During one of the Storytelling and Traditional Flute programs at the LeConte Memorial at Yosemite in 2005, Ben Cunningham-Summerfield played a traditional California Maidu elderberry flute that he made.
Keeping Tradition Alive
Ben and Kimberly Cunningham-Summerfield practice and preserve the rare art and science of American Indian tradition. And as interpretive rangers for Yosemite National Park, they share their talents and knowledge with more than 1 million visitors every year.
Ben (BS, Agriculture, ’92) is an American Indian knapper who works with obsidian, chert, diacite—anything with a glassy substance. Kimberly (BA, Sociology, minor in American Indian Studies, ’88) is an American Indian basket weaver and storyteller. Ben also records and performs as a traditionalist flutist. Together they enjoy storytelling and playing music for audiences of all ages.
Ben and Kimberly met at CSU, Chico as members of the American Indian Club. Ben is Mountain Maidu, and Kimberly is Tsa la gi (Cherokee) but was raised Miwok. They both came to CSU, Chico through the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), but chose Chico because of its proximity to home (Greenville for Ben, Ukiah for Kimberly). It’s that sense of home that they still carry with them.
“Chico provided us with a good, broad base,” says Ben. “The sense of community we felt at CSU, Chico is felt even today, right in our center. We made some really awesome friends there, and we still keep in contact with some of them.”
It’s the feeling for community that they also share with the world, educating people from all the continents in the unique setting of Yosemite National Park.
Kimberly Cunningham-Summerfield and daughter Kazzandra stand in the entryway of a village leader’s house during an Indian Cultural Programs, Parks as Classroom event in Yosemite Valley in 2005.
“We’re both traditionalists,” says Kimberly. “It’s been a priority for Ben and me to address Native people’s cultural knowledge, and let people know it still has a place in the contemporary world.”
Ben is also an authority on indigenous natural resource management—including controlled burns using American Indian methods of burning in a traditional manner at a traditional time. In 1994, along with Kimberly, he led his first traditional burn in lower Bidwell Park to control the abundant blackberry and vinca plants. The successful burn resulted in Bidwell Park’s seven-year burn plan.
“That kind of thing is really good for intercultural outreach—it expands the mind and the horizon for other techniques of landscape management,” says Kimberly. The success of Ben’s methods resulted in his invitation from the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service in Australia to share his knowledge of aboriginal burning methods.
With four children (Codey, Kyle, Kazzandra, and Tomben) and one grandchild on the way, Kimberly and Ben plan to keep on working. “There’s a lot to do,” says Ben.
Ben received a master’s degree in recreation administration (with an emphasis on Native use of fire as a management tool) from CSU, Chico in 2000. Kimberly received an EdM in administration planning and social policy of education from Harvard University in 1992.
About the author
Diana Bishop (BA, International Relations, ’96) is a technical writer for Landacorp, Inc., in Chico, California.