Wintu memorial is healing medicine for Mother Earth and feather people

Even a youthful vandal who was caught in the act of bending and breaking off portions of a bronze statue’s headdress couldn’t stop the healing of Mother Earth that took place Saturday, June 20, at the southeast corner of the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Anderson.

“We know there was once a village here where this shopping center now stands. This was a flat plain and there was a spring up on the hill,” said James Hayward, Sr., cultural resources manager for Redding Rancheria, a federally recognized tribal council that represents the Wintu, Yana and Pit River people who long ago were once the sole residents of the Upper Sacremento Valley now known as Shasta County.

Redding Rancheria tribal elders were unaware, however, until nearly halfway through the excavation and foundation building process of the Wal-Mart store that the area in south Anderson was once a burial ground and should have been protected from commercial development, Hayward said.

Rather than halt construction, however, Redding Rancheria reached a mitigation agreement with Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., which resulted in Saturday’s dedication of a Wintu people memorial, dedicated by Hayward and other representatives.

The memorial is a stunning 8-foot tall Wintu feather dancer caught in mid-step by Sacramento sculptor Frank Towendolly LaPena, 71.

“My family members lived on the rez, so when I was teaching at Shasta College and heard that the tribe was looking for a Native American artist to design and build the monument, I told them that I really wanted to be considered,” said LaPena, who received his liberal arts degree from Chico State University with a major in art.

LaPena works primarily with lithographs, wood block printing, paintings and some pencil and ink sketches, although he has done other sculptures in ceramics and wood.

Using historical photographs from the turn of the 20th century, LaPena created a series of sketches that he then turned into a three-dimensional artwork in non-hardening clay built on a balsam foundation.

With help from more than two dozen experts and assistants at the Art Foundry and Gallery in Sacramento, LaPena quickly turned his small sculpture into a larger-than-lifesize full-scale version of the statue that would be cut up and used to create casts that would, in turn be used to create a wax version of the same piece.

“It probably took three weeks to pour all of the pieces in bronze,” said LaPena, who earned a $12,000 commission for his artistic effort. The bronze and metal alloy used to create the final statue, however, is worth well over $50,000, he noted.

LaPena declined to give a value for the finished art work, saying instead, “The value to me, is the unending resilience of the Wintu people. This memorial reconfirms our unity to Mother Earth. There are still Wintu people living in this area,” he said prior to the dedication ceremony.

“The idea was, we wanted to make a statement about the Wintu people. We are still here and still active,” LaPena echoed his earlier statement during the dedication ceremony.

To reconsecrate the area where the Wintu feather dance statue now resides, as well as to help resettle the disturbed spirits of the feather people — those elders who have passed over to the shadow side of creation — Hayward burned sweet-smelling sage in an abalone shell, offering up its scent to the four points of a compass.

As 13 members of a Native American dance troupe from Grindstone Rancheria of Wintun and Wailaki descent entered the dance grounds, Hayward sprinkled some herbs in the slight breeze then set his smudge pot in the center where the smoke could bathe the swirling dancers as they passed by.

“Our dancing is a prayer to protect the elders who were buried here, whose spirits were disturbed. They are being put back to Mother Earth today. The Wintu spirit is so strong. Together, we come together as one spirit with the Great Spirit,” Hayward said as the gentle syncopation of clacking sticks — hollowed and split tubes of alderberry wood were rhythmically slapped gently against the open palms, thighs or upper torsos of four musicians who also chanted songs in their native language.

“We thank you, Mother Earth, for the umbilical cord that connects us to you, our Mother. Our spirits will forever dance upon this land,” Hayward concluded as the sound of the music and dancers swelled.

Tribal elder Carolyn Bowen, who will turn 92 on July 2, was pleasantly surprised at the size of the bronze statue.

“I didn’t know if it would be big or small,” she said when she first set her eyes on the piece.

“It was nice of Frank’s dancers to put on such a show,” Bowen added.

At times during the nearly two-hour ceremony, as many as 100 people stood forming two sides of a rectangle that was completed by the exterior walls of the Wal-Mart store.

© 2009 Anderson Valley Post. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 2

AndersonMom writes:

I remember the concern shown when Wal-Mart wanted to build and the signs of the village were found. It's wonderful to see the statue go up as such a clear sign of honor for the Indian people in our area. While my heritage runs several generations back now, seeing that statue each time I go to Wal-Mart will bring a smile to my face and my heart.

PortraitAfterLoa writes:

I'm looking for Frank LaPena. I went to CSC with a Frank LaPena, and even helped sponsor one of his shows in North Beach, San Francisco in 1963(?)

It would be wonderful to catch up, if this is the same person. He was always a great artist, and never laughed at my poetry.

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