Rekindling the knowledge of California Indians

David Briggs
Julia Parker, a Coast Miwok/Pomo, at the Big Time Festival in 2011.
07/11/2013

In Coast Miwok folklore, O’-ye, Coyote man, sends Koo-loo’-pis, the tiny but fast-flying Hummingbird, to the Sun in order to steal some of his fire for the newly created People. Koo-loo’-pis returns from a harrowing journey with a spark tucked beneath her chin. O’-ye puts the ember in Oo’-noo, the buckeye tree, where it will always be available with the spin of a hand drill. 

Over the past four decades, the Miwok Archeological Preserve of Marin has been rekindling that spark, which is still visible on hummingbirds’ chins, through classes, preservation support and cooperative efforts to keep the old ways alive. Most recently, MAPOM has partnered with the College of Marin and Point Reyes National Seashore to offer classes, mostly conducted at Kule Loklo, a recreated Coast Miwok village in the seashore, on the history, culture, skills and environmental values of native Californians. 

Although many of these classes impart formal skills, they also informally serve to illuminate the deep-rooted intelligence of our native peoples. In one class offered last September, basket maker Julia Parker, a Coast Miwok/Pomo, and her daughter, Lucy Parker, a Coast Miwok/Pomo/Paiute, took us into the roundhouse—a partially underground ceremonial structure—to experience the hallowed space. Inside, Julia spontaneously shared a Yosemite creation narrative that kept us all enthralled. She said that “by teaching students to weave, we’re not only offering a sacred skill, but also we’re connecting them in a magical way to our history and our environment.” A version of this class will be offered again this September through MAPOM.

During another basket weaving class, ceremonial leader Ed Willie, a Pomo/Wailaki/Paiute, discussed the ethics of nature stewardship, the principles of regenerative land management and the spiritual practices of native people. He explained, “To make traditional baskets, you have to learn how to cultivate, manage and listen to the natural world.” 

On the morning of the annual Big Time Festival on next Saturday, July 20, at Kule Loklo, four respected native Californians— Eva Salazar, a Kumeyaay, Bradley Marshall, a Hupa, Vanessa Esquivido, a Wintu and Sherrie Smith-Ferri, a Dry Creek Pomo/Coast Miwok—will speak about the present state of tribal affairs. This is a free and family-friendly event that will also feature native skills demonstrations and dances.

On August 17 and 18, Lois Connor-Bohna, of the North Fork Mono and Chukchansi Yokuts, will offer a traditional acorn preparation class and accompanying environmental insights. She says that by keeping the ancient indigenous tradition of acorn preparation alive, we help preserve the wisdom of our ancestors and our Indian people. During her classes, Lois enjoys sharing the old ways, which she says are “grounded in respectful relationship with the Creator’s garden.”

And in a similar fashion, Sky Road Webb, a Coast Miwok, and Alicia Retes, a Mayo/Yaqui/Cherokee, will offer a jewelry making, storytelling, tule crafts and games class designed for adults and young people, on November 2. While the skills learned that day will be valuable, the deeper understanding that underpins their presentation may be invaluable. Both Sky and Alicia see the relighting of Native wisdom as an essential offering.

Gene Buvelot, a Coast Miwok and long-term board member of MAPOM who also sits on the tribal council of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, says: “The indigenous knowledge base successfully sustained native people in Marin and Sonoma Counties for thousands of years. There’s much to be learned: Only use what you need. Share with the whole community. Give back with thanks. Take care of the grasses, the trees and the land and you’ll have a place to live for a long time. Adopt a non-exploitive relationship with the environment.” 

These traditional lessons can shed light on the ecological challenges we face today.

Consider the impact of a population that is growing beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. The population during the many millennia during which native folks lived in Marin and southern Sonoma only reached the low thousands. The waters ran pure, the air stayed clean and the plants and animals thrived in a healthy environment. The ecological footprint of their sustainable communities is barely visible. 

But the same territory today is colonized by hundreds of thousands of affluent inhabitants all living high on the hog. The devastating impacts of modernity are abundantly clear. Perhaps we can begin to ignite an understanding of the practices, worldview and sense of a sacred relationship with the land that is rooted in the lifeway and cosmology of Earth-centered peoples.  

Mythologically, fire is often a metaphor for the emergence of knowledge and wisdom. It’s time to spin Coyote’s buckeye drill and release the fiery knowledge that rests within.

 

John Littleton, a retired teacher and Point Reyes Station resident, serves as the MAPOM class coordinator. For more information, visit mapom.org or marin.edu/CommunityEducation, or email John at rjcoyote@svn.net.