Cattle graze on a small patch of green grass that’s connected to more than 600 acres in Jamestown belonging to the Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians of California.
Tribal Secretary Linda Mathiesen, 24, looks at the sprawling piece of land across Highway 108 from the tribe’s Chicken Ranch Casino and sees an opportunity to carry on the tradition of agriculture that runs deep in Tuolumne County.
“Ag is one of the largest industries and our society is losing touch with it,” she said while standing on the balcony of the tribal office near the casino. “For me, it runs in my blood.”
The tribe is in the midst of a study to determine what kinds of crops can be supported by the soils as part of a long-term vision to expand agricultural use of the land that they’ve spent decades acquiring piece by piece.
However, a proposal being considered by the State Water Resources Control Board could throw the tribe’s plans into jeopardy.
The state’s proposal would divert 40 percent of the water that flows from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers into the lower San Joaquin River, effectively reducing the amount of runoff in those watersheds for beneficial uses of humans to 60 percent of what it is now.
That’s a particular problem for the tribe, because the only viable water source that would provide a supply reliable enough to sustain agriculture on their land is New Melones Reservoir, which is fed by the Stanislaus River watershed.
“It’s really going to depend on when we get the water,” Mathiesen said of the tribe’s vision for their land. “We won’t be able to do much until we figure that out.”
Importance of agriculture
Mathiesen runs a cattle operation that she inherited from her late father, Brian, on about 800 acres of land the tribe owns near Don Pedro Reservoir.
Both she and her cousin, Tribal Chairman Lloyd Mathiesen, were born and raised in Tuolumne County and attended local elementary schools and Sonora High School.
She joined 4-H — which stands for head, heart, hands and health — shortly after her father died in 2006 when she was 12 and spent nine years in the program that promotes education on agriculture.
The program helped her handle the loss of her father and taught her skills she didn’t realize she was learning at the time, such as leadership, public speaking and budgeting.
“It really gave me a boost of life,” she said.
Being involved with 4-H also provided financial support for Linda Mathiesen to sustain her father’s cattle operation.
She said the amount of money she was able to raise each year through livestock auctions at the Mother Lode Fair was more than she could ever get by selling on the open market.
“The amount of money our community raises for the kids is insane,” she said. “If you go anywhere else in the state, they don’t get near as much.”
This year’s livestock auctions at the Mother Lode Fair raised more than $450,000 combined, breaking the previous sales record set in 2017 by about $100,000.
The tribe was one of the biggest buyers at the auctions over the past two years.
However, Linda Mathiesen said she’s concerned about what she sees as a growing trend of cuts made to agriculture programs at county high schools.
“Our society has lost sight of ag,” she said. “A lot of people think their meat comes from the grocery store.”
Linda Mathiesen hopes to start an agriculture program for the tribe on the 600 acres across from the casino.
She would also like to build a livestock arena and barns that could be used by 4-H and Future Farmers of America clubs.
Lloyd Mathiesen, 34, helped finalize the purchases of the more than 600 acres of land off Highway 108 when he became tribal chairman in 2010.
“We were established on this reservation in the early 1900s,” he said. “It’s our native lands. Our great-grandfathers and ancestors lived on the land. It’s part of our family and history.”
However, the tribe lost everything when its federally recognized status was terminated as part of laws passed by the state in the 1950s and 1960s.
The California Rancheria Termination Acts were part of a broader United States policy from the 1940s to 1960s that the government claimed was intended to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream society at the time.
More than 100 tribes across the U.S. lost their federal recognition under the policy, and about 2.5 million acres of trust land was removed from protected status, much of which got sold to non-Native people.
“We only have half of our reservation now,” Lloyd Mathiesen said. “The only way we can acquire the rest would be for people to sell it back.”
The tribe and 16 other small California Rancherias regained their federally recognized status in 1983 through a landmark case filed against the government by Tillie Hardwick, a Pomo Indian woman who grew up on the Pinoleville Indian Rancheria in Mendocino County that was terminated under the former policy.
After the legal victory, the late Karl Mathiesen worked to reorganize the tribe and established a bingo hall on the reservation in 1985.
Multiple remodels of the casino took place over the ensuing decades, with the most recent and significant one being completed shortly after Lloyd Mathiesen became tribal chairman.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have this business and opportunity,” Lloyd Mathiesen said of the casino. “It’s been steadily climbing since the remodel in 2010.”
As the gaming business grew, they were able to acquire more of the surrounding land.
Lloyd Mathiesen said the tribe is currently exploring ways to provide power to the reservation through wind and solar energy, in addition to acquiring the water needed for creating a sustainable agriculture business.
How much water the tribe will seek depends on the outcome of the soil studies and development of an agricultural plan.
“We really want to go back to where we were before and become completely self sufficient,” he said. “We want to make sure we control our own destiny and not rely on anyone else.”
Lloyd Mathiesen said there are currently 39 members of the tribe, the majority of whom are children.
Future water source at risk
The tribe was left without access to running water when the reservation was established in the early 1900s.
Children would walk a quarter-mile to get buckets of water from the O’Neil Ditch, west of where the casino is now located.
“The state pretty much put us here without water,” Lloyd Mathiesen said.
The reservation is currently served by wells, some of which dried up in 2014 during the height of the drought between 2011 and 2016.
After the wells dried, the tribe hired water consultant John Mills to help them work on securing a more stable supply for the future.
“He’s really passionate and standing behind the tribe to help us gain back our sovereignty,” Lloyd Mathiesen said of Mills, who served as an adviser on a state task force created by Gov. Jerry Brown in response to the five-year drought.
Mills helped the tribe broker a deal in 2014 with the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, which holds senior water rights on the Stanislaus River, for up to 2,400 acre-feet of water out of New Melones Reservoir.
The deal was believed to be the first of its kind between a U.S. municipal water agency and a Native American tribe at the time.
Part of the deal involved the tribe selling the water at cost to Tuolumne Utilities District, the largest water purveyor in the county, which at the time believed it could run out of its normal supply in a matter of months.
Tribal leaders said at the time that it was concerned about TUD’s situation because nearly all of the tribe’s current members live outside of the reservation in parts of the county served by the district.
Mills has most recently advised the tribe on the state’s proposal to require more water from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers, known as phase one of the Bay-Delta Plan Update for the Lower San Joaquin River and Southern Delta.
The tribe submitted formal comments to the State Water Resources Control Board this month calling attention to federal policies that require the state to consult with any tribal governments whose interests could be affected by such decisions before they’re approved.
“Federally recognized Tribes are sovereign nations and are not a political subdivision of the State of California, or ‘stakeholders,’ ” the letter stated. “A request by a federally recognized Tribe for a government-to-government consultation and coordination to the Board is not a discretionary matter for the Board, it is mandatory.”
The comments were also sent to Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Ryan Zinke, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Republican U.S. Reps. Tom McClintock and Jeff Denham.
Mills said the state is required to follow the federal policies because it is essentially acting as a planning arm of the federal EPA, which must ultimately approve the plan.
He doesn’t know whether the lack of consultation with the tribe will force the state to pump the brakes on the plan, which is set to be considered for approval in late August, but he won’t stop pushing for the tribe’s needs.
“This isn’t a question of should the state or federal government comply with the law, because that’s a question that’s already been answered,” Mills said. “When you pass a law, then it’s the law. Even if you side-step your responsibilities, then the EPA will have to address it.”
Contact Alex MacLean at email@example.com or (209) 588-4530.