Conversation with Tribal Chairman Steve Santos
The following notes are a result of a conversation I had with Steve Santos about his immediate family history and about the Mechoopda in the area during his lifetime. He provided me with an overview of the history of the Mechoopda, which is printed after this article. Kathleen McPartland
Steve Santos, Mechoopda tribal chairman, is head of a seven-member, elected governing body of the tribe. There are approximately 420 members. His mother, Lorraine Mosely, worked at CSU, Chico in the inter-library loan department for many years. Santos is an informational technology consultant in the library systems office and also a student in communications with a minor in media arts.
Santos was born and raised in Chico and lived on what was the former Mechoopda reservation, called Chico Rancheria, until he was seven-years-old. Chico Rancheria consisted of 26 acres, located in the area of West Sacramento Avenue. The soccer field looking out toward the businesses on West Sacramento was part of the Chico Rancheria.
The Mechoopda were a band of Maidu Indians that ran from Sacramento up to the foothills to Lassen to the west and east to the Sierra Nevada. Traditionally, tribes are family-based. Present day Mechoopda are a mix of Mechoopda and other tribes, including Wintu, said Santos.
Before the advent of Europeans, there were an estimated 400 village sites in Butte County. “Mechoopda” is actually the name of a former village that was located near what is now Dayton. There were former village sites on what is now the CSU, Chico campus.
The tribe was terminated in 1967 as part of the federal government’s decision to force Native Americans to become part of the mainstream society. Termination meant that they were no longer recognized as an official entity. At the time, many tribes throughout California were pockets of poverty. One half of the land of Chico Rancheria was given to tribe members and one half was purchased by CSU, Chico at the time of termination. The tribal landowners, for the most part, did not have the money to upgrade their property to city code, so they sold it to land speculators who were standing by, ready to appropriate it.
After the termination, a large portion of the tribe remained in the Chico area—others went to family members in other tribes, including to the Grindstone Rancheria and Elem Rancheria. “We continued to act as a community—had gatherings, got together, maintained our connection,” said Santos.
There are still members of the tribe who are basket weavers, several who participate in roundhouse dances, and some who work on constructing regalia according to ancient design. “Of course they often have to substitute materials,” said Santos. “It is impossible to gather 500 woodpecker heads, for example, which would be required for one of the traditional belts.”
There are no longer fluent speakers of the Maidu language. There is a collection of tapes, said Santos, of tribal elder Emma Cooper. “They are actual language tapes,” said Santos, “of her saying the Maidu equivalent of English words.”
Santos said that the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the University and the Mechoopda Tribe is extremely significant. “The University and the Tribe have a vested interest in the protection of cultural resources on lands that the University occupies. In the process of trenching for laying electronic infrastructure a few years ago, historical artifacts were uncovered. The agreement ensures that we will work together to preserve those discoveries. is the agreement recognizes the Mechoopda people as the indigenous people from this area. The history of the people is protected.”
Santos attended Citrus and Rosedale Elementary Schools, Chico Jr. High, and Chico High School. He entered the Air Force in 1975 and gained computer skills. After the Air Force, he worked in Sacramento and Los Angeles in computer operations and programming before returning to Chico.
Santos has fond memories of growing up in Chico. He remembers the diamond on top of the Senator Theatre and the Starlight Drive-In Theatre; he ate at the Oaks Hotel downtown and played under the Hooker Oak tree in Bidwell Park. His experience as a Mechoopda was that the Indian community was part of the greater Chico community. “We all look to those things in our past that make this a home,” said Santos. “It is a pretty special place where we are all fortunate to live.”
Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria