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The Way We Lived 1

August 1, 2012

To the California Indian way of thinking, nothing was inanimate. Animals, plants, rocks, trees, trails, mountains, springs, manufactured objects and natural objects- indeed all things- were people, fully alive and intelligent, with complex and interconnected histories.

Native Peoples of Northern California

The Greedy Father (Karok story):

Karok man

Famine descended, and the people were hungry. A man said, “Tomorrow I’ll go fishing.” The family went to bed without eating. The next day at dawn he left the house. The sun was rising. It was shining on the water. Suddenly the string attached to the fishnet quivered. A big salmon was in the net. He hauled it out and put it down in the back of the fishery.

Then he thought, “Let me cook it! It’s because I’m hungry.” So he cleaned it. He cut off the tail putting it to one side. Then he cooked the salmon. When he ate it, he devoured it all, and only afterwards did he realize it.

Then he went home. He was carrying just the tail. Some distance from home he was shouting, “Here children, this is the tail! There were a lot of beggars on the way who got the rest.”

Then the children ran out. They were shouting, “Hurray, we’re going to eat, hurray, we’re going to eat.”

The next day he went fishing again. Again he caught a big salmon, and he ate it on the spot. Again he shouted, “Here children, this is the tail! There were a lot of beggars.”

Karok woman

Now the woman thought, “He’s holding out on us.” The next day he went fishing again. She told her children, “You stay here. I’m following him. I think he’s holding out in us.” When she arrived at the fishery, he had just pulled out a big salmon. He cut off the tail and put it down a little ways off. Then he made a fire and cooked it. He was about to eat.

The woman ran back up river. She told her children, “It’s really true. He’s holding out on us. Let’s get started, we’re going to leave.” They climbed uphill. Then they heard him. He was shouting below them, “Here, children, this is the tail! There were a lot of beggars.” It was silent. He shouted again. He ran indoors. There only mice were squeaking. Then he jumped out of the house. He was still shouting like that, “Here children, this is the tail! There were a lot of beggars.” He looked uphill. That is were they had climbed.

His wife shouted, “Eat alone there: that’s why you held out on us.” He was following them. He got closer. He was still shouting. When he caught up with them, his wife told him, “You’re going to be doing nothing but this: you’ll be eating only mud in the creeks. But we will be sitting around in front of rich people.”

And he thought, “Let me grab the littlest one.” He reached out, but the child turned into a bear-lily. He thought, “I’m grabbing the other one.” It turned into a hazel-bush. He grabbed his wife: she turned into a pine tree. He, in turn, swooped down there. You will see him like that now. He eats mud on the edge of creeks. [He became a water-ouzel, a small, grey bird called “Moss-eater” by the Karok.] But his wife and his children, when there is a deerskin dance, are lined up [as baskets] in front of rich people.



When a Karok woman went out to collect pine roots, hazel stems, and bear-lily roots for her baskets, she moved in an animate and indeed passionate world. She gathered her basket materials from people– from a woman and her children who had once been dreadfully poor. By plucking roots and stems she was not harming these people but rather honoring them, transforming them into beautiful baskets that would be displayed during ceremonies, “sitting in glory before the rich people.” The woman was thus helping the roots and stems fulfill their destiny. Her relationship with the pine tree, hazel bush, and bear-lily was one of partnership, friendship, even equality: after all, she and pine tree were both women, and could thereby understand and help each other very well.

(Margolin, Malcolm ed. The Way We Lived: California Indian Reminiscences, Stories and Songs Heyday Books 1981)



Hazelnut bush

Pine tree

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