Pepperwood hikes and classes offer Indigenous perspective
On a recent cool and cloudy fall afternoon at Pepperwood Preserve in Santa Rosa, a group of about 20 hikers, a mix of ages, gathered under the umbrella of a massive coast live oak. They had come to the preserve for a hike with an uncommon approach, one that would allow them to look at the landscape through the viewpoint of Native Americans.
“You can feel how special Pepperwood is while standing under the great oaks,” Clint McKay told the hikers, as acorn woodpeckers tap-tap-tapped on trees and crows cawed. “I think about the changes that have occurred since my aunties were alive. If we listen, these trees tell us stories,”
McKay is the Indigenous education coordinator at Pepperwood and chair of the preserve’s Native Advisory Council. His heritage includes Dry Creek Pomo, Wappo and Wintun tribes, and he is a gifted basket weaver. On the day of the hike, he had recently returned from delivering his artistic baskets to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
McKay started the Exploring the Autumn Landscape through an Indigenous Perspective hike with a recitation in his native tongue to “set the tone of the walk,” before he led the hikers along the trails and interpreted this traditional homeland of the Wappo people.
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McKay did not grow up on a reservation, but he was raised to honor the traditional ways of his people. He learned from stories and cultural practices passed down from relatives, including his father.
When McKay decided to move his family to the Dry Creek Rancheria in Geyserville, he learned the significance of basket weaving from his great-aunt, Laura Somersal, who taught him the methods of Pomo basket weaving, including how to harvest, process and weave the necessary plants. And his great-aunt Mabel McKay taught him the fine art of the Dry Creek language.
On the recent hike, he shared some of what he learned from his relatives. “The bay and black oak trees are very important to my people for many reasons,” McKay said. “Bay leaves are an insect repellent, and we put the green bay leaves into our baskets to preserve them. When we hunt, we rub ourselves down with bay to hide the human scent. Bays were hit hard in the fires but are coming back strong. Black oak provides our preferred acorns for our staple food.”
The redbud bushes at Pepperwood were, and still are, an important plant source for basket making. The first hard frost of the season changes the branches to the desired red color.
McKay explained that in order to obtain strong, straight cane from redbud, it is necessary to tend the plant by cutting it down and allowing it to produce the prized straight materials needed for making baskets.
As the hiking group passed spectacular views of Mount Saint Helena in the distance, McKay paid respect to the beautiful sentinel: “Mount Saint Helena is in our creation story, and it is a very powerful place.”