A mortar and pestle lie alongside other artifacts at the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center in Sonoma County
California Indian Museum and Cultural Center

California Indian Museum and Cultural Center

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California Indian Museum and Cultural Center

Glimpse the cultures that thrived in California before the arrival of Europeans at the California Indian Museum & Cultural Center in Santa Rosa.

"There's not another museum like it," says executive director Nicole Myers-Lim. "It's a opportunity to learn about California Indian history, which is really everyone's history in California. It's from a native perspective, which is not often in the public eye."

Ishi exhibit at the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center
Ishi exhibit at the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center

The earth-toned walls of the museum hold exhibits representing California Indian culture statewide.

"That's a very diverse culture with more than 150 tribes," Myers-Lim says. "We interpret things that are shared among those tribes."

On a recent visit, one room of the museum displayed "Precious Cargo," an exhibit examining California Indian cradle baskets and childbirth traditions. In the days of hunting and gathering, cradle baskets were practical, giving mothers a way to carry their infants and keep them safe.

However, cradle baskets also played a role in reinforcing the culture and shaping the child's identity. Objects attached to the basket and patterns woven into the cradle were often meant to evoke certain traits or qualities.

For example, diamond patterns on a girl's cradle could serve as an inspiration to make beautiful designs in her basketry. Straight lines on a boy's cradle could symbolize the ability to shoot an arrow straight. The exhibit illustrates the different styles and designs of cradle baskets used throughout California, and the social traditions and attitudes surrounding childbirth.


Across the museum, a permanent display examines the life and cultural legacy of Ishi, who was labeled as a "wild" and "primitive" Indian, and the "last of a Stone Age tribe" in 1911. Ishi was kept as a research subject at the University of California, Museum of Anthropology in San Francisco until his death from tuberculosis in 1916.

The exhibit "Ishi: A Story of Dignity, Hope, and Courage" uses photos and videos to reframe Ishi's legacy by including California Indian voices and perspectives on issues. Through books and documentaries created by non-natives, Ishi is known to millions of school children and the general public as the "last Yahi" Indian, with his story portrayed as symbolic of the inevitable result of progress and civilization.

However, in California Indian communities, Ishi symbolizes much more - the collective experiences of California tribes, surviving the challenges of colonization with dignity, hope, and courage.


Just off the museum's lobby, a former library space has been converted into a museum store and art gallery. Participants in the center's Native Youth Employment Training program  run the store, gaining hands-on retail job experience. The shop and gallery celebrate the art and culture of California Indians, featuring beautiful creations by native artists working in abalone, basketry, and other native materials. One of the goals of the store and gallery is to generate a public appreciation for this type of work.


California Indian Museum & Cultural Center 5250 Aero Drive, Santa Rosa, 707-579-3004; open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends; during special events; or by appointment. Admission is $7 adults, or $5 students, seniors, and children.

Written by Sonoma Insider Patricia Lynn Henley.