Dry Creek Pomo prepare to host 10-tribe 'Big Time'

Near the foot of Warm Springs Dam, at the center of the ancestral lands claimed by the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians, stands a new redwood arbor that represents a kind of homecoming and reunion for North Coast tribes.

It will be the site Saturday of a "Big Time," a type of pow-wow expected to draw 10 or so tribes and their dancers.

The ceremony — which is open to the public — is rife with meaning for the host tribe, a way to come together and overcome past differences and keep the culture and values alive.

"This is real, what it's all about," said Max Cordova, a Dry Creek member known as a spiritual leader and "dreamer," as well as a dancer and singer of traditional songs.

"There will be tribes from all over Northern California. It doesn't happen very often," he said.

He compares it to the earth's own heartbeat as the ground reverberates with the pulsing rhythm of a dug-in drum beating to the steps of the colorful "shakehead" bear and feather dancers.

The event also helps transcend the identity of the Dry Creek Rancheria Pomos beyond the Las-Vegas style casino they've operated near Geyserville for more than a decade.

"Maybe we can segue into a little better portrayal of California Indian history, to show we don't all practice pulling levers on slot machines," said tribal elder and cultural adviser Reg Elgin. "Not all Indians have casinos and believe in them."

"This is another side that's probably a more realistic side to being an American Indian in Sonoma County," he said.

The brush arbor, as it's called, was developed in collaboration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built the dam and created Lake Sonoma, flooding thousands of acres of aboriginal lands by the mid-1980s.

Tribal rancherias, including Dry Creek, Cloverdale and Kashia Pomos, had historic ties to the land.

The principal village of the Dry Creek Pomo, or "Mihilikawna" as they called themselves, was about two miles downstream from the site of today's Big Time, according to Elgin.

As part of a "cultural mitigation" to offset the effects of dam construction, the Dry Creek Pomos signed a 25-year lease last year for 27 acres near the base of the dam. The lease has the option for renewal every 25 years for another century.

"We're taking a lot of pride in coming home and developing a project you can see, feel, touch and go there for ceremonial use," said Tribal Chairman Harvey Hopkins, who was wielding a shovel this week, making last-minute modifications to a nearby barbecue pit for the accompanying beef and pork roast.

Abalone, seaweed, fry bread and other traditional foods also will be served.

The circular redwood pole arbor that surrounds the dance circle is a vision of Cordova's, which he put into a scale model that was approved by the tribal council.

The fire pit is sacred, the center pole represents a connection to the creator and "there's a song in each of the holes I prepared," he said.

"Every pole has reason for being — a number of weeks, a point of the stars. Everything is tied into something," said Cordova.

The redwood trunks were salvaged from trees felled during a Highway 101 widening project.

The Big Time, which goes from noon Saturday until 9 p.m. is the talk of Indian Country, he said.

"We anticipate a place where different tribal people can rekindle some old acquaintances — a nice little holiday atmosphere," said Elgin, the tribal elder.

The site along Dry Creek is reached by a dirt road, about a quarter-mile from the paved road at the base of the dam. It was overgrown with thick shrubs, bottlebrush, and blackberry thorns before it was cleared.

Cordova, who has been working steadily for more than a month to construct the arbor along with his brothers Homer and Tom, paused to wipe the sweat from his brow Thursday as he installed willow branches to provide shade.

"My grandmother was born on a gravel bed along the creek many moons go, before this land was taken from us," Cordova said. "She used to tell us as kids all about the place. She said the salmon were so thick in the creek you could walk across them."

His grandmother, Ruth Cordova, "never forgot her songs, or let go of her tribal language," he said. "She taught me and my brothers."

He said the arbor is a place of healing, acknowledging that the fabric of the community has been torn by the periodic infighting that surfaces around the time of tribal elections, along with allegations of greed, and hard feelings when long-time tribal members are disenrolled.

"Our tribe gets confused as to what's real," Cordova said, adding that some people believe riches stem from a casino.

"We're already rich with our values, our tradition," he said.

"This is medicine to bring people back together," he said. "I had a vision and we made it a reality. It's important to bring people home."

(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.)