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Fall 2005
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Professor Greg White and tribal member Arlene Ward at Alumni Glen, the former site of a Mechoopda village

On Common Ground

CSU, Chico and Mechoopda Indian tribe forge relationship to preserve history, plan for the future

Before anthropology professor Antoinette Martinez overturned a single stone in her excavation at Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve, located 10 miles northeast of campus, she did something that, historically, few archaeologists have done: She approached the local Native American tribe, the Mechoopda, and asked them to join her.

“I went to them and said I want to do archaeology on the reserve and I want you to participate,” recalls Martinez. Although California environmental law mandates that Native Americans monitor such projects in the event an excavation turns up Native American artifacts or graves, Martinez wanted to forge a relationship that went beyond legal requirements.

Her desire signals a new style of doing archaeology, one that begins to heal wounds that have existed for decades between university anthropology departments and local native peoples. Martinez saw that Mechoopda participation would enable the tribe to learn firsthand about their ancestors’ way of life. “This is part of their past, their heritage,” she says.

It also represents a new chapter in the relationship between California State University, Chico and the Mechoopda. Last October, in a move that is unprecedented in the California State University system, the University signed an official memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the tribe—descendants of the original inhabitants of land lying between the foothills and the Sacramento River and stretching roughly from Durham in south Butte County up to the Tehama County line.

The document (which can be found on the Web at is a set of guiding principles pledging that the two parties will practice “open, candid, respectful, timely, and effective communication” and seek agreement on decisions concerning future use of campus lands. It calls for the tribe and University to devise a plan that would deal with any artifacts, sacred objects, or burial remains—materials known as “cultural resources”—that may be found on campus property in the future.

“I really see this as recognition by the University that the Mechoopda are the first peoples of this area,” says tribal chairman Steve Santos, who works as an information technology consultant at CSU, Chico’s Meriam Library. “A trust relationship needs to be built, and we’re well on that path.”

Other tribal members agree: “The University has stepped forward to say, ‘We want to pay attention. We want to know what you know,’ ” says Arlene Ward, Mechoopda cultural coordinator, who graduated from CSU, Chico in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a certificate in museum studies. “For a university, the holder of knowledge, to say ‘We may not have all the answers’ is to me a tremendous step.”

Honoring sacred items

Perhaps most notably, the memorandum will begin to address a long-held concern among the Mechoopda—the University’s vast collection of Native American artifacts, among them 158 individual skeletons, nearly 2,800 individual bones, and some 800 burial-related items. Those items were amassed during the 1960s and 1970s by archaeology field classes that dug sites within an hour’s drive of campus—in the heart of Mechoopda territory. For a time, those bones were handled by anthropology students and stored on classroom shelves in what may have been a step forward for science but to the Mechoopda was a violation of their spiritual beliefs.

A federal law passed in 1990 required universities across the nation to catalogue such items and present inventories to those Native American tribes that could claim a link to the remains. During the 1990s, CSU, Chico began the process but never finished it, particularly the law’s directive to consult with tribal members on how to give back any human remains and sacred burial items.

To say the Mechoopda are eager to see this happen would be an understatement. “Those bones need to go back in the ground,” says Ward. “They need to go home.”

The MOU does not spell out how that will be done, but it represents a readiness to work together. “It’s not about what actions we’re going to take but how we’re going to interact with one another,” says Greg White, director of the Archaeological Research Program, who was instrumental in drafting the text of the agreement. “The purpose is to establish an administrative context for all of the interaction we can expect to have with the tribe.”

All parties hope that interaction will resemble what happened when Martinez reached out with respect toward the Mechoopda. Last semester, her request for participation was answered when tribal member Eileen Conway enthusiastically joined her weekly digs at the reserve. “I’d like to think I’m fulfilling one aspect of how we hope to work with the Mechoopda,” says Martinez. “Their cultural heritage is at stake anywhere we work around here.”

