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Praying in the City of Angels

In the Land Redwoods and Mountain Streams Author GREG SARRIS Had No Trouble Finding Quiet Places to Sing His People's Sacred Songs. In Los Angeles, That Quest Proved Challenging.

May 09, 1999|GREG SARRIS | Greg Sarris, a UCLA professor of English, is a screenwriter and author; his latest novel is "Watermelon Nights" (Hyperion)

Just before I left Santa Rosa, my hometown, for Los Angeles, my Auntie Anita told the following story, a version of which I'd heard from other tribal elders every time I moved to a new place: Once, while the people were camped along a creek some distance from the village, a man spotted a small deer, a doe, across the water. She was eating bark off a manzanita bush. It was late winter, the people down to their last rations of dried meat and acorns. Anxious to kill the deer, the man picked up his bow and arrow and started for her, despite people's warnings. "We don't know this place well," someone said. "You haven't prayed first, introduced yourself here," another said. Some of the old people thought he wouldn't even make it to the other side of the water.

But he did. Up the creek bank he went, following the deer into the brush. He chased her for a while, then, in a clearing, he took aim and landed an arrow square in her heart. She dropped. But just as he approached the crumpled body, he jumped back, startled, for he saw the body moving, rising to its feet. It was no longer a doe but an enormous buck, with a huge spread of antlers. The deer rose on its hind legs, and when the man looked, he saw that it had the face of an old woman, and she was laughing at him.

He ran, making it back across the creek to the camp. He told what he had seen. But that's all he said. He was lost. He didn't know where he was or even whom he was talking to. He died that way.

"Be careful," Auntie said. "Pray." She spoke in the native language, Kashaya Pomo, each hissing "s" and glottal stop coated with admonishment.

I knew that praying in Los Angeles would be difficult. Yes, I could pray, sing the old songs in my home, but where would I find a place in the city, find its spirit. Where would I introduce myself to it and listen for it to talk back? How would I keep myself from becoming lost?

After a few frantic weeks of unpacking, settling into an apartment on top of a landlord's home, and preparing for and teaching my first classes at UCLA, I came back to these questions and set out to find a place. It would be a place I could go to regularly. A place of solace. A place where I would know both this city and remember who I am.

I don't pray with much, no stretched hide drum to pound, no elaborately beaded and painted gourd rattles to shake. Only a tiny prayer basket, not much larger than an eraser head, that I hold in my hand or keep pinned to my shirt with a strip of ribbon. At home, before I sing, I light a chunk of dried angelica root and smudge myself with its smoke. Outside, the ceremony wouldn't be any different.

I placed my basket and gnarled root inside my navy Kipling locker bag. In my nylon ski pants, tank top and tennis shoes, I looked as if I was going to the gym. It was fall, late October. At 5 in the evening, a hazy hue lit the buildings and distant mountains a blood orange. Five o'clock: traffic. Something I hadn't thought of. On Franklin Avenue in Hollywood, I found myself inching toward Highland. I was on my way to Sunset Ranch, a horse stable above Beachwood Canyon. I'd been to the ranch once before, with a friend when I was first here looking for housing.

I parked in front of the big red barn. Tucked at the back of the canyon, with no view of the city, the barn and horse corrals seemed far from the urban streets minutes away. With locker bag flung over my shoulder, I hiked up the main trail, which took me above the ranch and into the hills. A coyote darted across the path and scurried behind a clump of sumac. There, I thought, I'd sit. And what a view: southwest clear to Long Beach; to the east, downtown Los Angeles; and, just across the canyon, the observatory, like a castle atop a promontory overlooking the city. Already, lights shone here and there like white wildflowers on the valley floor. I sat on a flat rock just off the trail.

I took out my basket, pinned it to my shirt. Next the angelica, which I lit with my Bic. Smudging myself with the dried root's sweet, celery-smelling smoke, I heard footsteps. I turned, found a woman, mid-30s, powder-blue sweat suit, blond ponytail bobbing, jogging past. I was off the trail and sitting low, so she didn't see me. Her dog did. The moment I turned again to face the city, the black German shepherd was at my back, white teeth snarling, barking madly. I jumped to my feet, further unnerving the dog, then froze, my hands in midair, as if under arrest. "Superman, Superman," the jogger called, trotting to us. She pulled the animal away, explaining, "He usually isn't this bad." "A good thing," I answered.

On all fours, I dug in the dirt, turning over small rocks in my search for the burning angelica I'd dropped. I sat until dark, watching for smoke to rise, the beginning of a brush fire. Then, as I was leaving, I miraculously spotted the finger-sized piece of root burning on the trail.

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