Lake County, as with virtually every other area of the western hemisphere, has a basis in legalized theft. In 1851-52, treaty commissioners sanctioned by the US Congress negotiated 18 treaties setting aside roughly 7.5 million acres of land as reservations for 500 Indigenous nations whose ancestral territory happened to be within the then-new state's boundaries.
One of these treaties set aside much of the land around Clear Lake for exclusive use and occupancy by Pomo peoples. The US Senate refused to recognize the treaties, however, instead taking the unique step of having these documents placed in secret files. Thus, the US government could proceed with expropriating all of the state's remaining lands from its original inhabitants with nary a legal problem. The existence of the secret treaties was not re-discovered by Indigenous people until more than 50 years later.
Fast forward more than a century-and-a-half, and now Lake County has its first-ever indigenous candidate for the county's highest official post: Lake County Supervisor.
Jim Browneagle, 60, of the Elem Pomo, is one among six people contending to represent Lake County District 3, which includes the communities of Blue Lakes, Upper Lake, Nice, Lucerne, Glenhaven, Clearlake Oaks, Lake Pillsbury, and Spring Valley.
The other five candidates include Herb Gura (who runs the Self-Help Law Center and currently serves on the Konocti Unified School District Board of Trustees), Mark Currier (who chairs the advisory board of a western Lake County subdivision), John Brosnan (an Upper Lake general contractor), Jim Steele (a retired Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist), and Marv Butler (a well-known local businessman). The election takes place this Tuesday, June 3rd. The District 3 seat is one of two that is up for grabs on the five-member board in Mendocino County's smaller western neighboring county.
Perhaps the most pressing issue in Browneagle's district is the dire straits of Clear Lake, which is beset with all manner of problems associated with pollution and toxic run-off, as well as a legacy of dams and diversions: algae blooms, enormous non-native invasive plant infestations, and high levels of toxicity.
Browneagle is no stranger to contamination of Clear lake. The Elem Pomo rancheria is located along the eastern arm of Clear Lake, where, for several decades, Bradley Mining Company ran one of the largest and most productive mercury mines in California. For a time, the Environmental Protection Agency listed these areas as the third highest-priority toxic clean-up site in the United States. The mine has had catastrophic health consequences for Elem people.
It has been one of the most egregious environmental justice issues in California's recent history, though seldom discussed by political officials. And Jim Browneagle has been a consistent leader in trying to address this toxic legacy, having been featured by the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications, in relation to his work on this front.
Browneagle comes from a long line of spiritual and cultural leaders. His father, Jim Brown II, was the recognized spiritual and cultural leader of the Elem prior to him. His mother, Elvina Brown, was a native of the Big Valley Pomo, and she also became a recognized Elem cultural leader. His uncle, Dewey Barnes, Sr., was a well-known land defender and spokesperson regarding the Elem's efforts to defend their traditional landscapes and culture.
Browneagle’s ability to marshal information pertaining not only to his own people’s history, but also various related strands of US history, global geopolitics, and current events is reminiscent of a university history professor. Along with his wife, Gail, a Yokayo Pomo from the Ukiah Valley, he hosts a weekly public affairs program on KPFZ Radio out of Lakeport entitled “Tribal Voices.”
Yet, as Browneagle likes to say, he has been forced to exist in two worlds. He estimates that he devotes roughly half his time to leading and participating in traditional ceremonies and other cultural activities. For the vast majority of his adult life, he has also been a tribal administrator. He was the Elem Pomo's tribal chairman from 1998-99. Throughout most of his adulthood, Browneagle has regularly given presentations on Elem culture in local schools and in other settings.
The first time I met Browneagle was nearly three years ago, when I wrote a series of articles about the Elem's efforts to protect Rattlesnake Island from development by John Nady, a wealthy electronic media mogul.
At the time, Browneagle talked a considerable amount about his relationship with his father, who regularly counseled him about the importance of not judging people by any visual criteria, but rather by “hearing each person’s spirit. Then, you really know who they are.” Choking up as he recalled his late father’s counsel, he added, “Wow, growing up, that was great for me.” The philosophy has led to a number of important collaborations with Native and non-Native people alike.
Working in Browneagle's favor is that Lake County District 3 has a disproportionately high number of Indigenous people as residents. It features three Pomo rancherias, including Elem, Robinson, and Upper Lake. On May 21, I e-mailed Browneagle several questions regarding his candidacy for Supervisor.
Will Parrish: What motivates you to run for Supervisor?
Jim Browneagle: The County and the Board of Supervisors have a long history of racism. They have continued to treat tribal people as second-class citizens. I want to assert the civil and human rights of tribes, and allow tribes to pro-actively participate within the County Government affairs, which directly impact all citizens of Lake County, including Indian Tribes. Until we address this long-standing Cowboy vs. Indian mentality in this and other areas, we will never be able to advance together as humans, and as citizens of our county, or our state and country.
