Wildfires destroyed most of Greenville, California, but the rebuilding process could be a turning point for the local Maidu tribe.
Standing in an elementary school classroom that serves as the temporary headquarters for the Roundhouse Council, Danny Manning and Shelby Leung flip through a cardboard box of donated children’s books, chuckling as they come across familiar favorites.
They shuffle through a history of California’s Indigenous communities. An old coloring book. A collection of Native American legends.
“Do you remember this one?” Manning asks, holding up an illustrated folk tale about the origin of a colorful flower in the Southwest.
For the last two years, staff from the Roundhouse Council, an Indian educational center in the remote mountain town of Greenville, California, have been collecting donations and scouring yard sales trying to replace the many books it lost in the Dixie Fire.
The 2021 blaze, fueled by a combination of intense winds and dry conditions similar to what Lahaina experienced on the day of its deadly fire in August, destroyed more than 75% of structures in Greenville, along with the Greenville Rancheria tribe’s health clinic, fire department, administrative headquarters and a museum that held irreplaceable Maidu heirlooms and cultural artifacts. The fire was so hot it cracked the stone mortars in the Roundhouse Council’s educational center.
“Some of the stuff was the only one we had that we could look at and see how to make another one,” Manning said, adding that his family had stored numerous heirlooms at the museum, thinking it was the safest place in town. “We lost (cultural) blueprints in that museum.”
Two years after the fire, Manning and Leung — both of whom work for the tribe’s fire department and are board members at the nonprofit Roundhouse Council — can still point to the loss that each vacant lot in town represents. But they also now have a clearer vision for the future.
The somber conversation in the classroom turns exuberant as Leung pulls out his phone to show two staff members the latest renderings for the new Roundhouse building under construction less than a block away. The large round room at the front of the building, which was designed to highlight the sun on the summer solstice, will host cultural classes and community gatherings. More importantly, it will be the first building in more than a century in Greenville to be constructed with traditional Maidu features.
“The old building was a house that was donated for Indian education,” Leung said. “So now we have a chance to build something that is really suitable for what it is used for.”
The fire destroyed much of what the local Maidu community had worked hard to build in the last 40 years. But the catastrophe may also prove a turning point for the Greenville tribe, which has struggled for generations to secure a future for its members in their ancestral home.
Five decades ago, there was no legally recognized tribe in Greenville. The Greenville Rancheria owned no land. Received no federal benefits. Had no organized government. No visible presence in a town best known for its connection to the gold rush, an event that decimated the Native American population in California.
Today, the Greenville Rancheria is playing a prominent role in rebuilding the town — and finding an unexpected groundswell of community support for its efforts to address past wrongs and create something new in the process.
“When this happened, it’s like even more people that weren’t Maidu or Native wanted to use this to try to build that up and support that,” Leung said.
Lahaina and Greenville are thousands of miles apart, but they have more in common than the shared pain of watching ferocious winds push an out-of-control blaze through a historic town.
Around the same time that American-owned sugar plantations were expanding their footprints and changing the course of Hawaii history, white settlers were setting out to seek their fortunes in the mountains of Northern California. Though public schools tend to focus on the genocide wrought on California’s Indigenous communities by Spanish colonizers in the 18th and 19th century, the gold rush brought another round of devastation to local tribes.
“We were ground zero of the gold rush,” Manning said, adding that many of the remaining Maidu in the area lost their lands in subsequent decades and moved onto the grounds of a large Indian boarding school.
The lands around Greenville are prominent in Maidu creation stories, but — not unlike how Lahaina’s history as the former capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom was less visible than its past as a whaling port and plantation village — the unincorporated community of 1,200 people was known mostly as a historic gold rush town, with little acknowledgment of its Indigenous inhabitants beyond the presence of friendly looking Native Americans in a mural showcasing the arrival of covered wagons in the area.
Like Native Hawaiians in Lahaina, Greenville’s Native American population was a minority even before the fire, making up about 10% of the community’s population as of the 2020 census. And debates within Manning’s own family over whether to stay in a place so closely intertwined with their culture or seek educational and economic opportunities elsewhere would sound familiar to countless Native Hawaiian families living in Las Vegas, Oregon or California.
In Lahaina, the fire has brought renewed attention to water rights and the diversion of streams to feed first plantations and now resorts. In California, more attention is now being given to how communities like the Maidu stewarded forests for centuries.
But there’s one enormous difference that will shape the path forward in both places. Unlike Lahaina, where homeowners started receiving fliers suggesting they sell their homes just weeks after the devastating wildfire, Greenville has little appeal to developers and land speculators. There is no tourism in Greenville. No proximity to a large city. There’s little likelihood of Greenville getting a mass influx of digital nomads gentrifying the area.
