An Ohlone Story

In all the traditional territory of the Ohlone, from Carquinez Strait and San Francisco to Big Sur, the only place so far held in trust by indigenous inhabitants lies in the hills near Hollister — Indian Canyon. According to the caretaker of the canyon, Anne-Marie Sayers — who was born there, as was her Mutsun Ohlone great-grandmother — Ohlone have continually inhabited the canyon “since time began.” A prehistoric village site, the canyon served later as a haven for Ohlone refugees from Mission San Juan Bautista from 1797 to 1834. In recent years, its shady oak forest has hosted Ohlone and cross-tribal indigenous ceremonies. At a storytelling there in May 2002, Patrick Orozco in full regalia told this prelude to a bear song, a story passed down to him by his grandmother, Peli, a Ritocsi Ohlone born in 1900.
The origin of the story is unknown. According to Orozco, Peli learned it from her mother-in-law, who was closely associated with Rumsien speakers, so he thinks it could be a Rumsien story. But Orozco chooses words more closely resembling Mutsun, a better known Ohlone dialect indigenous to Indian Canyon.
There was a couple that had two children and they lived in a little rukka, which was a dome that was made of willow and tule. The woman was preparing poknis, acorn mush, which is very hard to make out of the acorn meal. You had to leach it just right because if you didn’t, and you ate it, it gave you a tummy ache. Well, that evening they had dinner, and she didn’t fix a batch that well, and they all got bellyaches. They were all groaning in pain. And the head of the household got very worried. He sat there in pain also. “What am I going to do?” he asked. “What kind of medicine do I give them? What do I do?”
He was so worried he walked down to the edge of the creek and he sat down on a rock. And he sat there. Thought, and thought, and thought — when all of a sudden a bear came out of the woods to drink water. And he studied the bear. He just studied the bear as he drank water. He got an idea. He ran back down to the rukka and he got a batch of that poknis, and he set it where the bear could see it. Well, the bear came out and he ate the toron, by mistake. And the bear was in pain. He started going, “RRROOOOooooh!” Fell on his back. Kicked his paws. And then he just studied him and studied him. Watched him.
When the bear got up, he started walking around, he started sniffing some kind of shrub, started digging around with his paw. When he found the right one, he dug up the roots and he ate them.
Well, five minutes later the bear was well. And the man saw this. So he went and dug some of these roots. He took them back to his rukka and he pounded them, prepared them for his family. And they all drank of the root. And they all got well. And that’s just one of the stories of how bear brought medicine to the people. In the Mutsun language, that medicine today is called chowishmin, or yerba buena.

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