Returning Homelands to a California Native American Tribe

The Colfax-Todds Valley Consolidated Tribe of the Colfax Rancheria posing for photo
The Colfax-Todds Valley Consolidated Tribe of the Colfax Rancheria celebrates receiving part of its original reservation land back. Left to right: Clyde Prout, III, Tribal Chairman; Fiona Armbruster, Tribal Secretary; Sue Ghilotti, donor; Pam Cubbler, Tribal Secretary; Travis Young, former Tribal Vice Chairman. Photo courtesy of Colfax-Todds Valley Consolidated Tribe of the Colfax Rancheria.

The Colfax-Todds Valley consolidated tribe of the Colfax Rancheria received some reservation land back—here’s how.

Native American tribes across the United States have historically been dispossessed of their reservation lands through legal maneuvering, outright deceit, and formal policy. This land loss is compounded for tribes that also lost their federal recognition through administrative action by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or “termination” laws enacted by the U.S. Congress. Especially in northeastern California, which has a high number of terminated and unrecognized tribes, the restitution of former reservation lands is a way to strengthen tribal communities in the present. The challenge comes in making these donations a reality.

Across the country, tribes are working to recover their homelands by receiving “land back.” Some states or counties have collaborated with tribes to sponsor land acquisition. In other cases, tribes have purchased important or sacred lands directly. Some tribes have received land by gift from sympathetic community members who now reside in tribal homelands. This is the case for the Colfax-Todds Valley Consolidated Tribe, who were gifted back a portion of their original reservation land, the Colfax Rancheria, during a virtual event hosted by the Penn Cultural Heritage Center in 2021.

The Colfax-Todds Valley Consolidated Tribe’s homelands are in the Sierra Nevada mountains of northeastern California. Miners discovered gold here in 1848, and settlers who rushed into the region forced Indigenous people from their lands or killed them outright. Some sought refuge in marginal areas, returning once the miners had stripped away gold flakes and the rare nugget from the auriferous gravels and soils. In 1915, Special Indian Agent John J. Terrell acquired 40 acres of land for the survivors of the tribe in Colfax, California. His census identified only sixty-five people. But Terrell’s purchase provided this tribe with a reservation, also known as a “rancheria,” and a federal trust relationship that became the basis for the tribe’s formal relationship with the U.S. government.

However, only a few decades later, a national effort to terminate Native American reservations gained traction, and California became an experiment for this effort. In 1958, the U.S. Congress enacted the California Rancheria Termination Act to end the federal trust relationship with 41 reservations and to allot the land in private title. An amendment to the law, which permitted the Bureau of Indian Affairs to sell other California reservation lands, passed in 1964. While the Colfax Rancheria was not one of the 41 reservations subject to the 1958 law, the tribe’s lands were subject to the 1964 amendment. Although members of the tribal community protested, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sold the Colfax Rancheria in 1965.

Woods in the Colfax Rancheria at night.
The Colfax Rancheria
A road in the middle of the woods.

The land sale did not immediately end the Colfax Rancheria’s federal recognition. Despite the sale, the U.S. Congress made a small annual appropriation to the members of the Colfax Rancheria until 1977. Its trust account was emptied and closed in 1979, but the tribe’s members did not receive the proceeds. Only then did the tribe lose its federal status as a recognized tribe. Now, the tribe must go through the arduous and bureaucratic process of re-applying for the federal recognition it once had. There is also no guarantee of success. Only one tribe in California has been restored through the federal recognition process since 1980.

Following the Colfax Rancheria’s sale, the land was subdivided and developed for housing. Local resident Sue Ghilotti acquired several of these parcels, and, after hearing the story of the tribe, offered to return a portion of the land. Throughout 2020, the Penn Cultural Heritage Center worked with the tribe to incorporate the Koyo Land Conservancy, a tribally controlled nonprofit, which could hold these parcels and any other culturally significant lands that the Colfax-Todds Valley Consolidated Tribe might acquire in the future.

Plans are underway for the tribally owned portion of the Colfax Rancheria. The tribe now has an opportunity to memorialize the loss of the reservation, its current lack of federal recognition, and the federal policies that were so disastrous to its members as well as to other tribes in California. By making the space a “living memorial” with traditional plants and appropriate interpretation, the tribe hopes to connect with national conversations that are reimagining how to commemorate tragic events and deleterious systemic policies.

Many tribes are now working with anthropologists, archaeologists, and museums to create a more equitable future for their communities. When invited by a tribe to work on tribal priorities, researchers at universities and cultural institutions can provide additional expertise and support. The Colfax-Todds Valley Consolidated Tribe’s experience in this donation represents an important new model for other tribes seeking to reclaim their homelands.

Brian I. Daniels, Ph.D., is the Penn Cultural Heritage Center’s Director of Research and Programs. Clyde Prout, III, is the current Tribal Chairman; Pam Cubbler is the Tribal Treasurer and Lead Cultural Preservation Officer; and Fiona Armbruster is Tribal Secretary for the Colfax-Todds Valley Consolidated Tribe of the Colfax Rancheria. Sylvie Canning is a Project Manager at First People’s Law LLP, Vancouver, British Columbia, and a volunteer at the Penn Cultural Heritage Center.

Cite This Article

Daniels, Brian I., III, Clyde Prout, Cubbler, Pam, Armbruster, Fiona and Canning, Sylvie. "Returning Homelands to a California Native American Tribe." Expedition Magazine 64, no. 1 (June, 2022): -. Accessed April 18, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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