Who are the Koi people of Sonoma County? A brief history of their culture
The Koi Nation on Wednesday unveiled plans to build a $600 million casino resort near Shiloh Ranch Regional Park on Windsor’s southeastern outskirts.
Who are the Koi people? Here is a little about their culture:
The Koi Nation is one of 109 federally recognized Indigenous tribes in California and is part of the southeastern Pomo people of Sonoma County.
The tribal chairman and vice chairman, Darin and Dino Beltran, are brothers and come from a family of spiritual leaders. They spoke about the history and culture of their tribe.
Before colonization, the Pomo Indians lived throughout North-Central California. Ancestors of the Koi Nation were part of the Southeastern Pomo people who lived on the island Koi in Clear Lake, according to the tribe’s website.
The tribe’s name comes from their original homeland, the village of Koi, and the name means “people of water,” according to Dino Beltran.
The tribe was known as the “Lower Lake Rancheria” until a name change in 2012 to better reflect their cultural heritage.
When colonizers came to Northern California, the Pomo people were subjected to genocide, enslavement and diseases that wiped out other Indigenous tribes as well.
The Koi tribe signed two treaties in 1851 and 1852 that were supposed to give them land, but those treaties failed to be ratified in Congress, and the Koi people were essentially left landless and squatting on the island, Dino Beltran said.
In 1916, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs purchased the “Purvis Flat,” a 141-acre tract in Lake County, which became the Koi Nation’s Rancheria, according to a tribal history outlined in a 2019 court case.
The case, Koi Nation of Northern California v. U.S. Department of the Interior, was related to the tribe’s pursuit of gaming rights, and ultimately was decided in their favor.
“But it was uninhabitable,” Dino Beltran said. There was “no water. It was very rocky and you couldn’t grow anything on it, so no one lived there.”
In 1947, the Bureau ordered Koi families to either live on the property or lose their rights to it. By 1950, only seven tribal members and their families remained on the rancheria.
In 1956, “the federal government sold off the Koi Nation’s land and treated the tribe as if it no longer existed,” according to the 2019 case.
In December 2000, the Department of Interior “sought to correct its error,” and the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs reaffirmed the tribe’s status as a federally recognized tribe, the court document states.
In the early 20th century, tribal captain Tom Johnson — Darin and Dino Beltran’s great great uncle — and his brother John Johnson established a commercial orchard in Sebastopol, according to the Koi Nation’s application for trust status, a first step toward gaining gaming rights.
The Johnson brothers led the tribe from 1919 through the ’40s, and the tribe has been established in Sonoma County ever since, even though they didn’t have a reservation.
Dino Beltran said that before colonization, Koi people’s lifestyle revolved around the “complex spiritual connection with the living environment of the surrounding area.”
Like other Pomo tribes of California, their spirituality is based on the belief that everything in the natural world was created by the Creator and “should be embraced and respected,” Dino Beltran said.
Traditional ceremonies include praying in a roundhouse, eating traditional food and participating in a sweat lodge, he added.
Several of the tribal members are still part of roundhouse way of life, known as “bole malu,” which revolves around praying and spirituality.
The sacred Pomo practice of praying in a roundhouse is “a beautiful thing,” he said.
Like other Pomo tribes, Koi people make traditional jewelry carved from white magnesite gemstones, which they also used as currency, Dino Beltran said.
The Koi ancestors and the Elem and Kamdot tribes shared a common language that is rooted in the Hokan language, which is believed to be one of the oldest languages in California, according to Beltran.
The Koi Nation has 90 members, most of whom live in Sonoma County, said Dino Beltran.
The Koi have revitalized their language with some help from UC Berkeley linguists.
“Unfortunately the majority of our tribal members do live in poverty,” Beltran said. They hope their plans to build a casino will allow them to become economically independent and provide jobs to tribal members and the local community, he said.
“This is an important step forward for the Koi Nation and our people,” chairman Darin Beltran said, adding that the project will ensure the economic stability of the Koi people and will “help Sonoma County residents.”
“We believe this project is a symbolic moment in history of our people and we look forward to seeing its completion in the years to come,” he said.
Find out more about the Koi tribe in Sunday’s Press Democrat.
Editor’s note: This story has been revised to correct Dino and Darin Beltran’s relationship to Tom Johnson due to incorrect information given to the Press Democrat.
You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-521-5224 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @alana_minkler.