The original environmentalists
American Indians reaffirm their connection to the earth while others catch on
Delores McHenry remembers the moment when, as a child, she discovered her connection to the earth. She was in the Mechoopda Indian village, talking with the gardener for the Indian doctor.
“Rufus was around when the Bidwells were here. He always used to say, ‘You have to take care of the earth,’ “ she said from her home in Durham. “There was something about the smell and the feel of the earth. I don’t know what the connection was.”
But at 71 years old, and now a tribal elder, McHenry still feels close to the land.
“I still love being in the dirt,” she joked. She recalled as a child being taught that when you take something from the land, be it herbs or fruit, you must always give something in return, because nature is not to be taken for granted.
These days, with her children fully grown and after the recent passing of her husband, McHenry has her heart set on starting a garden full of native plants. Among them, redbud, sedge and buckeye—plants her ancestors picked from the wild.
In a way, McHenry is returning to her roots, and it’s been a lifelong process. Despite growing up in the Mechoopda village, she always felt distant from tribal life. Her elders rarely spoke of the old ways, something she attributes to white settlers who tried to force their lifestyle upon the Indians.
It wasn’t until recently that she and others around her started taking an active role in preserving the culture.
“It’s in the kids,” McHenry said, adding that her grandson has shown great interest in American Indian history and culture. “It’s not been lost—it’s just been quiet, waiting to come out.”
This coming full circle is an idea Arlene Ward embraces whole-heartedly. Also of the Mechoopda Maidu, Ward believes that many American Indians are just now beginning to heal from old wounds suffered when the settlers came to the area 150 years ago.
“The outside community doesn’t know that it’s still a hurt to the Indian people,” she said.
But with the healing process comes education and forward action. In the case of the Mechoopda, the past 15 years have shown great strides. In 1992, the tribe was reinstated with the federal government. Since that time, its members have created a constitution, a council, of which Ward is cultural liaison, and a housing authority, among other things.
Perhaps the most difficult task thus far, however, has been to learn not only the laws regarding American Indians but also the cultural heritage of the land. What areas are sacred and why? Which creeks were traditional fishing spots? Where are the burial grounds? By knowing these things, Ward and others can give confident answers when their input is requested on projects that could have an impact on tribal lands.
“That’s the beginning of the healing process: You have to know who you are,” said the outspoken but cheerful Ward. “We’re in a sort of sustainability conference of our own, relearning these things.”
Engrained in the cultural fibers of the Mechoopda and other American Indian tribes is a respect for the earth.
“The Indian people had a very complex culture of living with each other and their neighbors,” Ward said. “The pioneers didn’t understand that.”
Ward, like McHenry, is still learning about her heritage. Growing up in a half-Indian, half-Mexican home, Ward thought little of her cultural identity. At age 30, that all changed. Her father’s Mechoopda roots suddenly piqued her interest.
Unfortunately for the two women, their heritage is difficult to track, as much of the history has been lost with the language. A few interviews with tribal elders in the 1950s remain, and word of mouth has passed some things from generation to generation. The university, too, has been a big help and source of hope since signing a memorandum of understanding with the tribe.
“The MOU says to us, ‘We understand who you are and why this land is important to you,’ “ Ward said. “It’s the second part of the healing process.”
With Chico State’s resources, the tribe has worked with professors on various projects such as one to clean native bones found in the area, and has also found interns interested in working with the tribe.
“We don’t have to pay for a [sustainability] conference—the university did it,” Ward said. The fact that the world is catching on to the ways of a people who were, at first contact, considered uncivilized “is a sign of healing.”
So when Ward spoke at a recent “Conversations on Diversity” event at Chico State, she did so to continue the process of healing through education and action.
“Your ecosystem is here on campus. Big Chico Creek goes right through campus,” she said confidently in front of a full classroom. “What are you doing to your ecosystem? You need to figure out what your place is, what your part is. Walk the land. What is the land telling us, what are the animals telling us?”
McHenry echoed her sentiments, but added that “I don’t think people care as much as they used to. Chico has changed a lot.”
If what Ward says is true, however, perhaps another change is coming. McHenry herself has returned to the land, living in Durham, where the creation of the Mechoopda is said to have taken place. As the elders and young alike learn more about the old ways, when land was revered and not to be taken for granted, a whole new generation of American Indian—and, indeed, Americans—is gaining a new respect for the earth.
“We’re coming back full circle through the land, through the environment,” Ward said.