Uncovering the past

The MOU didn’t materialize without some hard lessons. Three years ago, as trenches were dug on campus to wire the university with T-II fiber optic cable, White watched from his office and archaeology lab at 25 Main Street with growing concern. “That was all done without any kind of archaeological effort in monitoring or consultation with tribes,” he says. “I just thought there’s something wrong here. What we really need to do is think about our relationship with the tribes and our responsibility as stewards of the past.”

The ground beneath the campus is likely replete with Native American artifacts, even burial sites, notes White, including evidence of prehistoric settlements dating back 16,000 years. Modern times offer even more exact clues. Just across from White’s office is the site of a historic Mechoopda village that was situated along Big Chico Creek in the mid-1800s, at the time that John Bidwell came to the area and established his Rancho Arroyo Chico.

Later, that settlement was moved behind the Bidwell Mansion to what is today the Alumni Glen area between Butte and Holt halls. There, in exchange for work on Bidwell’s ranch, the Mechoopda received protection from government “removal policies” and vigilante violence against Indians, including the 1863 Nome Cult march when more than 450 local Native Americans were rounded up and forced to walk nearly 100 miles westward to a reservation in Mendocino County.

Just as White suspected, the cable trenching project did turn up historic remnants—but they were not Native American. Bulldozers hit upon what appeared to be a classroom from Chico Normal School, the teaching facility founded in 1887 that eventually became CSU, Chico.

The incident raised the question of how to proceed with the University’s Strategic Plan for the Future and its Master Plan 2005, which entails construction of proposed new facilities during the next 15 to 20 years, such as the Student Services Center and student recreation center. Further digging on campus lands might uncover cultural items important to local Native Americans.

Administration officials knew it was time to steer things in a new direction. “There’s always been this unwritten understanding that we have potential for Native American artifacts on this campus,” says Greg Francis, executive dean and director of Facilities Planning and a driving force behind the MOU. “When we were putting together documentation for the master plan, there was an awareness that we’re always talking about this, but where is it written down?”

Thus began a nine-month process to draw up a memorandum that would guide university-Indian relations into the future. For starters, Francis says, projects such as the master plan and individual building plans will be shared with the Mechoopda “well in advance of doing anything other than drawing lines on paper,” and Mechoopda “cultural monitors” will now be present when any digging into campus lands occurs.

It’s a sign that things have come a long way, says White, who, since coming to CSU Chico in 1996, has served as a liaison between local tribes and the University. “I think the campus has come to understand that we live in Indian country,” he says.

A clash of cultures

To understand the full impact of the MOU, it’s worth considering the uneasy history that has existed between Native Americans and universities for decades. “Typically, archaeologists excavated big sites and pulled a lot of burials out without any Indian participation,” explains White. “Skeletal remains would be housed in anthropology labs, studied by generations of students, handled and mishandled, stored poorly—a real lack of what we would consider modern curation methods.”

Beginning in the late 1960s, as Indian groups began to gain a political voice, tribes across the United States began demanding that burial remains and other sacred objects be returned to them, primarily so that they could be reburied. The term used was “repatriation” of those remains, underscoring federally recognized tribes’ status as sovereign nations.

The controversy didn’t elude CSU, Chico. Beginning in the 1960s, the Department of Anthropology conducted archaeological digs in the area and stored those finds on campus, says White. An account in the March 22, 1990, issue of the Chico News & Review, titled “Skeletons in the Closet,” described the angry fallout: “About 30 Indian activists crowded into a meeting of the university’s faculty senate, where they nearly outnumbered the senators themselves. Their demand: that the bones immediately be given over to them for reburial.”

The article characterized the dispute this way: “Behind this disagreement over a set of bones is a clash of cultures that has existed ever since the first Europeans came to the New World and began displacing its native inhabitants. It pits a rationalist, scientific, post-industrial people against one that is earth-bound, tribal and mystical.”

