USAL, Calif. — High above the fog-draped Pacific, amid alder groves and redwoods, a group of Indian tribes has been working to make the land look like it did 150 years ago, before their ancestors were driven out and before the timber companies showed up.
The Indians have been at it for a decade, raising money to buy the property, 50 miles north of Mendocino, then obliterating roads and clearing out streams that were choked with the debris from abandoned farms and logging camps.
The result will be the Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Park--the first in the nation created by a coalition of tribes. Its 3,900 acres of steep forested ridges and narrow valleys plunge down to isolated black sand beaches.
Such a project once would have fit perfectly into an idealized image of Indians held by many Americans--as the Earth's noble aboriginal guardians.
These days, however, perceptions of Indians' relationship to the land are changing.
So even as members of the 11 tribes of the Sinkyone Wilderness Council plant trees, pick berries or watch for salmon to return to the streams, some non-Indian neighbors are skeptical. They suspect that it's just a matter of time before the access road is paved, a parking lot is built and the bright lights of a gambling hall flood the forest.
"Where are you going to put the casino?" asked a young white man who pulled up in a pickup at the southern end of the wilderness.
Stepping out of his Jeep to face his questioner, Hawk Rosales, the director of the Sinkyone Wilderness Council, forced a smile and quietly replied that the only buildings will be a nursery for native plants and a caretaker's cabin.
It's not just casinos that are forcing tribal leaders to defend their treatment of the environment. As many Indian communities strive to profit from untapped resources, traditional perceptions are fading into a backdrop of strip malls, sawmills, ski resorts, landfills and proposed nuclear waste dumps.
"The stereotyped image of Indians as conservationists--epitomized by the TV portrayal of a mournful Indian with a tear rolling down his face standing on the banks of a polluted river--cannot be applied in the modern sense," said Rosita Whorl, an Alaskan Tlingit Indian who has written extensively about the relationship of Indians to nature.
"Today, a starkly contrasting picture is emerging that casts native people as resource developers seeking only to attain profits irrespective of the effects on the environment."
A number of tribes have found themselves at odds with environmental groups, government wildlife experts--and often with their own people--over conservation issues.
Indians have clear-cut spruce forests in Alaska, slaughtered elk and bighorn sheep on Wyoming's Wind River Reservation, lobbied to hunt gray whales off the Washington coast, and defied the Endangered Species Act in Arizona.
Of course, the reality has never been as simple as the romantic conception of all Indians as protectors of nature.
"There has always been a tension between our need for resources and our religious feelings about nature," Whorl said.
In various Indian cultures, she noted, nature is a force for both good and evil. Her own Tlingits believe that helpful spirits dwell in the forests, but so does kooshdakaa, an otter man who casts spells over humans and tries to lure them into his world.
Sometimes, the same wild creature can become a symbol of good and evil. An example is the spotted owl, the winged icon of the conservation movement.
"Some people say that when the owl comes to the house they kill it and burn it because it brings bad news," said Mike Davis, a member of the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona. "Others say the owl is a spiritual messenger and should be respected."
Though laws to protect creatures like the owl have divided society at large into warring camps, even more is at stake in Native American territories. That is because Indians have substantial sovereignty over their lands. Reservations are exempt from state and local civil regulations--including zoning controls. And although they are subject to federal authority, tribal leaders often contest the reach of Congress' environmental laws.
Frequently, Indians fight among themselves over policies protecting wildlife and the environment, especially as opportunities for financial gain arise.
In Alaska, oil drilling pits coastal Inuits against inland Athabascans. The Inuits would benefit most from the oil, while the Athabascans fear that the drilling, which would take place on caribou calving grounds, would threaten a huge herd that they depend on for sustenance.
Proposals to build nuclear waste dumps have divided Mescalero Apaches in New Mexico and Goshutes in Utah.
Disputes over logging old-growth forests in the Chuska Mountains of Arizona and New Mexico have set Navajo against Navajo on the nation's largest reservation.