Warmth from Other Fires
California Indian Cultural Revival
Several years ago I attended a meeting of California Indians at the University of California at Irvine. They had come together to discuss tribal sovereignty, but the campus parking regulations quickly shanghaied the conversation. We had been issued parking permits with totally incomprehensible rules, regulations, and instructions. Only one element of clarity stood out: “Improperly parked vehicles will be impounded.” For a half hour some of the best minds in Indian country were tied up trying to figure out where to park, until L. Frank, a local Indian artist and cultural activist, ended the conversation with the observation: “Extinct people can park anywhere.”
This wonderful comment by L. Frank made light of something deeply troubling to every Native person in the room. In the eyes of outsiders, California Indians and their culture are often relegated to the past tense. They have generally been considered extinct, or at least on the verge of extinction, and this has been going on for generations. I was once interviewing members of the Salinan tribe who live in the San Antonio Valley, south of Salinas. To get some background, I spent an afternoon at the offices of the local newspaper in King City, thumbing through old issues. In 1870 there was a front-page story about how the last of the Salinans had just died, and with him had died an era, a way of life, a unique relationship to place and time — it was an article so poignant it would bring tears to a stone. In 1890 there was a heartfelt eulogy for someone else, the last of the Salinan Indians, who had just died. The last Salinan died again around 1900, and throughout the early years of the twentieth century several more last Salinans managed to die. So emotionally fulfilling is the opportunity to mourn the passing of the Indian world that the dominant culture can’t seem to get enough of it.
Of course there has been loss, and the magnitude of that loss will break your heart if you let it. John Peabody Harrington, an anthropologist from the Smithsonian, worked feverishly in California through the first half of the twentieth century recording languages, preserving stories, describing technologies, and exploring the subtle systems of thought and highly evolved modes of living that he rightly feared would soon disappear from the reservoir of living knowledge. In the words of his wife, Carobeth Laird, “The vessel of the old culture had broken, and its precious contents were spilling out and evaporating before our very eyes. Harrington, like a man dying of thirst, lapped at every random trickle.”
In the 1930s Harrington met Isabel Meadows. Meadows had been born in Carmel Valley on July 7, 1846, the day the American flag was raised over Monterey’s Custom House. Her mother was Rumsien Ohlone, a tribe that Alfred Kroeber in his authoritative Handbook of the Indians of California (1925) had just called “extinct so far as all practical purposes are concerned.” Meadows grew up speaking the language and absorbing the customs. So inexhaustible was her knowledge, so deep and subtle her understanding, that Harrington took her to Washington, D.C., and worked with her for five years until her death in 1939, taking voluminous notes and recording her voice on what was then a cutting-edge technology, wax cylinders. She became a time capsule, a connection to a world otherwise lost to human memory. Many years later Isabel Meadows’s great-grandnephew, Stephen Meadows, would listen intensely to that voice from the wax cylinder recordings and write a poem. (See sidebar.)
Stephen Meadows had not been the only one listening to Isabel’s voice. In the early 1990s Linda Yamane, a woman also of Rumsien Ohlone descent, undertook a sustained spiritual and intellectual journey back to her roots. She too found Isabel Meadows’s notes and wax cylinder recordings. Hungry for lost knowledge, she feasted.
I remember Linda talking about how she would wait until after she had put her son Robbie to sleep and had time to herself. Alone with Isabel’s voice, she would listen and listen until she began to recognize words by matching what she was hearing to words in the notes of past linguists. Ana (mother), apa (father), iswin (son), tarakta (sky) . . . . She would repeat a word over and over in her mind, preparing herself for the moment when she had the courage to say the word aloud, to free the word from its prison of silence and welcome it once again to the world of the living. As years passed, words combined into sentences, sentences linked to other sentences to form stories, stories merged with other stories, and as Native people come to study with her Rumsien Ohlone culture shook off its dormancy and began stirring once again.
Rumsien Ohlone, along with Tubatulabal, Quechan, Achumawi, and others, was one of a hundred or so distinct languages spoken in California before European contact. The multiplicity of languages in California is mind-boggling. Nearly every early traveler commented on it. Stephen Powers, a nineteenth-century government ethnologist, complained of traveling for “months in regions where a new language has to be looked to every ten miles sometimes.” Some 70 percent of these languages, according to anthropologist Robert Heizer, were as mutually unintelligible as English and Chinese. This richness of language, not gold, was the true wealth of California.
