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A Legacy in Trust: The Dorothy Morehead Hill Collection
by Taran March

Remarkable people make remarkable things happen. Their innate facility for convincing the rest of us that normalcy moves on a sliding scale is not only refreshing, but effective. That’s why we like to have them around, and why we remember them when they’re gone.

Dorothy Morehead Hill, anthropologist, author, teacher, editor, mother, and third-generation Chicoan, was such a person. She was born about the time women received the vote in the United States, and, as a member of the first generation of emancipated women, she pursued a full life that attracted good friends and resulted in numerous good works. Among these was a vast collection of photographs, audiotapes, field notes, and related materials from her four decades’ association with Maidu, Pomo, Wintun, and other Native American people. After Hill died in 1998, and in accordance with her wishes, the collection found a home at California State University, Chico, where in 1970 she earned an M.A. in anthropology. She subsequently lectured in anthropology at Butte Community College.

To many at the university, Hill’s bequest represents the best collection of Northern California Indian materials around. “The Hill Collection is a potential resource for Native communities throughout the North State, many of whom are working hard to restore and protect traditional languages and cultural activities,” says Professor Lisa Emmerich, CSU, Chico’s coordinator of American Indian Studies.

To Hill’s daughter, Maggie Hill, seeing the materials placed where her mother wanted them marks the beginning of their wider usefulness to Native Americans and scholars. It also marks the end of an era of interesting forays into the Hill freezer, for Dorothy Hill also had been an inveterate collector of specimens for local tribes and the university’s anthropology department.

“You never knew what you were going to find in my mother’s freezer,” recalls Hill. “It could be rattlesnake. It could be mountain lion. It could be mallard necks or goose-wing feathers for basket-making. There would be hundreds. You just never knew.”

Unknown bounty

With respect to the Dorothy Morehead Hill Collection, the university is in a similar position of not knowing what it will find among the nearly 4,000 photos and more than 350 audiotapes of interviews with tribal elders, most of them untranscribed. Cataloguing the materials and, in particular, remastering the tapes “will take years,” according to Bill Jones, head of Meriam Library’s Special Collections, where the collection currently sits in boxes.

“Twenty years ago, Dorothy Hill began to talk to me about where to put her collection,” remembers Jones. “She showed a lot of forethought about this.”

Although the University of California at Berkeley, where Hill graduated in 1943 with a B.A. in physical education and natural science, was a likely and willing recipient, Maggie Hill admits that she was the only one who seriously considered that possibility. “Mom always wanted it to be here,” she says, “as close as possible to the people she did it for, so it would be available to them.”

Concerning Dorothy Hill’s own attitude toward her collection, Jones offers the following summation: “I’d say she was a positive-driven person who understood the importance of the work she was doing, which was, as she termed it, preserving the fading cultural aspects of Native Americans in the area.”

Jones has secured a one-year grant from the California State Library system to begin the process of sorting and indexing the collection. “It will cover the costs of cataloguing, remastering, and storing tapes for about an eighth of the collection,” he estimates. Part of the $150,000 grant will also cover the costs of making some of the photos available on the Internet.

This somewhat daunting overhaul notwithstanding, there has never been any question of the collection’s worth. “I transcribed about 10 of the tapes for her back in the ’70s,” recalls Craig Bates, curator of ethnography at Yosemite National Park and a longtime friend of Hill’s. “I think there’s really good information on them, but you have to know what you’re looking for.”

English professor and American studies faculty member Andrea Lerner says different parts of the collection will probably prove most valuable to different needs. “For example, the Maidu tribe is anxious to obtain transcripts of old legends Dorothy recorded from Bill Epperson because they document the traditional spiritual importance of a specific locale—one which is now threatened by development needs,” says Lerner. “Those transcripts can serve as legal evidence to protect those sites. Or another person may wish to receive information on traditional gathering grounds for basket-making materials—or the kinds of materials that were used traditionally.”

