A quest for clues creates a rift
Native Americans pay a price for the search for knowledge
The hike to the archeological dig site is long, dusty and steep.
Scaling down the embankment on this winter afternoon, we see a dozen archeologists hard at work hundreds of feet below, digging at what was once a thriving Native American village. The site is usually under the water of Lake Oroville, but the water level drops at this time of year, helping to uncover artifacts from a civilization lost long ago.
Anthropologists and archaeologists use shovels to sculpt deep but perfectly rectangular holes. Then they screen the dirt looking for artifacts. Arrowheads and stone tools lie just below the ground’s surface. The items they find are placed in plastic bags, tagged and shipped away.
Digs like this one are part of the federal relicensing process for the Oroville Dam, a key component in the state’s water system.
The digs have caused a rift between the Konkow Maidu—Native Americans who live in the Oroville area—and the government agencies in charge of the excavations that have uncovered artifacts, some dating back 5,000 years.
Many Maidu say they feel violated by the digging and collection of their ancestors’ bones and belongings. They are resentful the artifacts and even human remains end up in the possession of government agencies and universities. And they say they want the sites left alone for spiritual reasons.
But under state and federal law, the Department of Water Resources must assess the “cultural impact” of the dam. That means locating and taking inventory of thousands of Native American village sites as well as ceremonial and burial grounds.
The artifacts tell a story about the indigenous societies that thrived for thousands of years without pollution, paved streets or poverty, societies that existed without drug abuse, jails or guns.
Discovering the story of the Maidu and their ancestors could offer insight into a way of life that was connected to the natural world.
But for many Maidu alive today, the search for answers has gone too far.
Art Angle is a tall, stout 67-year-old Konkow Maidu man who speaks with dignity and authority, but likes to joke around, too. Angle’s gray and black hair is just long enough to slick back. This day, he was dressed in cowboy boots and Wrangler jeans, and a pack of Pall Malls was visible through his shirt pocket.
“They’ve dug us up, they’ve examined us, they’ve turned us inside out,” Angle said. “They’ve run us through carbon dating, DNA … whatever they can do to figure out what we looked like, what we ate, and how we survived all these years without European influence.”
Angle, who grew up in Enterprise, one of the towns that were flooded and destroyed by Lake Oroville in the 1960s with the construction of the dam, has spent much of his life fighting for the cultural and political rights of Native Americans. He helped develop the tribal government system for the Enterprise Rancheria tribe that was first organized in 1995.
And Angle led the fight to locate and bury the brain of Ishi, the name given the man who was believed to be the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe after he emerged near Oroville in 1911. The story of the recovery of Ishi’s brain from the Smithsonian—vividly documented by Orin Starn in his 2004 book Ishi’s Brain: In Search of America’s Last “Wild” Indian—may be one of the most well-known and wrenching stories of repatriation.
Today, Angle is among the many Maidu who view the excavation of their ancestors’ bones and belongings as a new form of discrimination against a people that has already suffered too much.
“They’re not going out and killing us like they did before,” Angle said. “But on the other hand, when we say, ‘No digging,’ the funds seem to come available for them to continue digging.”
The fight to stop the digging has persisted since the archeological digs began in 2004, with the start of the federal relicensing process for the Oroville Dam and its facilities. More than 1,000 sites have been located within the 40,000-acre project area. At least 600 additional sites are expected to be surveyed in coming years, making the project area one of the richest in site locations in the state, said Janis Offermann, cultural resources manager for DWR.
“We knew there’d be sites with a lot of artifacts,” Offermann said, “but the sheer number of sites was a surprise.”
Dig sites include villages as well as burial and sacred grounds. Under the Native American Graves and Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), if crews uncover human remains, the digging must stop and the tribes must be notified.
The federal law also requires that all human remains and items associated with burial or sacred ceremonies in the possession of the government or private collections be returned to tribes. No human remains have been returned to tribes in Oroville, although 138 bodies were dug up in the early 1960s. The repatriation process is under way for those remains, however.
But artifacts like arrowheads and stone tools found within the state-owned project area become the property of the state, Offermann said. The artifacts are shipped to Sacramento State University for research.
This infuriates Maidu leaders such as Gary Archuleta, chairman of the Mooretown Rancheria that operates Feather Falls Casino in Oroville. Artifacts should be returned to the tribes, Archuleta said, “not just carted off in a box to end up sitting somewhere. We can give them a proper ceremony and bury them.” DWR officials say they are willing to build a warehouse in Oroville to house the artifacts and manage it jointly with the tribes.
Rick Ramirez, program manager for the relicensing project of the Oroville facilities, has witnessed first-hand how relationships have changed between DWR and Native American communities.
He has worked for DWR for more than 30 years and says the state entity is trying hard to restore relations with the Maidu—relations that have been tarnished over the years.
“We’ve learned that being good neighbors is good policy,” Ramirez said. “The tribes aren’t going away—that’s their historical area. And the state government isn’t going away. So it’s a good idea for us to sit down and see eye to eye.”
The state has an interest in meeting the mandates of the law; Oroville Dam is the single most important component of the State Water Project that provides water to 25 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland.
The dam, standing at the foot of the Sierra Nevada range, towers 770 feet high and is the tallest dam in the United States. It was considered an engineering feat when it was completed in 1968, and it created Lake Oroville, the largest reservoir in the State Water Project.
DWR’s 1957 license to operate Oroville Dam expired last year. Now, the dam is operating on a temporary annual license. DWR wants to relicense the dam for another 50 years. By law, the agency must assess the impact on sites within a quarter-mile radius of the project area.