In 1993 News from Native California, a quarterly magazine devoted to California Indian culture, sponsored a survey in which we found that about fifty languages still had speakers, although most were down to a handful of elders, none of them was being actively used in daily life, and not one was being passed on to youngsters. It seemed inevitable that California’s rich and diverse linguistic heritage, these dozens of little universes of unique expressiveness, musicality, and wisdom, would be lost to living cultures and would join dinosaur bones, papyrus scrolls, and boxes of impaled bugs in the storage facilities of universities and museums.
But while linguists and other scholars mourned the loss of language diversity in California, something was stirring within the Indian community. The political agitation of the 1960s that had manifested itself in the occupation of Alcatraz and the forcefulness of the American Indian Movement had evolved into cultural activism. Throughout the state, a younger generation of Indians like Linda Yamane were throwing themselves into the study and then the use of their native languages. It began as a dispersed grassroots effort with individuals like Loren Bommelyn (Tolowa), Julian Lang (Karuk), Mark Macarro (Luiseño), and a handful of others. They were a remarkable group, most of them in their thirties, most college educated, most returning to their home territory after having studied, lived, or worked elsewhere. At the time they seemed to be acting in isolation, and it wasn’t until later that one could look back and discern something that might be considered a movement. More individuals followed, and out of this have grown many tribal programs and also a wonderful organization, Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. Conceived by linguist Leanne Hinton and administered by Marina Drummer, it sponsors master-apprentice teams for one-on-one learning as well as conferences to support those struggling to regain their language. The conferences have names such as “Breath of Life” and “Silent No More.” I’ve gone to many, and many times have watched some younger person stand up before peers and in a voice trembling with emotion say a few halting sentences in native language: “My name is ________; I live in the village of _________; I am now speaking the _____ language.” Another language has been snatched from extinction, and everyone present bursts into tears at the beauty and drama of what they have just witnessed.
What has been happening with languages has also been happening in other areas of Indian culture. Basketry has long been one of the glories of California Indian life — a tangible symbol of the artistic sophistication, long history, and technical skill of native people. It’s pure revelation to talk to Native weavers about the materials that go into their baskets, the roots and stalks with which they work their magic. They seem to look upon the sedge roots, the redbud shoots, and the other basketry plants not as inert “raw materials” to be bent to human will, but rather as partners in an artistic process, as if the basketweaver and the plants were engaged in a cooperative effort to make a basket. The finished basket, then, expresses not only human artistry but the artistry of plants as well. It weaves the human and the natural world into an artistic whole of remarkable beauty.
In 1991, a non-Indian, Sara Greensfelder of Nevada City, organized what she thought would be a one-time gathering of basketweavers from around the state to talk about the future of the art. The gathering was at an Indian center, Ya-Ka-Ama, in Sonoma County, and there was a sense of loss in the air. An older generation of master weavers was fading away. Laura Somersall, Elsie Allen, Frances McDaniel, and Dorothy Stanley had all died within the year, and Mabel McKay was in a convalescent home nearing her end. Would there be anyone to take their place? I looked over the group that had assembled that day: I, and I believe everyone present, could not help but be stunned by the sad realization that this complex and highly evolved art form that was once the common property of tens of thousands of ordinary California Indian women was now entrusted to so few. But in contrast to the fragility was the beauty, the strength, the joy of that day. Also, one could not help but be astounded by, even worshipful of, those elders present who had kept their traditions alive through so many difficult decades. And one could not help but be encouraged by the number of younger people who had been drawn to the art. “Are you a basketweaver?” one would ask. “I’m still learning” was the response from virtually everyone under the age of fifty.
