Mechoopda Maidu dance regalia
Native Northern California tribes were severely and often violently impacted by the Gold Rush of the mid- to late-19th century. One of the few remaining culture bearers to survive into this century was Henry Ke’a’ala Azbill (1896-1973), but he could find no young Maidu who wanted to learn. In the 1960s, a teenager named Craig Bates learned from Henry Azbill about Mechoopda culture and how to make dance regalia. Craig also became a dancer participating with Miwok and Maidu dancers, and with the people of Grindstone Rancheria. Henry Azbill taught Craig to construct men’s flicker quill bands, women’s headpieces, and other regalia in the turn-of-the-century style when Mechoopda people took the best that the natural world had to offer (such as woodpecker scalps and abalone shell) and combined it with Euro-American materials (glass beads, red wool yarn, and wire) to make objects of great beauty.
In 2000, Craig was a master artist in ACTA’s Apprenticeship Program with apprentice Rod Clements. Rod is a direct descendant of George Clements (1869-1933) a Mechoopda dancer and singer, but somewhere in the family line Indian boarding schools and other aspects of culture disrupted the transfer of culture. During the apprenticeship, Rod received from Craig Bates the knowledge passed down from Henry Azbill. Of building upon his knowledge with Craig, Rod says, “In our tradition the dancers were required to make and dance their own regalia. If I am to dance traditionally, it is important for me to learn this skill in the proper way. In addition, as an art form, it is extremely important to me to keep the skills of my heritage alive.”