Sixteen years after it was founded, the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center is alive and well, with a small exhibit and lots of educational programming housed in an unlikely Wikiup office building. Its mission is described as preserving stories that have been told and also those that must be told.
Located off Airport Boulevard north of Santa Rosa, it houses a permanent, multi-media exhibit about Ishi, the Yahi Indian who lived alone in the foothills of Mount Lassen until he appeared at an Oroville slaughterhouse in August 1911.
The exhibit, “A Story of Dignity, Hope and Courage,” features includes a sheep bone and wooden fish hook, a wooden fishing spear and green and blue arrow points made by Ishi while he was living in San Francisco between 1912 and 1915. He died of tuberculosis on March 25, 1916.
The exhibit also includes several baskets that were made in the Montgomery Creek area of Shasta in the early 1900s. A DVD chronicles Ishi’s life and his tribe’s culture. Computers provide an opportunity to post feedback on the exhibit.
The items are on long-term loan from the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. Once that facility’s ongoing renovation is completed in 2014, those items will be exchanged for others from its collection.
Ishi was the subject of endless research during his later years and is the primary source for the present day study of California Indian culture. Says Nicole Lim, the Windsor museum and cultural center’s executive director, they selected these items to show that Ishi was not the “last wild Indian. We don’t seek to collect artifacts.”
Because the California Indians’ struggle for social justice, integrity and acceptance continue to this day, the museum and cultural center must be more than an exhibit of artifacts, said Joe Myers, a Pomo Indian who is president of the center’s board of directors and the driving force behind the facility at 5250 Aero Drive.
“We are here to teach integrity and awareness of the culture of California Indians,” said Myers, 73. “I’m not sure that’s done well in Sonoma and Mendocino counties.”
Originally established in 1996, the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center shares the 24,000-square-foot building with the National Indian Justice Center, which Myers helped found in 1983. The NIJC purchased the building with the remnants of a $2 million state grant originally designed to help establish a museum of California Indian culture at the Presidio in San Francisco.
That vision stalled, so the museum was opened in 2005 in Wikiup, with plans to install six permanent exhibits in the museum when funding for that $8 million endeavor can be obtained. Among them, Myers envisions chronicling the forced relocation of Indians to missions and boarding schools by including replicas of a California mission building and an Indian boarding school. The Ishi exhibit, which incorporates items on loan from UC Berkeley, is the museum’s first.
“The California Indian Museum and Cultural Center is issues oriented,” said Myers. “We don’t intend to be an artifacts-driven museum. We are creating information here to get people to think how difficult it has been for Native Americans to be equal in this society.”
Myers said the center’s outreach and educational components are a team project. “It takes a lot of energy from a group of people to make it work. It’s not just me. The young guys have the technical expertise and the enthusiasm to move ahead,” he said.
Program Manager Anthony England and Ben Myers visited county fourth-grade classrooms in November when students were learning about Native American history and culture. The center also hosts monthly lectures, classes and performances. Last summer it sponsored a tule boat team at the Tule Boat Festival in Lakeport, and embarked on a project to assess and document the Pomo language.
The center’s Tribal Ambassadors Through Theater Program teaches youths educational and public speaking skills through theatrical performance, story telling and digital media production. Last year, a sold-out crowd of more than 1,600 students, teachers, friends and family attended the “Journeys to the Past” music and dance performance at the Wells Fargo Center.
“The culture is transferred through the kids, both native and non-native,” Myers said. “We get them up to speed on self-esteem and cultural integrity. We instill pride and confidence in their future.”
A former Oakland police officer, California Highway Patrol officer and legal services attorney, Myers has taught in Native American studies at UC Berkeley for more than a decade. The Joseph A. Myers Center for Research on Native American Issues is housed in the university’s Institute for the Study of Societal Issues, dedicated to improving the social, political and economic health of Native Americans in the United States.