California Indian Environmental Alliance (CIEA) was created in 2006 at the request of impacted California Tribal leadership and Tribal members to address the toxic legacy of mercury left over from the California Gold Rush. Our mission is to “protect and restore California Indian Peoples’ cultural traditions, ancestral territories, means of subsistence, and environmental health.” Since 2003, CIEA has worked in partnership with Tribes in Northern California, over eighty (80) Tribes today, to increase Tribal participation within the decision-making bodies that affect water quality and to identify strategies to address environmental destruction and resulting toxins that keep families from fishing cultures wherein fish play an important cultural, spiritual, and nutritional role. 

Our programs are Mercury Tribal Health, Tribal Self-Advocacy, and Leadership Programs. We provide health education to healthcare providers and community members on ways to avoid Mercury and PCBs in fish. CIEA piloted the first Women Infant and Children’s (WIC) curriculum, providing nutritional information on wild-caught and store-bought fish. The Self-Advocacy program provides tools for Tribal leadership to advocate on their own behalf with the goal that Indian Nations are at the table whenever decisions are being made that affect traditional Tribal lands, resources, and Tribal members. One of CIEA’s guiding principles is that Indigenous Peoples have a right to eat traditional foods and set environmental cleanup standards for their cultural continuance. 

CIEA staff continues to provide training to American Indian Health clinics, health care providers (for Continuing Medical Education (CME) and directly to the public. We have successfully worked with California Tribes, the Office of Environmental Health and Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to develop materials and clear messaging. Over time, our advocacy work and resulting leadership of partnering Tribes has become stronger and our goals have shifted to creating a future where fish are available at subsistence levels throughout the state. We now provide technical support to this end. Today, CIEA is the Tribal Engagement Coordinator for three key Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) regions, in the Sierra/Sacramento River, the North Coast, and the San Francisco Bay and Bay Delta, wherein we coordinate Tribal Representative Elections, water strategy workgroups, and advisory committees. We are spearheading a campaign to create new tools for Indigenous Peoples to require cleaner water quality standards under the Clean Water Act.  

In 2009, we initiated engagement of Tribes to advise the Delta Mercury Total Maximum Daily Load and future communication between the Central Valley Resources Control Board and regional Tribes. 

Between 2012 and 2017 CIEA worked in partnership with California Tribes to develop the definitions of the two new statewide Beneficial Uses: “Tribal Subsistence Fishing” and “Tribal Cultural Use,” CIEA coordinated meetings with Tribes throughout the state to confirm that these new definitions would meet the needs of as many Tribes as possible so that we can apply these definitions to our local waters. We coordinated with other stakeholders and water board staff to arrive at applicable definitions and to provide recommendations for numerical values for methylmercury that would protect the widest number of Tribal families. These definitions were adopted by the State Water Resource Control Board on May 2, 2017 as part of the Mercury Provisions of the Water Quality Control Plan for Inland Surface Waters, Enclosed Bays, and Estuaries of California. Tribes are now being asked to identify which water bodies these new uses should be applied to, and what water quality objectives would protect continued traditional uses. 

CIEA wrote letters, provided testimony at regional board hearings and provided outreach to Tribes for the elevation of Tribal Beneficial Use definitions to be included as a prioritized project in the Triennial Reviews of the North Coast, SF Bay, and Central Valley Basin Plan amendments and the Ocean Plan Update. In collaboration with Tribes we were successful in elevating these as projects to be included in these Triennial Reviews which provides us with a unique window of opportunity for Tribes to protect water quality for continued use. 