Out of that meeting the California Indian Basketweavers Association was created. It recently had its twenty-first annual gathering. Older weavers like Julia Parker and Norma Turner and a few younger ones like Linda Conner are doing masterful work, and around them cluster those hungry to learn, ready to undertake the long apprenticeship that will lead to mastery. Whereas older generations had been made to feel ashamed of being Indian, here one could feel pride and contentment in the abundance of cultural beauty. I remember at one such gathering I was talking with Julia Parker, a weaver from the Yosemite area. I looked at the amazing people who had come — legendary weavers and cultural leaders such as Vivien Hailstone, Georgina Trull, Eileen Figueroa, Dee Dominguez, and so many other splendid human beings. “Look at who is here,” I said to Julia. “Basketry attracts the best people in the world.” “You don’t understand,” she replied. “It’s the baskets that make us this way.” Ah, I thought. The baskets are weaving the people. An old world survives.
There’s certainly a serious side to cultural revival. There’s the drama of rescuing traditional knowledge from extinction, and perhaps there are some who revive the old ways from a sense of obligation. Seriousness is not inappropriate. But what I’m more keenly aware of is how much fun it all seems to be. I’m a publisher of books as well as of the magazine News from Native California, and of the hundreds of books I’ve published under the Heyday imprint, some forty or fifty pertain to California Indian culture, many written by native people, a few in native languages. I’m often invited to Indian gatherings to display our books, and I love setting up a table next to people practicing the old arts, people like Diana Almanderez, Ed Willie, Craig Torres, and so many others who bring with them piles of plant stalks, heaps of seashells, and an assemblage of stone tools and by the end of the day walk away with a well-made object. It’s such fun to watch their hands chip, weave, measure, whittle, scrape, as piles of plant stalks are transformed into cordage, as wood, stone, skins, feathers, and shells are reshaped into another kind of beauty.
And, is there anything more fun than paddling around in a boat? Among the most colorful and memorable acts of cultural revival in California is the attention paid to boat building. Artist craftsmen like George Blake at Hupa still make dugout canoes that are used ritually in a boat dance. (Whenever someone tells me that publishing books and magazines is outdated, I think of giving George a ring to find out how the dugout canoe business is going.) In Central California Chuck Striplen, the Brown family of Clear Lake, and others are making reed boats, objects of pure delight. You’d be surprised at how responsive and manageable a reed boat can be, and how much fun it is to paddle along the shore in a boat made of the same material as the landscape through which you are paddling.
The Chumash of the Santa Barbara area are not just building remarkable boats but rebuilding a remarkable culture around those boats. The traditional Chumash boat (the tomol) is a plank canoe. In the old days redwood floated to these southern shores as driftwood, and it was split carefully into planks with a wedge made of elk horn. Holes were drilled in the wood with an obsidian bit, and the planks were then sewn together with deer sinew. The seams were caulked with asphaltum, the sides sanded with sealskin, and the finished boat was decorated handsomely with inlaid abalone shells and red paint. In such boats the Chumash ventured out to the Channel Islands, even as far as San Nicolas Island sixty-five miles from shore. The town of Carpenteria takes its name from the fact that it was an Indian shipbuilding center. Fernando Librado, a Chumash Indian of the nineteenth century, described one such canoe as resembling “a flower on the water.”
The modern era has not treated the Chumash kindly, and by the middle of the twentieth century they had lost their language and most distinctive cultural practices. Their lands had been taken over by wealthy newcomers, and they were reduced to living in the margins of an opulent society that treated them with contempt. Like other oppressed people they turned their rage inward, fighting among themselves and splitting into at least six different factions.
Roberta Cordero grew up in this shattered culture. Traditional knowledge and practice seemed shadowy, something lost and situated in the distant past. The present was alcoholic and dysfunctional. Eager to get away, she went to college in Seattle, where she stayed to raise a family. There she got to know many of the local Indians, who, as it happened, were undergoing a great revitalization of their canoe cultures. In 1993, while attending a huge gathering of canoes in Bella Bella, British Columbia, the people there noted that she was a maritime person too. “You go home and build a canoe,” they told her.
Roberta returned to Santa Barbara, where she helped form the Chumash Maritime Society, a nonprofit dedicated to reviving the Chumash maritime heritage. In 1997 they built their first boat, ’Elye’wun (Swordfish). With that boat came pride and confidence as people now began researching their past, relearning the songs and the language, rekindling an old flame.
