An Open Letter to Black Bear Ranch Commune

bbr (final)

Download Black Bear Open Letter

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

 

 

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15 comments

  1. Reblogged this on AS THE WORLD BURNS and commented:

    Black Bear Ranch is a commune started in 1968 in mountains of the very rural Salmon River watershed in so called Northern California. It has a history of radical politics and was an early experiment in what became the “back to the land” movement. The Salmon River encompasses parts of the Karuk, Konomihu, Chemafeko (New River) Shasta, and Shasta Homelands. The genocidal “Gold Rush” ushered in settler colonialism in the area and Black Bear Ranch itself was historicly the richest gold mine on the Salmon River. Despite the massive violence, murder and theft, Indigenous people not only survived in place but continue to revitalize cultures and fight for the land base. This letter is written by Unsettling Klamath River, a group of settlers working to “unsettle” ourselves and attempting to put into practice the truth that “settler emplacement is incommensurable with decolonization.”

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  2. Good Idea, Im impressed. Its hard to imagine being considered a colonist when your born somewhere, but I get it. I guess no matter where you go you will be part of this ‘problem’ Its really about lifestyle and the impact you have based on your life choices. Is there any where that is fair to live if you have white ancestry? How far away should you move? All of the Americas where inhabited. Its a tough issue. At least there have been efforts made by some communities to evolve our way of living to be more harmonious with where we end up. And yes the Pot thing has caused serious economic hardships on the indigenous, poor, and disenfranchised of our north coast.

    Still, I find your idea to be incredibly brave and genuine. I have no ties to BBR other than some real good friends who lived, some born, there. I hope it all works out. Cheers~

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We are all still learning and looking for awnsers
      I think a place to start. Short of “geting back on the boats” is seeing outsells as settler people as guests in someone else’s homeland. Saying we don’t have a right to the land is difrent then saying we have to leave now.

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  3. Europeans were not the first invaders to treat indigenous peoples badly, or even murderously, but we did do a terrible job of inhabiting North and South America. I would like to hear about migrations in history where the invaders related well to the natives, perhaps treating them as hosts. Can we use such information to help imagine better ways of merging cultures?

    Going back home is not a real answer. The world has many more people now than it did; we all have to go somewhere. So how do we come together in respect and cooperation? Being indigenous is important because you know about your place; you know much more than the newcomers. Yet we all have a right to live on the planet. Exactly where is negotiable. Travelers bring valuable cultural knowledge also, and can be welcomed, and have been on occasion.

    So let’s look for the hybrid opportunities that spring from such meetings of different peoples and make the best of the collision. Recognizing the damage of history is a step, but then we have to look to the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I would suggest you stop blogging about the place for the entire world to see. This showed up on the feed of a friend on the east coast. How many are going to read your blog and think, “Oooh – I gotta check that place out!” You are doing far more harm than good. The irony is pretty thick from where I sit. I’m gonna take a wild guess that “the authors” are well-meaning cis-males who feel compelled to splain stuff to all the poor, underprivileged dummies. Thanks, but no thinks. We get it. Kindly remove your opinions from the interwebs for all to see, work your shizzle out in-house, and love the land from afar and a from a place of SILENCE like most of us do.

    Love,

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  5. I am tied to this area by DNA and cultural/ spiritual ties. This issues goes to the root of our social constructs that are centuries old. When I woke, this issue entered my thoughts and emotions. Let me purpose the idea of changing “power dynamics”. I can’t speak for all other tribal members but “access” to the land and “management” of the land is far more important than “ownership”. I want to say to the authors of the letter, yootva, yootva!!! To be honest, if you quick claim deeded the ranch to a 13 native council NOTHING would change. NOTHING. IT takes “resources” to live at the ranch. Homeless tribal members don’t have new Toyota or even the gas to travel to and fro. And honestly, let’s speak about “theft”. Many of the settlers are concerned about private property and rightfully so. Another proposal I have is to continue community projects like aamayav, but let the settlers fund these projects so that tribal members can become more engaged in community development. In humor, at once we felt even a “hippie tax” would be fair. Please understand it is so hard to see people progress financially, socially and politically while tribal members can barely get low-paying jobs. Let’s just begin with “letting go” and see what the. People aararas want. Also, by setting this type of PRECEDENT!!!! THE FOREST SERVICE could be next. I also wish our Karuk/ Chasta/ Quartz Valley Nations were more in touch with the “needs” of the people like dam removal over casino.

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  6. Know: all of what I’m about to say comes from a place of love, connectedness and a desire for humanity to get along and help each other.

    There are so many things to say. There are so many things I myself could say. But here is what I’m going to say.

