Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 16, 2001 - Issue 38



Mining Hills for Tourists


Miwoks and Maidus in Foresthill gather together to hunt for resources to preserve their cultures.


 by By Dorothy Korber SacBee Staff Writer


Lavina Suehead, a Miwok, belongs to a dance troupe that performs around the state.
SacBee / Chris Crewell

Imagine the majestic patience of the people known as hunter-gatherers. The diligence to track game. The perseverance to assemble enough roots or acorns for dinner. The endurance to wait calmly until the moment is ripe.

In the mountains above Auburn, a small tribe of Miwok and Maidu Indians is exercising the patience of their ancestors. The game is afoot, but their prey is not rabbits or doves.

They want to snare the elusive tourists speeding past their enclave in Foresthill.

More than a million visitors drive through Foresthill annually, headed for recreation in the Tahoe National Forest. The Todd's Valley Miwok-Maidu Cultural Foundation hopes to harvest a few dollars from these passersby.

Eventually, the tribe envisions a "Miwok-Maidu Sense of Place" where the Indians can share their traditions, perform their dances and sell their crafts. So far, they have an 18-acre clearing in the woods, two bark huts and four upended logs that will frame a 60-foot roundhouse.

"We're headed in the right direction," said tribal Chairman Richard Prout. He was standing in the imaginary center of the roundhouse, where the fire ring will be. "It's a slow process. It may take awhile, but we are plugging away, and we'll get it done."

"At first we were very unsure," said Fern Brown, who chairs the cultural foundation. "But with a little help and support, we've come this far, and I'm sure we can go further."

A warm breeze wafted through the tall pines last week during a gathering at the site. Sitting in lawn chairs, officers of the cultural foundation and the Colfax-Todd's Valley Consolidated Tribe talked of their plans. It was a relaxed meeting, enlivened by the joshing of folks who've known each other a lifetime.

They said their goals are both spiritual and practical: cultural preservation for the tribe and an economic bootstrap for its 200 members.

The group is descended from native people who had the bad fortune to live at the cradle of the Gold Rush. In 1849, their deliberate, peaceful existence was torn apart by the arrival of a horde of outsiders devoted to getting rich quick.

"There is a very sad history for the tribes living near the American River," said anthropologist Robert Bettinger. A professor at the University of California, Davis, he studies hunter-gatherer cultures. "They suffered violence, rape and literal slavery working in the mines."

The few who survived found their world altered.

"If you eat acorns or pine nuts, if you live on fish from streams, and these things are all eliminated -- how do you keep your culture alive?" Bettinger asked.

Now, 150 years later, their descendants are hunting government grants and gathering building materials.

Slowly, but steadily, their patience is paying off.

The U.S. Forest Service donated a huge granite boulder that bears the smooth indentations of an ancient acorn-grinding stone. Small grants from Placer County and the Native American Performance Fund will help polish their traditional skills. A garden of native plants is under way. The CalFed water program is sponsoring workdays on the roundhouse.

And thanks to a $25,000 federal grant awarded through the

Sierra Economic Development District, the tribe is armed with the quintessential modern tool: a consultant.

She's Leslie F. Warren of Auburn, who spent a year meeting with tribal members and assessing their potential. Warren devised a 40-page Economic Development Strategy for the cultural foundation, complete with methodology, goals and an action plan.

She sees the cultural center -- the Sense of Place with its roundhouse -- as the first link in a chain of opportunities for the Colfax-Todd's Valley tribe. Spinning off it, Warren suggests, the group could create a Miwok-Maidu industry that sells crafts, leads nature expeditions, and harvests ferns, cones and other natural materials from the forest.

"There is such potential," Warren said in an interview. "There is a wealth of material in their collective memory just waiting to be mined. But you can't rush these folks. A lot of dialogue and debate needs to happen."

Warren cites employment as an important aim, but her report foresees another outcome that eclipses economics. She proposes a goal that does nothing less than reverse history:

"Regain a sense of community and cultural integrity by reversing the historic dispersion of members and creating opportunities to once again live in close proximity to each other, in their historic homeland and near their cultural site."

Warren doesn't downplay the challenge facing the tribe. "It's a monumental effort to do a community project of this magnitude," she said.

One obvious source of money is not on their agenda. No Indian gaming for them, they agree. "We had a couple of goal-setting sessions, and the idea of a casino never came up," Warren said.

At the moment, it's a moot point. Since the Colfax-Todd's Valley tribe is not officially recognized by the U.S. government, it is barred from operating a casino.

Leading an informal tour of the Sense of Place site, Fern Brown shrugged off the gaming idea. "We have our priorities, and a casino is not one of them," she said, then pointed to a low leafy plant. "Watch out for the poison oak."

Nearby, Brown's younger sister stood barefoot on the pine needles. Lavina Suehead wore the traditional costume of a Maidu dancer: a buckskin dress trimmed with abalone pendants and an elaborate headdress fashioned of fur and feathers.

"Even if this place never opens to the public," she said softly, "it means a lot to us."

Suehead didn't start dancing until she was 35. Now 51, she belongs to a troupe that performs across the state. One day, she hopes to dance in her tribe's own roundhouse.

"It took me years to gather the materials for my dance regalia," she told a non-Indian guest. "I had to wait until I had all the parts. In your culture, everything moves quicker and faster. We're not in such a hurry. We think of life on a seasonal basis. We gather things."

Maps by Travel


California Indians


Maidu Indians
The first people who lived in Nevada County were the Maidu Indians. They gathered acorns and wild plants and caught fish and game. The women were skilled basket weavers. They were migratory, traveling down to the Sacramento Valley and up to the High Sierras


Miwok Information
Before Westerners arrived, the Miwok enjoyed thousands of peaceful years of in the pristine beauty of Angel Island. Native American use of the island began when people first came to live in the San Francisco Bay Area.




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