Retracing a Grim Past-- The Trail of Tears
Retracing a Grim Past
Indians reenact march of California's 'Trail of Tears'
By Lee Romney
Times Staff Writer
September 19, 2004
ROUND VALLEY RESERVATION, Calif. - 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
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
"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
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."