Song of the Elderberries

Environmentalists often talk in terms of “stewardship,” “protection,” and “defense” as if we are guardians of a child. Certainly there is a dire need to protect environments everywhere. But, as author and Coast Miwok tribal chair Greg Sarris points out here, it’s not so simple. Our efforts to “save” nature, however valiant, may ultimately fail unless we respect who has the power to save — or kill — whom. That’s difficult to imagine in our artificially comfortable, convenient world.
From early childhood, Sarris came under the wing of someone with a living memory of a very different world — the last dreamer and fluent speaker of her Pomo dialect, Mabel McKay. In his late 20s, Sarris learned that he himself was Native American: the great-great-grandson of the last Coast Miwok medicine man, Tom Smith. In this interview and essay, Sarris draws from the lore of Coast Miwok family members, the tales of Coast Miwok and Pomo elders, some ethnography, but mostly from a childhood of conversations with McKay, to convey a local traditional view of the power in all things. Respecting this power is not as simple as hugging a tree. It requires diligent study. But from that study comes lasting conservation — and lasting peace.
Sarris spoke to Terrain editor Laird Townsend from his home in Los Angeles.

LT: You have mentioned that the indigenous societies of Marin, Sonoma, and Lake counties lived in very dense populations and spoke a multitude of languages, but went without major warfare or environmental destruction for millennia. How did that work?
GS: Well, they had a very complicated system where you didn’t mess with things because everything had power; everything had a story. Everything had its way and it could turn on you.
LT: Everything had a story.
GS: When you’ve lived in a landscape for 10,000 years, you know things. You know the family of quails; you know the history and the genealogy of the deer that live in your area. You know everything. You watch the elderberry bush on the hills. The elderberry is in communication with the oceans and the tide. It tells us when the red tide is in and you don’t eat the shellfish. Each year from the time the elderberry blooms until it drops its fruit, you do not eat the shellfish.
LT: That was general knowledge?
GS: Yes, but other knowledge was special. So, for example, an Indian doctor would take a plant or herb to smoke. Where it would make other people high or crazy, that Indian doctor knew exactly what to do. Things like plants had certain songs that a person in the know would know how to sing. [See essay page 31.]
But if you chopped down certain trees or if you moved a rock or built a house on top of a mountain, and you didn’t have a song or you weren’t connected in the right way with that mountain, it would put cancer in your children. It would cause an accident in your mother. It would do something. You assumed every rock, every leaf, every animal could potentially be an atom bomb that could blow you up, so to speak. For us everything in nature has the ability to poison you, kill you, because of its power. You are constantly reminded that you are not the center of the universe, you don’t know. You wonder.
LT: That view is at odds with the modern age.
GS: Yes, and that is what the western world, and even a lot of the ecology movement, forgets. There’s a lot of naiveté — I mean in the good-hearted sense — that we have to go around and love nature and protect it in sort of a paternal way. But in fact, we have to be on our knees in front of it. Nature is striking millions dead right now. The Indian way of reading this is that when you start using gas or fossil fuels, things like that, and you don’t have a song for it, well they are turning on you and poisoning you. That’s because the fossils have songs we don’t know, spirits.
A rock, you might say, doesn’t breathe. But it has the spirit, it has songs. This is what the westerners don’t understand. They only see the rock. An Indian doctor, for instance, my great-great grandfather, Tom Smith, he had charm stones, and a geologist or a chemist or whoever may take apart that rock, but he won’t know that spirit. You can’t see that spirit in that rock that is able to take polio out of people or put love medicine on somebody and make you fall in love — if you use it the right way. They won’t see that. And even if you see that and understand that, you have to interact with that for a long time to learn its spirit.
LT: In other words, we don’t have the power over nature we think we do.
GS: We might have some power to protect it politically, but we don’t know that it loves us. You don’t know that a mountain or a tree or a river wants you hugging it. It could poison you. For example, I just did a reading up there for Bay Nature. One of the poets there said she loves Mt. Tamalpais. And she talked about people’s weddings, and the power of this big mountain that stands there — and how pretty it is. There is nothing wrong with that. But the fact is, what we know about that mountain is that it’s taboo. You don’t go up there. Mt. Tamalpais was the domain of poisoners. The poison people knew how to use the herbs and medicine. Well, the old term was they could heal you or kill you. Healer-Killers, we used to call them. Mt. Tamalpais was an area where they used to gather. Capes and all kinds of things were hung. For example, bear people, people who turned into bears, had a secret cave up there where they hung their skins. Mt. Tamalpais is a very, very powerful place.
LT: Who were the poison people?
GS: Say we all live in a little village down in Fairfax; we had a village there. Certain people in that village, at night or whenever, would disappear and go up the mountain, perhaps meet a couple of people from neighboring tribes up there. The people who went up there were not the whole village or a known group of people. They were a secret society. You wouldn’t necessarily know who those people were. You could never assume to know everything about anyone. So you were respectful. It might be your wife, it might be your son, it might be your uncle, it might be your next-door neighbor. You didn’t know what each person was. And that’s getting at the essence of central California Indian religion and culture. The earliest ethnographers and anthropologists characterized us as cultures predicated on black magic and fear. When, in fact, we were cultures predicated on respect. Because you could never assume to know everything about anyone.
We had many secret societies. In general, before you went out to hunt, you offered yourself, you sacrificed yourself: You fasted, you didn’t eat meat, you didn’t have sex. But in a lot of these secret societies, you had to abstain from red meat — and often sex — for up to seven years. And as you can see, what that did is, it kept the population down, number one. But, number two, it didn’t allow for the destruction of a lot of the bigger animals. You’re eating acorns and berries and things. You couldn’t eat grease.
LT: So there’s an evolutionary consequence of this vegetarianism.
GS: That’s right. If you started overpopulating your area, that would immediately lead you into what? Starting to get aggressive and have to take over another person’s area. But there’s something else, and it’s related to poison. People often wondered why didn’t the large tribes up north, the bigger tribes from southwestern Oregon and southeastern Oregon, the bigger more organized tribes, even the tribes up north at Klamath, why didn’t they come down in this beautiful area — Marin and Lake and Sonoma? It was obviously the most desirable place to live. There were more birds, more meat, shellfish, more fresh fish — I mean the environment, the climate, is about as close to paradise as anywhere on earth. And the answer is, they were terrified of us, the Pomo and the Miwok. We were known to have the most powerful medicine.
LT: How can this legacy help today?
GS: I truly feel, not that we can return to this, or that we should run around in a loincloth; I certainly don’t want to. But I think we need a kind of local knowledge that’s predicated on awe and respect, even if we’re looking at gaps, the blackness, the wonder, the things we don’t know. As the old Indians used to say, that’s where we start to touch God.
LT: Does this contradict modern science and politics?
GS: No, just look at Einstein, who knew so much. The more you know, the more wondrous it is. If I discover that there’s an enormously powerful current in a river, I can be in awe of that and say “Oh, what power.” Or I can say, “Gee, I can use this to fertilize or water this many valleys or to build a dam that will generate this much power that’ll make me this much money.”
Same with politics: It all depends on what you do with the knowledge. Of course, we need politics today because of the way things are going. That’s why I do the work I do for the tribe; that’s why I do the work for Barbara Boxer and others. You can steer things in the right direction with politics. You can help create a context for the kind of world where people can think differently about things.
So, science isn’t bad, nor is politics. It’s what you do with it. It’s the same thing with the old bearskins or anything. There were people who would have bear power for instance or certain stone power who would do bad things with it. You need some kind of reminder that the thing is bigger than you. Whatever step you take, whatever you do, you may be potentially altering the world — for good or bad.

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