After traveling deep into the heart of Northern California’s Shasta-Trinity National Forest, about a dozen young people gathered in a circle as James Hayward Sr. invoked a prayer and smudged them with smoke from a cindering root.
“We’re going into a very sacred area where some very bad things happened to our Indian people,” said Hayward, Cultural Resources director for the Redding Rancheria. “Smell this smoke. We need to protect ourselves the best that we can, so we can open up our minds and our hearts.”
The area, now known as the Natural Bridge, owing to the 150-foot tall limestone ridge that connects two neighboring mountains, was once a Nor-Rel-Muk Wintu settlement where more than 300 Wintu women and children were slaughtered by gold miners and Sheriff’s deputies in 1852.
The young people, ranging in age from 11-18, are part of the Redding Rancheria’s Youth Leadership Program, and the April trip to the massacre site was part of the Rancheria’s effort to engage them in their culture and history, said Marrysa Schumacher, education advocate.
After Hayward’s blessing, the students were taught the history of the site and the California Indian genocide by Philip Harper, a tribal council member of the Nor-Rel-Muk, one of several state-recognized Wintu bands in Northern California.
Harper sang Wintu songs, and told the students how others have heard Wintu voices in the nearby cave and seen other signs that the spirits of the ancestors are still there.
“I have a great-great-grandmother who escaped from here, and she told me stories about escaping from the massacre,” he said. “There was a devil that came out of that gold, and it caused havoc in people’s lives. They wanted to destroy us, and the way they did that was to try to take away our identity.”
Only a few Wintu survived the attack, which Harper said was sprung just before dawn, and represented one of the most horrific and well-documented of the Gold Rush-era massacres during the California Genocide, which reduced California’s indigenous population from an estimated 150,000 in 1848 to about 30,000 in 1870.
Some died of disease, but many more, Harper explained, were chased from their land by ranchers and miners and many others were murdered by government-sponsored militias who were paid $5 per Indian scalp. He also told of so-called “Friendship Feasts” when pioneers invited tribes for a communal dinner laced with poison, which, according to several tribal accounts, killed thousands.
Many California Indians were left homeless as a result, and the Redding Rancheria, now a federally recognized tribe, was originally founded as a refuge for homeless Indians of Wintu, Pit River and Yana tribal descent.
“I grew up on (the Rancheria) before the casino, and I have a different vision of what it used to be like,” Schumacher said. “That’s why we have started to emphasize the cultural education with the youth group. We want to bring it back to a younger generation.”
The violence at Natural Bridge was set in motion in 1852 when a well-known Weaverville citizen, J.R. Anderson, was reportedly killed by Indians who also drove off a small herd of his cattle. The local Sheriff and a few of his men set off in search of them, but had little luck on the rugged terrain.
After meeting with a large group of gold miners, they joined forced to exact vengeance against the Nor-Rel-Muk who had nothing to do with the attack but were staying at the Natural Bridge (Kokchee Chuptchee to the Nor-Rel-Muks), which the miners believed to be rich in gold.
The area was not a permanent village, but a “school” where women and children stayed while the men went into the forest to teach their sons to hunt and fish, Harper said. The men were gone when the Sheriff’s posse attacked, leaving mostly children and women as the victims.
Harper took the youth group to a nearby cave, through which a gurgling creek passes. It was there where many of the Wintu fled from the attack, in hopes of hiding or escaping.
“It was pretty crazy to learn about that history,” said Zach Haller, 12. “And it was really cool to be in the cave and to put our hands in the cold pool.”
As Harper led the students through the cave, he showed them small pools that emerged from the walls of the cave, a sacred place where Nor-Rel-Muk have soaked their hands and found healing for generations.
“There’s something alive here if you pay attention to it,” Harper told them. “When your senses are dulled, you lose your sense of identity. The Creator made us stewards of this place, and we should be proud as a people.”