reflections on becoming native to this North Coast of California
Saturday, January 08, 2005
Cheryl Seidner (Wiyot) and representatives of other local tribes on their way from Indian Island to the historic signing of an agreement with the city of Eureka that returned sacred land to the Wiyot. Kowinski photo 2004
Before even starting to explore the notion of becoming native to this North Coast place, we must begin with the people who are Native to this place.
The notion of becoming native is one of those fruitful and perhaps necessary paradoxes, especially in a nation of immigrants, at a time when people move around so much. The idea of becoming native is to feel the same deep identification, and to have the same stake in a place as someone born here, with generations of ancestors buried in its ground.
It's a notion pretty much in direct opposition to what would seem to have been the approach of the first non-Native influx into this part of the country, during the 1849 Gold Rush. Then it was to use what this place offered as raw material, while that which wasn't useful to the invaders was destroyed or ignored.
This is one of the rare regions in America where indigenous peoples still live more or less where they have for many centuries before Europeans arrived. It is probably rarer still in the amount and frequency of regular contact indigenous Natives and resident non-Natives maintain in daily life.
I wonder how many non-Native people here on the North Coast appreciate how unusual is this daily opportunity for contact with Native cultures. It's certainly not everywhere in America that a local government meeting begins with a welcome by the tribal leader of the indigenous people who lived on the land where they are meeting. But here it's perfectly natural for a peace march to begin with a Native prayer, not conducted by some Sioux medicine man from far away (or someone claiming to be one) but by a local resident.
Newcomers probably notice this, at least at first. The North Coast is predominantly white, more so than most areas of California, and most urban areas throughout North America. But it is probably even more rare for the most numerous and culturally influential "minority group" to be Native peoples. It was that way for a long time here, and although indigenous peoples are no longer the largest population after whites throughout Humboldt County, they remain numerically significant and culturally very influential.
When moving here from western Pennsylvania first became a possibility, and I looked over this territory on a map, two things struck me immediately. First, the surroundings of state and national forest, and then of wilderness. Second, the Yurok reservation, Hoopa Valley and other Indian lands nearby. Both of these were powerful attractions.
The second writing job I did here---and the first one I actually got paid for---was for the Seventh Generation Fund, the only foundation aiding grassroots and traditional Native American cultures that is run by Native peoples. International in scope, it is headquartered in Arcata.
I'm still not sure why Executive Director Chris Peters hired me. Maybe he isn't either. (I worked on several projects there for about a year.) I'd sent him a letter out of the blue, after hearing him speak at a Green Party convention. But thanks to him, I met Natives of many cultures and places throughout the West, and I finally was getting to witness something of the relationship of people from an indigenous culture to their home place.
It was an opportunity to learn about cultures that were unfamiliar, yet were far from foreign: they were cultures that grew directly from where we live. At the same time, it was a chance to correct the imagery we often have as non-Natives. Here it is especially possible to understand that Native cultures and Native peoples are of the present, as well as being deeply rooted in traditional knowledge.
That was the beginning of a continuing journey. By working on various projects as well as through just living here, I've met and come to admire a number of North Coast Native people, young and old, women and men, as well as other Natives who bring their own traditions and backgrounds from elsewhere to their lives here. However else I feel about my time here, I'll always be grateful I came into contact with Cheryl Seidner, Chris Peters and Julian Lang, in particular. I've learned a lot, and I still know little. But I know a little of who they are, and a little more of who I am. And through them as well as my own sporadic experience, I know something about this place.
And now that I think about it, there is something specific to this venture that I learned from that first talk I heard Chris Peters give. He suggested that Native populations and cultures might not survive many years into the future. It might well be up to non-Natives to finally learn the same responsibility for the earth that is at the core of Native cultures, because this is the ground that supports us as well, in every sense.
I hoped then and hope now that he was wrong about a dwindling away of Native populations. But I realize at this moment that he was saying essentially what this project is trying to say: that we must all become native to this place. And the place to begin is with the peoples and cultures that began here, and remain here.
I got a lasting lesson from a particularly feisty Julian Lang one day at the Seventh Generation Fund office. Julian is a Karuk scholar, writer, artist, activist, musician, performer and participant in ceremony, with an office at Humboldt State University for his various activities, including the Institute for Native Knowledge.
I've gotten to know him better since, but on this day I was still learning about him. He was complaining that I hadn't interviewed him yet for the Native Performance Fund grant proposal I was working on for Seventh Gen and the Humboldt Area Foundation, and when I asked him when I could do so, he said he didn't have the time. So I wound up asking him a couple of questions and following him around the office with a tape recorder. In the years since then I've quoted his statements that day so often he must be sick of them, but for me they remain touchstones of eloquence and relevance.