    Some background:
    My mother was a poor “white” woman from the mid- west. (Ohio/Michigan) One of many people who traveled to Black Bear Ranch by hitch hiking to find a place she could truly feel at home. It wasn’t the place as much as the opportunity for the people around her to support and love her instead of take advantage of her. And I mention that she is “white” because we are a very diverse mix of European ancestry. And although, yes, unfortunately in this oppressive country that has evolved from its beginnings to take advantage of our fellow citizens who, yes, include the native peoples, and the ones deemed as “white” are given an inherent advantage in some ways, most of that advantage for a lot of those “white” people is in fact an illusion. This illusion has been fostered by the Oligarchy in order to cause division. Really, we are all people. We are all one. We need to get along on this planet. No matter where we are from we should be helping our fellow man/woman and not hurting each other. On my mother’s side, we have found out that my 10th great grandfather was William Bradford the first mayor of plymouth colony. For a very long time I was so scared and worried that my ancestors were evil “white” people who oppressed and killed the native peoples. I was scared because I’ve always loved. My mom taught me what she learned at Black Bear Ranch: unconditional love for all people. I believe, it is inherent in all of our souls. So, when I was older I did some research about William Bradford and my family. I found out that the “white” relations were very good with the natives until he was no longer in charge and corruption started. I also found out his daughter, a WOMAN, was the first doctor of the colony. How progressive! Right?… apparently not progressive enough. Because greed and fear took hold in the generations of European’s to come and this was continued to be fostered by the few “white” people, the Oligarchy I mentioned, who have given all European’s a bad name and a bad life by separating and segregating us all into Race (a social construct) and Creed (something that really is truly individual: no one person believes the same thing as another unless they’re brainwashed)
    Anyway, I’ll get back to all those things.
    I didn’t grow up at black bear but I did live there when I was a baby and my name is on the Trust. I have always felt a sense of connectedness, kindredness, and responsibilty to make sure it is taken care of. I have not been very hands on in this endeavor but my love for the world has kept my love for this beautiful, magical place alive. And I feel that I must say something now because my perspective is very unique.
    I know this doesn’t legitimize me, but it gives you an inside look at where I’m coming from: I have a Bachelors degree in Humanities/Religious studies. I have always been very interested in peoples and cultures and where and how we all came to be so disconnected from or connected to each other. My diverse mix of European ancestry always made me wonder why people’s fear can so frequently outweigh their logic and the love that connects us all. All of my different ancestors have been disadvantaged at different times throughout history and I believe everyone can say the same no matter what color we are. When it comes down to it we all come from the same place that we must share: this beautiful planet. If you go back far enough we are all indigenous peoples and we must treat the earth like we actually care about it and it’s inhabitants.

    So I guess moving forward from my background what I want to say is this: I don’t believe giving Black Bear Ranch to a specific group of indigenous people is going to fix the settler problem. Settling in and of itself, in my opinion, is not the problem. As someone else said, we all need a place to live, to “settle” no matter where we come from originally. The problem, as I see it, is how we all go about integrating each other into each other’s lives when we do settle. My ancestors were relatively succesful doing this with the indiginous ancestors whom they interacted with and I believe we can do it again. There are a lot of real issues that can and should be addressed, but closing down BBR isn’t going to fix any of them. The whole point of the ranch and the trust is that we all have a responsibility to take care of the earth and our fellow humans. Life and this earth is and always will be constantly changing. So lets be the change we want to see and help each other, love each other and live together. Please don’t make it so I can’t visit one of my many homes. Home isn’t a specific place; home is where the heart is; home is everywhere if we are all truly connected and loving this planet and each other.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. One thing I thought of is that we could add the indigenous peoples to the trust. That way all people will be held responsible for the land as we are all responsible for taking care of it and it will continue to be a place that is not owned. I don’t believe the land should be “returned” because it was never owned to begin with. We are all brothers and sisters. We all must share the land with each other.

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  8. Positive things that have Black Bear Ranch has inspired-Salmon River Restoration Council, countless kind people, Amayav, THIS LETTER… I could go on but what’s the point? This letter serves as a conversation starter. When I reach to the center of my feelings on this one word is the loudest. RASCISM. And it has been in my heart for too long. Watching the media we see it in many forms. I don’t care what religion you choose, what color you are, where you’re from, how much money you have, man or woman. Maybe it’s my poor South Georgia Irish side. Or maybe it’s my eastern Cherokee side. I have always related to people of color, poor people and underdogs. This letter was to me-you are white. You ARE the problem. Rascism is rascism y’all. Let’s learn to live together… Hey! We could abolish meth!
    I guess I just hope this brings us back together in the end❤️
    One Love!

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  9. I am one of the original settlers of BBR and the first school teacher there. I lived there from 1969 – 1971 before leaving America for Central America where I have lived ever since. The struggle to stop the war in Viet Nam and the ever-encroaching draft board agents chased us out of the country. We were able to hold back the truant officers by establishing a one-room school house. My son attended first grade in that school. I ran across this letter while doing research for my memoirs which , of course, have to include my years at BBR. I agree with the person who commented that returning the land to the original tribes means that NOTHING will happen there because they do not have the resources to carry on what has been thus far accomplished.

    If I had a say in this decision, I would vote for shared rights, not ownership. I remember how kind and generous the Indians were while I lived and labored at BBR. Each year they took a group of us salmon fishing at Ishipishi Falls and taught us how to salt and preserve the fish that fed us organic protein all year. We were especially grateful during the long winter months of isolation and lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. Some of the men taught the children to make bows and arrows and how to build a tee pee. They were good neighbors who loved us for our different ways and acknowledged our struggle to build BBR into a world-class community of like-minded peaceful revolutionaries. Of course, they should have full access to the land that once belonged to their grandfathers, but in co-operation with those who live there now. That, anyway, is the way of the future…mutual respect and co-operation. When we started BBR we promoted the idea of mutual ownership and fostered responsibility for each other’s well being. Those values still hold true today. Peace.

    Shared rights….not ownership.

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