Before the Europeans arrived in California, the Coast Miwok people inhabited what we now call Marin and southern Sonoma Counties.
Over thousands of years, the Miwok and other coastal and California tribes developed a rich economy based on gathering, fishing and hunting, with villages of up to several hundred people.
Today, Point Reyes National Seashore offers a glimpse into this bountiful past at Kule Loklo (“Valley of the Bear”), a recreated interpretive village composed of structures including a roundhouse, a sweathouse and several traditional dwellings built and maintained by tribal and non-tribal volunteers.
Kule Loko is also the home of the annual Big Time Festival, which returns for its 39th annual gathering on Saturday, July 20.
“This festival celebrates the first people in the area, the Coast Miwok,” says festival organizer Donna Shoemaker, one of a handful of volunteers putting on the event. “What I value is that it’s honoring the people who were here long before the European-Americans came, and it’s giving current native people an opportunity to celebrate that heritage.”
Co-sponsored by the Miwok Archeological Preserve of Marin (MAPOM), the National Park Service and tribal partner the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, the Big Time Festival boasts activities for both adults and children that evoke the earliest days of life in California.
The highlights of the festival include original music performed by Sky Road Webb, a descendent of the Tamal’ko–Tomales Bay Miwok of present day West Marin, and the president of the Marin American Indian Alliance. Webb composes and performs original Miwok songs with many organizations and teaches workshops on traditional instrument making and singing in the Coast Miwok dialect.
The festival features keynote speakers Henry Frank, a Native American who was incarcerated at San Quentin between 2003 and 2009, talking about his journey into and out of prison; and indigenous, interpretive instructor and naturalist Alicia Retes, offering a presentation on how music was brought to California Indians.
Some of the festival’s biggest draws are the Pomo dancers, who gather in the fireside dance circle. “When you come out to the meadow, there’s a large circular area that is scraped to the dirt, and in the center of that is a circle of stones where the sacred fire is lit and stays lit during the festival,” Shoemaker explains.
Native skills demonstrations include traditional acorn cooking, in which the hand-mashed nuts are cooked in baskets by the heated rocks from the fireside circle. “It’s fascinating because you would think the hot rocks would burn the baskets, but they don’t and the baskets are made to accommodate this,” Shoemaker says. “This is a very ancient and traditional way of preparing food that was so important to the Miwok.”
Throughout the festival, attendees get to experience a culture that exists in harmony with the environment, Shoemaker adds. “People come away feeling like, wow, there’s another way to live.”