Each year there’s a community celebration as members of the Chumash Maritime Society paddle the boat to Santa Cruz Island, some twenty miles off the coast. Last fall (September 2010) I was invited to be on the support boat as ’Elye’wun made its annual voyage. In the predawn hours the paddlers, members of the Society of the Tomol, assembled to pray and perform the rituals needed to ensure a safe journey. When the boat landed on Santa Cruz Island, perhaps a hundred and fifty Chumash from all the different factions were present to greet it, singing the ancient songs, some even speaking recently relearned fragments of the old language. The glow of good health and excitement, the speeches and the greetings, the drama of ceremony mixed with the everyday concerns of tending kids and cooking food — this was community at its best, evidence of what deep healing and profound joy a courageous artistic vision can bring.
[Oh, dear. I’m just getting warmed up and I’m running out of the space Grantmakers in the Arts allotted for this article. Hold the red pencil, editor! There’s so much more. I’ll pick up the pace. Bear with me. I can’t end it here.] I simply must tell about the joyous revival of birdsongs in Southern California. Birdsongs are a series of linked verses sung one after the other, their rhythm kept with a gourd rattle, that describe the wanderings of divinities at the creation of the world. Often they depict World-Maker, Coyote, and First Man as they journey over the landscape of a freshly made world looking for a home for the people yet to come. In the old days, these birdsongs would be sung dawn to dusk for four straight nights in the winter when the nights were longest. They are rhythmic and moving and seem to go on forever. I remember once watching the older generation of singers — Robert Levy from Torres-Martinez, Alvino Siva from Morongo, Tony Andreas from Agua Caliente among them, great men now all deceased — and thinking that if there’s an afterlife and if in that afterlife I was consigned to an eternity of listening to these old men “sing bird” as they put it, I’d know that I had reached heaven.
By the 1970s bird singing was in decline, and just when it seemed as if this rich heritage would disappear, a master-apprentice program was established to pass the tradition on to a younger generation. A few years ago I was in Palm Springs to attend a birdsong festival. Younger apprentices had taken over. The singing was strong, and in the audience were teenage girls cheering the singers on in a frenzy that seemed more like a rock concert than a traditional cultural activity. It was sexy, it was lively, it was fun, and the kids all loved it. Those who think cultural revival has to be staid, a scholarly replication of something long gone, should be dragged to a Southern California birdsong festival. It was a wonderful party. And to top it off, the singing was pitch perfect.
Oh, my friends, there’s so much more. There’s the revival of dance throughout Central and Northwestern California. Ten-day world renewal dances have been reinstituted in the Klamath River area, and along with the dances the arts of regalia making, singing, and traditional cooking are flourishing. Then there’s the rebuilding of roundhouses in the Central California region. And the making of pottery in Southern California, food preparation, flute music, hand games, storytelling, religious practice — all have been revitalized. There’s excitement, there’s hope, there’s fun to be had, there’s a sea of beauty and emotion to dive into.
As publisher of Heyday and News from Native California, it’s been my ongoing privilege and joy to be witness to this revival of California Indian culture. In nearly forty years of publishing poetry, literature, and art — in all these years of presiding over the river of beauty that moves through Heyday — I haven’t witnessed anything that has touched me more deeply. I’ve been involved to a minor degree as a funder as well. I helped create the Native California Network, supported by Marion Weber’s Flow Fund, which in its half dozen or so years of existence gave small grants to the Indian community that have had lasting effect. And I’m a founding board member of the Alliance for California Traditional Artists (ACTA), which includes many California Indian cultural organizations and individuals among those it funds.
I’d like to end this account of California Indian cultural revival by suggesting that the philanthropic community might look toward the world of California Indian cultural revival for funding opportunities. But let me temper this suggestion with some advice. There are joy and devotion, humor and drama in this world of cultural revival, but the gate to it is guarded by a dragon. You can’t just walk in. To get to the beauty you need to acknowledge centuries of injustice, genocide, racism, and slaughter, and the deep injuries that have resulted. Pain is present, sometimes openly acknowledged, sometimes the elephant in the room. Look at it with an open heart and accept it. Don’t let your own guilt keep you from the possibilities of beauty, wisdom, and spirit that this Indian world has to offer. Within the cultural revival there are things we all need. Listen carefully and you’ll hear, through the heart as much as through the ear, California’s oldest, deepest, and most abiding sense of itself. Fan its embers. There are fires here that can warm us all.