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Living Life Well: 05/15/2018

This indigenous presence

I’ve been reading Greg Sarris’ recent book How A Mountain Was Made, a reworking of Miwok traditional tales that take place on Sonoma Mountain, where Coyote had originally created the world. Sarris, Tribal Chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, is a compelling writer, whose work – according to his website – describes “our painful separation from the land and from each other, and the radiant potential for reunion.” That potential reunion must, however, take into account an ongoing struggle between the timeless equanimity of an indigenous presence and the ambitious disruption of colonizing forces.

Sarris presents the numinous fabric of society at its outset, in an interweaving of moral fables featuring ambiguous figures, in a landscape at once fantastical and familiar. We could be easily excused for thinking it fictitious. Throughout the book two sisters are in long conversation, at a local place many of us would quickly recognize – on Gravity Hill, near the homestead of my own grandfather’s grandfather, Robert Crane, on Lichao Road, above Cotati. The sisters are Answer Woman and Question Woman, twin granddaughters of Coyote. They may seem to some to be two crows perched there on a fence, but they are archetypal women, perhaps protohuman, leaning against the same fence rail as they talk. Overhearing them helps us to listen for something within ourselves that will not be domesticated.

The indigenous within us lives with an awareness of something colonization often ignores – a responsible interaction with the land. Perhaps it should be pointed out that the words “indigenous” and “indigent” may be easily confused, but they are not related. The word “indigenous” is from the Latin indigena, meaning “sprung from the land,” while the word “indigent” is from the Latin indigre, meaning “needy,” implying a rustic sort of indolence. I remember being told by well-meaning adults when I was young that the indians here had been simple “diggers,” primitive tribes that simply subsisted until they were inevitably replaced by our more industrious civilization.

The indigenous communities encountered here by the explorations of European nations were in fact not impoverished, but lived life well in a comfortably conscious collaboration with a generously bountiful, natural world. I don’t intend to invoke the 18th-century sentimental celebration of the Noble Savage, nor the early 19th-century notion of Romantic Primitivism; however, I am certain that humanity finds its health in such a willing partnership with the natural world, rather than in its conquest.

Throughout history a struggle has been waged between the colonist and the native – within each one of us, and among all of us. A lesson can be learned in recognizing the fundamental conflict between our need to participate and our desire to dominate, to be included or to become exclusive – to either share and take part, or to exert our desire to control. That desire was validated in the Doctrine of Discovery issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, giving Spain the right to conquer and own the lands Columbus had already found, as well as any lands Spain might “discover” in the future.

The English had a similar idea; when Sir Francis Drake came ashore in 1579 to repair his ship, the Golden Hind, he claimed California for England. Almost a century later, in 1769, Padre Junípero Serra began his march north from San Diego, establishing missions to subdue the native population along what came to be known as El Camino Real – the King’s Highway – as Spain advanced north toward the Russians who were beginning to come south from Alaska. This ambitious drive to conquer and occupy found further manifestation after yet another century in the American Manifest Destiny, as pioneers swept westward toward California.

What happened here then, quickly, was an infamous and almost complete genocide – and a thorough subjugation of the land as well. While there were 7,000 Miwok here before colonization, there were only 12 full-blooded Miwok in the 1852 census, only three decades later. Descendants of these people who live with us today must experience the blending and dispersion of a fundamental indigenous character into today’s diverse and multicultural society with great ambivalence – and a certain sadness.

There is a tendency among the educated to study something unknown in terms of standards already known, often ignoring what we may learn by focusing instead upon the validation of our assumptions. As Sri Ramana Maharshi once said, “Knowledge implies ignorance of what lies beyond what is known.” The ongoing struggle between the equanimity of an indigenous presence and its disruption by colonizing forces can only be alleviated through an acceptance by both of what each have to offer. At one point Question Woman asked her sister, “We get along so well, why is that?” Answer Woman then replied, “We need each other… if we didn’t talk, we would get nowhere up on this wondrous Mountain.”

Gravity Hill is a storied place. If you put your car in neutral at the bottom of the hill and release the brake, the car will seem to climb the hill by itself, gaining speed as it goes. It’s said that this is due to an optical illusion created by the landscape, but there are other explanations. As I read each story by Sarris, slowly – some of them aloud to completely enter the world that was created by Coyote up on Sonoma Mountain – my measuring mind was brought back time and again to fence posts I have ridden past, uphill, countless times on Gravity Hill – where Answer Woman and Question Woman confound the mind to remember the heart, and reconnect with the land.

Jim Shere is a local writer with a private practice as a counselor in Glen Ellen. You are invited to explore his website at, or email him at

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