Photo: Stuart Allen's Lake Berryessa Line

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Dancin' on Sacred Land

"We Are Not Dead": Local native peoples today

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Mabel McKay
Cache Creek Casino

Mabel McKay

The next stop in my self-directed education [after learning the outlines of traditional relationships to the land] was to read Greg Saris' book Mabel McKay -- Weaving the Dream, a non-fiction volume about the life of a native weaver and shaman who was born a Pomo and raised in Long Valley at the extremities of Cache Creek watershed, near the Patwin villages of the Lolsel. Her life bridged the gap between stone age dancers of the sacred earthen lodges and the managers of the contemporary native gambling casinos, where tour busses bring clientele from all over California to Brooks in the Capay Valley of Cache Creek, and Middletown in the Upper Putah drainage.

Mabel McKay was trained as a traditional "dreamer" and "sucking doctor", one who achieved her power from dreams and drew out "poisons," both material and ethereal, from afflicted persons. She was also a superb basket weaver whose works are represented in major national collections, including the Smithsonian. To read her life story is to understand several things: first, the tumultuous pathway of a people overwhelmed by white society, and second, the gritty persistence and ultimate survival of indigenous people into the present bioregion of the Sacramento Valley. Mabel's grand-nephew, Marshall, is the head of the Rumsey Band of Wintun located in Brooks.

Cache Creek Indian Casino

The building sits in a sea of asphalt, parked cars, and tour buses -- a sprawling box, painted warm earth colors, with a portico entrance. Directly across the road is an immense, perfectly plowed field of chocolate-brown corduroy earth edged by oak grassland fading up and into the Blue Ridge to the west. The Cache Creek Casino announces one's arrival on contemporary Indian land. A well-stocked and friendly mini-mart offers the last gas, food, beer and cigarettes for 60 miles northwest; beyond are the small houses of the Rumsey Band of Wintun Rancheria, many now being remodeled.

Inside, the air is thick with smoke, the room crowded with things resembling slot machines -- one armed bandits without any arms. A few photographs of native American artifacts hang on the walls, but mostly kitschy plains Indian references -- nothing authentic to the former peoples of the local area. As in many native Rancherias in California, the residents are not descendants of local forebears, but come from other local regions. At Rumsey in the Capay Valley, there are no "Patwin" left at all, and hence, little material culture by which to refer to their own past. The once-local Patwin language has vanished, save for a few words captured in stories decades ago by ethnologists.

The people, however, are very much alive, and the casino has finally given them the resources needed to endure and strengthen as a formerly remnant culture. There have been the typical squabbles with the white neighbors for whom a busy Nevada-style casino is an affront to their values -- or an exposure of their prejudices. But the Rumsey Band has made peace with the neighbors, donating money to pay for an additional squad car and several deputies for the county sheriff's office. They have also given generously to the local native American college, DQU, and even supported the Sacramento Symphony before it finally folded.

Not all native California rancherias have made peaceful transitions to the age of Indian gaming; the Clear Lake Pomo have suffered much internal dissension and even some violence. But the Cache Creek Rumsey Band is experiencing a financial security which now allows them to deal with their white neighbors on equal terms. Regardless of one's attitudes, gaming is now a fact of life on Indian Land in America, and it has given many native peoples the foundations upon which to re-discover their past and to re-negotiate and improve their formerly one-way relationships to white neighbors.

My lack of enthusiasm for gambling, my empty pockets, and my allergic reactions to tobacco smoke finally force me outside to the clean air and the westward view across immaculate farmland to the Blue Ridge. The car takes me down Highway 16 through the rolling grazing land where the Capay Valley breaks into the Sacramento Valley -- roughly the line of demarcation between Hill Patwin and River Patwin people.

Middletown Rancheria

Brad and Jeff Knight walk into the small, windowless seminar room in the basement of a UC Davis campus building. Both are wearing black -- Brad, the older of the two, wears a black leather jacket; Jeff, a black tee-shirt, black pants, and a black baseball cap with the brim turned backwards. They are stocky, with the straight dark hair of native people. They are both members of the tribal council of the Middletown Rancheria (the name given to the many small, officially-designated native reservation lands in California). Our campus bioregional group has invited them to speak to interested students, faculty, and guests about their concerns and their growing interest in the activities of the various Putah Creek watershed groups.

Brad and Jeff tell us that their Rancheria is occupied by remnants of three tribes: Pomo, Lake Miwok, and Wintun. Brad told us that up until recently, all of them thought they were Pomo until a linguist from Berkeley had analyzed the language of one of their eldest native speakers on the Rancheria and determined them to be Lake Miwok, whose language was completely distinct from that of the Pomo. Upon hearing this, I wonder at how I might react if some outside expert told me my relatives came from Austria instead of England.

