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."
And the crews are also protecting native artifacts that remain on the land.
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.
Mendibles says there are traditional ways to purify these grinding rocks:
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.
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.
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.
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.