My great-grandfather caused the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. It was in a contest of power with another shaman or, as we say, Indian doctor near the town of Bodega, about 50 miles north of the big city. He was a Coast Miwok, known to the local nonnative community simply as an old Indian named Tom Smith.
About the earthquake, fact or fiction? Depends on whom you ask. California native peoples produced--and clearly continue to produce--stories as wondrous and complex as the landscape itself. And it was this landscape of redwood forests, foothills and wide-open plains, deserts and ocean shores that was home to one of the most linguistically and culturally diverse peoples in the world, indeed a home that was the most densely populated in North America at the time of first European contact.
Most Californians know little more than what they learned in fourth grade about the state's indigenous peoples: that the Indians were in the missions. Although scholars, most often linguists and anthropologists, recorded and translated an abundance of stories and songs from various California Indian tribes, most of the work has remained on wax cylinders and tapes locked away in university basements or serving as reference material for dissertations. The small amount of material available to the general public has usually been as significantly rewritten stories for children or anthologized stories devoid of information about the culture and storyteller from which the tale comes.
Without cultural context, the stories often seem flat, at best confusing. Translations, even by the most sensitive scholars, can jar an English reader's sensibility. Seemingly meaningless repetition, for example, or language that is forever elliptical and allusive can be maddening, keeping the reader from any understanding of the text that might transgress his or her culturally biased beliefs.
The task, then, in presenting a book of California Indian stories and songs to the general public in a meaningful way is daunting. Yet Herbert W. Luthin has managed to assemble a sampling of California's native oral literatures in translation so that we can not only appreciate the richness and complexity of the texts but, as a result, can also see and understand, in a way so many of us haven't before, the place we call home.
Luthin divides the selection of stories and songs according to four geographic regions: northwestern, north-central, south-central and southern. The cartographic approach, though arbitrary in that a geographic region doesn't necessarily delineate distinct cultures and languages, lends a shared landscape to the texts, if nothing else. And it is the particular features of that landscape that figure so prominently in the stories and songs. A mountain range, an outcropping of rocks, a small spring may serve as mnemonic pegs on which legend and tradition hang.
Luthin prefaces each of his 27 selections with an introductory essay, anticipating "confusions and [to] fill in some of the cultural gaps." Each selection contains a single tale or a series of songs. He also provides readers with suggestions for more reading with each selection in case "problems nag or an interest is kindled."
The introductory essays prove particularly helpful, explaining within specific cultural contexts those textual features--such as repetitions and elliptical and allusive language--that might otherwise stump the reader. Linguist Robert Oswalt, introducing the Southern Pomo tale "The Trials of Young Hawk," as narrated by the late elder Annie Burke, not only gives a concise history of the Southern Pomo in Sonoma County and a description of their culture, but also writes about ritual numbers, personal names and kinship terms pertinent to the tale.
Many of the heavyweights in the field of California Indian languages and cultures--William Bright, Catherine Callaghan, Dorothy Demetracopoulou, Leanne Hinton, Oswalt and William Shipley--also contribute essays. The giants of anthropology are here, too: J.P. Harrington, Dell Hymes and Alfred Kroeber. Yet Luthin doesn't use the so-called experts to explain "Indian culture." In footnotes to the introductions and elsewhere, he often comments on methods used for the translation of the respective tale and notes antiquated attitudes toward native people that the scientists, though well-meaning, may have held, say, at the early part of the 20th century.