The Spirit Lover

What I am going to tell you happened in Nicasio, on the old rancheria, where many of us lived after the San Rafael Mission was secularized and before county marshals marched us over the hills to Tomales Bay. I’m not exactly sure of the time, perhaps 1860 or so, but I know who it happened to, a relation of Camilo Ynitia, the headman of Olompali, a Coast Miwok village north of the Nicasio Rancheria. It was Ynitia’s daughter, or sister.
She took on a spirit lover.
She was living with her mother on the rancheria, and her mother noticed how in the early evenings the girl would stand before the kitchen sink gazing out the window, as if looking at something. But when the mother looked, she saw nothing out of the ordinary. Then one evening she found a man there, just this side of a wall of brush that lined the yard; a handsome man about her daughter’s age, and he was standing as if he was buried waist deep, so that she could see him only from the waist up. The mother became alarmed. “You’ve been sneaking out at night with that man.” But even as she referred to him as “that man,” she suspected he was something more. “I’m going to lock you in,” she told the girl. Which is what she did. Still, every night about two in the morning the girl would go to the door of the small, one-room house and stand staring out as her adamant mother blocked the door. This went on for some time. One morning, when the mother opened the door, she found a small nest of feathers, black crow feathers. After that, her daughter fell sick and, four days later, died.
In the old days, folks kept watch until the deceased was buried. They sat all night around the coffin, visited with the family. Well, whoever was sitting with this dead girl, they left her, went into the next room, just to get a cup of coffee or something to eat. When they came back, they found her turned over, yes, face down. Someone touched the body to see if she was truly dead. Sure enough, she was cold; she was dead all right. So they turned her over and the next day they buried her. But that spirit lover left his calling card: a small piece of flint the mother spotted on the floor when the pall bearers first lifted the coffin to carry the girl to her grave.
I thought of this story, and others like it, when an Indian tribe from another part of the country — the East Coast, in fact — contacted the Coast Miwok tribal council a few weeks ago requesting permission to use the Roundhouse in Point Reyes National Seashore. The tribe wanted to perform one of their annual ceremonies inside the Roundhouse. The request struck me as odd: Why would a tribe from another place — with traditions associated with that particular place — want to carry on ceremonies here in Marin County? Wouldn’t they go “home” to do that?
Clearly I had my own feelings about the matter, but as chairman of the Coast Miwok, now known as the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria, I had to consider, and ultimately represent, the wishes of the tribal council and other tribal members. And add to the mix the fact that we do not own the Roundhouse, nor is it considered by us as “traditional,” that is, it was not constructed under the direction of a Coast Miwok Dreamer, or religious leader, but rather by a group of interested — and mostly non-Indian — individuals. Still, we were honored that this eastern US tribe contacted us — it was the respectful thing to do. But the council’s decision was firm: No! Council members and others expressed a similar sentiment: You have to honor the spirit(s) of the place. These other people bringing other songs and dances might upset the spirit(s) and bring about bad medicine — or, as the old timers say, poison.
Throughout this part of California and beyond, awareness of the possibility of poison played a key role in keeping the peace. Consider for a moment the fact that before European contact more native people inhabited Marin, Sonoma, Lake, and Mendocino counties than anywhere else in North America. Conservative estimates put the pre-contact Coast Miwok population at 7,000 to 10,000; north of us, the Pomo population was at least 20,000. The Coast Miwok were not a single political entity, as we are today (582 enrolled members, all descendants of 13 survivors), but rather several independent tribes or tribelets each with its own villages and its own political and religious leaders — and, often, its distinct dialect. And the Miwok spoke a very different language than the Pomo — as different as English and Chinese. Scholars often ask: How did so many people living so close together get along as separate political and religious units for thousands of years with relatively little physical warfare and without adversely affecting the environment? The answer, I think, has something to do with “poison,” a concept that inheres in the story about the Nicasio girl and her spirit lover. Not strychnine or chlorine, though they are certainly poisons. Again, something more complex.
