by Leslie Layton
When Ali Meders-Knight was asked to provide mural art for the local contingent at the upcoming San Francisco march for climate action, she thought of the basket designs used by her Mechoopda ancestors.
She thought about historical descriptions of the Northern Sacramento Valley, when birds and butterflies were so numerous they sometimes blocked any view of the sky.
And before that day was out, she had a painting that will be used as a template for a mural panel at San Francisco Civic Center.
Some 60 Chico-area residents are expected at the Sept. 8 RISE for Climate, Jobs & Justice march in San Francisco that has been promoted as a major action to demand an end to fossil-fuel reliance and more governmental and private-sector support for renewable energy development.
The march will be led by indigenous groups, beginning at the Embarcadero Plaza in San Francisco, and will end up at the Civic Center where some 55 communities from around the state will each produce a panel for a single street mural.
The story of how a Mechoopda design was chosen to represent the Chico community is only in part about Meders-Knight, an artist and basket-weaver who has worked in a childrens’ outdoor and other environmental programs. It’s also about the evolution of the climate justice movement itself.
“Having me do this design brings us to a window, opens the door to dialogue,” Meders-Knight said.
“Let’s look at how this land was when John Bidwell got here. We’ve ruined all the riparian zones. We have non-native plants and trees in areas where they don’t thrive. My goal is that we have open public dialogue that re-purposes us to become stewards of the ecosystem and collaborate with indigenous people.
“We can work with the Mechoopda to restore wetlands, have prescribed burns, create jobs in land management,” she added.
The Mechoopda tribe, based in the Chico area, was decimated in the 1800s by violent citizen militias and government policies that called for the removal of Indians from land coveted by gold-seekers and white settlers. But many of the Mechoopda survived, and in 1992 the tribe won federal recognition and began rebuilding an economic base.
Nationally, the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protest led by Standing Rock Sioux tribal members became a watershed event in environmentalism, noted Ann Ponzio, a member of the environmental group Chico350.
“Standing Rock really changed the environmental movement,” said Ponzio, who has been involved for many years in environmental advocacy. “It became a model on how to elevate our voices and the attitude that is brought to those voices.”
But it was more than just a model for activism. Ponzio said many supporters of the anti-pipeline movement (#NODAPL) also realized how much they could learn from other cultures, including from indigenous communities that have successful models for environmental stewardship.
Chico350 thus reached out to Meders-Knight to provide a design that will be placed on a 40-foot concrete slab and become part of a mural that RISE predicts will set a new Guinness world record for the largest street mural.
“Standing Rock was an opportunity to take off the mask,” Meders-Knight said, alluding to mythology sometimes attached to Native cultures. “We understand migration patterns, where willow grows and how to make it into medicine. This is not spooky stuff.”
Meders-Knight’s design is based on one of her tribe’s baskets on display at Bidwell Mansion. Museum visitors can see the intricate and beautiful designs decorating water-tight cooking baskets that required such precision and planning that Meders-Knight says weavers must have understood “MIT-level calculus.”
The Mechoopda, she noted, are one of four California Indian tribes famed for their art, probably because they had the time and resources to explore their culture in the rich and fertile Northern Sacramento Valley.
The panel design by Meders-Knight recently evolved into a chalk sidewalk mural in front of the Chico Peace & Justice Center – a draft for what will be done on Sept. 8 when Meders-Knight leads an artistic team at the Civic Center in painting with tempera.
Wendy LeMaster, a Paradise resident who will help paint, said the design represents the inter-connectedness of people, and the mural, when completed, will “send a powerful message.”
The march, one of thousands of actions planned globally, is timed to coincide with a gathering of world and private-sector leaders at the Global Action Climate Summit in San Francisco from Sept. 12-14. Participants like LeMaster want to pressure leaders to take more aggressive action to mitigate the effects of climate change.
LeMaster noted that North State forestland is mismanaged, but some of the conditions leading to this summer’s giant wildfires are the “direct result of climate change.”
“I want my children to know that I took a position on this, that there are a lot of other people who have taken a position, too, that this is just the beginning, and they get to continue to lead the fight,” she said.
Ponzio said she plans to devote her energy after the march to local electoral work.
Meders-Knight said she hopes people return to Chico inspired to take on environmental tasks. There’s a lot that can be done, she explained, to care for the environment locally, from improving forest management to better conserving Bidwell Park.
“We want to get into a large land management project here,” she said, comparing a community to a family where everyone has a part in maintenance and beautification. “In indigenous communities, everybody had a role.”
Meders-Knight said she struggled for years in this area as the “token Indian” in outdoor education work. “People wanted me to be spiritual, to show them something magical about the environment.”
What she had to offer, she says, was “applied science.”
As she’s learned about pre-colonial history in this area, Meders-Knight says she’s tapped into something that is “rich, juicy, gorgeous,” and best of all, “empowering.”
Chico350 is providing a 54-seat bus to San Francisco that is filling fast. To find out about transportation options, send an email to email@example.com.
Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol.