To the residents of Black Bear Ranch, current and former, and to all of the Black Bear Family,
Some of you may have heard of the coming of this letter and/or the group delivering it. Many of you have not and this may come as a surprise to you. We want to acknowledge from the beginning that the group of people we are addressing is a diverse one; from original bears, to current and all in between. As a group we are also diverse; in our age, gender, background, and in our relationships to all of you and the land we call Black Bear Ranch. Our commonality lies in our love for life and our deep desire to see it continue and thrive. We come to you from our hearts, our love for the land and for each other. This letter is written from the place within us all that begs us to live our lives in a way that supports the healing of all beings and the earth. We would like to share some of the understandings that we have come to thus far in our process. This letter is written with gratitude to the original Bears for your work and for your vision, and the continued efforts of the whole family to create a place like this in the world.
Black Bear Ranch was founded to forge an alternative to the destructive and hollow culture of the United States. We are revolutionaries, artists, healers and troublemakers. Spearheaded by the Diggers movement, the elders of our Black Bear Family created a refuge far from the city and the suburbs where folks could live and learn different life ways: “free land for free people.” The birth of Black Bear Ranch can not be separated from the politics of the day. Those that founded BBR passionately fought against the Vietnam War, racism oppressing black people, capitalism, patriarchy and ecological destruction. Bears today continue this work for a better world. Black Bear Ranch, this place we have known and loved, has changed and will continue to change. We as BBR family have the power to keep the momentum moving towards truth, vitality, justice, and love.
From the beginning, it was not lost on those Bears fighting against U.S. colonialism overseas, that the Ranch was located in a largely Indigenous community suffering from and fighting against the same outrages of empire as those abroad. Over the years BBR residents have come and gone, and some of us have made our homes in the river communities surrounding the Bear. We’ve created strong friendships, alliances and family ties with the Indigenous people whose’s land we inhabit. Those of us who have stayed continue to bear witness to the effects of colonialism on the people and land in this place. The contradiction festers, can it be “free land” if it is stolen land?
Language has been developed to express the continued oppression gripping Indigenous Peoples: this system is called “settler colonialism.” This form of colonialism seeks to erase Indigenous Peoples and cultures and replace them with settlers on the land. Settler colonialism is an ongoing structure and not an event. What this means is that colonization did not just happen in the past (like during the gold rush) but is continuing today. All non-Indigenous people living in what is today called the “U.S.” are settlers, living on land stolen from Indigenous Peoples. We use the term settler as an observation of our place in this system, not as judgment. Those of us who are settlers do not all benefit equally from this system. Many people were brought to this country as slaves, indentured servants, or refugees. Race, class and gender greatly affect how and to what extent settlers are privileged by this system. It is important to acknowledge that non-Indigenous People of Color are positioned quite differently than those that are white. White supremacism is a pillar of the U.S. settler colonial system. We hope to move our collective understanding through blocks of guilt to a clear perspective of where we are at in this moment of time, to better stand in solidarity with all people impacted by settler colonialism and white supremacism. Benefiting from and having unfair privileges within these systems, as many of us know, does not necessarily mean we are free from the pain of living in these systems, getting all of our basic human needs met. Each of our stories is unique and is not absent of hardship. While honoring our own stories, let us be strong enough to expand our awareness to acknowledge the bigger picture that Indigenous daughters and sons are actually dying every day as a result of these systems because – Land is life.
The authors of this letter, calling ourselves Unsettling Klamath River, are an open community collective of settlers, many us former Black Bear residents, living on the Klamath and Salmon Rivers working to understand and respond to the “elephant in the room”: the continued occupation of Karuk, Hoopa, Yurok, Konomihu, Shasta, and Shasta New River Homelands. While we understand that the values of settler society are the problem and not necessarily settler people themselves, we recognize that we have a responsibility to face our position as beneficiaries of settler colonialism (even though we have not intended to benefit in this way). We have been meeting for two years now, starting our efforts with identifying how colonization happened and continues to happen in our communities, re-imagining and taking steps towards material change of colonial structures. Unsettling is a process and in order to hold the complexities and contradictions that exist within systems of oppression, it has helped us to turn away from: either/or, good/bad or black and white ways of understanding, and embrace a both/and way of thinking. We have met, both formally and informally with Indigenous people from the area in our efforts to understand the (ever changing) current moment in time here on the river and how best to take action against the settler colonial system, which we believe is deeply detrimental to all life on earth.
One of the things that many local Indigenous people have expressed to us, is that the number of settlers here on the rivers has gotten out of control over the years and that there are so many of us here now that Indigenous people have literally become “homeless in the homeland.” The institutions and entities that continuously bring settlers to the river have become known as “portals.” Some of these portals are AmeriCorps, farm internships, the pot economy, the Forest Service, and Black Bear Ranch .
A sentiment we have often heard from Indigenous people is that Black Bear has brought good people to the area, who often do amazing work and are real friends. However, Black Bears often get sick of the commune and either have family money, grow weed, or both; and end up buying up more land. We have listened and heard that the revolving door to BBR needs to be closed.