To arrive at water quality objectives Tribes must confirm if the existing state standards for mercury are protective of their communities’ consumption. To do this Tribes are encouraged to 

administer an internal fish consumption survey. CIEA has successfully administered eight Tribal and three community-based fish consumption surveys in the North Coast, San Francisco Bay and the Central Valley by partnering with Tribes to train Tribal staff while working in coordination with state and water agencies. Each survey includes questions about current and historic fish consumption, foods relying on regional waters, traditional cultural materials and cultural activities. In preparation for upcoming TMDLs and amendments to basin plan, our surveys have also included questions related to exposure to harmful algal blooms. Survey administration always is followed by providing safer fish consumption and exposure reduction advice. To do this CIEA has provided hundreds of Mercury Tribal Health training for community members and for continuous Medical Education to doctors and nurses who serve these Tribal communities by using CIEA’s Mercury Tribal Health Toolkit and “Eating Fish Safely” materials. CIEA additionally developed and piloted the first Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) programs in the United States to include national and local fish consumption advisories. 

In 2017 the State Water Resources Control Board approved Tribal beneficial use definitions for the statewide mercury water quality objectives. Tribes are now being asked to identify which water bodies these new uses should be applied to, and what water quality objectives would protect continued traditional uses. California Tribal members are at an increased risk to exposure from toxins in traditional aquatic foods. The waters in Tribal traditional territories are vital to life, maintain our foods and are key components in our cultural connection to our homelands. All water bodies in California are impaired from toxins at varying levels. 

In 2019 CIEA along with Tribes, NGOs, and many more wrote letters to the Delta Protection Council against the Governor’s proposed Delta Conveyance Project.

In September 2006, at the request of California Tribal members and leaders, we formed CIEA to address mercury toxins through the formation of a California Tribal organization to share mercury environmental health information and to build Tribal capacity to create strategies for cleanup of mercury-contaminated sites. The following is a history of our creation:

2000-2003 California Indian Environmental Alliance (CIEA) staff worked on the film “Gold, Greed and Genocide,” a project of the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC). Native American Youth interviewed elders of California Indian Nations who survived the 20 year Gold Rush genocide. They developed the film not only as a tool to debunk the myth of the Gold Rush, it also uncovered the toxic legacy of mercury.  California activists, elders and Tribal members recognized that pregnant moms did not know that eating fish with mercury could lead to permanent learning disabilities for their children. Tribal leaders and community members asked us to inform the Indian Health Clinics and communities. We hit the road with the film and a handful of new studies.

2003-2006  We could not tell people not to eat traditional foods, we had to provide hope and find opportunities to advocate for cleanup. IITC launched the Mercury Program, which looked towards international solutions through the UN Permanent Forum.

2006 In 2006, we created CIEA when IITC closed the Mercury Program. Work to address mercury in CA had become more and more local. CIEA’s Executive Director asked to form a California Indian Non-Profit to address mining toxins and to continue the work that began in 2000.

2006–Now  Since 2003 CIEA staff have consistently distributed information about mercury in California Waters and have been holding Tribal strategy meetings to address this toxin.  In each case the top two questions that families ask remain the same: 1) which local fish and waters are safe to eat from for subsistence, and 2) how do we secure safe fishing locations?  To answer these questions, CIEA coordinates with agencies tasked with regulating water bodies and issuing fish consumption advisories. We provide technical support to California Tribes in order for each to address these issues locally on behalf of their People.

2009 The California Indian Environmental Alliance (CIEA) became a 501c3 in 2009. We remain driven by and responsive to California Indian Tribal leaders and Tribal members, and all of our programs’ work meet the goals. Our work remains focused in California, however we continued to work towards international support of California’s mining legacy left over from the Gold Rush through the initial negotiations of the Global Mercury Treaty coordinated by the United Nations Environmental Program. CIEA, the Indigenous Circumpolar Council (ICC) and the Island Sustainability Alliance CIS Inc (ISACI) were the first Indigenous NGOs to join in these negotiations. CIEA coordinated the Indigenous Peoples Caucus and the Indigenous Peoples Environmental Network (IPEN) and the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) joined and strengthened our work through their participation. The Seventh Generation Fund, Western Mining Action Network, and the Christensen Fund supported CIEA’s international work.