We have deliberately placed the chairs (normally arranged in a stiff grid) in a circle, and Jeff, the younger of the two, slowly warms up to the audience. He says he has become the "seeker" of the group, looking for answers to the deep questions of what he calls the "Indian Heart Condition". He looks deeply for spiritual grounding amongst his "aunties" and "uncles" -- not true relatives, but elders and others on the reservation and in the surrounding region. He has begun to attend meetings of the Tribal Alliance of Northern California, and like many other native people I have known, has largely taken this educational endeavor into his own hands.

Jeff and his brother have begun to take a more active role in local watershed issues, expressing concern for both the quality of the ground water at the reservation, and for assuring that environmental impacts in the areas are either prevented or mitigated. Brad and Jeff have both taken a training class in techniques for leading participatory watershed groups, and they are members the Upper Putah Creek Stewardship, recently created by former Lake County supervisor Helen Whitney. Like the tribal people at Rumsey, Brad and Jeff are leading the Middletown Rancheria "out of the closet".

Perhaps the most startling fact emerging from the Knight brothers' talk is this: prior to the establishment of a modest gambling casino (much smaller than the enormous Cache Creek Casino the next watershed eastward), 90% of the houses on the Middletown Rancheria experienced at least one serious condition of alchoholism, drug abuse, or domestic violence. Now, says Jeff, that number has been reduced to about 20%. Gaming, for all its ambivalence, has given the people not only a job and a purpose, but even more importantly, has returned a sense of self-respect to the rancheria. Native sobriety, ironically, has emerged from non-native gaming.

The hour is up, and Jeff and Brad thank the audience for inviting them, showing pleasant surprise at the traditional but heartfelt round of applause they receive. The listeners -- assorted graduate students, professors, and community members -- linger, talking enthusiastically among themselves or asking Brad and Jeff more questions, while I help return the chairs to their rigid grid arrangement, wondering why I bother to do so.


I turn the car off the paved county road onto the long gravel driveway leading toward a small cluster of distant buildings surrounded by flat farm fields. We have entered the grounds of Deganaweda-Quetzalcoatl University, DQU for short, a two-year accredited post secondary educational institution for Native Americans. Situated on 640 acres of B-grade farmland in the Willow Slough watershed of central Yolo County, DQU occupies the site of a long-defunct military communications station donated as surplus government land to the native people after considerable activism. The buildings are as bleak and drab as any fifties-era military vernacular architecture, only here and there pleasantly punctuated by the painted murals of the native students. Tonight, the local non-native communities have been invited to a pow-wow, and the scene of the fancy costumes, crowded dance hall, and warm light welcome us as we walk in from the rainy parking lot.

Stephanie and Neal, our fourth graders, have been studying the native peoples as part of their curriculum on California history, and Flo, their teacher, has assigned the pow-wow as homework. The announcer calls the various dances, each accompanied by different drum groups, who strive to outdo each other with their piercing tremolo chants. There are "fancy" dances, whose participants wear elaborate cross-tribal regalia, and the more subdued "grass" dances. Dancers move clockwise around the room, the more spirited and talented twirling extra circles with vigorous footwork, the elder people often merely shuffling, heads erect, with smiles and sometimes quiet conversation.

The announcer dedicates the next dance to the veterans among the crowd. The national anthem is sung, whereupon several U.S. military-uniformed Indian dancers accompany the American flag solemnly around the room, while the audience removes their hats, some of which are baseball caps with various Army, Navy, Marines, or Air Force unit logos.

Later in the evening, non-natives are specifically invited by the announcer to join the procession. Stephanie jumps up eagerly, Neal declines. Lacey and I gingerly take to the dance floor, Lacey with the required shawl around her shoulders to show respect. I dance clumsily and self-consciously to the music, amazed at how difficult it is to actualize the dance steps which even the oldest native people make look so easy.

I am grateful for the invitation to finally experience DQU; it was always a remote place around which I rode on bicycle rides, and an organization to which I occasionally made donations. Now DQU, like the local rancherias, has begun to turn more toward the local community. DQU cooperates with the local Resource Conservation District on erosion control and water quality management experiments, and teaches courses from general university education, to native weaving, indigenous art, and gaming management. They have completed a master plan to restore wetlands along their ephemeral creek, and to seek ways of avoiding the take-up of agricultural toxics by the reeds and rushes used by native basket weavers, who must hold the materials in their mouths while their hands working.

Nearing the kids' bed time, we leave the pow-wow, and head back to the car. I notice that the rain has stopped and the stars and moon have come out. I can smell cool, damp earth in the adjacent farm fields.

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