If that characterization oversimplified things then—it certainly doesn’t fit today. Both Ward, who has studied anthropology, and Conway, who joined a university excavation, say they see the value of scientific discovery, and both express more than a little curiosity. Nevertheless, the urgency to see burial remains returned, and reburied, according to tribal spiritual belief, persists. “With any human remains, our primary objective and goal is to locate them wherever they may be and make it a priority to repatriate them,” says Ward. For anyone unable to understand that urgency, Ward clarifies: “I don’t think you’d want your grandmother’s bones on a shelf, would you?”

In 1990, the federal government adopted a set of laws that attempted to remedy the situation. Among them was the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, referred to as NAGPRA, which White calls “a legislative response to the failure on the part of scholars to respond to Native American desires to bring a close to the old way of doing archaeology.”

NAGPRA assigns the responsibility for remains to what are called the “most likely descendants,” those who can trace their ancestry to a tribal group that is most likely related to the remains in question. It sets in place a complicated legalistic process, but the first order of business is for facilities housing remains to conduct an inventory and then submit that inventory to the most likely descendants. From there, a “consultation” begins, with the objective of repatriating those remains that qualify under law.

With a grant from the National Park Service, the Mechoopda tribe has been working with White in an effort to complete the unfinished business of documenting some 400,000 artifacts in the University’s collection and begin the process of repatriation set for a future, but yet undetermined, date.

More ancestral burial sites

Beyond the question of the human remains and burial items, Ward says the Mechoopda have concerns about particular sacred and culturally sensitive sites on campus, including places where the tribe believes more ancestors are buried.

They look to the Mechoopda village that existed behind Bidwell’s mansion beginning in 1849 and was, at one point, home to some 500 inhabitants. Later, in 1869, that village was moved west to a plot of land stretching along Sacramento Avenue as far west as the railroad tracks and became known as the Mechoopda Indian Rancheria. In the early 1960s, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs sold the land to the University, and by 1964, the U.S. government “terminated” the rancheria. (That action was later deemed unlawful, and in a 1992 court decision, the Mechoopda regained their federal status.) Today, all that remains of the original rancheria is a small cemetery, wedged between rental properties that house mostly CSU, Chico students. The Mechoopda are currently studying the possibility that graves exist beyond that cemetery.

Perhaps the most sensitive site, however, is the land in south Chico near Durham where the University’s Agricultural Teaching and Research Center (University Farm) is located. Ward says the area is the setting of the Mechoopda creation story. That hot topic has not yet been broached with campus officials, but she’s hopeful the speaking terms set by the memorandum will make dialogue easier. “Once they understand how important the creation story is to our mythology and that it’s tied to Durham,” she says, “and once they are used to hearing that, and they accept it, then they are more sensitized to planning a little more carefully for this site.”

While these issues remain outstanding, progress has been made on other fronts. The Mechoopda have consulted with staff at the Meriam Library regarding the Dorothy Morehead Hill Collection, a treasure trove of about 6,000 photographs, 90 hours of videotape, 30 boxes of field and research notes, and 400 audiotapes of Hill’s exhaustive interviews with Native American elders compiled over 35 years and now held in the library’s Special Collections (searchable photos, field notes, and audiotapes can be found on the Web at Hill earned her master’s degree in anthropology at CSU, Chico in 1970. Before her death in 1998, she requested that her collection be housed at the University.

“She documented and preserved the history of the people of this area,” says Santos. “At the time, people may have been a little suspicious, but as time has gone on, they see that it was a service to the community.”

Similarly, Ward says she’s been tapped to work with the University’s alumni association to memorialize the Native American presence with a redesign of the Alumni Glen. She is also consulting on campus tour content to provide some Indian narrative to the campus story.

Ward hopes the new changes will encourage more Native American students to enroll at CSU, Chico. Those students would likely experience something no other generation has. “They’d be able to come on campus and say, ‘This is my home,’ ” she notes, “and when they say ‘I am Mechoopda’ in the classroom, the students who live in Mechoopda Hall will say, ‘I know what that is.’ ”

First Peoples of the Land

Eileen Conway grew up watching archaeological documentaries on television and wishing she could be a part of one. So, years later, when anthropology professor Antoinette Martinez asked the Mechoopda to work side by side with her, Conway, a tribal member, jumped at the chance.

