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New Healdsburg Museum exhibit a chance to learn about Dry Creek Rancheria

The museum exhibit will be in place until May.|

If You Go

What: From Diggers Bend to River Rock: People and History of Dry Creek Rancheria exhibit

Where: Healdsburg Museum, 221 Matheson St., Healdsburg

When: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, through May 29

More information: healdsburgmuseum.org

Here’s how it begins.

Step into the Healdsburg Museum. Read the introductory storyboard and meet, in many ways for the first time, the people of the Dry Creek Rancheria.

“Scientists believe that evidence for human occupation of inland Sonoma County begins at least 10,000 years ago” it reads. “We say, instead, that we have always been here. … As my Aunt Kathleen puts it, ‘We were made for this place and this place was made for us. It is the source and root of home.’”

That’s guest curator Sherrie Smith-Ferri telling about Indians, about her extended family and the other family groups who make up the Dry Creek Rancheria.

“We called ourselves the Mahilakaune, ‘west water people’ and the Onatatis, ‘people who speak plainly and truthfully.’ Anthropologists call us the Dry Creek Pomo and Western Wappo.”

This exhibit, titled “From Diggers Bend to River Rock,” will be in place until May. It is about — to quote the accompanying brochure, “a place… a people… and a wealth of stories about both.” Actually, it’s all about resilience and, as Sherrie will tell you, about family — and love.

It‘s also has an important message for all who venture near — a kind and gentle history lesson about Sonoma County’s Indians.

(Oh, I know, I know. It’s more common now to say Indigenous people or, at least, Native Americans. But Sherrie proudly calls herself an Indian. And that’s good enough for me.)

...

THE MOST important things to know about Sherrie Smith-Ferri, who is responsible for the telling of this “wealth of stories” in a professional but loving way, is that she is a member of the Dry Creek Rancheria and her story and the story of her family is part and parcel of the tribal history she has assembled for the museum.

Like most Dry Creek members, Sherrie can trace her lineage back to the 1840s, including a liaison between a Mexican land grant owner and a young Mahilakaune woman. Her immediate family includes basket weavers and artists. Her father, the late Bill Smith, was a teacher — the first to teach Native American Studies at Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State. She is a Healdsburg High and SRJC graduate who holds a Ph.D. degree in anthropology from the University of Washington and is an nationally acknowledged expert on Pomo baskets. She is recently retired after some 20 years as director of Ukiah’s Grace Hudson Museum, the go-to place to learn about Mendocino County artist Hudson and her ethnographer husband who “captured” the last vestiges of early Pomo tribal life.

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SHERRIE’S home base is the Dry Creek Rancheria, a designation for their tribal land since the first 75 acres were surveyed and deeded to them in the 1930s, a moment in history when the Bureau of Indian Affairs made the tribe official.

It should be noted, too, that an offer from the government to buy back the land in the 1950s, taken up by many tribes from many places, was afforded a polite “No, thank you” from this tribe. They elected to keep what was theirs and to guarantee a “home base” that has held the group together — as an extended family as much as a government entity.

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NOW expanded to 675 acres by land purchases, the reservation name threatens confusion about location. Although officially named Dry Creek, the reservation isn’t any part of the familiar Dry Creek Valley wine region west of Highway 101, but rather, it is across the river and into the edge of the Mayacamas mountains. But, whatever the established boundaries, the reservation land is not a village in any sense. No tribe members live on the property. As with other recognized members, they have scattered, intermarried and in a broad sense moved on.

But the Dry Creek people have maintained their land. It is not only the site of the first casino in the county, River Rock, (and the only one on a designated reservation), but there is currently a community center planned there which will house a complex and complete archive. One can’t help but suspect that this exhibit, generously shared with the public, is the first step in the archival process.

And, for Sherrie it is clearly, from word one, a labor of love.

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GIVE yourself some time when you visit this exhibit. There is a lot to see, a lot to read, a lot to think about.

The starting point is a display of Indian basketry so beautiful, so complex and so precious to the descendants of weavers who created them that tribal elder Clint McKay, himself a basket weaver, was moved to sing a “Welcome Home” in his native language when baskets loaned by the University of California’s prestigious Hearst Museum arrived and were carefully placed at front of the exhibit.

It marked the moment for Clint and others of the Dry Creek Rancheria when tribal treasures — baskets woven by elders long departed — came home to visit as part of a proud moment in tribal history.

With the boundaries established and the Hearst collection in place, representing just a few of the 81 examples of Dry Creek basketry in the exhibit, from size XL and sturdy to tiny, beaded and feathered, all of them lovingly cared for through generations, visitors will quickly realize that there is a great deal more to be learned in the relatively small museum space.

Besides the storyboards, which are not to be missed, there are tools and clothing and photographs — images of dancers in faded black-and-white, wearing feathers and beads and, of course, the basket makers at work, wearing the wide skirts that are good places to sort clamshell beads, woodpecker feathers and quail plumes to decorate their baskets.

But there are also men in military uniforms and track shorts and baseball uniforms and business suits and women fashionably dressed for parties and advertisements for Indian-owned businesses.

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IT MAY SEEM like this exhibit is a gift to the Dry Creek people. And many of them have already come once, twice and more often, bringing children and grandchildren and old and new friends to show them what being a Sonoma County Indian is all about.

But it is also a gift to all of us who need constant reminders — and more education — on this aspect of our important local history. And it’s a promise that the Dry Creek story, which the brochure explains, begins “a long time ago when Animals were people…” isn’t going away.

If You Go

What: From Diggers Bend to River Rock: People and History of Dry Creek Rancheria exhibit

Where: Healdsburg Museum, 221 Matheson St., Healdsburg

When: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, through May 29

More information: healdsburgmuseum.org

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