The goal of funding for Native cultural projects, he said, shouldn' t be to finance more "feathers and beads, but get to the crux of life. Let's work towards creating of a consciousness in our people about Native traditional identity--that we are part of a place. This is the original purpose of our languages and stories. They tell you, 'Now I am Wiyot, I am a Humboldt Bay person.' Or I am an Eel River person, a Mad River person. I am a person from this village site, I am a person from this place. I am an ocean person, a bay person, a mountain person. Really connect people with their environment."
"We must find ways to enable ourselves to share our cultural understanding about the land we live in. To create an authentic, mythic experience for everyone, that is indigenous to this place. A shared experience, so we are able to talk about it, to come to a mutual understanding about the sacredness of the land, which is contrary to most of what American society tells us." The goal should be "not only an intellectual understanding, but a cultural understanding, which is different."
In Native culture, identity and environment are connected at the core. The tribes of this region developed within a specific natural context, as "river people" or "ocean people," for example. The diversity of landscapes and conditions (like all the micro-climates that exist so close to each other) probably defined the diversity of indigenous peoples, for this region is characterized by a number of small tribes living close to each other, sharing aspects of their cultures and stories, but remaining distinct.
Their dances and stories referred to animals and plants around them, and their creation myths and other stories include prominent features of the local landscape.
Here in the far northwestern region, we live along the Pacific Ocean coast, along rivers such as the Klamath and Eel, and among rugged mountains, vast forests, deep valleys and fertile flatlands. Redwood and Douglas fir, madrone and pines, oaks and maples fill our forests. Flowers and edible plants as well as those used in basketry once grew in great profusion, and are still present in some abundance. Multiple species of eagle, hawk, hummingbird, salmon, bear, wolf, fox, cat, dog, rabbit, squirrel, elk, deer and antelope were (and to some degree remain) present in daily life, as well as the more local and exotic species the region hosted, such as the alpine chipmunk, snowshoe rabbit, bighorn sheep and yellow-haired porcupine; the osprey, the wolverine, condor, and cougar.
All of this is directly reflected in foods, materials used for implements and shelter, stories, ceremony and many other ways. A lot of these influences are easy to see once they are pointed out, but a less obvious and more difficult one is the relationship to language.
Recently Cheryl Seidner (elected chair of the Wiyot tribe at Table Bluff) commented to me that the Wiyot don't have a word for "tree." They have words for many kinds of trees, in various states and stages. But they didn't conceptualize "tree" as a general or generic term, which tells us a lot about how specific and thorough their knowledge was, and also about relationship. The use of "tree" in non-Native language suggests they are objects rather than individuals or members of a species. For one thing, this makes it easier to categorize them as commodities, according to how profitable they are.
Here is some of what I learned from Julian Lang and others, in person and in my reading: The language of each tribe was derived from where they lived, and their experience in relationship with that land, with its creatures and weather, its plants and seasons. The places and their experiences formed the very structures of these language in ways that is difficult to understand for those raised with a language that has a very different history of development, such as English.
Native scholars have documented this aspect of Native languages. Often the words are based on sounds from the specific natural setting. (The name of a particular bird, for instance, may be based on the sound that bird makes.) The structures of words themselves reflect ways of relating to the world that is different from the world view that forms the basis for English words, sentence structure and even the use of tenses.
These differences matter, for they reflect entire world-views. Differences in the nature of these languages when compared to English have resulted in widely influential mis-translations of Native concepts, giving the world a false or incomplete idea of Native knowledge. Traditional practices, traditional knowledge, aboriginal geography, material and non-material culture, the stories and mythology that are the core of our identity, are all intimately related and interdependent, so that they cannot really be separated. But the basis for all of them is language.
This is a reason that preserving and reviving their languages is so important to Native peoples of the North Coast. Some tribes have few if any speakers who learned the language as children. Apart from supporting our neighbors in their efforts to revive their languages, we have a second incentive: in comparing these languages to the English American language we have in common, we will learn more about being native to this place.
There is much more about the Native North Coast on the companion blog, North Coast Texts, including a Primer on local tribes with links; reporting on the recent return of Indian Island land to the Wiyot, and more on my own experiences and interests concerning Native peoples before I got to the North Coast. See how they compare with yours.
In the meantime, some questions you might address in the Comments below could include: if you are non-Native, what were your first experiences and impressions concerning Native peoples and cultures on the North Coast? What do you, as either non-Native or Native, believe are the special contributions of our indigenous North Coast Native cultures to how we all can become native to this place?