Deep in rural Napa County, nestled between vineyards and more than a thousand acres of open space, sits a 23-acre plot of land off of Chiles Pope Valley Road.
The Suskol House property has served as a retreat for indigenous people of the valley and elsewhere since 1998, when the Suscol Intertribal Council purchased the land for $129,000, said Charlie Toledo, director of the nonprofit. The land is speckled with Foothill Pines, and features a ceremonial arbor for prayer and three small lodges made of straw, sand, soil and rocks — much of which was taken from the property.
“Everything here was dreamed,” Toledo said. “We dreamt of a place where we could safely do indigenous ceremonies.”
On a recent rainy day in the Napa Valley, Toledo pulled into the driveway at Suskol House. Its cherry red gate is adorned with animals that have crossed the land, including a bear, turtle, fox, hawk and rabbit.
Suskol House has been a place of “so many small miracles,” Toledo said. It’s an example of how indigenous people can maintain their spiritual connection to the earth and “how we used to be and still can be,” she said.
The land has inspired indigenous visitors, pushed out of their native land, to try and create a new village, Toledo said. She recalled that at Suskol House’s first ceremony — a wedding — the bride’s grandmother became emotional. She never thought that she would see a traditional wedding ceremony in her lifetime, she said.
“That’s why we do it,” she said. “It’s just to slow ourselves down and come back in touch with the earth.”
Facing the road sits a roughly 3,000-square-foot concrete slab that will eventually serve as the foundation of a building that can house activities or elders who stay there, Toledo said. Suscol hopes to open the property to the public at least once per year, when construction is complete.
Past the concrete foundation sits the ceremonial arbor, with a fire pit in the center. The arbor has housed up to 100 people, Toledo said.
“The sky is the roof and the earth is our floor,” she said. “The fire is our heart.”
Nearly 20 years ago, volunteers and crew members worked to build three circular lodges using a combination of traditional and modern methods, Toledo said.
The Earth Lodge, a clay brown structure with a red roof, took four months to build. It’s made with earth plaster, or sand and straw. Manzanita branches jut out from its walls and provide a place for visitors to hang their hats or regalia, Toledo said. The room is dimly lit by small windows and serves as a soothing space for story time with children, she said. It took about four months to build.
The Star Lodge has a tin roof, a sage green exterior and glass doors that allow visitors to peer out over the property. Its walls glint with mica from the land’s soil, and light filters in the room from blue and green windows made from glass bottles. Rainwater rolls off the roof and is stored in three tanks on the property. The lodge took three months to build.
The Earth and Star Lodges both have bunk beds for camping visitors.
Across from the Star Lodge and past a picnic area sits the Sunrise Lodge, so named because it’s the first place on the property touched by the rising sun, Toledo said. A horno — a traditional oven made from soil — sits in front of the brick red building that’s currently used as a storage shed.
Many of the elders who first worked to make Suskol House a reality have since passed away.
How would they feel to see Suskol House as it is today?
Toledo said she believes that her ancestors have stayed with her and continue to return to the land.
“They’re all really happy,” she said.