Indeed, thousands of settlers have “discovered” the Salmon and Klamath River region through Black Bear Ranch over the nearly 50 years of the commune. Many of us who came to the river through Black Bear had profound experiences of finding what feels like home. We were moved by the beauty, the people, the place. There is something here that we long for, and it feels so good to experience it. Many of us became deeply attached to this place. From Cecilville to Sawyers Bar to Weitchpec, we found land to live on, or to buy, once we were ready to move on from Black Bear. Many of us have been able to do this with resources that we have from our families, or through growing, trimming or selling pot. Even those of us that do not legally own land contribute to this displacement of Indigenous people, especially in participating in the pot economy. The pot economy came to the river communities largely through the back-to-the-land movement, and this made land prices skyrocket. The small amount of private land left after the large scale land theft by the Forest Service – including most of the village sites- was now in high demand by this booming population of settlers. Many of the children raised at Black Bear also felt deeply connected to this place and also bought land. We invited our friends, who also bought land. Settlers started “building community” – creating businesses and spaces that reflected our own cultural values. This is exactly what the system of settler colonialism is – a system that erases Indigenous Peoples and their cultures, directly replacing them on the land with settlers, settler values and settler institutions. Ultimately, beckoning people “back to the land” is part of the same system that created westward expansion, advertised famously with the promise of “Indian Land for Sale.”
We feel that with respect to the original values of the Black Bear Family, it is our responsibility to honor this request to close the portal of Black Bear Ranch and to help fight against the continued displacement of Indigenous Peoples. We further believe that it would be a beautiful act for this family to offer to repatriate—return—the land base we call Black Bear Ranch. We can’t say what this will look like, though this is a real conversation happening in these communities. The more voices and creativity that are a part to this conversation, the more powerful and possible this healing process will be. We do know that repatriation is a complete release of ownership and control, so it is important that this action is approached in that spirit, without any contingency on what happens on the land after the transfer. There are emerging ideas among Indigenous people about what this land project could become. We feel repatriation would be regenerative, healing and directly responsive to the wounds created by settler colonialism.
This change, or even the idea of this change, could be very painful. For many this was our first and possibly only connection with an intact land base and with communal living. The fact that many want to be laid to rest at Black Bear attests to the roots the family feels. We do not wish to diminish this, but would to like keep this in perspective, remembering Indigenous people have lived in place since time immemorial. Let us look at our pain proportionately on a scale with the experience of attempted genocide and continued occupation lived by Indigenous people. We believe this family can continue to love each other and be in community alongside this regenerative movement. The efforts of the Free Family Union to create new societal structures to care for one another proves that our connections can endure beyond place. We feel that returning the land will strengthen and not weaken our familial bonds and is a step towards healing for all people.
We want to acknowledge the current residents of the ranch. We value affinity with you. We see the daily care some of you continue to put into that space. We are not a bulldozer and we alone are not the ones who get to decide what happens with Black Bear. We are bringing what we have learned in our time on the rivers. We understand that some of these ideas might feel threatening and that for some people, losing Black Bear could mean legitimate homelessness. We want to reemphasize that this is a slow process and we want it to be inclusive. We by no means intend to blindly displace any one in our attempt to do something we feel is responsible. Living at Black Bear means being involved in a story that is much bigger than any individual, which is both its blessing and its curse.
Many might ask, why is Black Bear the target? There are so many more oppressive institutions on the river: why not address them first? The problem of BBR as a portal is a part of it, and, it is exactly because of the radical consciousness of the Black Bear Family that such an act might be possible. We will continue to work against these other colonizing forces, yet to honestly do so we need take this step that others may not. While it is important to do our best as individuals, we need the power of a collective movement to change these otherwise paralyzing systems of oppression. The repatriation of Black Bear Ranch would build upon the original movement of creating the Back Bear land trust and further chip away at structures of private property and settler colonialism. By taking this action and returning this land-base to the Indigenous caretakers of this watershed we could truly be a model for the world, in an “on the ground” material way.
We recognize that these are new ideas to some and that no change happens overnight. We are not approaching this process as though we know the answers. We are attempting to bring forth our best ideas, our core truths as we experience them now, and to listen to the needs of Indigenous people and to respond to what we hear. We are all individuals coming to this work in our own way and in our own capacities. We are learning. We want to share what we see, communicate and collaborate together. How can we best invite you to be a part of this conversation? How do we approach this work with inclusivity? We want to make change. What if we, as a society, could respond together to the crises, pain and needs that are felt by our neighbors, and to those experiences that are the effects of colonization?
With this letter we invite you to engage in this effort to be responsible to this land base and accountable to the Indigenous people who have always lived here. It is in our collective power to close this settler portal and open doors to new possibilities and life ways. Repatriation moves beyond symbolic apologies to real and honest steps towards healing. We hope this inspires participation and continued conversation.
At one time, we were all Indigenous to somewhere. We all seek a connection to people and to place. The current moment in time finds us as beneficiaries of an exponentially destructive culture. Let us take a stand to stop these cycles of greed. We acknowledge that the dominant culture is detrimental to the continuance of life on this planet. We recognize that Indigenous knowledge has been developed and tested over time immemorial to foster true sustainability. We believe that all life is ultimately bound together in one destiny and that repatriating land to Indigenous people is not just a matter of justice, but is in the best interest of all life on earth.
With love, respect, and to life,
Unsettling Klamath River