Pepperwood Pre-European Contact

What did Pepperwood look like before European contact?

Pre-European contact, Wappo villages were widely distributed in Napa, Sonoma, and Lake Counties. Wappo land management practices, which we assume comprised the management regime of Pepperwood, were very similar to those practiced by their neighbors, the Pomo, Miwok, and Sotoyome. Most likely the entire North Bay region shared a cultural ecology over multiple thousands of years, which regarded habitat stewardship an ancient and sacred partnership between humans and nature.

Even today, no plant is planted, pruned, or coppiced without a shared acknowledgement of the connection between it and the person collecting its leaves, branches, roots, or bark. As one Pomo woman eloquently said, “Never take without asking and never ask without giving thanks.” Likewise, at the societal level, this sacred relationship is acknowledged with elaborate ceremonies that celebrate seasonally important resources, such as the Wappo’s annual strawberry festival (Sawyer 1978; J. Parker pers. comm. 2010; C. McKay pers. comm. 2015). Ethnographic and archaeological studies, as well as oral histories, all indicate that tribal land and water management entailed a complex set of activities strategically designed to support resource abundance (Barrett 1908, Anderson 2005). Seeds of desirable plants were saved and planted, and undesirable plants were removed. Plants were cultivated with digging sticks, pruned, thinned out, and sometimes coppiced to encourage production. In particular, three oak woodlands species—California black oak (Quercus kelloggii), tanoak (Notholithocarpus densiflorus), and blue oak (Quercus douglasii)—were specially cultivated.

Sage species (called chia by Native Californians) in the genus Salvia and Indian clover (Trifolium albopurpureum and T. amoenum) were both maintained in monocultures of sometimes ten or more acres. This level of production was also true for seed crops like California fescue (Festuca californica) and numerous other plants that provided edible roots and bulbs. Plant communities that offered fiber and basketry resources like dogbane, willow, sedge, bulrush, redbud, and bracken fern, were also encouraged. Local tribes practiced a sophisticated plant-based ethno-pharmacology that used dozens of species to treat all the most common human ailments including skin rashes, pulmonary issues, headaches, pain, digestive difficulties, and eye infections (Goodrich et al. 1996). Such intense habitat manipulation had a profound effect on local animal communities.

The Native practice of encouraging willow, sedge, and bulrush kept river and stream banks secure and fostered healthy salmon and steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) populations. These species played a critical role in the local food chain. Their four annual runs through what is now called the Laguna de Santa Rosa also delivered large volumes of marine nutrients into upland spawning grounds in the headwater creeks of the Pepperwood region. Likewise, Native-managed meadowlands supported vast herds of deer and tule elk (Cervus canadensis subsp. nannodes) and their predators. This mosaic of healthy habitats also supported a diverse array of bird life (Anderson 2005; C. McKay pers. comm. 2015).

Besides cultivation practices, the most powerful Native land management tool was fire. Every North Bay habitat type was likely burned on a regular basis (M.K. Anderson pers. comm. 2012), and sometimes multiple times at the same site within a decade. Burns at the end of summer (before seed germination) were used to eliminate undesirable plants such as poison oak, thickets of Douglas-fir saplings, overly dense chaparral, and tanoaks in redwood forests (M.K. Anderson pers. comm. 2012; C. McKay pers. comm. 2015). Fall burns were used to encourage particular plant communities that respond well to fire, and those that benefit from the carbon and other nutrients fires release into the soil. For example, Native knowledge suggests that their three favoriteoak species increase acorn production after the application of gentle fall fires.


Pepperwood is privileged to work with our Native Advisory Council, whose knowledge and guidance allows us to place the preserve’s current management within the context of traditional practices. These practices, most likely developed since the last ice age (14,000 years before today), contrast significantly with more intensive European and US land uses implemented over a relatively short time period (less than 200 years). Native Advisory Council Chair & Indigenous Education Coordinator, Clint McKay, shared specific indigenous management practices that would have been used at the preserve, as well as current opportunities to restore native approaches to land stewardship.



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