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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Coming home to Felix Cove

The Felix Family Home on the Tule Canoe Blessing Ceremony Day
Johanna Miyaki
The Felix Family Home on the Tule Canoe Blessing Ceremony Day

Editor's Note: This feature story was originally inspired by the artist in this LA Times article: Reminders of a bohemian artist’s past will soon fade at Laird’s Landing. If you are interested in learning more about the Coast Miwok's ancestral home, you can listen to a three part series produced by Emergence Magazine called Coming Home to the Cove.

This story aired in the April 27, 2023 episode of Crosscurrents.

This story was made to be heard, click the play button above to listen.

Theresa Harlan was adopted at birth by a member of one of the last Tomalko families to live on the western shores of Tomales Bay. The Felix family built their homestead at what is known today as Laird’s Landing. The descendants of the Felix family know this place to be Felix Cove. The structures still standing there are what remains of their ancestral homestead. They started with the goal of gaining access to their home. Since then it has expanded to welcome all Coast Miwok people home to their sacred land and invite all to learn the history of the indigenous people of this land.

Story Transcript

Johanna Miyaki: Last Spring, Theresa Harlan invited me to join her on a walk down to Tomales Bay. She warned me that reception can be spotty in the area. So, I jotted down the directions and some landmarks to look for.

Johanna Miyaki: The road is long and bumpy. It turns to gravel, then dirt. Cows are grazing behind barbed wire fences on both sides of me.

Johanna Miyaki: “Ok and now the road is narrowing quite a bit…”

Johanna Miyaki: Just when I’m sure I’m lost, I see a gate and a few parked cars ….then I spot Theresa.

Theresa Harlan: “So, this whole area that you see now this was all my mom and my aunts and my uncles and their cousins their area, their home, their play area.”

Johanna Miyaki: Theresa is a petite woman with a quiet strength. She greets me warmly, her dark eyes shine, soulful and welcoming.

Johanna Miyaki: We make our way down the park service road that doubles as a trail to a quiet cove on Tomales Bay.

Johanna Miyaki: Nineteenth century dairy ranchers used this road to reach Tomales Bay where they shipped cheese, milk, and butter to San Francisco. Before that, it was used by Coast Miwok people, who’ve lived in this area in Marin County since before recorded time. People including Theresa’s family, the Felixs. They lived in a house at the end of this road, on a cove that’s now called Laird’s Landing. But Theresa and her family know it as Felix Cove.

Johanna Miyaki: The sweeping hillside is lush with tall, spring grass and native wildflowers.

Theresa Harlan: Oh there’s more! They’re all over, it's incredible, I’ve never, I have never seen this!

Johanna Miyaki: Theresa carries a camera with a long lens, and the shutter fires away as she takes it all in.

Theresa Harlan: So, you know these were all familiar flowers for my mom, growing up. There’s one right there! They’re everywhere! That's Incredible. They’re everywhere on the hill!

Johanna Miyaki: We continue down the winding trail to Tomales Bay, where soft waves roll onto the shallow beach.

Johanna Miyaki: Boats sail past a few homes dotting the shoreline. In a small clearing sits a little wooden house with a small porch, boarded up windows, and padlocked door. It’s unexpected and looks as if it's been frozen in time.

Johanna Miyaki: Theresa says at least four generations of the Felix family lived right here. That all changed in the 1950’s.

Theresa Harlan: It's been 66 years since our family actually lived in the house when my uncle Vic lived here and my grandpa lived here. My uncle was served eviction papers in the 50s...

Johanna Miyaki: She says ranchers claimed this was their land, despite the Felix family having lived here long before the ranchers arrived.

Theresa Harlan: ...and he went to court to contest it. He and his attorney took it all the way to the California State Supreme Court and they lost.

Johanna Miyaki: Theresa and her cousins didn’t grow up coming here.

Theresa Harlan: because by the time we came around, the family had already been forced out.

Johanna Miyaki: Ranch owners used the surrounding land for cattle grazing but the Felix family homestead was deserted until an artist came upon it in the 60’s. In exchange for upkeep and 5-dollars-a-month rent, he lived there until he died. In 2016, the Parks Service said they would restore the Felix family home. Since then, Theresa’s visited often, but little has been done to restore the structures.

Theresa Harlan: We have received special use permits and the park has unlocked the gate so we can drive down. We had a big family meeting here

Johanna Miyaki: She tells me this was the first time they gathered here in over 70 years.

Theresa Harlan: “All these ranches you drove past on L Ranch and you can see a bit of McClure’s Ranch, they all have permits, grazing permits for the cows…they don’t own the land”

Johanna Miyaki: The Park Service owns the land. Theresa says her family isn’t asking for the land back. They want to work with the Parks Service to restore the home, and honor the Coast Miwok and their history as the first people of this land.

