Yocha Dehe Wintun Tribe
Our Land, its People
We all know the elementary school story that the Native Americans happily helped the pilgrims grow crops on foreign soil, thus bringing about the tradition of Thanksgiving feasts. As a little kid it sounded like the start of a centuries-long friendship, but the reality is much more sinister.
The Yocha Dehe Wintun Tribe, of the Patwin language, are the natural stewards of the land on which Benicia and its neighboring cities sit. The Yocha Dehe territory spanned not just Solano County, but also Colusa, Lake, Napa, and Yolo Counties. Under Yocha Dehe stewardship, the land was abundant. Antelopes and tule elk wandered the grasslands, shaded by giant oak groves that reached wide over the land in green embrace. Rivers sliced through, full of fish to eat and freshwater to drink and use.
It was a purer time.
The grasslands cycled through stages of birth and death, encouraged by the people, while producing bountiful resources in exchange. And the truth of the arrival of immigrants from Europe is anything but friendly.
Spanish missionaries enslaved the Yocha Dehe Wintun people and killed many of them with control techniques, not to mention the introduction of foreign bacteria and viruses. When the Gold Rush began, an influx of Americans and other immigrants flooded into California. Many Wintun were murdered by gold prospectors who were laying claim to the lands, fueled by greed.
Many of the Yocha Dehe’s people today are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those forced into assimilation boarding schools. Their languages were criminalized as one of the many rules put in place to scrub away their cultures.
The name Yocha Dehe, or Yochadihisel, literally means “home by the spring water,” but the more accurate interpretation is a statement that this is their home, and the Yocha Dehe people belong to the land. This goes deeper than the bureaucratic question of which governing body owns which lands. The land and the Yocha Dehe exist as one being.
They cannot be separated because they belong to each other and exist as they do because of each other.
When the Yocha Dehe dig their heels into the dirt, they become an extension of the earth. Being ripped from their home by death or displacement was devastating to both the Tribe and the land.
Now, the sovereign nation is in the process of relearning their language and traditions.
Using the knowledge of the late culture bearer Bertha Wright Mitchell (1936-2018), the Tribe was able to produce a Patwin dictionary and grammar book. The grandchildren of those sent away to assimilation boarding schools are now able to learn their ancestral language and speak it proudly.
Other ways that the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation is recovering from centuries of abuse from European and American colonizers are: protection of burial sites, protection of sacred cultural sites, relearning ancestral land-stewardship practices, investing in their ancestral land, and helping people in need.
With the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation and Patwin people’s traditions back in practice, such as controlled burns to stimulate the soil, our neighborhood could return to its former state of lush green, overflowing with life. It is knowledge of the land and its needs like this that informs the Yocha Dehe Cultural Resources Department which protects cultural sites.
The Solano Land Trust recently renamed the Rockville Trails Preserve.
Now the Patwino Worrtla Kodoi Dihi Open Space Park, any person can visit the park with a docent to see the land under Patwin stewardship. This hike does more than provide a window to the past, a time when California was untouched by colonization. It also is a place of inspiration for the future.
The Tribal Historic Resource Center similarly uses tribal information to protect traditional lands. Tribal Monitors are able to be on site, ensuring the protection of culturally significant resources by collaborating with agencies, federal and state, as well as private developers.
As residents of the Wintun Nation’s ancestral lands, how can we give back during the Season of Giving?
The first step is education; educating yourself and others about who lived on this land before being pushed out, persecuted, and murdered.
The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation is the Lead Executive Producer of a film, Imagining the Indian (2022), which is an informative investigation into the use of Native Americans as sports mascots, winning “Best Documentary” at the Boston International Film Festival. Watching this film is a great way to unlearn American social norms that perpetuate the persecution of our indigenous peoples. This is just an example of the work that the Yocha Dehe are doing to make space for their culture, traditions, and people.
To involve the family and start conversation about this topic, you can gather around traditional Patwin recipes from the Yocha Dehe website (yochadehe.gov) under the Resources tab. Chef Casey uses ingredients native to the land for his recipes, some of them as familiar as blackberries. You will also be introduced to new ingredients such as wild rabbit or acorns.
Local artist Mary Shaw has curated an art show related to sustainable water practices entitled “Solano Water Stories.”
This exhibit will feature indigenous art and discuss land stewardship, opening to the public on November 18th at Arts Benicia. Another installation titled “Properties of Water” will take a dive into similar subjects, curated by Katrina Bello.
As November inches closer to Thanksgiving Day, it is important to not only consider the truth behind the myth of harmony between the pilgrims and Native Americans, but to also express gratitude for the beautiful landscape we bask in every day. Whether it’s the State Park or the view of the strait from the tip of First Street, we all reap the love that has been poured into the soil we tread. Extensions of the land, the Yocha Dehe and their ancestors deserve a moment of thanks on November 23rd, but also, every day.
Feature image courtesy of Solano Land Trust