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Indigenous Archaeology at Tolay Lake: Responsive Research and the Empowered Tribal Management of a Sacred Landscape


The Tolay Archaeology Project (TAP), of which this dissertation is a part, is a multi-year, Community-Based, Participatory Research Project that seeks to support the work of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria (FIGR) within the Tolay Valley. The Tolay Valley is the location of a sacred lake to FIGR where doctors healed sick people with charmstones for thousands of years. Tolay Lake was the repository for these charmstones and is a sacred place to the contemporary tribe. Coast Miwok and other indigenous peoples traveled to Tolay to participate in ceremonies up to 1870 when the lake was drained by William Bihler. In the years following the draining of this lake, Coast Miwok and neighboring tribal people maintained stories and memories about Tolay, even though the charmstones and the sicknesses within them deterred many California Indian people from visiting the lake. Today, FIGR and the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department (SCRPD) are collaboratively planning the development of this area as Tolay Lake Regional Park, and are conducting studies of biological and cultural resources to learn more about how to appropriately manage and interpret these resources. This dissertation addresses the need for more information about Tolay’s environmental and cultural history by conducting low-impact archaeology to answer questions about environmental change, indigenous land management, and the ways in which Coast Miwok people navigated settler colonialism in the nineteenth century to reaffirm connections to the valley.

The relationships between Native Americans and archaeologists have been fraught with over a century of contention. Avocational and professional archaeologists have repeatedly removed Native American ancestors from the ground and written Native American histories from Western perspectives without meaningfully consulting tribes. Community-based approaches to archaeology are strategies that some archaeologists are now employing to find the commonalities between their values and the values of Native American communities to forge ethical pathways forward in cultural resource preservation and research. The approach that I developed for this dissertation project in collaboration with FIGR is rooted in responsive justice and community- and desire-based research practices. This approach involved establishing and adhering to core research values and working with tribal committees to ensure that the research continues to be relevant and worthwhile to the tribe. Unlike much of the early research from the past century that did damage to cultural resources and did not meaningfully consult tribes, this dissertation research was designed, conducted, and written with constant feedback and collaboration from FIGR’s citizen committees. I have found that research co-produced with Native American communities can lead to richer understandings of the past and can positively impact the lives of many different peoples today.

In this dissertation, I summarize the history of indigenous archaeologies, including community-based or community engaged research. I present my own process for community-engaged research with FIGR in which my research was continually reevaluated and reworked. I then review the regional traditions and theoretical considerations in California archaeology and situate the TAP within this larger body of research within the state. I offer a brief overview of previous research in the Tolay Valley to contextualize the approach taken in the TAP and present results from extensive non-invasive and low impact strategies (such as terrestrial LiDAR, geophysical survey, surface pedestrian survey, and intensive surface collection) as well as limited excavation and augering. I expand my discussion of the paleoethnobotanical and faunal results, which show how a grassland/shrubland environment was maintained at Tolay for thousands of years. I also expand on evidence from the Historic Period within the Tolay Valley, and show how Coast Miwok people maintained their connections to the Tolay Valley and refused settler colonial ways of engaging with land within the valley. These data and narratives were utilized to generate histories for tribal youth hikes and public interpretation at Tolay, supported the review of the master plan documents for Tolay Lake Regional Park, and will inform ecological restoration efforts at Tolay in the future.

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