In their eyes
New exhibit gives Mechoopda history from their perspective
As I walked through the outstanding new exhibit in the north room of the Chico Museum, Mik ‘cupu dy [Mechoopda]: This Is Our Home, Here We Remain, I thought of Dr. Stephen Beckham and wished he could see what I was seeing.
Beckham is the Lewis and Clark College professor who, in 2006, issued a report—commissioned and paid for by Butte County—concluding that the Mechoopda Tribe of Chico Rancheria wasn’t an authentic Indian tribe. Rather, they were members of various tribes from all over Northern California who just happened to end up working for John Bidwell, Chico’s founder, and living on his ranch.
Beckham’s report was part of an effort by Butte County to derail the Mechoopda’s plans to build a casino on ancestral lands south of Chico, but it backfired. Chicoans, who knew the tribe was an integral part of the town’s history, repudiated the report and shamed the county for purchasing it.
If there are any remaining doubts about the Mechoopda’s legitimacy, this exhibit should dispel them. As curated by Arlene Ward, a trained archeologist and ethnographer as well as a tribal elder, it creates a compelling image of people who for thousands of years, time immemorial to them, lived off the land without harming it. And they lived well: The earth was so abundant with fish and game, berries and acorns and other foodstuffs, and the weather so mild, that they needed to work only about 15 hours a week for sustenance, on average.
Then came the Europeans. In 1832, the French fur trapper Michele Laframbois traveled down the Central Valley, leaving infestations of malaria and smallpox in his wake. Whole villages were wiped out. It was the time of “he:non,” or “dying in groups,” as the exhibit states.
By 1846, sufficient numbers of Europeans had come into Northern California to make the balance of cultures unstable. “Our places to gather, hunt, fish, and trade became areas of conflict,” the exhibit reads. “… [A] mere eleven men had claimed ownership of thousands of acres within our homeland.”
As the conflicts became more violent, many Indians sought refuge on Bidwell’s rancho. It was an uncomfortable existence: Bidwell expected them to labor more than they were accustomed to, and they didn’t always get along with each other. They called their village along Big Chico Creek “Bahapki,” or “unsifted,” because “our people were from many villages and not united through marriage or birth,” the exhibit explains.
Life didn’t get easier. When Annie Bidwell arrived in 1868, she insisted that her husband move the Indians away from their creekside home behind his mansion and resettle them about a mile away, on the Chico rancheria between Sacramento and Second avenues, separated from their beloved creek.
The exhibit documents the several methods the white settlers, aided and abetted by the federal government, used to separate the Mechoopda from their land after Annie’s death in 1918. (Only the rancheria’s burial ground remains.) There’s an excellent documentary video available for viewing that gives a brief but vivid history of the tribe and conveys, in a profound way, the sorrow they felt as they lost their connection to Mother Earth.
This exhibit is not just a litany of grievances, however. Far more attention is paid to the tribe’s remarkable adaptability. “We didn’t want it to seem whiny,” Ward said. “We wanted to show the resilience of the tribe over the years.”
They’ve certainly succeeded. Just as important, they have mounted a beautiful and effective exhibit (kudos to designer Kelly Lindner). If I’m not mistaken, this is the first time the Mechoopda have described the tribe’s history as they see it (including using Maidu terms displayed phonetically), and it’s an invaluable contribution to the greater community’s knowledge and understanding.
Also opening this week, in the museum’s south room, is another new exhibit, One Hundred Years of Chico History: 1860-1960. This is a series of photographs arranged decade-by-decade with accompanying notes. Most of the photos come from the collections of the late John Nopel and local historian Randy Taylor. Many of them are familiar, having appeared elsewhere, and the exhibit necessarily leaves out far more than it includes, but it’s well worth viewing.