On the march

Chicoans prepare for global climate—and cultural—convergence

Ali Meders-Knight, with Chico 350’s Ann Ponzio, shows her design for the mural Chicoans will paint during the Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice event.

Ali Meders-Knight, with Chico 350’s Ann Ponzio, shows her design for the mural Chicoans will paint during the Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice event.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Come along:
To join the Chico contingent Sept. 8 in San Francisco, email Ann Ponzio (annpnz@gmail.com) for details. Visit ca.riseforclimate.org for more on the event.

Ali Meders-Knight has a distinct view of Chico: stark, unvarnished, overlaid with ghosts from the 19th century and earlier. So, when a group of environmentalists asked her to design a mural conveying a local message to an international audience, she wondered if she’d have the right vision.

Meders-Knight is Mechoopda. Twenty-five years ago, soon after the tribe received federal recognition, she moved to town from Virginia, fresh out of high school. She’s an artist exhibited locally, an activist on human rights issues and an outdoor educator, sharing traditional ecological knowledge. She speaks bluntly, using words such as “colonized” when discussing the city—and citizens—on ancestral lands.

Case in point: “It’s very rare that Mechoopda have been given any identity outside of being prehistoric, which is 150 years ago.”

Chico 350, the local chapter of the environmental advocacy group 350.org, looked to Meders-Knight for Chico’s visual art contribution to Rise for Climate, Jobs and Justice. The event will take place Sept. 8 in cities worldwide, all focused on San Francisco, where the Global Action Climate Summit starts four days later. Meders-Knight created an image that Chicoans will turn into a 40-foot mural—one of 50 to be painted on the pavement at Civic Center Plaza, terminus of a morning march down Market Street from the Embarcadero Center.

Along with Chico 350, which has devoted resources such as chartering a 54-seat bus, participants include the Citizens Climate Lobby’s Chico chapter, Sierra Club, Environmental Coalition of Butte County and Butte Environmental Council. They’re among the more than 800 groups gathering in cities across North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Rise organizers place indigenous people at the forefront. Low-income people of color suffer disproportionately from adverse impacts; native peoples not only fall in this category, but also have a connection with the earth that long predates industrialization.

In San Francisco, indigenous groups will lead the march and perform a water ceremony at the bay in which they’ll symbolically combine sources from all over the state. At least a dozen murals, including Chico’s, will have Native American artists.

Meders-Knight put her—and Chico’s—heritage at the heart of her artwork. She anticipated hesitancy on local organizers’ part; her experience has been that “the representation of indigenousness in Chico can sometimes come off offensive to those who believe that this place has been fully colonized and now belongs in the hands of the current citizens. … They look at John Bidwell and Annie Bidwell as the representation—it’s been hard to have Mechoopda be the representation without offending people.”

However, she found acceptance among the eco activists. Mary Kay Benson, a Chico 350 steering committee member, told the CN&R that environmentalists have grown conscious of “intersectionality” (i.e., broad-based inclusion), “that the movement was kind of elitist and that there was such a thing as environmental racism.”

The indigenous direction of Rise, she added, “is really a lot of environmental groups wanting to honor where we actually learned our knowledge and wisdom.”

Meders-Knight’s design integrates a tra-ditional Mechoopda basket with natural elements that dominated the landscape in the past: blue sky, blossoms, butterflies and birds. On the basket rim, she’s inscribed, “Weaving the dream for green”; inside, “traditional ecological knowledge.”

As wildfires torch California forests, dense with dry trees and underbrush, natives such as Meders-Knight harken to the prescribed burns of their tribes’ traditions.

She says fire experts have “maybe discredited natives” and discounted their “knowledge of how to engineer or manage large [plots] of land. I think we need to examine that and know these were technical attributes and survival skills for many communities; we wanted to have a sustainable ecological system because it benefits everybody. I believe we have to repurpose ourselves as humans to be more stewards to the ecology here.”

Added Benson: “Going back to the ancient wisdom is the future.”

That’s why Chico’s mural conveys this idea. “It’s what we’re able to leave behind as a message,” Meders-Knight said; world leaders will attend the climate summit, hosted by Gov. Jerry Brown, Sept 12-14. “I wanted to make sure that traditional ecological knowledge is one of the solutions.”

Rise participants have overarching aims. Collectively they’re calling for: environmental, racial and economic justice for all; no new fossil fuel development and a managed decline of existing production; a transition to 100 percent renewable energy that protects workers, indigenous peoples and front-line communities; and resiliency and recovery efforts led by the communities most impacted.

Ann Ponzio, another Chico 350 steering committee member, said Chico 350 already sold out its bus but hopes others will come to San Francisco (see infobox) or attend a satellite march in Sacramento.

“What we’re really trying to accomplish, from spending this day together, is really bring together a movement that has some legs to it,” Ponzio said. “There’s going to be a series of escalated actions that are going to ensue after this. So, it’s a kickoff, the beginning of local organizing.”