Building a village

Mechoopda, city and CARD collaborate on plan to create an interpretive exhibit

Sandra Knight says an interactive exhibit dedicated to the Mechoopda Indian Tribe, of which she is vice chair, would offer insight into current traditions as well as those from times of pre-European contact.

Sandra Knight says an interactive exhibit dedicated to the Mechoopda Indian Tribe, of which she is vice chair, would offer insight into current traditions as well as those from times of pre-European contact.

Photo by Christina McHenry

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A public meeting about the proposed cultural exhibit will be held March 7 at 6 p.m. at the Chico Creek Nature Center, 1968 E. Eighth St.

There are plenty of public parks, buildings and monuments that celebrate the history of Chico’s settlers and founder Gen. John Bidwell. But there isn’t a single park or monument named for the original inhabitants of Chico, members of the Mechoopda Indian Tribe—at least none that Tribal Vice Chair Sandra Knight can think of off the top of her head.

“None of our aboriginal names for the territory [are used], none of our tribe’s names. Our members feel kind of invisible,” Knight said.

The Mechoopda are looking to end that omission by building a cultural exhibit on a 3-acre plot of unused city land within Bidwell Park. The tribe is working with the city of Chico and the Chico Area Recreation and Park District (CARD) on the project, which is dependent on grant funding from the California Natural Resources Agency.

“It’s been something we’ve wanted to do for a long time,” Knight said, “to build some kind of cultural center where visitors could find out about the real story of the first people in the area, which is not in textbooks.”

The Maidu Living Village is proposed for the fenced-off and unused deer pen next to the Chico Creek Nature Center. The plan is to create an interactive experience to teach visitors about the Mechoopda, a tribe of Maidu people, and provide a space for cultural activities like basket weaving and acorn processing.

Knight said the vision is for visitors to take a trip through the tribe’s history, from precontact with settlers to the contact period and into the present. They would first assemble in an arbor area, and then take a guided tour through a native plant garden, a replica of a traditional precontact native home, and a replica of a wooden shack like one tribal members would have lived in at the rancheria. Visitors also could partake in hands-on experiences.

“We have some mortars and pestles, some very large mortars we could put there. It would be a good spot for people to actually touch them and grind acorns in them,” Knight said.

The project is contingent upon funding available through Proposition 68. Passed last June, it allowed the state to sell $4 billion in general obligation bonds for grant programs for parks, water infrastructure and other environmental projects. It also authorized the state Legislature to appropriate $40 million for a grant program administered by the Natural Resources Agency to fund projects that protect, restore or enhance California’s cultural, community and natural resources.

Eligible projects must fulfill at least one of five requirements, which include protecting or restoring Native American cultural resources and developing visitor centers that educate the public about natural landscapes or the contributions of California’s ethnic communities.

“The grant seemed like it was written for this project,” Knight said.

The Chico Park Division is handling the grant proposal. The first phase of the process includes submitting a conceptual proposal with a rough estimate of the cost of the project and a sketch of the planned development. That was completed last week, according to Park Division Manager Linda Herman.

“The estimated costs and funds we are requesting for the project are approximately $750,000, which includes a 10 percent contingency amount of $68,156,” Herman said in an email.

The city has contracted with North-Star Engineering to help put together the proposal and concept, but actual blueprints for the village won’t be drawn up unless the grant is awarded. If the Natural Resources Agency approves the concept, the city will be invited to a second round of proposals later this spring, at which point City Council approval will be needed.

Herman said the city had long been looking for a use for the property, formerly an enclosure for injured deer rescued by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

A key component of the village would be connecting it to the Chico Creek Nature Center next door. As part of the three-way collaboration on the project, CARD would oversee day-to-day operations and maintenance. The center is also perfectly situated to coordinate field trips to the village, CARD Director Ann Willmann said.

“Our focus will be on the kids coming through. We already have field trips that come through the nature center; this will add the opportunity for kids to learn about the Mechoopda tribe,” Willmann said.

Operational costs could be covered by the fee the Nature Center would charge for field trips, Willmann said.

The center includes Mechoopda and Maidu history in its field trip curriculum, but the village project would offer a completely new learning opportunity for students, she added.

Knight said that the idea for the village’s interactive exhibits was inspired by the exhibits at the Gold Nugget Museum in Paradise, which burned down in the Camp Fire. Instead of focusing on the lives of white settlers brought to Chico by the Gold Rush, the village would teach students how the Mechoopda lived and worked as stewards of the environment, Knight said. The living village also would differ from the Maidu exhibit at the Lake Oroville Visitor Center by focusing specifically on the culture and history of the Mechoopda.

“We want to convey why we love this land so much, that everything here is sacred; the water, the land, the salmon, we’re family with those things,” Knight said. “We want to convey that to young people, so they can respect the land like us.”