Opinion: “Return of the Ancestors” Commemorates Pit River Survival During Forced Military Marches

I feel like participating in this walk/run is an act of survivance . . . an expression of tribal sovereignty. When tribes come together and support each other, it builds community and capacity for a brighter future for our children.

The smoke from our sage billowed up, dancing around our faces as we passed the smudge around the circle. We asked for the protection and prayers of our ancestors and those who have gone before us. 

In early July, I had the honor of participating in the 2021 Return of the Ancestors Walk/ Run from Round Valley to Burney, California. Weeks prior, I had received a call from Danita Quinn, a Redding Rancheria tribal member and Pit River, Wintu and Yana descendant, who asked if I could assist in coordinating some logistics for the event. I already help coordinate our tribe’s Annual 100-mile Nome Cult Walk from Chico to Round Valley, which began two decades ago as an annual commemoration of the forced relocation of our ancestors. 

Kelda Britton and Danita Quinn walking on Highway 162 out of Round Valley. Photo by Kelda Britton.

The 1863 Nome Cult Walk was one of several military-enforced relocations of Native Americans throughout California Indian History. During the relocation era, tribes were essentially gathered up and herded like livestock, forcibly relocated to reservations. Many elders and babies as well as others succumbed to treacherous conditions along the trail. For those who survived, some stayed on the reservation. 

The Pit River people experienced a similar forced relocation around the same time. In 1859, General Kibbe, sanctioned by the state of California, led a bloody assault against the bands of the Pit River people, massacring them or removing them to a military reservation in Mendocino. 

Kibbe captured between 400-800 Pit River, and small numbers of people, survivors of the massacres, fled and hid in the mountains and valleys. The Mendocino Reservation was soon closed and the people were once again removed to what would become the Round Valley Reservation near Covelo to be held with other Native people from Yuki, Wailacki, Concow, Little Lake Pomo, and Nomlacki tribes.

Some Pit River people escaped and made their way home. Many never did.

In 2018, Pit River community members – survivors of genocide, ethnic cleansing and other damaging and hurtful State and Federal policies – organized a ceremonial healing run from Round Valley to Burney. In doing so, they hope to help the spirits of their ancestors return to their aboriginal territories. 

According to organizer Danita Quinn, “This run is an acknowledgment, a remembrance and healing act that brings together community members to be co-creators in the efforts to build a healthier and empowered community.” 

Sometimes spirits get trapped or “stuck” in places so to speak. Having these ceremonies helps return them to a place of peace.

Pit River Ancestral Runners on the mountain, making their way home. Photo by Ponch Fabela.

Both the Nome Cult Walk and the Return of the Ancestors Run honor the memory of those ancestors and what they sacrificed for us to be here today.  

I have personally been participating on the Nome cult walk since I was 13. During this week-long event in September, the Nome Cult Walkers retrace the original 100-mile route across the Sacramento Valley through the rugged North Coast Ranges symbolically retracing the steps that our ancestors were forced to take more than 150 years ago. At its simplest, this reenactment honors the memory of those who lost their homes, who lost their homelands, who lost their loved ones, who lost their lives, and everyone who lost their way of life. I have heard from many elders and walkers about the importance of young people taking part in this annual event, since they are the next generation of leaders. The theme of the walk is ‘Honor Their Memory–A Path Not Forgotten. This Year will mark the 26th Annual Nome Cult Walk September 12-18th, 2021. 

Members of the Round Valley Indian Tribe retracing the 1863 route of the Nome Cult Walk, a forced relocation of Indigenous peoples from Chico, California, to Covelo, CA. Photo by Joleen Whipple – from the Forest Service photo archive.

In 1863, 435 Concow Maidu Indians were rounded up and corralled with the group from the Round Valley Reservation. The remaining Concow were ordered to be at the Bidwell Rancheria on August 28,1863 to be taken to the Round Valley Reservation at Covelo in Mendocino County. If any Indians were found after that date, they would be shot on sight. And they were. This ill-starred trip has gone down in Indian history as an inhumane drive to a strange and inhospitable valley over a long, hot, dry trail through the Sacramento Valley and through the steep, rocky route of the Coast Range. Many of the Indians already were sick from being rounded up, marched, and corralled. Some were killed, a few escaped, and others were left behind, too sick to go on.

California’s history has not always been truthful, and California in the 1800s was especially difficult for California Indians. During the Gold Rush, many communities throughout the state of California offered bounties for Indian heads, scalps, or ears. The Gold Rush was clearly a case of genocide. Mass murder was legalized and publicly subsidized. During this violent time in history, the state of California passed legislation authorizing more than a $1 million dollars for the reimbursement of additional expenses that the Indian hunters may have incurred. According to historian Benjamin Madley, from 1850-1863 California Indians could legally be taken and forced to become unpaid servants. Resistance from Native Americans was met with swift and often violent retribution.

Britton with others at the REturn of the Ancestors Walk/Run. Photo by Kelda Britton.

One result of the Nome Cult Walk relocation was the creation of the Round Valley Indian Tribes. Native Americans were not only taken from their tribal lands, but were also forced to live with many different surrounding tribes. Sometimes those people forced to live together had been longtime rivals. This federally recognized tribe exists today and includes the Yuki, Wailacki, Concow, Little Lake Pomo, Nomlacki, Pit River, and Maidu Concow tribes. Round Valley has been the heart of the Yuki territory “since time began”. The Yuki have lived on their ancestral homeland (stretching from Humboldt Bay to the upper Russian River area) for over 10,000 years.

Our committee wanted to support the Return of the Ancestors Run/Walk, so we devised a plan for meals and gathering. The runners arrived in Covelo on Thursday evening, we had a small potluck style pizza party on wooden picnic tables under giant ancient valley oaks. We were joined by a few community members. I felt instantly connected to Danita and was so happy to see the young people piling out of trucks and cars as they arrived – they brought an energy of excitement and hope. We circled up and started walking on the morning of Friday July 10th. I walked the first 10 miles of the trek and had the exultant honor of carrying one of the running staffs and leading, as a group of about 20 of us began the journey together from Hidden Oaks Park out toward the Eel River Ranger Station. This route is roughly 200 miles over dusty mountain roads and fiery pavement in the hottest summer month of July. 

For me, I feel like participating in these walk/runs is an act of survivance, a term coined by Gerald Vizenor who said: “Survivance is an active resistance and repudiation of dominance, obtrusive themes of tragedy, nihilism, and victimry. The practices of survivance create an active presence…Native stories are the sources of survivance.”

It is an expression of tribal sovereignty, demonstrating that we are still here as Indigenous people. We may never truly know how bad life was for our ancestors and what they had to endure for us to be here today. However, I believe there is power in unity and when tribes come together and support each other – it builds community and capacity for a brighter future for our children. Something that Danita said really resonated with me, she told me that “every step you take counts, whether they be small or many.”

May we all learn to be in better relationship with each other and with the Earth. Learning to be better relatives begins with one step forward in the right direction.

Kelda Britton is descendant of the Wailaki, Nomlaki, Concow Peoples and enrolled at the Round Valley Indian Reservation in Covelo, California. 

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