As a youngster, Jess Rouse (Wintu, Pit River, Hupa) remembers traveling long distances with her grandfather and father throughout California to attend Big Time gatherings held by other tribes. They told her the Big Times were places to “get a little bit of medicine” from the different tribal relatives who would dance in the traditional way.
These gatherings were small, intimate, and far away. But now that Rouse is a mother, she said it’s exciting to participate in an annual Big Time close to the Wintu people’s homelands – especially one that draws hundreds of people and dance groups from throughout the state.
“Now we have one that we can call our own,” Rouse said, “whether we’re Pit River, Yana or Wintu, and it’s become something much bigger, where so many of us are coming together in a good way to support one another,” Rouse said.
On June 25, Rouse and her family were among the estimated 1500 people who attended the Redding Rancheria’s 3rd annual Big Time, held at the tribe’s arbor adjacent to the Win-River Resort Hotel and along the banks of Clear Creek where many attendees would periodically take dips to cool off. The Big Time featured 11 dance groups and singers represented by more than 300 Wintu, Patwin, Pit River, Paiute, Pomo and Miwok people, as well as several vendors selling Native jewelry and crafts as well as food booths.
Traditionally, Big Times could last weeks or even an entire month rather than a single day. They were important ceremonial and social gatherings where Native people shared resources, bartered, danced, gambled and strengthened inter-tribal relations, said Jack Potter, the Redding Rancheria’s Tribal Chairman. The Big Times were also a culturally embedded method of ensuring neighbors took care of each other, especially during dire times. It’s a lesson that is no less resonant now, during a time when COVID, inflation, political extremism and other factors have brought on hard times for many.
“If you had a good salmon run, a good acorn harvest, and you didn’t know what the neighboring villages or tribes were going through, you could call for a Big Time to share your resources,” Potter said. “The neighbors would share a dance, and then after the festivities, if they were in need, they’d leave with the extra food and resources.”
Potter and others said there has been a resurgence of Big Time gatherings across what is now known as California over the last decade, with a growing number of tribes beginning to hold them again. The gatherings have also become larger and more open to the public, they say.
Like the Winnemem Wintu Tribe’s revitalization of the Bałas Chonas ceremony and the Pit River Tribe’s Ancestral Run, the Redding Rancheria’s Big Time holds a special significance because of the history of Euro-American settlers and governments suppressing Indigenous cultural and religious practices across what is now known as the United States.
During the genocidal era of the Gold Rush, North State vigilantes and militias often targeted Native ceremonies for massacres, such as the infamous 1860 mass murder of Wiyot people during their world renewal ceremony, south of what is now Eureka.
The violent persecution of Indigenous religions was eventually made law by the federal government in 1883. That’s when the Bureau of Indian Affairs created the Court of Indian Offenses, which outlawed ceremonial dances and many other cultural practices in an effort to coerce Native people to assimilate into white Christian culture.
Through December 31 NewsMatch is matching donations dollar-for-dollar up to $19,000, giving us the chance to raise $38,000 for local journalism in Shasta County. Don’t wait — the time to give is now!
Double your donation.
Those laws were not repealed until 1934, but it wasn’t until the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed that American Indian people began to experience some guarantee of religious freedom. As a result of this physical violence and legal discrimination, many local Indigenous religious and cultural practices were forced underground or went dormant until they could be restored. Since then local tribes have revitalized ancient ceremonies and cultural practices, while also creating new ones by following cultural protocols and prayers to respond to a changing world.
“These are ceremonies we have opened to the public after they have been kept quiet for many years,” said Petee Ramirez, a member of the Sheep Ranch Rancheria Mi-Wuk Singers and Dancers who attended the Redding Rancheria’s Big Time. “These are ceremonies that have been going on from the beginning of time . . . it’s a time we get to socialize and pray with others who are like minded, who want to continue their traditions and ceremonies.”
The Redding Rancheria’s Big Time is also a rare opportunity for local non-Native people to experience and learn about traditional California Indian dances and songs. Like many Indigenous cultural practices, these traditions have long been misrepresented as primitive by anthropologists, missionaries and government officials.
For instance, Ramirez explained that 19th century Euro-American researchers who witnessed traditional Miwuk dances described his people derogatorily as a “bird cult” because of their use of feathers from specific birds to make their ceremonial regalia.
His father, Gilbert Ramirez, who is the Headman and founder of the Sheep Ranch Rancheria group, said their songs and dances shouldn’t be misconstrued as a simple performance or reverence for a particular bird. Rather their dances are a form of prayer, he explained, which has the power to transform the world, and to heal.
“Acorns are an important food, and we have a song for that. The women dance that song, and we pray for a good harvest in the fall. We pray for the animals, for the fish, for the squirrels, for the deer that we eat,” Gilbert Ramirez said. “I believe that we can heal (by dancing) and we can do strong things that people don’t understand.”
These prayers are especially important for California Indian people following the hardships of the peak of the COVID pandemic, which led to the loss of several important elders and the cancellation of many gatherings, said Mike Duncan (Concow/Wailaki/Wintun), a member of the Patwin Dancers who also attended Redding Rancheria’s Big Time. Comparing COVID to other “pandemics” California Indian people have experienced such as colonization, opioid abuse, as well as the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s crisis, Duncan said ceremony has long been essential to the resilience of Native communities.
“(COVID) isn’t the only pandemic we’ve been through. The dances and the ceremonies have given us strength and helped us survive to this point,” he said. “It’s a good thing for us to come together from a place of prayer and to say thank you to the Creator.”
Even though the Big Times are social events and open to the public, dancers say that it’s important that guests who plan to attend remember the gatherings are first and foremost ceremonies, protocols to follow to be respectful. Photographs should never be taken without permission, and different dance groups may have different rules about photographs. They may also have particular protocols regarding how they have to carry themselves while dancing. For instance, they may not be allowed to speak to others while wearing their regalia.
“Approach it as if you’re coming to your own church ceremony, and everyone is coming to gather for a common purpose of prayer.. . . carry that respect at Big Times and see them as a place of worship,” Petee Ramirez said.
As a reader-funded outlet, we rely on donations to fund our work and keep our content paywall free. Do you support free online news in Shasta County?
Plus, through December 31 NewsMatch will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $19,000. That means that we can earn up to $38,000.
Help increase access to important information.