Reflections on the Kule Loklo roundhouse

01/09/2020

Some 40 years ago, I remember bringing my class of elementary students out to Point Reyes to help construct, along with many volunteers, the Kule Loklo village and roundhouse. This project was part of a joint effort with the Point Reyes National Seashore and the Miwok Archaeological Preserve of Marin, or MAPOM, to create a park exhibit. When I asked if any local Miwok were consulted in the design, the ranger in charge said, “No, the Miwok are extinct.” Of course, we now know this was incorrect, though it was a popular misconception at the time. 

In building the dance house as a centerpiece of the village, every effort was made to create a traditionally designed structure using fire-hardened digging sticks and abalone shells. Almost inadvertently, the researchers found they had created a sacred ceremonial space. In short order, the roundhouse was re-purposed as a sanctuary by spiritually minded native and non-native people for the next four decades. 

Shortly after completion, the venerable Huichol shaman, Don José Matsuwa, was visiting the country. A friend and I had spent time with Don José, participating in ceremonies in his remote Mexican village. We arranged with the park service to host a Huichol “Dance of the Deer” in honor of this new space. 

Upon arrival, Don José immediately commented: “This is the first real temple I’ve experienced in my travels around the states.” That inaugural roundhouse ritual was a stunning event, which was duly recorded with a photograph in the Point Reyes Light.  My wife, Rose, describes sitting on the ground around the fire that night and “for the first time, feeling the power of the Earth.”

Some years later, Lanny Pinola, a Bodega Miwok and Kashaya Pomo, came on board as a park interpretative ranger. He saw the village and the roundhouse as an invaluable interpretive tool that would serve thousands and thousands of school children and visitors from around the world. Lanny sensed the spiritual power of this place—the “Weya,” in his native language—and focused his work on “opening the door” to all who wished to enter. With the park superintendent’s blessing, the Kule Loklo roundhouse became a ceremonial site for local Miwok and Pomo and Indians of all nations, as well as for Anglos who were searching for a deeper connection with the old ways and with the natural world.

Dr. Tom Pinkson founded the Wakan community here in Marin more than 30 years ago to help people “live in balance with the web of life.” With decades of shamanic training and ritual practice, Tom was eager to find an appropriate ritual space. Once again, Lanny opened the door as our teacher, and made it possible for the Wakan community to conduct monthly ceremonies in the sanctuary. In 1988, while studying for my master’s thesis in anthropology, I wrote about these ceremonies:

“As a central element, ‘Passing the staff—or talking stick’ affords each celebrant the opportunity to share what comes through for them as we all listen intently. In the safety of this ritual space, disconnected individuals reach inside to express our innermost truths. Layers of protection, which divide and prevent us from attaining a true sense of community and a deeper level of intimacy, begin to peel away. Emotional breakthroughs occur. Our hearts can open more fully to the 'Weya'—to the spirit—to the life force in ourselves, in the lodge, in the Earth and in the universe. As the ceremony comes to a close, a visiting Blackfeet Indian honors us as he describes his experience of the power of the collective drumming and his hopefulness in seeing the sacred use of space.”

A devoted group of Kule Loklo volunteers still comes by each month to carry on the work. This year’s annual Big Time Festival was widely regarded as one of the best in recent times. During the past seven years, ritual leaders from both the Tomales Miwok and Pomo communities have conducted regular solstice and equinox ceremonies in the roundhouse and in the outside dance circle. These gatherings have been open to invitees of good heart from both the native and non-native community. Folks come from all around the Bay Area and join together to dance, pray, tell stories and share food and company in sacred space. Even with the roof laid bare at this year’s winter solstice ceremony, participants showed up to keep the fire burning.

As reported in the Dec. 12 issue of the Light, the future of the roundhouse is “in flux.”  The damaged roof has been completely removed and negotiations between the park service and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, with MAPOM as advisors, have been ongoing. Indeed, the climate has been changing and we may see this cherished cultural resource fade into memory. Whatever comes about, the roundhouse has served as a beacon of light for so many during the past four decades, and that can never be removed.

 

John Littleton, a retired teacher of 45 years, is an officer on the MAPOM board of directors.