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Dispossession by Dam: Hydropower and Impacts on Native American Sovereignty

Last Wednesday, February 7th, Beth Rose Middleton, associate professor of Native American Studies, gave a talk as part of the Feminist Research Institute’s dialogue series, which is designed to bring cutting-edge feminist research to a broader audience. Middleton’s latest research reveals how companies like Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) dispossessed California Native Americans of their land in order to develop the state’s power infrastructure. It also provides a blueprint for how such actions can potentially be reversed.

Middleton focused on her current activist work alongside California Native Americans. To provide some historical context, Middleton first explained how the problem began in 1887 with the Dawes Severalty Act, which allowed for the creation of land allotments for Natives who wished to live separately from their tribes and be granted American citizenship.

Problems arose, however, when these newly established Native land rights ran into the interests of government and private business. This was especially true in northeastern California, where the potential for hydropower development convinced the federal government to annex Native American lands and sell it to companies like PG&E in order to create dams and other power-related infrastructure.

Hydropower companies were not the only ones to benefit from annexation of Native land. Lumber companies also took advantage. And the California state government ignored Native land rights in order to complete the California State Water project, which funnels water from Northern California to Southern California and captures freshwater before it reaches the ocean.

All of which is to say that Middleton wished to highlight how indigenous history and the loss of their ancestral land is directly tied to the history of large public works projects and the interests of private business.

To highlight the intersectionality of her research, Middleton emphasized how Federal annexation of Native land could be raced and gendered in ways that were particularly disastrous for Native American women. For instance, one woman had her land allotment canceled (or “relinquished”) when the state discovered that her father was white. Additionally, women ran into more difficulties when trying to receive compensation for their land compared to men, primarily because they weren’t deemed to be “heads-of-household” by the state.

Despite the historical seizure of Native lands to appease private and public interests, recent efforts led by Middleton and others have attempted to reclaim what was lost. For instance, Native American land trusts have played an important role in protecting ancestral lands from further development, primarily through the use of “conservation easements,” which allows for the outside ownership of Native lands so long as Native Americans are allowed to access it and direct its future development.

In addition to Land Trusts and other legal mechanisms, California’s cap and trade program has allowed some Native groups to purchase their land back from private interests. This is done via funds granted from carbon offsets, which requires companies that contribute majorly to pollution to pay those who produce less pollution or have developed ways to absorb that pollution.

Though some progress has been made in reclaiming former Native lands, challenges remain. For instance, not everyone is aware of the many legal tools that allow for the retention of rights to ancestral or culturally significant lands. Additionally, thanks to damage caused by the gold rush, hydraulic mining, lumbering, and dams, much of what used to be Native land is contaminated or uninhabitable.

For Middleton, the first step to making any progress is education. Californians must be made aware of the history of Native American land dispossession in their state, and how state and private interests can combine to create and perpetuate the existence of an underprivileged class of people.

To learn more about how hydropower dispossessed California Native Americans, be sure to read Middleton’s forthcoming book, Upstream: Trust Lands and Power on the Feather River.


– Nicholas Garcia, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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