Kule Loklo: A vision for the future, vivified by volunteers

David Briggs
Marni Shapiro has been volunteering to maintain Kule Loklo for 22 years, although this is the first year she’s ever had to weed the inside of the kotcha, a traditional Miwok structure. When she first started they could walk into the adjacent forest to source their building and maintenance materials. Stricter regulations forbide that now.  

Tucked behind the Bear Valley Visitor Center is a living prehistory museum honoring the Coast Miwok who inhabited the region for centuries before the arrival of European settlers. Spread across an open field are replicated buildings of the Miwok: a sweathouse, a roundhouse, acorn granary and multiple cone-shaped structures called kotcas

The village, known as Kule Loklo, was constructed using only traditional tools and methods, such as digging sticks and baskets to transport soil. On a recent Saturday, a nearby wall of eucalyptus trees shivered in the seasonal winds, mimicking the sound of crashing waves beside a native plant garden in bloom. The grounds are neat and well-maintained, tended for decades by a committed group of volunteers.

Kule Loklo was conceived in the mid 1970s as an educational center for school children and casual visitors, and nabbed $21,000 in financing from National Park Service bicentennial fund in 1976. Spearheaded by the late Marilyn Licklider, a teacher at Dixie’s Vallecito Junior High in San Rafael, the replica village was to be a source of hope for a future whose success relied on the philosophies of past peoples.

“If our children are ever going to experience the peacefulness of uncrowded forests, the sweetness of water from untainted steams, indeed, even the headiness of breathing air which is not contaminated from man’s wastes, we had better seek to learn some of the secrets of the Indian,” Ms. Licklider wrote in the project prospectus.  

Volunteers built the village and continue to maintain it during weekend workdays throughout the year. Some have returned to the village nearly every month for decades, giving back to this special piece of land.

“I’m basically here because of the roundhouse and what it did for me,” said Gordon Bainbridge, director of the Miwok Archeological Preserve of Marin. “It’s a spiritual home for many people.”

Mr. Bainbridge, who first visited the roundhouse in the late 1970s for peaceful solo retreats, was sweeping the roundhouse on a recent workday. 

He pointed out a rotting oak limb used to frame the building’s door. All of the structures at Kule Loklo are fitted with natural materials, a fact that can sometimes prove challenging for volunteers. “One big problem is getting the materials we need,” Mr. Bainbridge said. 

In previous years, materials were more abundant, and volunteers participated in year-long building maintenance. In the spring, they’d harvest willow and strip the bark for tying together the components of the kotca, the conical family homes. In summertime, they would harvest tule, a bulrush found in marshy areas, then dry it out for use insulating the kotcas. 

But Mr. Bainbridge said the park service asked volunteers not to rummage through the nearby forest for materials, so they’ve grown accustomed to reusing the same slabs of redwood bark for the walls of the kotcas and the granary. (Spokesmen for the Point Reyes National Seashore did not respond to requests for comment.)

It’s customary for Marin schoolchildren to visit Kule Loklo while learning about the state’s history. Marni Shapiro first visited with her students in the late 1980s. She’s been teaching kindergarten at Brandeis Marin in San Rafael for 40 years, and she considers it a gift to expose her students to as many different cultures as possible.

“The month of November in the classroom is spent learning about the Miwoks instead of Pilgrims and making hand turkeys,” she said. “Before the students come to Kule Loklo, they know about the village. They’ll come here and say, ‘Look at the granary!’ I think it’s special and has meaning.” Ms. Shapiro has been an active volunteer since she brought her daughter to the village in 1995 to help excavate a hole for the sweat lodge. 

The Coast Miwok lived in “tribelets,” or village communities of 75 to several hundred members. Hunters would gather inside the sweat lodge prior to a hunt to rid their bodies of odors. But the roundhouse was the most important structure; the underground ceremonial dance house, called a “lamma,” was used by men, women and children to exchange songs, prayers, dances and stories. 

The Coast Miwok first contacted Europeans in 1579, when Englishman Sir Francis Drake landed off the coast to repair his vessel, the Golden Hinde. “They are a people of a tractable, free and loving nature, without guile or treachery,” he wrote of the interaction. After flourishing in West Marin for at least 3,500 years, their population began to dwindle in 1776, when the Mission San Francisco de Asis was established and began to bring disease. 

Ms. Licklider hoped children visiting the village would relate to both the environment and the Miwok’s culture of attunement to nature. The creators envisioned an environmental living program featuring overnight stays, stone and bone tool construction, food preparation and contributing to the well-being of the community. “In their role-playing experience, the students will learn not only about the earlier culture and its relationship with the environment, but also about the present, the future and, most importantly of all, themselves,” Ms. Licklider wrote. 

As far as Mr. Bainbridge knows, such a program never materialized. 

The village’s biggest annual event is the Big Time Festival, based on a similar celebration held annually by the Miwok, this year slated for Saturday, July 15. It will be the 37th event, and Ms. Shapiro and Mr. Bainbridge have been preparing the grounds for demonstrations in basketry, flint knapping, clamshell bead making, performances by traditional dancers from the Intertribal Pomo group and more. “It’s a wonderful way for families to get a bit of exposure to another bit of culture,” Mr. Bainbridge said. 


The Big Time Festival takes place at Kule Loklo on Saturday, July 15 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event is free.