Emmerich agrees about the value of the collection. “If Berkeley wanted the collection—and they’re not interested in just anything—it speaks volumes to its quality as a scholarly endeavor,” she observes. “It’s not simply a local collection of memorabilia. It has real scholarly value. And real cultural value.”

A sensitive matter

Along with having cultural value, the Hill Collection presents several challenges, and a university, in many respects, could prove the best environment in which to address them. These “sensitivity issues,” as those involved unanimously refer to them, revolve around how much of the materials should be made public, who should make that decision and how, and whether the university can redeem itself from past transgressions in the eyes of local native people. Coming to terms with these matters will require a little politics, a little fence-mending, and, not surprisingly, a great deal of committee time.

Perhaps no one is more aware of this than Lerner, who co-chairs the collection’s selection committee with Bill Jones. “One of the key issues I’m concerned with is accessibility, in terms of materials that might not be appropriate for broad sharing,” stresses Lerner. “For example, there are many photos of particular ceremonies that, in some cases, the public is welcome to attend; in other cases, they are closed ceremonies. Do we let anyone walk in and see these images? Do we let them make copies of them? These are tough questions, and the university is moving very carefully on these issues.”

To that end, CSU, Chico Provost Scott McNall approved the 12-member committee that acts as an advisory board to Special Collections, as a means of gathering representatives from the university, the Native American community, and the Hill family to decide, photo by photo and tape by tape, what constitutes “sensitive items.”

“We want to make sure that if we have a picture of a Maidu basket and the library thinks it would be an interesting thing to make available through a shared Internet resource, then a designated Maidu person will look at it first and determine whether it’s a ceremonial basket or one meant to be displayed,” explains Lerner.

Steve Santos, tribal chairman of the Mechoopda Indians of Chico Rancheria, learned of the collection’s existence by chance. “I had accidentally come across the collection at work,” he says, referring to his mornings spent as an information technology consultant, primarily for Meriam Library’s computer systems. “When I went to pick up a printout, another job was there that listed part of the collection’s catalogue, and on the list was my great-grandfather’s name, Bud Bain.”

Santos now serves on the collection’s selection committee. It could be argued that Santos’ dual roles as tribal chair and selection committee member place him in the unenviable position of answering to opposing forces. But he says he doesn’t see it that way. Rather, the Hill Collection could serve as an opportunity for healing the historical animosity between local native people and the university.

“A lot of the friction has to do with repatriation issues, collection issues, plus the fact that, for our tribe primarily, the university is built on our former reservation lands,” Santos allows after a diplomatic pause for thought. “There’s some belief that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the city of Chico, and the university had begun discussion for acquiring our land prior to our termination.” (Chico Rancheria’s Mechoopda band of Maidus had its tribal status stripped by the Termination Act of 1950, which removed tribal status from many Native American groups. The Mechoopdas have since been re-recognized.)

“One of my goals is to facilitate the re-establishing of trust,” Santos continues, “because the university is a very good resource. I would much rather have that collection here, than, say, at Berkeley. The tribal elders who worked with Dorothy Hill understood that a lot of their culture was being lost and that she would be able to preserve it. Our tribe currently doesn’t have the means to preserve that collection. So I personally feel that as long as the checks and balances are there for the protection of the collection, and access to the tribes, it will benefit both the university and the tribes.”

Ripples in the pond

Although trust takes time to establish, other positive things already have come about as a result of the Hill Collection becoming more publicly available. According to Lerner, the information it contains about traditional crafts has enabled tribal communities to work with Caltrans to preserve places in Northern California that are good sites for collecting basketry material such as red willow and sedge. And at a reception last fall celebrating the university’s acquisition of the collection, Santos was able to present to his mother a formerly unknown portrait of her grandfather, who had raised her. This prompted stories from her that he hadn’t previously heard.

It was Hill’s ability to make personal connections with people—not only her Native American friends but university associates and other Chicoans—that has created such potential for future scholarship. She inspired trust, and in trusting her collection to the university, she opened the way for two groups who have, at times, been at odds with one another to come together.

