Indians recreate sad journey to reservation

Their ancestors’ feet were forced over the Nome Cult Trail 138 years ago. Last week, 100 Native Americans from tribes around Northern California retraced those footsteps on the brutal 100-mile walk, known as the “Trail of Tears,” from Chico to the Round Valley Reservation in Covelo.

Pomo, Yuki, Pitt River, Wylacki, Maidu and Concow Indians walked through the scorching valley to the steep mountains from Sunday, Sept. 9, to Friday, Sept. 14, in the sixth year of this pilgrimage commemorating the 461 Indians who started from Chico. Only 227 arrived in Round Valley; the rest—including many children—were killed or left to die along the way in September 1863.

As in any pilgrimage, it was not only the walk’s historical roots that were important, but also the personal spiritual journey of each walker.

“Not only do you heal, but you learn,” explained Nome Cult Committee member Marian Azbill. “Some things you learn on a personal level that you can’t explain to anybody; you just have to experience it. I asked one young man who is a freshman in high school what the walk meant to him. He looked up at me, with this look in his eyes, and said, ‘I know I learned something, but I can’t explain it to you. I learned some things about life.’ I understand because that is the way the walk is; it is very personal.”

Although each walker left the Oak Way Park starting point on Highway 32 with different perspectives and completed the journey with different rewards, it was a collective mission. Every morning the walkers gathered in a circle to pray, share and encourage each other, Azbill said. As they passed a talking stick around the circle, everyone had an opportunity to prayers communally or privately.

“We talked, and people expressed what they were feeling, their thoughts of the walk so far, what it meant to them. One of the elders brought a talking stick; everybody touched it and held it, then said a prayer out loud or touched it and passed it on,” Azbill remembered.

Her sister-in-law and fellow committee member Alberta Azbill said, “We prayed for what was happening, to give people strength. We were out in the mountains away from radio and television, and we don’t encourage CD players, Walkman [stereos], or things like that. When we found out about the tragedy that happened in New York City, we prayed for those people in that horrible tragedy.”

The forced move from Chico in 1863 was a tragedy of its own, but only one of many forced migrations throughout Northern California that brought Indians to the Round Valley Reservation. It is, however, the best-documented, thanks largely to the efforts of the U.S. Forestry Service, which researched the trail’s history. The agency then contacted the Round Valley Reservation’s forestry tribal liaison, Gaylan Azbill, Marian’s late husband, seven years ago about placing historic marker signs along the trail.

Gaylan Azbill, along with several others, first followed his ancestors’ steps in 1996.