A TRIP THROUGH THE CHICO MUSEUM’S LATEST EXHIBIT
I don’t care about the Mechoopda Maidu—the original inhabitants of this place where I now live. I don’t care about their suffering and all that befell them. I live here on the land that was once theirs, and which was slowly swindled and stolen away from them, along with their way of life, and I don’t care.
These are the looming, closeted thoughts that I’m contending with as I step slowly across the carpeted museum floor from a placard illustrating the Maidu conception of the seasons to bring myself before a small model of a Maidu hut, circular and with a slice missing, so that we can see inside; see how they once lived.
Sure I “care” about them now, as I drift around this new exhibition at the easily avoidable, nearly empty and yet important Chico Museum, which is called Mikćʡapdo: This is Our Home, Here We Remain. As I read the words and look at the pictures and hear the recorded voices and imagine, I care. I have thoughts; I have feelings. But these thoughts and feelings are thin, incommensurate. They should be bigger, I think, but they’re not. And in two hours they’ll be gone—replaced by to-do-lists and insecurities and the new things in front of my eyes. I guess that’s just the way with these things. We are an amnesic, forward-facing people; I’m an amnesic, forward-facing man. We are prospectors, still.
Now I’m standing in front of a beautifully written historical timeline exhibit presented by Wells Fargo, The Rotary Club and Omega Nu Sorority, with words and pictures and small historical items, arrowheads and so forth. “Era One, Endings and Beginnings,” it reads. And then: “Spring was for hunting and fishing and gathering food, but in summer the Maidu fled to the cool hills and mountains, returning in fall to prepare for winter. Then came the trappers and explorers, the cattle, corrals and fences, hogs, cabins, ranchos and land grants, traders and malaria. Then came the miners. The condor vanished and the elk, antelope and grizzly, and there were fights and treaties and retaliation and disease and relocation.” It goes on from there. That was just the beginning, as it says.
The carpeted floor, the cool, temperature-controlled air, the tasteful museum lighting, the headphones full of stories, hung up crooked, stepping slowly, foot over foot, sideways, imagining, caring, taking in, forgetting, stepping slowly, foot over foot. Now a headdress of Red Tail Hawk feathers, now the knowledge of a population of some 8000 reduced to 547 today, like any other fact, mixing in my mind and diluting down with other facts, now a handsome beaded dancing dress, now sanctioned child-enslavement, now an abalone necklace, now a people’s land, once without end—endless—reduced to little more than a cemetery, tombstones tipping over in the black and white picture, now a “tumtum”—a cradleboard made of willow shoots, oak and buckskin, now forced relocation, a long slow march, foot over foot, forgetting already, forgetting the worst part of the whole thing, along with powerlessness and death, now stepping sideways, the air conditioned and temperature controlled, foot over foot, imagining, caring, forgetting already, forgetting the way dreams are forgotten, the way shadows recede, over the carpeted floor, in the temperature-controlled air and the tasteful museum lighting.