Artifacts are dated to determine trading boundaries and how long Native peoples engaged in various subsistence activities, Offermann said. When the dam was built in the 1960s, there were no government regulations on cultural items. Today, the cultural preservation and inventory of the area is one of the largest components of the relicensing project.
In the early 1960s, archeology teams wanted to salvage artifacts before the valley was flooded by Lake Oroville. One dig that took place at Tieh Wiah—a burial ground and sacred site—unearthed the skeletal remains of 138 individuals buried in graves, along with hundreds of thousands of sacred objects. Some of the bones were determined to be 4,000 years old.
The dig was termed a “salvage dig” because it was done in a hurry, and some items were lost in the process.
The research teams took bones and artifacts to Sacramento for further study. Forty years later, all the human remains and objects are still stored in cardboard boxes in a West Sacramento warehouse. Maidu from Oroville and Chico—including Patsy Seek, chairwoman of the Konkow Valley Band of Maidu—are fighting to reclaim and reinter their ancestors.
“When we bury our people, we expect that they are going to heaven,” Seek said. “Why should they be dug up again to find out how old they are? How can people manage to think that’s right? Why don’t they think about how we feel?”
Now that archeological projects are under way a second time around, many Maidu are saying enough’s enough. “We have been firm and standing unified that we don’t want any more digging,” said Angle, adding that the Maidu want control of the sites.
DWR can’t give control to the Maidu because the sites are on state property, Offermann says. And DWR is legally bound to figure out which sites need protection. Sites deemed culturally or historically significant are placed on the National Register of Historic Places or the California State Register of Historic Places.
“We’ve got legal obligations to specify what we found out there,” Ramirez said. “In order to answer questions if it should be on the list of historic places, we have to provide data. If we can’t analyze the site, that becomes a little bit harder.”
To the Maidu, every dig is painful.
“The long history of how Native American people have been treated in California is a trend that has continued on,” Angle said. “It’s complete disrespect.”
But today—after almost 200 years of conquest and cultural destruction—it’s increasingly clear that much can be learned from Native American culture. The costs of environmental degradation have helped prompt an interest in societies that valued their connections to nature and had no concept of profit.
Richard Burrill, author of the historical novel River of Sorrows: The Life History of the Maidu Nisenan Indians, gives seminars on the history of Northern California focusing on Native American society. “The California Indians I’ve met have a sense of place,” Burrill said. “They really love the land, which is so beautiful. And with gradual change, non-Indians don’t even know what they’ve lost.
“If we can learn their old ways, we’re going to gain a better sense of place and our purpose as human beings in California.”
Back along the shores of Lake Oroville, as archeologists sift through the dirt and rocks, a story about life and human existence emerges.
Each handcrafted arrowhead and stone tool dropped into a plastic bag and tagged serves as a reminder of how far our lives have become disconnected from the dirt and the trees and the wind.
For some Maidu and the scientists, discovering the world of the hunter-gatherer tribes is really a search for identity.
Lawana Watson, 44, belongs to the Enterprise Rancheria. She grew up in Oroville but didn’t connect with her culture until about 15 years ago. Since learning how her ancestors lived, Watson feels her life has a purpose.
“Identity is most important,” Watson said. “It makes me think about what I can do to better my kids’ and grandkids’ lives, how to use our environment to teach our kids our culture.”
One local Maidu man actually takes part in the archeological digs. Wayne Nine, a member of the Konkow Valley Band of Maidu, says he feels a connection to the objects unearthed.
“The artifacts we find have stories to be told,” Nine said. “I feel that some artifacts come to me in dreams. Finding artifacts is a part of who I am, too, not just my ancestors.”
Archeologists studying the arrowheads, stone tools and animal bone fragments piece together lives from the past to answer questions about human nature.
“I want to understand why humans work the way we do, what motivates us, what drives us,” said Michael Delacorte, an anthropology professor at Sacramento State and principal archeologist for the Oroville Dam relicensing project.
But some Maidu argue they already know the history of their people, which has been passed down in stories through generations. And some tribe members think questions of human behavior should be answered by analyzing bones from other communities.
“They’ve been studying Native Americans for hundreds of years,” said Michael DeSpain, who is in charge of repatriation efforts for Greenville Rancheria. “Let them go pick on another race now.”
The cultural assessment of Oroville Dam will continue for years, Offermann said. Whether the divide between tribes and the government will continue is a question that has no clear answer.
“Our hope is that we’re able to continue a dialogue with them,” Ramirez said, “because even though we’re going to get our license, and it may not be a license that contains things they wanted to see, a continued discussion might allow us to find things that do work for them.”
DWR officials say their relationship with Maidu tribes has grown closer. Monthly meetings of the Maidu Advisory Council, a group that consists of members of different tribes in Oroville and DWR officials, allow them to voice concerns.
Still, some Maidu don’t feel like their voices are heard.
“We voiced our opinion on a lot of those issues and one of those issues was, ‘Don’t go digging,’ “ Angle said. “Did it work? No. They’re still digging.”
Considering the 50 years of the new license, the Maidu worry not only about the impact on their cultural sites, but the effect of the dam on the environment. The dam has drastically changed the ecological makeup of the Feather River and its wildlife.
Regardless of whether the digs are fair to the Maidu, they are likely to continue for years to come. The resurrection of the artifacts will continue to be a reminder of a civilization where the earth was respected.
“If they don’t correct the mistakes they made, they’re going to hurt the human race,” Angle said. “You can’t keep taking, because there’s going to be nothing left to take.”