State parks officials and tribes work together to restore sacred site

Thanks to a historic agreement between the state and half a dozen local Indian tribes, California Indians are performing ceremonial dances again this weekend in one of the most sacred sites in Indian Country – the Chaw’se Roundhouse in Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park.

The roundhouse – which many Indians consider their church – was shut down five years ago after a fire compromised the roof and made the 60-foot-wide wooden structure unsafe.

The state Parks Department held a series of meetings with area tribes to discuss how to repair the roundhouse in Amador County, but they couldn’t agree on how to take down the cedar bark roof without disturbing the ancestral spirits believed to occupy the structure.

Then, Adam Dalton, chairman of the nearby Jackson Rancheria Band of Miwuk Indians, stepped up to break the impasse. He offered to use his construction crew to repair the roundhouse with the help of a structural engineer provided by the state. Dalton reached out to Indian leaders throughout California and mediated the disputes among tribal elders to reach what’s being called the Grinding Rock Acorn Accords.

For the first time in memory, “two governments have come together and made the restoration of the roundhouse a success story,” said Greg Martin, superintendent of the park in Pine Grove, 50 miles southeast of Sacramento. “We were able to sit down and say, ‘We’re two governments’ – California and Jackson – ‘This is what needs to be done; how do we do it?’ Adam was instrumental in getting the Native Americans to agree to this.”

For thousands of years, California Indians have come to Grinding Rock every September to collect a bonanza of acorns falling from the thick valley oaks. The tribes would pound the acorns into flour in the 1,185 mortar holes, or cups, in a huge slab of limestone. More than 300 petroglyphs of weaving patterns, animals, plants and people dating back more than 2,000 years were carved into the rock.

The acorn grinding rock, Chaw’se in the Miwuk language , is nestled in a wooded valley 2,400 feet above sea level in the Sierra Nevada foothills with deer, fox, coyote, bobcats, turkey, quail, jackrabbits, red hawks, mountain lion and black bear.

This weekend, the Ione Band of Miwok Indians is hosting the Indian Grinding Rock Big Time, an annual gathering of Indians from throughout California celebrating the acorn harvest. The Big Time started at 9 a.m. Saturday, and the singing and dancing continues nonstop until 4 p.m. today.

The faulty roof was taken off the Roundhouse two weeks ago, and the cedar will be burned and returned to Mother Earth, Dalton said.

“Now we’ll be able to use the floor of the roundhouse to dance again,” said Yvonne Miller, chairwoman of the 750-member Ione Band.

The roundhouse “is our ceremonial house,” Miller said. “We sing, dance in there, pray, have weddings.”

While Indian nations across the United States have roundhouses, “the one at Chaw’se is a regional roundhouse that can be used by any tribe,” Miller said. “State Parks was dragging their feet and taking forever – they had to follow their own rules and regulations – and Adam Dalton was able to find a way to break through all the red tape. Jackson (tribe) came along and said, ‘We have the funds to do it,’ and they’re spearheading the refurbishing of the roundhouse and the bark houses in the park.” Visitors can sleep overnight in bark houses in the old Indian village.

Dalton, 48, was elected chairman of Jackson Rancheria in January and vowed to honor the spirit of his late mother, Margaret Dalton, who launched one of the first three Indian casinos in California and served as tribal chair for 30 years before her death from diabetes in May 2009.

“Before she passed away, my mom wanted me to do something big for the community to show our appreciation,” he said. After watching the movie “Field of Dreams,” Dalton said, he and his family spent about $700,000 building a baseball park in the town of Pioneer, then redid the park and the post office in Volcano and the community park in Jackson.

To break through the impasse among tribes over the Chaw’se restoration project, Dalton said he sent handwritten letters to 38 of the 106 California tribes asking for help. “I’m the conductor, but I’m not the one making the music – it’s all the volunteers. I supply the gloves, tools, water and hot lunches. They’ve been here every single day for four weeks straight working like warriors.”

Many of the disagreements date back to old hurts that festered for generations, Dalton said. “We’re different clans, but we’re all Miwuk people, even if Ione spells it Miwok and Tuolomne, Me-Wuk. There were coastal, mountain and valley clans, and the only time they warred was over food or women.”

Some elders said only the women could prepare and serve the food to the volunteers, but no women came forward, so Dalton had men do it. “One family insisted you had to turn to the left when you enter the roundhouse and circle it four times, another said you turn to the right and circle it six times. So we went to the left and the right.”

He was able to forge an agreement once the elders felt they were being heard and their ways were being honored, Dalton said. “Native American politics is a nightmare. I said, ‘This is going nowhere; you’re going to keep arguing and nothing’s going to get done. Let’s get it fixed. We’re going to do a little bit of everybody’s thing.’ And we spent three days doing ceremonies before we started.”

The Chaw’se restoration project “has been a spiritual journey for me,” said Dalton. “We’ve got deer and hawks here every day – the red hawk circling around, that’s my mom. I can still feel her hugging me and telling me how proud she is.”

He and about 30 volunteers from a variety of tribes start each day with a 7 a.m. prayer at the roundhouse. “We ask the grandfathers to allow us to be here and smudge ourselves down with smoke when we leave to confuse the spirits – if we don’t, something’s going to go wrong,” he said.

Those who enter the roundhouse also have to spin before they leave to shake off the ghosts inside that want to go home, Dalton said. “If you don’t fling them off you, they’ll kind of possess your home, and you don’t want that.”

Dalton said, “It’s like our church; that’s where we go to get healed, to look for guidance, to pray for family that’s sick or in trouble, where our sacred Big Head Dancers perform.” He recalled the days when his parents organized Big Times with donations because they didn’t have any money. After his father died in a logging accident, his mother pursued the idea of an Indian casino.

Indians from San Diego, Redding and Nevada come to Big Time “because it’s time for hundreds of elders to visit, eat, trade, laugh and tell stories,” Dalton said.

Mildred Burley, 76, of the California Valley Miwok said the first time she walked in the door of the roundhouse was in her 20s. “I wanted to faint because of all that power and medicine that was in there from all these old ones who used to go in to sing and dance,” she said. “When we go in there to dance, we’re told it isn’t us, it’s the old spirits coming inside us. This is the way we’re thanking them and letting them know we’re not going to let this disappear like our language, which is almost gone.”

Burley, who goes to the park to weave pine-needle baskets used to carry salt, said the old cedar roof should be buried “like you’re giving it back to Mother Earth.” Other elders said the roof should be burned.

So Dalton and his crew carefully took off the layers of cedar, carried them 1,000 feet without letting them hit the ground, and plan to burn and bury them.

“I was taught by the elders to treat each piece like a living entity,” he said. “We introduced ourselves to the spirits, told them why we were here and asked them just to rest for a while.”