by Jennifer MacDonald
Patsy Seek combed the banks of Northern California’s Feather River, scoured the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and made house calls in Oroville searching for Native American children skipping school.
“I’d drag ’em out of bed,” she says. “They’d hide in the mountains and I’d go find them.”
Seek could relate to the troubled students. Herself a Maidu woman, Seek dropped out of high school during her first year.
In Oroville and surrounding Butte County, the Native American population is mostly Maidu. The Maidu were among the largest of the California tribes, occupying large parts of Northern and Central California before white settlers came.
Maidu children still struggle with cultural differences that can make learning in Westernized public schools difficult, tribe members say. And Oroville’s Maidu have struggled with poverty and racism and the history of conflict and oppression that have decimated the tribe for decades.
Seek says in the past, Native American parents didn’t have “the sense in their minds” to make their children go to school. So when she was hired by the Oroville Union High School District more than 30 years ago to counsel and tutor Native American students as part of a new federal program targeted at raising student achievement, Seek was determined to stop falling attendance rates.
Seek, 69, retired five years ago from the Title IV Indian Education Program. But her contributions are still felt today by the 170 Native Americans students in the Oroville Union High School District, and those who graduated over several decades.
“I wouldn’t say how many students I have in this town that I love and they love me,” says Seek.
Although Seek no longer works for the school district, the soft-spoken woman is hardly retired. Today, she is a junior elder teaching the entire community about the Maidu culture and leading the fight to gain access to federal grants that would provide better health care, education and economic development for the tribe.
Seek has plans for the Maidu of Butte County. She envisions a strong, self-sufficient tribe able to reconnect with its ancestry.
Seek has both leadership skills and the respect of Butte County’s Native American community as she works to reach these goals. She is the elected chairwoman of the 450-member KonkowValley Band of Maidu, one of several Maidu groups in Oroville. And she helped found the Konkow Wailaki Maidu Indian Cultural Preservation Association, a non-profit organization working to preserve the Foothill Maidu language.
“You want your children to know their culture,” she says. “That’s where you find your life and how you deal with your life. It’s ok to live your life and believe in your culture because that’s who you are.”
The struggle to reduce the Native American high school drop-out rate is still underway in California and the rest of the nation.
In California, Native American young people have the lowest college entry rate of all racial groups, said Meredith Cramer, grant coordinator for the Title VII Indian Education Program—formerly Title IV under which Seek was employed—in Oroville. In the United States, Native American students have among the highest high-school drop out rates, the lowest test scores, and the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, she added.
And in Oroville, Maidu representatives regularly meet with school district administrators to try to figure out how to improve education for Native American students, Cramer said.
Back when Seek was in charge of the Indian Education Program, if Native American students didn’t show up at school, she would drive to their houses, make them get dressed and bring them to school. She bought athletic shoes for children who otherwise couldn’t have played sports, took them to doctors when they were sick and chaperoned them to the principal’s office when they were in trouble.
Seek set up a teepee in front of the high school to teach all the students about Maidu culture, and started a Native American section in the library.
The hard work paid off. Native American students who used to “stay in the background” at school found an identity through Seek’s nurturing, said Bill McCutchen, who worked with Seek in the 1970s and 80s as a school librarian.
“I think [Native American students] are more successful because of the groundwork she laid,” McCutchen said. “They’re more comfortable here at school.”
Seek is a small woman, whose hair looks like an eagle’s tail: wavy, shoulder length, a strong grey color with large whiffs of white. She wears the pride of her culture in her earrings, small white ceramic feathers with a colored bead dangling at the end. Her voice is as soft as a morning drizzle, but her ideas are loud as rumbling thunder.
“The land and everything around here is the Indian peoples’,” Seek says calmly. “They got chased off their land.”
Part of the Maidu’s land became modern-day Butte County, including the city of Oroville where the average per capita income of $12,345 is just a few thousand dollars above the poverty line. Oroville’s seclusion—Chico is the closest big city and it’s over 20 miles away—makes Oroville an island of sorts surrounded by yellow fields filled with boulders.
Patsy Seek grew up in one of those lonely yellow fields, in a house right off Highway 149. Today, there’s a trailer in its place under a few big trees.
Seek grew up in the house with childhood friend Bobby Beavers, who recalled that Seek was “looking out for others” even as a child. He remembers Seek as being happy and thoughtful.
