The Precious Cargo exhibit has cradle baskets on display at the	California Indian Museum & Cultural Center in Sonoma County
Precious Cargo exhibit at the California Indian Museum & Cultural Center

California Indian Museum & Cultural Center

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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."

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."

Various art and artifacts on display in the museum
California Indian Museum & Cultural Center

On a recent visit, one room of the museum displayed "Precious Cargo," an exhibit examining California Indian cradle baskets and childbirth traditions (pictured at top). 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.

The earth-toned wall framing the Ishi exhibit at the museum in Sonoma County
Ishi Exhibit

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.

The museum store as seen from the entrance at the California Indian Museum & Cultural Center
Museum store

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.

More details: California Indian Museum & Cultural Center

Not too far away, you can experience the magnificent wine country lifestyle at the Vintners Resort, a 78-room luxury hotel that includes the legendary John Ash & Co. restaurant, the River Vine restaurant for breakfast, brunch or lunch, and The Front Room Bar & Lounge, as well as the relaxing and luxurious Vi La Vita Spa.

Also nearby, the Hilton Garden Inn – Sonoma County Airport offers comfortable and spacious guest rooms, and its onsite restaurant and bar serves casual, freshly-prepared American cuisine. Or if you're feeling a bit retro, head a bit south to the affordable and urban (and extensively redesigned) Astro Motel, and the delicious eats at the nearby Spinster Sisters, a local favorite.

Written by Sonoma Insider Patricia Lynn Henley.