Retracing a Grim Past

Times Staff Writer

It is known, to those who know it at all, as California’s Trail of Tears.

In 1863, U.S. soldiers rounded up Indian tribes across Northern California at Chico Landing in Butte County. Then they marched them across the sweltering Sacramento Valley, over the rugged North Coast mountains, to what was known then as the Nome Cult Reservation.

Of 461 Indians who set out under guard, only 277 completed the 100-mile, 14-day trek. Many were abandoned, too sick to continue. Some escaped. Others were killed. For decades, some descendants tried their best to forget. These days, they make a point of remembering.


On Saturday, several dozen members of the Round Valley tribes completed their annual 100-mile commemorative trek along the Nome Cult Trail, which cuts through what is now the Mendocino National Forest. They arrived, blistered and bruised, to cheers, honking horns and a welcoming potluck at tribal headquarters just outside the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it northeast Mendocino County town of Covelo.

“We’re able to walk together and be a loose-knit family again,” said Fred “Coyote” Downey, 67, a Wailaki Indian whose grandfather, then 8 years old, was herded across the mountains by U.S. soldiers, and who has walked the trail annually since the ritual began in 1996.

“The positive thing from this walk is the healing,” he said. “We can learn a great deal, and our kids can learn a great deal.”

The Nome Cult walkers departed Chico last Sunday. They were given a send-off by the Mechoopda Tribe of Chico Rancheria. On the third night, members of the Grindstone Rancheria played host to them with dances in their round house, said to be the oldest Native American ritual house in use in California.

And on they marched -- from elders such as Downey with his long beard, wild eyebrows and wise counsel to youths such as 13-year-old Larence Frease, handpicked by Downey to lead the group out of their Eel River campsite Saturday morning, holding a ceremonial walking staff adorned with eagle feathers. Even toddlers and babies in strollers joined the march.

When the sun baked too hot and their feet gave out, they piled into the pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles of relatives, who followed along with homemade apple juice and saltine crackers.

Time has mostly erased the trail taken by the group in 1863, but U.S. Forest Service officials have marked its approximate route along dusty forest roads.

At Mountain House, just before the marchers’ difficult climb to Mud Flat, Bob Azbill heard the wind sweeping through trees, picking up leaves in its twisting grip. It was, he thought, the voice of his ancestors. Farther down the canyon, two golden eagles floated on an air current. Another sign, he thought. Another reason to remember.

It wasn’t always that way.

The journey known as the Trail of Tears from Chico to Round Valley was forgotten not only by nonnative Californians, but by many members of the tribes themselves, who found the memory too painful.

“It was so ugly,” said Cal State Chico historian Lisa Emmerich. “We’re talking about state-sponsored genocide.... This in a way is like Holocaust survivors coming together to talk about their experience. It’s the same kind of pivotal event in a culture, where people were forcibly ripped out of their homes and taken to a completely different landscape.”

As many as 11 tribes were thrown together by the U.S. government at Nome Cult, derived from the Sacramento Valley Wintun’s nome kechl, “western tribe.” They were Yuki, Wailaki, Nomlaki, Pomo, Pit River, Konkow and Little Lake, among others.

They spoke no common language. Some were long-standing enemies. In time, some dispersed. Others stayed on the reservation, renamed after the lush grazing lands of surrounding Round Valley. They intermarried, mixing bloodlines. But there was a tight lid on history.

“Most of us were assimilated into public schools,” said Downey, who gathered the walkers each morning at dawn to “circle up” and pray amid sweet clouds of burning sage. “All of us were ashamed to be Indian. It wasn’t until my generation that we began to ask questions.”

The generation of Downey’s parents and some of his contemporaries were shipped off to government boarding schools in places such as Riverside and Stewart, Nev., where they were punished if they spoke their native tongue. They were met with hostility when they returned.

As a young man in Covelo, Downey saw how his elders were disrespected, how they spoke broken Spanish to pass for Mexicans.

Now, nine years into the commemorative walk, Downey and his extended tribal family have found a salve for the wounds of the past and the pain of the present. This year, the walk was dedicated to Downey’s sister, Phyllis Azbill, who died of cancer a few months ago. In 2000, they walked in memory of Gaylan Azbill, the U.S. Forest Service employee who helped launch the ritual in 1996, who also died of cancer. In 2002, it was for Ben Wright, another cancer death at just 22.

