through to completion.
“We are a solid, professional nonprofit, with a record of 34 years of achievement and sustained growth,” she said.
For more information, go to nativeland.org.