March 9 - March 15, 1995

Native Voices

By Gregory McNamee

IT SEEMS STRANGE that California, with the largest Indian population in the United States, should have contributed so few writers to the ongoing Native American literary renaissance, a flowering that has brought a wealth of good new books from writers like Simon Ortiz, Ray Young Bear, Wendy Rose, Sherman Alexie and Linda Hogan. Their work, inspired by the High Plains and by the mesa country of the Southwest, has added new vigor to American letters and helped make the mainstream somewhat easier for minority literature to enter.

Greg Sarris, a professor of English at UCLA and elected chief of the Coast Miwok nation, puts California on the Native literary map with two books published in the same season, both fine performances.

In his Grand Avenue (Hyperion, $21.95), a set of stories that together comprise a novel, members of the Sam Toms family, a constellation of Pomo Red Earth People revolving around their 100-year-old patriarch, recall their literal and figurative descent from the coastal lake country of northern California to urbanized Santa Rosa. There they lead rough-and-tumble lives on the edge of nothingness, struggling to retain their dignity within an often hostile dominant culture.

Their stories interlock, with one generation speaking to (and sometimes past) another, stories full of children and parents lost to war, poverty, alcohol, and all full of tough survivors as well, men and women whose songs and stories give them the power to endure. Those Red Earth People are the victims of their own worst wishes, too: one narrator, Jasmine ("I'm no sweet-smelling flower," she growls) dwells under her aunt's belief that she, as an Indian, shares a special kind of original sin. "Not that we're bad people," Jasmine murmurs. "Not like regular thieves and murderers. We inherit it. Something our ancestors did, maybe, or something we did to bring it on ourselves. Something we didn't realize, like having talked about somebody in a way they didn't like, so they got mad and poisoned you."

The poison lingers. The outside world regards Indians as "all the drunks, all the welfare slobs, all the unwed mothers with their bastard kids," and in the face of that alternating contempt and indifference the Toms clanspeople forge their lives, marry, produce children, and die. The mood of these stories ranges from somber to joyous, with moments even of magical realism: "I'm not too old for miracles," an old curandera happily proclaims, having just witnessed the miracle both of a young TV-bred Indian girl asking to learn the art of basketmaking and of a miniscule frog winking at her in knowing sympathy.

Family, Grand Avenue suggests, is central to Sarris' work. Anthropologists have long noted the strength of family bonds and affection in Native American communities, the central place family loyalty occupies in their traditional ethical and religious systems. (An Anglo scholar once asked a Hopi why all his people's songs are about water. Because it's so rare, the Hopi said. Is that why all your songs are about love?) Sarris looks at all these matters in a work of nonfiction, Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream (University of California Press, $18).

Mabel McKay, who makes a cameo appearance, barely disguised, in Grand Avenue, was a renowned basketweaver of the Cache Creek Pomo people, who numbered in the hundreds in her girlhood and now are near extinction as a distinct culture. Her fame as an artist extended far beyond northern California's confines; Pope John Paul II made it a point to seek her out when he visited the Bay Area a few years ago, as have many other dignitaries. With them came the usual horde of scholars and journalists, all wanting a piece of the action, a piece of her life.

She had known Sarris for 30 years, most of his life, and to him alone she entrusted her story. But grudgingly, and he had a hard time getting a handle on how to approach it. Would he use the pure facts, or go beyond them into the ethereal land dangerously bordering Carlos Castaneda's? McKay urged him along by dryly reciting the data he expected to hear: born January 12, 1907, in Nice, California; married twice; a son and grandchildren; now resident in Santa Rosa.

"There, how's that?" he recalls her asking. "That's how I can tell my life for the white people's way. Is that what you want? It's more, my life...You have to listen."

Listen he does, doubtless better than the graduate student who once asked her what she as an Indian medicine woman used for poison oak. ("Calamine lotion," Mabel McKay replied.) Sarris weaves together ideas about the "dreaming" that informed and inhabited her work, trying to explain to an incredulous audience how spirit guided her, and not craft. These are difficult concepts in a highly evolved system of Native American metaphysics, concepts that perhaps not all Pomos understand. One of Sarris' many achievements is to explain them to non-Indian readers in a way that patronizes neither teller nor audience, quite unlike the sham "way of knowledge" that made the aforementioned Castaneda rich.

Mabel McKay died on May 31, 1993; it comforts me to think she dreamed of this fine book, the inaugural volume of the UC Press series "Portraits of American Genius," as it was being made, and as Sarris came at the same time to appreciate his own makeup as a man part Native American, part Filipino, and part European.

I'm glad as well to see the renaissance shift westward into little-explored literary territory, drawing new voices from what the writer Mary Austin called "the (Native) American rhythm" into the mainstream. Greg Sarris' is one that should resound for years to come.

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March 9 - March 15, 1995

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