California Native Nations and the Camino Real de las Californias

The clinic partnered with Sacred Places to recover spaces, histories and control by California Native Nations over their traditional land.

A Collaboration with the Sacred Places Institute.

Spring 2017


The Clinic partnered with the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples to support its Decolonizing Place initiative. Sacred Places Institute is an Indigenous-led organization in Southern California dedicated to building the capacity of Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples to protect sacred lands, waters, and cultures. Sacred Places is engaged with California Native Nations in the struggle over the possible designation of the colonial Camino Real as a UNESCO World Heritage Site/Cultural Route. The Clinic was asked to accompany this struggle by analyzing the application of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) to UNESCO and the World Heritage Site designation process. Students produced a four-part memo on the UNESCO process, the application of UNDRIP, World Heritage Sites affecting Indigenous Peoples, and the use by Indigenous Peoples of alternative practices of memorialization of place, such as sites of conscience. Students then organized a workshop to discuss the results of their research and promote dialog and strategizing between representatives of California Native Nations.


The Decolonizing Place initiative of the Sacred Places Institutes seeks to recover spaces, histories, and control by California Native Nations over their traditional land, territory, and cultural resources. Executive Director Angela Mooney D'Arcy (Juaneno/Acjachemen and a UCLA Law graduate) identified an emerging site of struggle over a proposal by the California Mission Society to have UNESCO designate El Camino Real de las Californias as a World Heritage Site. Many Indigenous leaders are disturbed by this proposal, perceiving it as a glorification of the settler colonial process, which resulted in the loss of so much Indigenous life, language, land, and culture. California in particular has glorified and marketed the colonial past and steadfastly refused to recognize the genocide of the Native American population by white settlers in the 19th century during early statehood.

As a UN body, UNESCO has the obligation to safeguard human rights principles made applicable to Indigenous peoples in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), including the right to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) on matters affecting their lands and cultural resources. Clinic students helped build capacity with representatives of California Native Nations around FPIC and UNDRIP as they apply to the World Heritage Site designation process of UNESCO. The students found UNESCO's response to UNDRIP limited and inadequate, devolving its obligation onto member states proposing world heritage sites within their jurisdiction, rather than engaging Indigenous peoples directly and acting to safeguard their rights. The students identified points in the process where California Native Nations could assert their status as both sovereign nations and bearers of collective rights under UNDRIP, rather than as mere "stakeholders," the approach favored by states and the public and private entities promoting the Camino Real.

Students also researched and analyzed alternative memory projects in the U.S. and Latin America to properly honor and remember painful historical moments, including Fort Robinson, Wounded Knee, and Sand Creek in the U.S., and Rio Negro in Guatemala. The research provided tools for considering alternative approaches to the commemoration of place and history, and their political viability. The students conducted extensive community outreach with the Sacred Places Institute to representatives of California Native Nations, and through a steering committee organized a workshop to present the results of their research. Importantly, the workshop facilitated a space for the representatives themselves to dialog and strategize their further engagement with the Camino Real initiative and the UNESCO process. Students also presented a model ordinance for use with local governmental entities to promote adhesion to UNDRIP principles at the local level.

The Camino Real proposal did not make the current list of sites proposed by the U.S. to UNESCO, but there is still the possibility that it could be included as a bi-national initiative with Mexico. Sacred Places Institute and the Indigenous leaders present at the workshop continue to monitor the process and advocate for their collective rights and control over cultural sites and their representation.

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