Theresa Harlan: Our vision is that this is a place where the house is restored, there’s walkways, there's gardens, there's people here doing basket weaving, or tending plants, it's an active site where you could learn about Felix family history. You could see photographs of the family and its a place where its welcoming. So that people will walk away and they’ll think wow, those folks lived as they were a part of nature, they were part of the land, they were part of waters. it's something that we should all try to dream about and maybe take a little piece of that and make it happen in our own home”.

Johanna Miyaki:The Felix family would also like a special permit to access the road and home. It’s important that they can gather inside the home built by their ancestors, on their ancestral land. Theresa says, when Indigenous land is taken, it's not just about land. It’s about the loss of culture, traditions, and stories.

Theresa Harlan: My mother was very proud of her ability to row across Tomales Bay. Part of addressing intergenerational and cultural trauma is going back and recovering those practices. She had the muscle memory of rowing across that bay to Marshall. I am just now learning to kayak on Tomales Bay. And so that's why I am very much interested in making Tomales Bay accessible.

Johanna Miyaki: Theresa’s just now learning how to kayak here.

Johanna Miyaki: Theresa started to see Felix Cove as part of a larger issue. She started the Alliance for Felix Cove in 2021 and quickly formed partnerships with established native community organizations of Marin County. Theresa calls the group a powerhouse fighting for native lands and native people.

Theresa Harlan:“So, there’s a little hub of us, that are really pulling together to be supportive of each other. We are planning to host a tule canoe launch, its called “Reindigenizing Tamal-liwa, welcoming back our relatives to Tomales Bay.” So we’re commissioning the construction of a tule canoe. And we are inviting native folks to come and join us with their tule canoes, their dug out canoes, kayaks, whatever. We want to fill the bay with native people”

Johanna Miyaki: But first, more Coast Miwok people would have to learn how to build tule canoes as their ancestors did.

Johanna Miyaki: A few months after my visit to Felix Cove, I attend a canoe-building workshop at the native-run Cultural Conservancy in Sebastopol.

Johanna Miyaki: Greg Reza (pronounced REE-zah) is the President of the Museum of the American Indian. He is a big guy with an even bigger smile. He steadily chops away at willow trees for the tule canoe frame. He says learning to build a tule canoe in the traditional way takes time.

Greg Reza: We had a miniature tule canoe built so people understood how these all worked. It is learning, its learning skills and building community and building togetherness.”

Johanna Miyaki: Michelle Heery (pronounced Hear-ee) chats with other volunteers as she bundles willow. She is visiting from Dublin, Ireland.

Johanna Miyaki: “have you ever done anything like this before?”

Michelle Heary: God no! No. I mean my country has a tradition of basket weaving but I’ve never done it”

Johanna Miyaki: “well maybe now you’ll go back and basket weave”

Michelle Heary:“I am literally thinking of how do I get a willow plantation going? That’s what I’m thinking, because they’re talking about how difficult it is for basket weavers to get willow so its actually now on my agenda.”

Johanna Miyaki: A week later, I am back at Felix Cove.

Johanna Miyaki: The canoe isn’t quite ready for a full launch but the Felix family gathers to bless it in the waters at Felix Cove. Theresa’s cousin David leads the ceremony.

Theresa Harlan: We’re providing a means in which our next generations will know this as Felix Family Home, know how to build a tule canoe, know the teas that our moms, are aunties, our uncles that would gather and use for medicine. So this is our first step in bringing that healing.

Johanna Miyaki: By the time the hand made tule canoe is water tight, Theresa couldn’t get another permit to launch it from Felix Cove, so they move the event to other Coast Miwok land – Mcneers Beach on San Pablo Bay.

Theresa Harlan: Its beautiful and she’s buoyant!

Johanna Miyaki: Under a clear blue sky, the grand tule canoe adorned with wildflowers, gets a gentle push from the shore. Theresa and her husband Tiger paddle off to the cheers of family, friends and supporters.

Johanna Miyaki: People watch from the shore and wait for their turn to paddle the canoe, named “The Tamal-liwa”, the Coast Miwok name for the sacred waters of Tomales Bay.

Johanna Miyaki: We watch the Tamal-liwa glide over calm waves, bringing Theresa and Tiger safely ashore to more cheers.

Theresa Harlan: “Absolutely Gorgeous. Alright, who’s next!”

Johanna Miyaki:Theresa looks joyful. Just like the day we happened on all the wild flowers on our walk to Felix Cove’”

Theresa Harlan: It feels beautiful and it makes me feel so happy to see Tashina and Jason out there paddling. It was great to be there too, but it was built for the community so it's great to see the community out there, our relatives out there.”

Johanna Miyaki: Theresa’s journey started with a desire to bring her family back to their ancestral home. But it's become about all native people coming home to Tomales Bay. Through the tule canoe project she found support and solidarity within the larger Indigenous community. She is working with her powerhouse to develop an Indigenous Youth Kayak and Water Navigation Program. And they have plans to launch the “Tamal-liwa” from Felix Cove when the winter storm season is over.