Essentially, for us, everything in the world has power — plants, animals, rocks, rivers and streams, the ocean, people. Everything has a spirit, maybe many spirits. The spirit of a plant, which of course is inextricable from the plant, is connected to other spirits and it can help you — or harm you — depending on your relationship to it. The plant could cure an illness or cause one. You had to know the plant’s songs before you picked it, maybe make a certain kind of offering to it as requested by its spirit. If you didn’t know the plant’s song — or a song that was suitable and pleasing to the plant — its healthful properties might not be released; likewise, if you ignored the song, if you disrespected the plant, say, by just picking it, the plant might harm you or someone in your family. Certain people would know the rules associated with the plant; not everyone knew the rules. No one would assume to know everything.
You wouldn’t just pick a plant, kill an animal, divert a stream’s path unless you understood the spirit, or were directed by someone who understood. For again, if you upset the spirit(s), it might turn on you, cause misfortune for you or your loved ones, in essence “poison” you. And, yes, there were/are people who could use certain songs to poison other people.
But if any of us forgot the power of things, if we forgot we were not the center of the universe, we could get into trouble and then pay a price, or, as the old timers say, sacrifice. I heard once of a man who used quail feathers to poison an enemy — he was supposed to use those feathers to heal — and he lost his sister to a stroke as a result.
The Kashaya Pomo from the Fort Ross area sometimes refer to European Americans as palachoy, “miracles,” because, as a Kashaya elder told me, when the invaders arrived, killing animals and people, the Kashaya thought it miraculous that these invaders were not punished, and that, in fact, more of them kept coming. Of course, as we know by a quick glance at the world around us, no one ended up getting away with disrespect and arrogance, without dire consequences anyway. Who reading this essay hasn’t had a loved one die of cancer? Who hasn’t eaten poisonous food, drunk poisonous water? Who won’t be affected by global warming? And by all the new diseases, viruses?
I don’t mean to romanticize an indigenous culture here, mine or anyone else’s. A culture imbued with the notion of an ever-powerful universe such as I’ve described could easily devolve into a culture of paranoia, which, in some ways, has happened as a consequence of the missions and the influence of Christianity on the ancient religion.
But in the old days — and even today as the tribal council showed in its decision on the Roundhouse — you didn’t want to risk misfortune; you didn’t steal your neighbor’s acorns, or clear a piece of land simply because a house would look good on it. You understood the environment and its workings in minute detail, yet were constantly aware of what you didn’t know. You wondered. It was a culture predicated on profound respect.
I heard the spirit lover story as a teenager in Santa Rosa, from a friend’s mother who was born in Marshall, a Coast Miwok woman whose great-grandmother from Nicasio had passed down the story. I remember stopping at a park bench after I left my friend’s house. My friend’s mother told me that the girl in the story had first found that piece of flint while out walking, maybe taking laundry to or from the creek. It contained that spirit lover, yes. The point of the story — what I took to be the point of the story — was familiar to me: Don’t mess with things you know nothing about, even if they appeal to you. As Cache Creek Pomo basketweaver and medicine woman Mabel McKay always told me: “You don’t know what spirit it is, something you see. You might not know, so say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ and go on your way.”
I knew, too, that a lot of things in any story might not make sense. The stories, more often than not, remind us that we are to ask questions and not simply look for a simple theme or moral. The point here is that the story — like the girl and the piece of flint — is about more than you can see. It is not self-contained in the way Western myths are — where the story is supposed to have a beginning, middle, and end with a fixed meaning. As one of my elders once said, “When us old Indians hear a story, we wonder about it. Why? Because we are going to carry it with us for a long time. We wonder about its genealogy, its songs. White man is different. He wants answers. He don’t want to know he don’t know.” Still, as I sat on that park bench, I kept thinking about the story. Did the mother cause her daughter’s death by locking the girl in at night? Should she have allowed her daughter to continue with the spirit lover? What would have happened then? Yes, I thought of these things and yet the story seemed safely far away, just a story, after all; it happened so long ago.
Then this happened: Four immense crows flew up, lifting above me in a tight circle, black feathers holding the sun in brilliant reflection, their raucous caws a hideous mockery.

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