Marshall McKay, a tribal elder and Chairman Emeritus of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, dedicated his life to preserving and advocating for Native art, culture and the environment. McKay died on Dec. 29, 2020 at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles due to complications from COVID-19. He was 68 years old.
He touched the lives of many people around him and is mourned across the state by tribal members, artists, scientists, and representatives from museums, universities and other institutions who had the fortune to know and work with him. Through all of his endeavors, Marshall McKay was a stalwart supporter of preserving Indigenous cultural traditions, language and identity. Often described as a “fierce advocate for Native American culture,” he leaves behind a legacy of personal and professional achievements, from campaigning against racist mascots to serving on the Native American Heritage Commission, a body appointed by the Governor of California to protect Native cultural resources.
Recent statements from the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, the Autry Museum of the American West, the Department of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis, and many other institutions reflect McKay’s immense reach and impact. Los Angeles Times arts and culture columnist Carolina Miranda eloquently recounts his legacy in a detailed feature about his life and work. KCET joins in remembrance and honors the contributions of a remarkable individual gone too soon.
It is a fitting tribute that the final season of “Tending Nature” features Marshall McKay in the episode titled “Reclaiming Agriculture with the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation.” In 2019-2020, KCET producers and filmmakers worked closely with McKay to learn more about Yocha Dehe’s ancestral homelands, the tribe’s history and his perspectives on Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Throughout the production phase, McKay connected the team with tribal members, farmers and researchers, generously sharing his knowledge and demonstrating the important role that Indigenous people play in thinking about today’s environmental challenges.
Born on June 5, 1952 in Colusa, California, Marshall McKay grew up in the Capay Valley, the ancestral homelands of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. After attending Sonoma State University (the first of his tribe to go to college) and spending 15 years repairing nuclear submarines for the Department of Defense, McKay served as a member of the Yocha Dehe Tribal Council for 31 years from 1984 to 2015, including nearly a decade leading the tribe as chairman. During his leadership McKay was instrumental in helping Yocha Dehe achieve economic independence, reclaim ancestral territory, establish sustainable land-use practices, and create education programs. In 2009, the tribe legally changed its name from the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians — a name originally labeled by the federal government — to the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, which means “home by the spring water.”
During McKay’s leadership as tribal chairman, the tribe opened the Séka Hills olive mill, a venture that not only helps ensure economic stability for the tribe but also provides locally sourced olive oil to surrounding communities. The tribe uses sustainable practices for Séka Hills and its other agricultural projects, including native landscaping, sustainably grazed cattle, organic farming on lands that are not contaminated by pesticides or oil from tractors, and high-efficiency drip irrigation. Other environmental measures include constructing new LEED-certified buildings and placing 1,200 acres of tribal land into a permanent conservation easement to protect wildlife habitat.
When describing contemporary relationships with the land, McKay emphasized the importance of acknowledging the history of the genocide of Native peoples in California. In “Reclaiming Agriculture with the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation,” McKay shares how overcoming that generational trauma helped him provide a better future for his tribe and surrounding community.
I always look at the colonization aspect and the oppression as a springboard. It gives me, as a Native American, the opportunity to overcome that oppression and say I can do something that wasn’t allowed 200 years ago, and I can utilize that activity in order to benefit my people, and also my neighborhood, and my environment.
“I always look at the colonization aspect and the oppression as a springboard,” he said in the episode. “It gives me, as a Native American, the opportunity to overcome that oppression and say I can do something that wasn’t allowed 200 years ago, and I can utilize that activity in order to benefit my people, and also my neighborhood, and my environment.”
McKay’s commitment to preserving cultural heritage was passed down from his mother Mabel McKay, a renowned basket weaver and traditional doctor. Mabel McKay’s life (1907-1993) spanned almost the entirety of the 20th century. She was born into a time when it was not easy to be a Native person, nor a woman, and throughout her life she witnessed immense social and political changes. The early 20th century, which included the onset of the boarding school era, marked a period of intense discrimination against Native peoples, resulting in an astounding loss of Indigenous languages and cultural practices.
Despite these odds, Mabel McKay was able to sustain her traditions into the late 20th century, becoming known as one of the greatest Native American basket weavers of her time. In an effort to preserve her culture, she navigated boundaries by doctoring Native and non-Native patients alike and teaching basket weaving to any student who wished to learn, as long as they would listen. She served as a founding member of the Native American Heritage Commission (an appointment her son would also adopt), and joined a group of fellow weavers to oppose the construction of the Warm Springs Dam at Lake Sonoma, which eventually was erected, flooding ancestral village sites and sedge beds used to gather basketry materials.
Despite the fact that she was only formally schooled through the third grade, Mabel McKay went on to demonstrate her work and speak at museums and universities around the country, gaining national recognition for her doctoring and basket weaving. Following in his mother’s footsteps, Marshall McKay also spoke at numerous universities, symposia, and conferences throughout his life, including serving on a panel about genocide for a national Bioneers conference and speaking about international human rights at University of California, Berkeley’s School of Law.
Like his mother before him, McKay shared his cultural knowledge with the Native and non-Native world, emphasizing the importance of educating a wider community about Indigenous traditions. W. Rick West, CEO of the Autry Museum of the American West and McKay’s close personal friend, describes McKay’s ability to bridge communities.
“His courageous leadership, inside his Native community and beyond, had two cutting edges rather than one,” West said. “He was raised in his Native community and valued its culture and traditions highly and faithfully, but he also had the remarkable gift of intersecting with non-Native communities and interests with immense success, empowering in multiple ways his own.”
One way that McKay intersected these community interests was through his support of contemporary American Indian art. An avid Native art collector, McKay and his wife Sharon Rogers McKay supported Native artists and sought to elevate the profile of Native art within the contemporary art canon. Marshall McKay served as a founding member and chair of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, as a board member for the National Museum of the American Indian, and as the first Indigenous board chair of the Autry Museum of the American West. He also served as a board member for the UC Davis Foundation and supported the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts and the C.N. Gorman Museum. At the Autry Museum, McKay and Rogers McKay (a fellow Autry trustee) sponsored the juried competition of the Autry’s American Indian Arts Marketplace, providing a platform to recognize and acknowledge Native artists. During McKay’s tenure as board chair, he helped transition the museum to become an institution dedicated to telling the diverse, interconnected stories of all peoples of the American West, including amplifying Native voices that had previously been silenced.
McKay was also deeply involved in the Autry’s “California Continued” exhibition (including bringing his mother’s story to the broader public through “The Life and Work of Mabel McKay” exhibition), and worked closely with KCET team members on both “Tending the Wild” and “Tending Nature.” His presence in these series reflects his commitment to the preservation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge. During an early planning session in 2016 for “Tending the Wild,” McKay described TEK as “the story of our beginnings.”
“These stories traditionally teach botany, science — the things that are necessary, but we didn’t learn these in universities,” he said. “These were things that were taught by people that practiced them for centuries. These kinds of practices have a great place in our society, we just have to appreciate them more and understand them.”
In addition to his involvement with Yocha Dehe’s sustainable agricultural programs, McKay’s commitment to the environment reached a global scale. In 2015, he joined a group of Indigenous representatives at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, otherwise known as COP21. While at the conference, McKay emphasized the necessity of having an Indigenous presence in the United Nations Climate Control document, which became formally known as the Paris Agreement. He continued this work in 2018 as a member of the California Host committee for the Global Climate Action Summit.
Marshall McKay’s commitments to cultural preservation and sustainability are equally echoed by his kind heart and generous spirit. His legacy will live on through the motions he set in place for the Native community, California and the world.