“She was great,” declares Craig Bates, who has consulted the collection frequently during the past three decades. “She was really generous. When she felt you were serious, not just out to make money or a name for yourself, she couldn’t help you enough. The old photos she copied often were the only record there was, for instance, of how someone dressed for a ceremonial dance, or of an old relative. For that reason, many people would come to her to access the collection.”

Maggie Hill characterizes her mother as someone whose wide-ranging interests stemmed from a sincere love for her community. “She was interested in everything. She helped plant salmon in Butte Creek. She took part in Audubon bird counts. She was involved in establishing the [Butte County] Greenline and saving the agricultural lands on the west side of Chico. She had a sense of the world and her place in it, a sense that everyone is the same. It’s nice to know that people recognized that.”

Lerner believes Hill’s personality influenced her work to a much greater degree than was common for many of her contemporaries. “You can tell the type of anthropologist someone is not so much by what they publish, but by how much they move around,” she says. “Dorothy lived here, called this home. She was working with her neighbors. She became a neighbor and friend to the people she interviewed.”

In the end, it was this neighborliness that drew infinitely valuable and vanishing information to her and, eventually, to her community. “I think that, like anything else, over time you get to know an individual’s character,” comments Santos. “There wasn’t a deviation in her character. And that’s where the trust came from.”

About the author

Taran March (B.A., English, ’89) is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Cherokee, California.


Herb Young's Story

In June 1968, Dorothy Hill taped a conversation with Maidu elder Herb Young. This edited excerpt is taken from one of the few transcripts (made at UC Berkeley in 1992) of the 350 audiotapes donated to California State University, Chico. It highlights not only Young’s lively storytelling style but also Hill’s genuine interest in a tale well told.

Herb Young: This story is the beginning of the world. That’s what we call bikéido. Now, what I’d like to say about this, so’s you can understand, about who the white people call Jesus Christ. My uncle said, yes, Jesus Christ was through here; he’s the Creator. And, he said, when the Creator was here, he had quite an argument with Coyote along.

Dorothy Hill: Along?
Along, yeah. And when he got to where he was to make people, there were two birds that went across to Europe, you might say.

You told me the names of those two birds.
wékwekei, the hawk, and háani, the pigeon. So they go over and look. Europe was nothing. Not a thing there. Just a plain country. So Kótoyàppei, that’s the Creator, he set down. And mowed cúpii, those willows that they make baskets with, he mowed them, near a fire. To make them into colors.

Did you say he cut them?
Yeah, he mowed them. He roasted them.

That’s the way that goes, see. Roasted them to different colors. Now when he got that done, he started to travel again, so he took this colored, and white, and black, and all-colors
cúpii, and he broke it up, like this, and scattered it all out there. That became the people. And there were all-colored people in this world. That’s the beginning of the whole thing.

That’s nice.
See, that’s something you never heard or never will, I guess. But my story is this: When
Kótoyàppei went, he got mad at Coyote because Coyote beat him on all the different items they were making. So he [Kótoyàppei] said, “I’m going to leave and never look back here no more. But I will step over to another place and make it the way I want.” Now, he said, he talked Indian: … [*] He said, in other words, he was in Coyote’s world now. You’re in Coyote’s world. But he made another place the way he wanted. And it’s a place where you can be happy forever. Nothing you want—it’s there! See, that’s what he wanted to make out of this world, here, but Coyote beat him. So that’s the reason we got Coyote’s world today.

We’re in the Coyote world.
Uh-huh. This is the Coyote world we’re in. And we’re catching the devil, and hell, and everything else right here on this earth, right now! But if you—I don’t know if you’d make it, but Indians will. Make it to this place that he [
Kótoyàppei] made. Live forever, happy. And all your people there, you’ll meet them. They’re all there. See, that’s what it means. I was just trying to tell you the short story of that. And that’s a good long story if you had to tell it.

* For many Native American cultures, words and language carry great power to figuratively and literally transform the world. In sensitivity to these concerns, the original language has been removed from this reprint.

  Chico Statements is published by the Office of Public Affairs and Publications twice a year for alums, parents, faculty, staff, and friends of California State University, Chico.

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