“Our problem is we aren’t sure if anyone is going to come back,” Manning said. “I’d be happy if anyone I grew up with rebuilt.”
Greenville was struggling economically before the fires, Leung said. About half of Greenville’s population moved away after the 2021 blaze. Many found jobs in other places and enrolled their children in schools, constructing lives that they may not want to walk away from. The cost of rebuilding homes is exponentially higher than it was before the fire, and there are deep concerns that many people will be priced out of returning.
The struggle to keep Greenville alive appears to be creating a sense of working-class solidarity among members of Manning and Leung’s generation that cuts across racial backgrounds and historical divides. Yes, Manning and Leung want to see housing built for members of the Maidu community. But they also want to see more done to support everyone impacted by the disaster in coming home.
“We are a part of the town and we are trying to rebuild for all of us here,” Manning said. “We’re not trying to be separate. We are all mountain people.”
There are few landmarks left standing in downtown Greenville. A few newly constructed homes dot the area, but most of the town is still a string of flattened and decontaminated lots.
Even without familiar landmarks, Manning can easily point to what was. This bit of bare earth is where the tribe’s clinic was. Over toward the hill covered with blackened and dead trees is where the administrative offices sat. Each vacant spot represents something the Greenville Rancheria had fought hard to build.
The rancheria, which successfully sued the U.S. government in the late 1970s to restore its status as a federally recognized tribe, ran the only medical facility in town. About 80% of clients were non-Native.
Although the tribe has access to some medical funding through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, it does not have a reservation or land grant. The 200 acres set aside for local Maidu in the 19th century has long been parceled off to private property owners. The tribe, whose members are scattered across two counties, made two unsuccessful bids in the 2000s to open a casino in other parts of the state.
Without a significant revenue stream, the rancheria has had to be scrappy and inventive. Two decades ago, it created a wildlands fire department that is funded through a combination of grants and the fees it charges for services. The fire department helps battle blazes across the country, conducts cultural burns in California to help maintain the ecological balance of the forests, and tags along with other fire crews to try and identify important cultural sites and protect them during wildfires.
Manning, who serves as the department’s assistant fire chief, said the experience of building a department from the ground up is helping in the wake of the Dixie Fire.
“I already did it from scratch once,” Manning said.
The rancheria is applying that scrappy creativity to the rebuilding process. It currently runs its medical and dental clinics out of two mobile trailers stationed in the driveway of a house serving as its temporary headquarters. The fire department runs out of a small room just off the carport.
When the tribe found out that the town’s only pharmacy would not be rebuilt, it started applying for grants to add a pharmacy to its clinic. The new building for the clinic and tribal headquarters will be one of the largest buildings in town, Manning said. The kind of building that will send a statement.
“It will be a pillar of the community,” Manning said. Something that says, “We’ve been here and we’ll always be here. We are the natives.”
Manning and Leung are optimistic about the future of their community. But that isn’t to say that everything in the rebuilding process has been rosy.
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, the rancheria wasn’t properly informed of community meetings about rebuilding and had to assert its presence to not get left out of important decisions, Manning said. Frustration has also abounded in the federal contracting process, with many people upset that more of the cleanup work wasn’t awarded to the tribe or at least to local contractors.
The rancheria has also had internal struggles of its own. A contested tribal election after the fire has created deep rifts and is the subject of ongoing protests.
Leung sits on the Dixie Fire Collaborative, a group that has been instrumental in advocating for the town’s needs and leading the process of reimagining its future.
The collaborative received a $3 million settlement from the electric company found liable for the Dixie Fire, but it has been extremely conservative in spending that funding said Jane Braxton Little, a longtime journalist and member of the collaborative.
Its largest expenditures to date have been a $150,000 grant to the Roundhouse Council to close the gap for its building construction, and $600,000 in gap funding for the rancheria — half as a grant and half as a loan — to help it get rebuilding underway as well.
Braxton Little points to those two votes as some of the decisions she’s most proud of from her time on the collaborative because they point to a shift in Greenville in the five decades she has called the town home.
“I think they demonstrated a community-wide commitment to be more inclusive,” she said, adding that the town has historically not been a very inclusive place.
Coming out of the fires, Leung says he sees more support for changing that. He’s found assistance from non-Native groups to be invaluable in supporting the tribe’s efforts. And he credits that in part to a frequent message that the tribe is doing this for everyone. That the whole community is in it together.
Elders in the Maidu community have always been looking for ways to keep their culture alive, to build places to showcase that culture, he said. Now there appears to be more of a community interest in seeing the Indigenous community represented in town in a way that it wasn’t in the past.
“A lot of people want to see more history. Native history,” he said. “Because that didn’t exist here before.”
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.
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