Gateway to the past
Mechoopda Indians continue thousand-year connection with Bidwell Park
Bidwell Park is Chico’s playground, serving countless people in countless ways. But there is one group for whom it is uniquely special. They are the Mechoopda Indians, whose presence in this area goes back thousands of years. To them, the park is their ancestral home preserved through time.
“The sites in the park are part of our reconnection,” says Arlene Ward, cultural liaison for the Mechoopda Indian Tribe of Chico Rancheria.
Ward is a soft-spoken woman who seems determined to make that reconnection with the park and her history. A recent Chico State University graduate with a degree in anthropology, Ward has direct lineage to the Mechoopda tribe, although her ancestors lived most of their lives in Tehama County.
She explains that Bidwell Park is one of the few chunks of land in the area still untainted by shopping malls and congested intersections. And that “reconnection” with the park and Mechoopda traditions, she says, allows her and other members to teach themselves and their families about the group’s long history in the area.
Many locals who make use of the 3,670-acre park are concerned about whether Chico’s 100-year-old “crown jewel” can continue to handle the wear and tear, but for Ward and the other descendents of the Mechoopda tribe the concept of preserving the park goes even further.
“How do we tell our children about our past if these sites are developed?”
Historical documentation paints a picture of the Mechoopdas using broad strokes—an unchanging people who lived a simple life at one with nature. But archeological records show that they were a thriving people who made good use of Bidwell Park’s resources. The park served as their supermarket. It served as their hardware store. And the land is just as important to the Mechoopdas today as it was thousands of years ago.
Archeological records trace the Mechoopdas back at least 5,000 years, although their origins date back even further.
Greg White, director of the archeological research program at Chico State, says the Mechoopda way of life differed dramatically from what is portrayed in history books.
White said many of the cultural misconceptions of the Mechoopdas are based on the first official documentation from John Bidwell and other settlers in the 1840s. But by that time the Mechoopdas had already been in contact with European, Russian and American explorers, which ultimately disrupted the lives of the area’s native population.
He explained that prior to the Indians’ first contact with explorers, there were roughly 200 villages spaced a mile and a half apart between the Sacramento and Feather rivers in the Chico area. The Mechoopdas were hunters and gatherers with a far-ranging trade system. Families lived in large earth-covered structures with a larger ceremonial roundhouse located nearby. Acorns were one of the main food sources, and hunting and salmon fishing in Big Chico Creek were also common.
“There was a dynamic human landscape here,” White says.
The first European settlers began sailing up the coast to enter the area as early as 1808, when Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga, who was searching for possible mission sites, led an expedition through the valley to the Sutter Buttes west of Yuba City. The expedition eventually headed east across the Feather River, passing just south of the Big Chico Creek watershed to what is now Oroville.
In 1821 another Spanish explorer named Luís Argüello passed just west of the watershed and discovered what he called “cities along the river.” Seven years later, in 1828, a group of American fur trappers led by Jedediah Smith entered the area.
Although fur trapping likely depleted much of the area’s wildlife, it was a devastating malaria epidemic during the summer of 1833 that wiped out nearly 15,000 people. By the time John Bidwell arrived almost a decade later, White says, the once thriving civilizations looked more like refugee camps.
It wasn’t long after Bidwell purchased land grants on Mechoopda territory in 1849 that he moved the native people to Rancho Arroyo Chico near First and Flume streets.
On an overcast rainy day in mid-June, Delores McHenry, a lifetime Chico resident and one of the Mechoopda tribal elders, is standing in a thicket of brush at the Five-Mile Recreation Area with her teenaged grandchildren Mitchell and Allyson Wilcox. They’re gathering willow that will be used to make headdresses for a Ladies Dance Society event scheduled this spring.
McHenry explains that all the dancers are expected to gather their own willow for their headdresses. After they snip about a dozen branches, McHenry instructs Mitchell to drop a nickel on the ground. She explains that it is tradition to give something back to the earth upon taking. Nowadays coins are sometimes used in place of tobacco, an item considered sacred among the Mechoopdas.
Back at the Mechoopda Tribal Headquarters off of Mission Ranch Boulevard in Chico, Arlene Ward explains why gathering is still important to members of the tribe.
“The reason we gather today is to reconnect with our past,” Ward said.
Ward said it is common to hold family gatherings in Bidwell Park and that members of the tribe are granted permission to gather willow along “Chulamsewi,” the Maidu name for Big Chico Creek. Willow was used in the making of baskets used to gather acorns and headdresses used in dances, which were a way of showing thanks for a good harvest.
Once the Bidwells entered the area, the Mechoopdas became a modernized people who lost their culture. At the same time, the tribe was offered protection from Indian removal and members were offered work under Bidwell.
Ward says the tribe is discovering its voice again after essentially remaining a silent people for so many years. The Mechoopdas, named after the last major village of the Valley Konkow, became federally recognized in 1992.
The Mechoopda Tribal Council is now working with the city of Chico and the university in deciding how to manage and protect Indian sites in the area. Ward said everything is coming full-circle, and that the reconnection with her past is becoming a realistic endeavor.
“For me, Arlene Ward, being Mechoopda is starting to make sense.”