Conway joined Martinez’s Archaeology Field Methods class at the Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve as they dug, sifted, and meticulously recorded their findings, which turned up numerous hand stones and slabs for grinding seed, crude points that served as tools or knives, and projective points used for hunting. “I want to learn,” she says. “I can’t learn if I can’t see [the artifacts], and if I don’t know where to look.”

But her quest to learn has not been without some internal struggle. “One of the things I have had to do is put away some of my beliefs as a native Indian,” she says. “We don’t go out looking for bones or touching them. We don’t disturb the ones who are resting.”

One Saturday, when the excavation turned up a possible fragment of a human bone, Conway spotted the tiny piece and picked it up before she learned what it might be. “If I had thought it was a bone, I wouldn’t have touched it,” she says. Digging in that particular spot was brought to a halt. And, later, students gathered with Conway around the hole where the fragment was found. They made offerings of pennies and acorns, and Conway said a silent prayer. The hole was covered.

This winter and spring, samples from the excavation will be analyzed and artifacts will be stored on university grounds—for now. Eventually, the Mechoopda would like to house them, and other artifacts, in their own Native American museum. That was the dream of cultural coordinator Arlene Ward when she enrolled at CSU, Chico five years ago to study anthropology. “The University has been the caretaker of our land, the spokesman for our history, the interpreter of our culture,” Ward says. “We need to begin telling our own story and finding our own voice.”

If and when Ward establishes that museum, Conway knows just where she’ll be standing. “I’ll be right there with her at the front door,” she says, “cutting the ribbon.”

Mechoopda Culture, Traditional Life, and Society

Mechoopda oral literature is replete with myths recounting the origin of nearly every aspect of life in the world, including the establishment of culture. The creation of the first man and woman, the gift of the first food (acorn), and even the occurrence of the first death provided orientation for navigating the endless pitfalls life in this world entails. Standing like ideological bookends, Kodoyampeh (Earth Maker) and Coyote expressed the dichotomous and often conflicting nature of life, their exploits recited in endless episodes of myth.

After the creation of people, Kodoyampeh had established the four great feasts, or weda, to be held at each season. The weda expressed a sense of reciprocity, an appreciation for the abundance of seasonal foods, and acknowledged Kodoyampeh as creator of these life-sustaining gifts. Another feature of Mechoopda religious life was a series of ceremonial dances that began in the early fall and continued until late spring. The cycle of dances reflected a broad variety of values and concepts. Whether considered a largely social gathering, a ceremony of deep spiritual content, or the fusion of both, the monthly parade of ceremonies provided a sense of order that coincided with the progression of the year, and came into accord with the great culture-shaping events of the legendary past.

An important annual observance was the memorial “burning” of offerings for the dead. Held in the late summer before the dance cycle began, people gathered on the ceremonial burning grounds to mourn and remember those who had passed during the previous year. Significant amounts of personal property, attached to several tall poles, were destroyed or given away in honor of the deceased, often reflecting the wealth and status of the individual and their family. The soul of the dead traveled to a particular cave in the Sutter Buttes, where it was washed by spirits before ascending to Hipinigkoyo, the Above Meadow.

The ancestral village of Mechoopda averaged about 20 homes (150–175 people), and a large ceremonial roundhouse. Dwellings were primarily round, earth-covered structures, and averaging 20 feet in diameter, excavated to about three feet in depth. Entry was through a central opening in the roof, via a ladder. Additional features of the village would have included numerous granaries for the storage of foods such as acorns, brush-covered armadas to provide shade for working outdoors in summer, and at least one menstrual house.

Reprinted with permission of the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria. For more information, visit, which includes a historical overview and tribal structure and programs, among other topics. Photo: The Dorothy Morehead Hill Collection, Meriam Library, Special Collections, California State University, Chico

About the author

Mary Abowd teaches journalism at CSU, Chico.