Mechoopda Indians pained by county’s effort to deny their existence as tribe
“It’s been a tough week.” Steve Santos, chairman of the Mechoopda Tribal Council, shook his head wearily.
Santos is a busy man. He’s got a full-time job as an IT expert at Chico State University in addition to his duties as leader of a tribe trying to create a controversial reservation and casino. But two other events had made the week especially taxing.
A much-loved member of the tribe had died, which meant arranging burial and services while grieving her loss. And Butte County, in its effort to derail the tribe’s choice of casino site, had publicly charged that the tribe was not really a tribe—that its history had been “manufactured.” As a result, the county had argued, the Mechoopda had no right to land anywhere, much less a casino.
The headline on a front-page story in the Aug. 22 issue of the Chico Enterprise-Record read, “A manufactured history? County says Mechoopda tribe not legitimate.”
The incident “has rippled through our community and struck the tribal membership down to their hearts,” said Sandra Knight, the tribal secretary and development liaison. It’s been difficult to see the county’s action as just another parry in a political battle, rather than a personal attack, she explained.
The Mechoopda weren’t the only ones upset by the report. There have been several letters in the E-R condemning it, and Santos said he’d talked with many Chicoans who said they were offended by it.
The report was prepared earlier this year at county expense by Dr. Stephen Dow Beckham, of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. It analyzes various historical documents and arrives at the conclusion that the Mechoopda were actually members of various tribes from all over Northern California who just happened to end up working for Gen. John Bidwell, Chico’s founder, and living on his ranch.
County Chief Administrative Officer Paul McIntosh references the report in a set of comments he sent to Clay Gregory, the regional director for the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. The county opposes the tribe’s proposed casino and reservation site, 630 acres near the intersections of highways 149 and 99, on environmental and traffic grounds, and the comments are intended to address the revised environmental assessment the tribe has prepared on the site. But they go much further, challenging the tribe’s very existence.
In a nutshell, McIntosh argues that Beckham’s study shows that the tribe, in its version of its tribal history, has manufactured not only a history of tribal membership, but also “a historic land occupancy.” The only land the tribe occupied was the Chico Rancheria on Bidwell’s ranch, McIntosh states, and therefore it has no claim to ancestral lands elsewhere and should not be allowed to take the proposed site into trust.
In fact, the tribe long predated Bidwell, Santos and Knight insist. Its members occupied numerous small villages in the area. When Bidwell arrived around the time of the Gold Rush, a relationship developed between him and the tribe. Mechoopda laborers worked on Bidwell’s Feather River gold mining project and then on his ranch.
Knight and Santos made little effort to defend their tribe against Beckham’s report, saying only that it’s selective in its use of material and leaves out significant events and facts pointing to the tribe’s historic existence.
“I am disturbed that the county would rely on this document because it’s obviously flawed,” Santos said. “This tribe is a federally recognized tribe. They [the county] should be offended by this document themselves.”
Michele Shover, a retired Chico State political science professor known also as an eminent local historian, notes that there was a reason why the Mechoopda left their original villages and settled on Bidwell’s ranch. They were valley Indians caught between the white settlers and the mountain tribes, their traditional enemies.
Shover, who is working on a book about local Indian-settler relations between 1850 and ‘67, said the Mechoopda’s decision to align themselves with Bidwell was “a hard bargain.” They were accustomed to an affluent lifestyle in a land where game, fish, berries and acorns were abundant and subsistence required only about 15 hours of work per week. Bidwell expected them to put in long hours as laborers, but he also protected them from their enemies, white and Indian.
There’s no question that the Mechoopda were recognized at the time as a distinct tribelet of the larger Maidu tribe, Shover said. “I’ve seen Bidwell’s notes in the state library where he names the various tribelets, including the Mechoopda.”
The fact that the Beckham report notes that the Indians on the rancheria came from many other tribes is largely meaningless, Shover said. Like most pre-settlement Indians, the Mechoopda tended to marry outside their tribelet, though usually within the larger Maidu tribe.
The county insists that it has no problem with the Mechoopda’s having a casino, only with the proposed site. In fact, it has offered to help the tribe find another site. But that position doesn’t jibe with McIntosh’s insistence that the tribe has no right to reservation land anywhere in the area.
It remains to be seen whether the county’s argument will carry weight with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but Santos is certain it won’t. The BIA and the Department of the Interior have assured him they’re “standing by the tribe,” he said.