“I know that each year, we’re going to lose our people,” said Wright’s mother, Charlotte Bauer, who, like Downey, is a direct descendant of Charles Wright, the 8-year-old who made the original trek. “We’re always going to carry sorrow. But this walk helps us start thinking about our children, about tomorrow.”

At 33,000 acres, Round Valley is the state’s second-largest reservation. It was established in 1856 as the Nome Cult Farm, where Indian labor was used to grow food for other reservations. Nome Cult became a reservation a few years later.

As settlers streamed into California during the Gold Rush, tensions escalated. Settlers and their livestock trampled native crops, muddied the creeks and decimated acorns and clover, on which natives depended, according to 1993 research by Forest Service historian Pamela Conners.

In the winter of 1858, more than 150 Indians on the reservation, including women and children, were slaughtered by white settlers.

On the eastern side of the mountains, tensions ran higher. In 1862 and 1863, killings and retaliations left many dead, including five white children from the Hickock and Lewis families.

The slayings of the children by “mountain Indians” outraged white settlers. With the blessing of then-Gov. Leland Stanford, they passed a resolution calling for the removal of every Indian in the region to the reservation within 30 days. If they did not report to Bidwell Ranch in Chico by Aug. 28, 1863, the decree stated, the Indians would be shot on sight.

The forced march began Sept. 4. Many were ill with fever at the start. At Mud Flat, more than 150 were left behind, too ill to continue. Accounts of violence by soldiers vary, Emmerich said. But some native recollections compiled by Conners describe women bayoneted through the back when they failed to move on and the skulls of babies cracked on tree trunks.

It was Conners’ research that spurred the U.S. Forest Service to commemorate the trail. In Round Valley’s Gaylan Azbill they found a willing partner. For months, tribal leaders met with Forest Service officials to track the course of the walk. Members of Chico’s Mechoopda tribe participated too. By 1996 they were ready to march.

“It touches you,” said Alberta Azbill, Gaylan’s sister-in-law and the reservation’s executive secretary, who was among the early organizers. “Every time I go on the walk, I know I’m coming home. But I look back into that valley and see Mt. Shasta and a deep sadness comes over me. I know that [the original marchers] were driven over these mountains. They had no say.”

This year, Alberta walked only part of the way, instead helping to set up and break down camp for the others. The group shrank, then grew again as about three dozen children from the charter school in Covelo joined in Friday for the descent from pine-studded Anthony Peak.

Each morning for the past week, at 5 a.m., Iran Hoaglen honked the horn of his turquoise Ford truck to wake the walkers. After breakfast and prayer, they set off. Some days they covered 25 miles. On Saturday, they walked only 12.

Participating for the first time was Hoaglen’s son, 40-year-old Myron Hoaglen. A recovering alcoholic, he never had much interest in the march. Besides, he said, he was told to stay away. But four months into sobriety, he was ready this year. At Mud Flat, the history hit him.

“They made the women lay the babies down,” he said, as he wound down the mountain Friday with his 7-year-old son, Tevin. “How can a person do that to a baby? I knew it, but I didn’t really know it until this walk. I didn’t know what my own people went through.”

Downey has tried to temper the message for the children. “We try not to make it too damning: ‘They did this and they did that,’ ” he said of the accounts he delivers along the way. “We tell them in a way that doesn’t enrage them and make them feel so incompetent and frustrated. That’s driven so many of our people to drugs and alcohol.”

Instead, he said, it is a time for sharing. Every year, Alberta Azbill said, she and others discover some missing genealogical link, unburying family connections that tie Nomlaki to Yuki to Wailaki to Pit River. Seated around the campfire Friday night, Bob and Leslie Azbill told Downey of rock carvings and obsidian arrowheads they’d come across recently.

They were probably Yuki who had gathered at Clear Lake on an ancient trade route, Downey told them. Downey gazed at the sky, recounting how their ancestors navigated the land by constellations. “We’re their children,” Downey said, finishing off a bowl of acorn soup that other relatives had delivered to the campsite. “That knowledge is there. All we have to do is pick it up and use it.”

Back at the tribal offices, Margaret Hoaglen was cooking for Saturday’s party. She and her husband, Iran, walked last year partly for their son, who died in a car crash.

The struggles on the reservation have been many, the need for healing never-ending. The walk, she said, has opened the door to learning. Some here still resist it. But tribal leaders plan to begin monthly workshops, not just about history and genealogy, but about the land that sustains them.

“We need to educate people here,” Hoaglen said of the estimated 1,500 tribal members who live on the reservation. “Some of them don’t even know what a watershed is.”