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A site near Warm Springs Dam soon could be the location for a small native village and ceremonial arbors, helping re-establish a Pomo Indian connection to their ancestral territory.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is nearing approval of the Dry Creek Rancheria's application to lease 24 acres near Lake Sonoma and develop five of the acres for tribal use.

The plan is to use the land for dance practices, picnics and events that include other tribes.

Tribal Chairman Harvey Hopkins declined to comment, referring questions to the tribe's public relations firm.

"It's an opportunity to have an area set aside for their cultural activities, for their dance activities," said spokesman Dave Hyams, a senior vice-president with Solem & Associates in San Francisco. "It's an important part of the preservation of the tribe and its culture."

The Army Corps, which built Warm Springs Dam and manages the surrounding recreation area, issued a 59-page draft report this week with a tentative finding that the project will have no significant environmental impact.

The public has until March 15 to comment on it.

The project is part of ongoing "cultural mitigation" efforts to offset the effects of dam construction, according to Army Corps archeologist Richard Stradford.

When Warm Springs dam was built three decades ago, the lake formed behind it flooded ancestral Pomo lands, including sedge areas used in basketweaving.

"For thousands of years these beds were up Dry Creek and would be harvested," Stradford said.

Some of the grasses were transplanted prior to dam construction. An area alongside Dry Creek, just downstream from the dam, was set aside for sedge use by native basketweavers.

The replanting of the sedge beds came out of a recommendation of an advisory council comprised of three tribal rancherias that had historical ties to the land that was inundated. It included Dry Creek, Cloverdale and Kashia Pomos.

The Dry Creek Rancheria's proposal encompasses the sedge bank area.

The Dry Creek Pomos operate River Rock, the only Indian casino in Sonoma County, on their rancheria near Geyserville, about 10 miles east of the dam.

But the 75-acre rancheria, established almost a century ago, is on ancestral Wappo land, so the Indian Village and arbor project near the dam bring them closer to their historic home.

"This literally is the center of their homeland," Stradford said. He said archeological evidence showed there were major villages in the lake area, and along Dry Creek.

"Villages were lived in, into the 1800s," he said.

In more recent years, the project site had a farmstead and orchards, then was used as maintenance yard during dam construction.

The site contains some wells and an unpaved access road. To the north is Dry Creek Road and the Sbragia Family Vineyards. To the east are vineyards and farmland. To the south are open space recreational areas, a paved parking area and Army Corps offices.

To the west is Skaggs Springs Road, the Lake Sonoma Fish Hatchery and Milt Brandt Visitor's Center.

The Pomo village, which has not been defined in terms of size, would be constructed from traditional native material. Structures would have dirt floors and be built of wood, stone and mortar.

It would be subject to design approval by the Army Corps, according to Stradford, who added it would probably "be a small area with perishable structures," typical of native villages.

The maximum height of the brush arbors would be 18 feet. The 60-foot diameter arbors would contain a fire pit surrounded by stone for use in tribal ceremonies.

Dance groups practices would occur once to twice a month, with attendance of up to 50 people. Tribal events such as picnics with up to 100 people would occur two to four times a year.

There would also be a food preparation area for reheating food with propane stoves.

Once or twice a year, there would be events that attract about 200 people.

The existing dirt road of approximately 1,000 feet would be paved and extended to 1,500 feet.

There would be a small parking area built with additional overflow parking area off-site 650 feet to south, where restrooms also are located.

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