OROVILLE, Calif. - The entrance of the Feather River Canyon once was once densely populated with several bands of the Maidu tribe. They relied on the steady water of the Feather River and enjoyed the abundance of the surrounding woodlands.
Over time, like most American Indian tribes, the Maidu fell victim to European conquest and disease, leaving behind small remnant populations and mounds of artifacts as the physical reminders of the long occupancy of the Maidu.
Many of these artifacts and many of the original centers of population were lost when the Feather River was dammed in 1967 by the Army Corp of Engineers to become Lake Oroville, bringing with it a strong Maidu mistrust of government.
Local Maidu descendants watched hopelessly as the same river that once sustained their civilization deluged an entire section of their reservation. They stood by as non-Maidu artifact hunters plundered the land for the remains of their ancient villages, a practice that increased in recent years.
This year the situation seemed especially dire as a northwestern drought threatened many areas of the Feather River watershed and forced the state of California to lower the lake level, exposing additional Maidu sites previously below the water level.
Now the same government, which helped submerge their land, seeks to mend fences with the Maidu by helping to protect their ancient heritage. After a yearlong planning process, a group of 11 Maidu tribal members will help the California Department of Parks and Recreation monitor ancient sites to protect them from looters.
So far the program has proved a success. In general, park officials say looting is markedly decreased since the program began in early March. The tribal volunteers patrol more culturally sensitive areas and report any suspicious activity to the park authorities, who then respond appropriately.
Nine suspects have been apprehended and so far one has been prosecuted and forced to pay a $350 fine.
Angle says she loves the work. Questioned if there was any danger involved in confronting unknown suspects, Angle said volunteers do not directly provoke an incident with suspects. They simply call the ranger.
The volunteer site-monitoring program was modeled after similar programs in use by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. Ellen Clark, public information officer for the North Butte District of the state park system, said resident archeologist Leslie Steidl heard about the plan and brought it to Clark's attention.
"Looting has been occurring for a long time. Something needed to be done," Clark said.
Steidl was increasingly concerned the district lacked sufficient staff to properly patrol the park after several people complained about missing artifacts. But coming up with a plan was only half the battle. There was the century and a half of Maidu mistrust.
An early problem was the detailed application process, with fingerprints and background checks required before anyone could work with the state parks, amidst all that mistrust.
To get around this obstacle, park service officials decided to contract with the volunteers as a group while not requiring the usual, detailed individual information.
Clark said the park staff also agonized over the decision of whether to make the problem public. By doing this they risked making potential looters aware of the existence of such sites. As the looting worsened, they decided the best course was to go on the offensive.
Taking their case to the public, they contacted several local media outlets. They said they feel the increased exposure has a two-fold effect. First it brought awareness of the serious nature of the crime to many who had not considered the implications of taking ancient artifacts.
The second is a complete reversal of their initial fears as awareness put potential looters on alert that the sites would now monitored.
Looting is pervasive in the general area, as even non-Maidu sites have been plundered. In the nearby town of Cherokee, founded by emigrant Cherokee gold miners in the 1850s, local landowners have had to collect as many 19th century relics as possible to prevent further loss. They established a museum to house these artifacts.