LEE VINING, Calif. – Going east from Yosemite National Park over the nearly 10,000 foot Tioga Pass, the Sierra Nevada Mountains fall away as sharply as a curtain.
Nearly 6,000 feet below Tioga Pass sits the town of Lee Vining. It is here members of the Mono Lake Indian Community, who call themselves the Kutzadika, are trying to do what so many other California tribes have struggled to do in recent years – gain federal recognition.
The name Kutzadika means “kazeva-eaters” in the Paiute dialect spoken by the tribe. Kazeva is an insect larva that is found on Mono Lake and was traditionally considered a delicacy.
“Kazeva actually tastes quite good,” says Rich Blaver, a tribal member working on the recognition process. “Others might not think so but it’s our traditional food source.”
The tribe takes pride in their, um, peculiar food source because it is one of the things that make them unique. It is a shared experience for a tribe that has largely been ignored by the world of federal American Indian politics.
The Kutzadika are one of the California tribes never officially recognized by the federal government. This has been the result of a series of historical circumstances and changing Indian policies by the federal government. After functioning as a tribal entity for more than a century and a half of European encroachment, the Kutzadika feel the time has finally come to join the ranks of other sovereign tribal entities.
It is evident Blaver has had much experience telling the story of his tribe. A high school teacher by profession, his work in gaining tribal recognition has become a nearly full-time job. The story, like so many tribal histories, is long and tragic though without a single cataclysm like a war or overt act of genocide. It was more of a slow process where Kutzadika life culture was more slowly displaced though it never entirely erased.
When European settlers came into the area, many of the Kutzadika were displaced to make room for mining and agricultural enterprises. In the 20th century, when the city of Los Angeles saw its population explode and was forced to find more water sources, they turned to Mono Lake, the center of the Kutzadika universe.
When the lake began to recede and water and thus opportunity became more scarce, many tribal members were forced to move to other areas. The Kutzadika’s Paiute tribal brethren in Nevada had reservations and took in many of the refugees. Some only left seasonally for jobs in nearby Bishop or the bigger cities of California.
Still the core of the Kutzadika remained near Mono Lake and refused to disappear. The tribe has tried two or three times since the 1920s to gain federal recognition. Each time it encountered unfortunate timing.
A comprehensive list of federally recognized Indian tribes finally was compiled in the 1930s and the Kutzadika were not on it. During the 1950s, when they tried, Congress was busy terminating and not recognizing California tribes.
One problem they face is another unfortunate historical circumstance that is no fault of the Kutzadika. The federal government has become suspicious of tribes looking for recognition because it worries the prime motivation is to cash in on gaming.
“It’s unfair that the Kutzadika have to suffer unjustly for what other tribes are doing. Not that I blame these other tribes for going after gaming, but the Kutzadika are a small, remote tribe that has been functioning as a tribal community since before the first white people came to the region. The politics are different for them than it is for potential gaming tribes on, say, the East Coast,” says Mark Levitan of California Indian Legal Services who is helping the tribe through the recognition process.
The process of tribal recognition is long and costly, since the average petition costs about $350,000 to prepare. The non-profit Mono Lake Kutzadika Indian Community Cultural Preservation Association received a Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Native Americans grant earlier this year to help them with the process and cost.
Several things need to be done. They have to write a petition and turn it into the BIA Bureau of Acknowledgement and Research. The tribe then must produce a genealogy and trace a continuous line of tribal existence, at 10-year intervals, from at least the beginning of the 20th century. Blaver says that all of these things can be easily done.
The grant also allowed the tribe to contract noted archeologist Dr. Catherine Fowler of the University of Nevada, Reno, and California Indian Legal Services to aid in their bid.
“If they didn’t have this grant, they couldn’t afford people like Catherine Fowler. This grant hasn’t made them rich and Catherine feels very strongly about this tribe so she’s actually going to end up doing some work for free just to help them,” Levitan says.
Fowler helped the tribe work on the petition and helped with some necessary historical research. She points out that, unlike many California tribes that were terminated, the Kutzadika have never been recognized.
“This is an important distinction to make,” Fowler says. “Tribes that have been terminated have to take their case to the United States Congress since they were the people who terminated the tribes in the first place. At Mono Lake, you have a case of a tribe that has never been recognized so it’s handled by the BIA.”
Fowler also says there is legislation pending in Congress right now, introduced by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., that seeks to take the recognition process out of the hands of the BIA and give it to an as of yet unnamed entity. She is not sure how this will affect the Kutzadika, but says everyone is following the congressional process intently.
Though they do not have official tribal status, many individual Kutzadika members are listed as “half-blood” members, Fowler says. This means they are eligible for certain BIA services because they are American Indians but are not recognized as an official community.
It is for this reason Levitan and California Indian Legal Services are concerned that proposed changes in the BIA Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood could severely impact individual Kutzadika tribal members, if the tribe is unable to get federal recognition.
“If federal recognition doesn’t happen, and these changes go through, these people (Kutzadika) will not be viewed as Indians under the proposed rule changes in BIA policy, since only members of recognized tribes will be counted,” Levitan says.
All sources point to the fact the federal government already treats them as a federally recognized unit. The Yosemite National Park consulted with Kutzadika on several matters over the years in the same manner as they would a federally recognized tribal government.
For now, the tribe is busy trying to gain recognition. Members hope to have the petition written this fall to present to the entire tribe in December. Then they will take the matter to the BIA or whatever organization is in charge of the recognition process.
“We’ve always been a distinct group of Northern Paiute,” Blaver says. “Our dialect is distinct from other Paiute tribes and we’ve always had our own traditions. Kazeva is definitely one of them. You should really try it sometime.”