WP: Family histories are a big talking points among candidates for political office. In local elections, it's even a big deal for a candidate to be a second-generation resident of a given area. Please tell us a bit about your family's history in Lake County.
JB: Roots are important, and I come from a resilient family of traditional chiefs and leaders who have survived the California and U. S. genocide of our people. I am a product of seven generations of female and male leaders. We have always taken on the responsibility of stewarding our people's living environment and natural resources.
WP: What would you do as a supervisor to help improve the health of Clear Lake?
JB: Improving the health of the Lake requires all stakeholders from the County and Tribal groups to be directly involved. That means being included in lake-bottom restoration community projects. In addition, we must stop the chemical contamination of our waters and soils, which our county has continued to endorse via its support for the wine industry and other polluters, and create public projects that our citizens can support, that will have a direct impact on water quality.
WP: How do you intend to challenge Yolo County's control of Clear Lake's water supply? [Ed. Note: Yolo County owns the rights to Clear Lake's water in much the same way as the Sonoma County Water Agency owns the rights to Lake Mendocino.]
JB: By asserting Tribal water rights in a partnership with the county, we can declare, protect, preserve and better understand our joint responsibility and our water rights. Tribes can invoke their direct government-to-government partnership with both the Federal and State governments, who actually jointly hold title to the Lake. We can address the first right of use, which Yolo County claimed in 1912. At that time, the County Board of Supervisors failed to claim any water rights on behalf of Lake
County. I would submit a bill to Yolo County, and the federal and state governments, requesting their direct financial assistance to address our water needs and issues. Also, tribal water rights have never been addressed!
WP: The expansion of the wine industry is a big issue in Lake County, where a number of hillsides have been visibly denuded just in the last year to make way for new rows of grapes. What have been your experiences with the grape-based alcohol business? How would you address this issue as a supervisor?
JB: My experience with the wine industry is that they have been given a fast-track approval in public and legal reviews. The Snow's Lake Winery (now owned by Gallo) is a perfect example. The County did not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Due to Lake County's conflict of interest with the wine industry, a DA from another county to had to take the Snow's Lake case. Still, the County accommodates all local wineries and vineyards, not asking them to comply with CEQA. Due to the severe drought in California, the County should immediately stop the fast-tracking of the wine industry, which has a direct impact on our lake and waters.
[Author's Note: In the early-’00s, a particularly egregious vineyard development adjacent to Clear Lake called Snows Lake enraged local residents. More than 800 acres of vineyard were installed. A large area of oak woodlands was decimated in the process, much of it containing documented Elemo Pomo artifacts.]
WP: What is your stance on the other candidates in your district?
JB: The other five candidates are good people, with their views and causes. However, they represent business interests, or else are disconnected with the poor, the disenfranchised, the elderly and tribal people of the county. Not one other candidate has ever addressed or became involved with Lake County native issues. Not until they became candidates did they express interest in tribal or environmental concerns in the County.
If any one of the non-Indian candidates get elected, the Tribal concerns will be just another false political campaign promise that they used to get elected. The five candidates have never brought forward any tribal issues, yet there are three Indian tribes in District 3 and seven tribes in the County. Ironically, if you ask any one of the five candidates who they know, or what they know, about tribal issues they all say, "I know Jim Brown!"
WP: How might you utilize your position as a supervisor to advance the things you have been working for as a traditional leader, and leader of the Elem Pomo in particular, such as reparations for the catstrophic legacy of mercury mining on your people's aboriginal lands, and restoration of the Elem's historic role as caretakers of Rattlesnake Island?
JB: The best way to utilize the position of Supervisor is to be a champion of the people issues and be a positive County advocate, to help ensure that the county complies with state and federal laws that ensure both citizen's rights and tribal sovereignty rights. In addition, when requested by tribes, I would be able to assist tribes politically in addressing their long-standing issues: the negative environmental impacts of mining, illegal disenrollment and disenfranchisement, cultural preservation and protections, and true economic development partnerships with the County. The political influence and support can help unite the tribes to become true stakeholders of Lake County, while protecting our sacred waters, natural resources and sacred landscapes, and at the same time respecting the rights of all Lake County citizens.
WP: Closing thoughts?
JB: For me, this election is about addressing and asserting the civil and human rights for all the people, specifically in regard to the second-class treatment of Native people, while finally allowing their direct tribal participation in the County Government affairs. I honestly feel that tribal sovereignty can and will help unite federal funding resources and create a more positive government-to-government relationship between the County and Tribes. Most importantly, it would help address our long-standing water and environmental quality issues, while creating more jobs and developing a holistic sustainable community and county where all citizens and business can prosper, without further damage to our natural resources and environment.