Sky Road Webb, keeping Miwok music

David Briggs
Sky Road Webb told stories and sung songs at a house concert hosted by the San Geronimo Valley Historical Society on Sunday.   

Sky Road Webb came to California a decade ago on a quest to unearth his Indian heritage. He expected to find his mother, whom he hadn’t seen since he was 4. Instead, he found she had passed away, and he learned he was a descendant of the Tamal’ko, the Tomales Bay Miwok.

The discovery set Sky on a new path as an advocate for native Californians, and as a storyteller and keeper of native music and language. He now works for the Inter-Tribal Council of California to organize small tribes and has written over a dozen songs that tell the stories and express the values of his native culture. 

“I walked into that role of representing,” he said. “I was trying to answer questions about myself, but I realized it’s a lot more important than me.”

Last Sunday, Sky performed at a home in Lagunitas, an event organized by the San Geronimo Valley Historical Society. He sang with eyes gently closed; his untrained voice deep but unafraid to reach up an octave or add vibrato. He kept a beat by flicking a clapper stick in the air, and before he launched into a song, he recounted the story or meaning behind it. He wore a black vest and cowboy hat, his long hair pulled back in a ponytail.

Before a song for the water spirits, Sky told a simple story about finding a shell on the beach. When he was struggling with learning about the death of his mother and the decimation of his people, he often walked on the beach. One day, he picked up an abalone shell and reflected on how before movies or television, the pearlescent shell would have been one of the coolest things out there—and, he decided, it still is. “I realized that this process—leaning over, picking it up, looking at it—is ancient,” he said. “We are connected in that very act. It’s coded in our DNA, and I think it stimulates healing.”

Sky was born in 1972 in Bend, Ore. His father, a white Vietnam War veteran, met his mother, a singer, at a show at the Filmore in San Francisco, and they moved up to Oregon together. When he was 4, his dad took him to Texas; Sky would never see his mother again. His dad remarried, and while Sky said he grew up in a loving family, he had to forgive them for not allowing him a relationship with his mom.

“I didn’t sense it then, but, looking back, I can see now that they were wrestling with my father bringing home an Indian child, which was maybe hard for them to take in with some of their Southern sensibilities,” he said. “But they never expressed it to me.”

He couldn’t get away from his mother’s heritage. When people asked where he was from, he told them his mother was Indian, but could not tell them what tribe. People would say to him that he needed to find out, which he didn’t like hearing from new acquaintances. So he would just say his mom was a Digger Indian, a general and often derogatory term for California Indians.

In high school, his dad’s job as a horse farrier brought them to Livingston, Mont. There he became student body president, edited the school newspaper and started drama and chess clubs. When he graduated, he enlisted in the Navy as a hospital corpsman. 

Sky trained in San Diego and at Camp Pendleton, where he learned to run and shoot with the United States Marine Corps as they geared up for the Gulf War. The war ended quickly, and he was assigned to work at a hospital in Pensacola, Fla., where he gave pilots pre-flight physicals and taught them how to handle hypoxia, ejections and water survival.

In 1997, Sky received a bachelor’s degree in English from the United States Naval Academy in Maryland. He was selected to return to Pensacola to be a pilot, but he didn’t finish the training. Instead, he transferred into public relations, writing speeches and publishing the base’s newspaper until he left the military in 2002. He worked for the Navy for one more year as a civil servant, then moved to St. Augustine and bought a sailboat.

Sky lived on the boat for five years, working for a marine supply company selling boat parts on eBay. Still, unanswered questions about his mother tugged at him. 

“It was always on the back of mind that I had to resolve this, but maybe I was procrastinating,” he said. “It’s tough to deal with, bundled up with pain.”

He sold his boat, packed everything into a van, and headed west. His plan was to come out to California and make contact with his family. Once that account of his life was complete, he would return to his Bohemian lifestyle—but it didn’t play out that way.

He first stayed with a friend in Bolinas, but after a couple of months he was running out of money. A friend from Florida visited, bought a truck and invited Sky to drive back. Sky almost left, but then a man he did not know gave him words of encouragement.

“I realized what I needed to find out, I could only find out here,” he said.

Sky had preconceptions that his mother and the California Indian community would be in bad shape, but when he arrived, it was even worse than he expected: it seemed like everyone was gone, he said. He found just one relative, an aunt in Kelseyville. 

At the records office in San Francisco he obtained his mother’s birth and death certificates, and a note that he should go to the administrator’s office. It turned out that when his mother had died in 2003, the city was unable to find any next of kin to notify. Sky was told her ashes were spread in the bay, and he was given a wallet with a few of her rings inside.

He reached out to the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria to learn more, and he was pointed to the Catholic Church of the Assumption in Tomales. The church had records of his grandmother’s baptism, and of her father’s and grandmother’s. 

Finally, Sky had a record of his Indian heritage going back four generations, with roots in Marshall and in the Catholic missions. He sent the records to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which already listed his family on the Indian census, and he was certified as having Indian blood.

Sky started attending cultural events and cleanup days at Kule Loklo, the replica Coast Miwok village in Point Reyes built by volunteers in the 1970s. He was hoping to meet Indians there, but he found he was the only one.

Before Sky came along, Lanny Pinola, a Kashaya Pomo, worked as a cultural interpreter for the park service. Lanny relished at the opportunity to tell stories to schoolkids and spread his spirituality. When he unexpectedly died in 2003, he left a void as a charismatic ceremonial leader, said John Littleton, the vice president of the Miwok Archeological Preserve of Marin.

“We think of Sky as the reincarnation of Lanny Pinola, which is a heavy mantle,” John said. “He has that same quality of leadership, and spiritual juju.”

At the annual Big Time Festival, Sky dances with gusto around the fire. He brings artifacts like atlatls, or spear throwers, for demonstration, and emcees dance performances as the master of ceremonies.

Gary Yost, a filmmaker working on a documentary about the restoration of the west peak of Mount Tamalpias, invited Sky to look at the land. “I had trepidation,” Sky said. “That’s our sacred mountain—we don’t go up there casually.”

He burned sage and sang prayers he had learned from gatherings at Kule Loklo and with fellow California Indians. Gary asked if he could film Sky for his documentary, but since the songs weren’t his, Sky didn’t feel comfortable. 

His solution was to write his own songs. Since no native speakers of Coast Miwok are alive today, he turned to a linguist’s dictionary created in the 1960s based on interviews with the last fluent speaker of Coast Miwok. Sky studied the dictionary, translating to English and sorting through undefined grammar rules.

In writing his first songs, Sky would start with a prayer, playing with it until he found a melody. He used formulas from other Indian songs, like repetition and octave switches, to craft four original songs. One of them can be heard in Gary’s documentary, “The Invisible Peak.” Sky wrote another batch of songs for Sound Orchard, and now he is approaching 20 original songs. 

Although he wrote exclusively in Coast Miwok at first, he found those songs take a lot of explaining for non-Indians to fully appreciate them. Now he includes lyrics in English, while still maintaining the native concepts, ways and spirituality within.

Outside of his singing gigs, Sky is the president of the Marin American Indian Alliance, and he sits on the board of the All-Californian Oratory Resource Network to support native Californian language revitalization.

He works for the Inter-Tribal Council of California to help smaller Northern California tribes operate. He helps out with the bureaucracy and administration of domestic violence advocacy, childcare subsidies, veteran services and emergency response.

“I always tell people I do paper medicine,” he joked. “It’s really given me an opportunity to network and learn how things work in the tribal community.”