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Native Crews Restore Sacred Sites on U.S. Forest Lands



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(Sacramento, CA)
Tuesday, January 01, 2013
Much of the forested Sierra is overgrown and at risk of catastrophic wildfire.  Much of this same land is home to ancient Native American Miwok cultural sites, where people lived for thousands of years until the gold rush.  

On a recent chilly day in the snow-speckled hills of Calaveras County,  former U.S. Forest service district archeologist Barbara Balen and members of the native forest crew walked to a restored Miwok site likely several hundred years old. 

"And if you look closely at this landscape, you'll see an older management regime.  When the native people were here, it didn't' look like this," says Balen.  "There are small vestiges of plants that are foods, fibers and medicines out here."

Balen says Miwok people cultivated the forests using controlled fire and hand clearing. They kept the understory clear for visibility and to allow sunlight in for important food and medicinal plants. She points to bushy clumps of grass: "This, here is muhlenbergia rigens; this is a native grass that is the vestiges of an older cultural garden." 
 
"But (the plants) are struggling, so one of our goals was to bring sunlight to these plants."
  
Returning to Cultivate The Forests
 
Modern-day Miwok crews funded by federal grants and local groups, are partnering with the U.S. Forest service to do this clearing work.  The goal is to restore the lands for native plant gathering and reduce forest fire risk. 

And the crews are also protecting native artifacts that remain on the land.

Balen pushes back manzanita branches to reveal a grinding rock: a flat granite slab with three concave indentations in it, each roughly the size of a tea saucer.  She says women would grind up food in these concave depressions, using a rounded granite pestle. 
 
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The grinding rocks are still partially covered with  pine needles, so they're hard to see.  That's intentional, says Bronson Mendibles, one of the Miwok crew members. 

The locations of these Miwok cultural sites in U.S. Forest land are kept secret--protected even from Freedom of Information Act requests.  And crews work to make sure their clearing activity doesn't attract attention to valuable Indian artifacts that might be looted or stolen. 

Mendibles says there are traditional ways to purify these grinding rocks:

"To clean out ... these sort of sites, you have to have right kind of medicine and the right kind of tradition to do that with.  And to clean it not only physically, but spiritually also. "

Mendibles says he learned about many traditional Miwok plants from his family as a child.  Working on these land restoration projects gives him a paying job, and a role in preserving this history.
 
"It's great to help, really.  You know you have actual evidence of past, and history, and you can do something about it," says Mendibles.
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Restoring -- Yet Leaving History Intact
 
The crews work carefully to avoid disturbing the land. They  leave the dirt mound middens untouched  because they  could  contain artifacts of their Miwok ancestors.  They use hand tools when necessary to prevent chainsaw oil dripping in the watershed.
 
"Because it is sensitive areas, that was a place of prayer and ceremonies.  And our native crews, they respect that land.  I'm not saying no one else would respect the land, but theirs is deep connection to that land," says Arvada Fisher, a Miwok native plant specialist who works with the native crews.
 
Fisher says learned how to recognize and use plants from her grandmother.  Her grandmother was going blind in her later years, so she taught Fisher not only to identify plants by sight, but also by smell and touch.

"That part of our stewardship of the land was taken away from the Indian people," says Fisher. "So when our native crew go in there, it's just like that's there connection to the past and they want to try to do right to wrongs done on this land."
 
Chris Burley, a younger generation of the Miwok crew, says he says he learned many of these things as a kid too.
 
"We want out to get our chekcheka, our medicine, when we were little, for grandparents," Burley says.  He knew many plants, but learned about even more from Fisher. 
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Finding A New Voice
 
After this pilot project in the Stanislaus, the crew also worked on a number of other sites on U.S. Forest land in the Sierra.  Their work is funded by federal grants and some aid from the non-profit California Indian Manpower Consortium.
 
Calaveras County supervisor Steve Wilenksy was pivotal in putting this unique project together.  He says it was vital that all native crews  made the decisions about how to treat the land and how to "not just restore a site, but to restore a sense of dignity and purpose and pride in our area and for our communities that have been disenfranchised for a long time." 
In addition to this restoration work, many of the same community leaders constructed a plaque in nearby West Point to recognize earlier injustices against the native community and to honor Miwok history. 

Joyce Rummerfield's poem is on the plaque, and captures the pain that Miwok people experienced when gold rush seekers came to the land, as well as the importance of restoring the land: "For Indian people are caretakers of mother earth, and keepers of the land./ No one is truly dead until they are forgotten."
 
As these forest cultural sites being restored, Miwok people are already coming to these sites to gather medicinal plants and fibers for basket-weaving.   The restoration work will help keep these plants -- and traditions -- alive. 
 
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