“If I had a penny for candy, I’d give it to Patsy,” Beavers said. “She’d get enough for everyone, but I would’ve wasted it on one big piece.”
But Seek remembers her childhood as difficult.
Her mother had left Seek with friends who lived in the Highway 149 house when she was a baby. Seek lived there until a fire burned down the house. She then moved with the family 13 miles north to Yankee Hill. Her mother showed up to claim her daughter when Seek was 11 years old.
Seek might have met her father once; she’s not sure.
But she does remember stories about her grandfather who as a boy in 1863 marched a Trail of Tears 100 miles west to Round Valley to the Nome Cult Reservation. She remembers one particular story about the United States soldiers rounding up a group of Native Americans into a circle, then shooting them. Only 277 out of 461 Native Americans finished that journey; the rest were killed, escaped or died from illness along the way.
(The most famous and devastating Trail of Tears was marched by the Cherokee to present-day Oklahoma under the orders of then-president Andrew Jackson. During the forced relocation, about 4,000 Cherokee died.)
Perhaps because of the destruction and displacement her ancestors suffered, Seek was equipped with little self-esteem and had to find her own way in life.
At 14 years old she gave birth to her first child whom Seek describes as the “first love of my life.” As a teenage mother, Seek’s instinct took over when it came to taking care of her baby.
“Don’t ask me how I learned these things,” she says. “It was just there. Maybe it was the Creator from above with me all along.”
Through two marriages, she pushed a total of nine children into the world. Pictures of her 21 grandchildren and 18 great grandchildren decorate the walls of her friendly, one-story Oroville home located at the end of a gravel road.
As a child, Seek attended non-Indian schools where the other students made fun of her for being Maidu.
“But I had a personal saying: ‘I’m as good as you are, no matter where I’m from,'” she says, diverging with detailed accounts of how other girls tormented her because she couldn’t afford new clothes.
It might seem like a contradiction that Seek, a woman who spent her life getting others to stay in school, dropped out of high school when she was a freshman. “I probably thought I was too dumb to do much of anything,” she says.
But Seek proved everyone wrong, the most important being herself.
This past September, the Konkow Valley Band of Maidu held their annual Salmon Ceremony to celebrate the circle of life represented by the salmon that travel up the Feather River to spawn and die.
Dressed in a white buckskin dress fringed at the bottom with turquoise and silver beading, and in knee-high white boots fastened by three large silver buttons, Seek cleansed the Dance Circle by waving the smoke from a bundle of burning sage with a hawk feather.
The area where the Salmon Ceremony takes place is one of the original camping grounds of the Maidu. “In being here, it means something because you have a feeling of what our people did when they lived here,” Seek explained.
There were several Native American tribes present at the event including Maidu, Pomo and Iroquois. There were lots of non-Native American people, too.
Though it may seem like these cultures are learning to co-exist, Seek worries that Native American people will continue to lose their culture and identity.
She worries about the many Native American students struggling to stay in school and facing pressures of drugs and alcohol. She worries about the Native American children who are teased because their families benefit from the casinos in town. The Konkow Maidu don’t operate any casinos.
Native American students also face disadvantages in school because they have a different learning style and culture, said Susan Gomez, prevention services coordinator for the Tyme Maidu tribe in Oroville.
One example is that Native American students might look away from a teacher who they consider an elder.
“They won’t look you look straight in the eye so teachers might not think they’re paying attention,” said Gomez, who pointed out positive changes in schools like the start of a Native American club at Las Plumas High School this year.
Tribal leaders and educators work together to provide educational opportunities aimed at improving education for Native American students like the annual Intertribal Butte County Education Fair, and a summer bridge program at Butte College for Native American students.
What Seek began as a one-woman campaign to get students to stay in school has become a community effort to raise education levels of Native American students. Once equipped with an education, Seek hopes the younger generation of Maidu will take over the fight for Native American rights.
“They’re going to learn more about their lives and what’s going on with the Indian people and the government,” Seek says. “They need to learn how to go [to Washington, D.C.] and deal with these things. If they don’t have the education they’re not going to get through the door.”
Seek hopes to unite Butte County’s Maidu people and inspire them to re-assume their cultural dignity. “Let us all be who we are,” Seek says. “Let us be who are ancestors were.”
Patsy Seek can be contacted through the Konkow Valley Band of Maidu Web site at www.maidu.com.
Jennifer MacDonald is a Chico State University senior majoring in journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.