Norrie's Correspondence


Travel to Yurok, Tolowa, Hupa, and Wiyot Lands (July 11-20, 2007)


            Ummmm, happy woman.  I just got home from an amazing trip to the tribes of Northern Calif.  It was part of the Young Native Scholar’s Program (YNS) that takes the middle group of Native American reservation teens out into the wider world to enthuse them to get educated and come home with an education of use to their reservations.  The middle group is not the superstars (who the universities search out and push), nor the druggies/alcoholics (who no one is going to rehabilitate).   The middle group is the kids with no direction and no ambition, but maybe just maybe with a little guidance can be set onto a positive pathway.  This is the group with iPods in their ears, barely able to get interested in stuff being said by adults.  So there we were, with a  group of 18 teenagers we took north from San Diego for 10 days.  Of course there were also some gems among them, who helped turn the whole trip into pleasure.

            Geography: I flew up and met the vans full of teenagers.  The cities we drove through were Arcata, Eureka, Trinidad, and Crescent City.  The rivers we swam in/visited were the Klamath, Trinity, Mad, and Smith Rivers.  The people whose land we traveled on were Yurok, Tolowa, Hupa, and Wiyot.  Lots of travel was on the Franciscan Formation, which every geologist on earth wants to touch.  I did it! 

            Our team: Our teens were Kumeyaay and Luiseno Indians from San Diego reservations, as well as Paiutes from N. Calif. and Nevada, and a Quinault from Oregon.  The two Luiseno TA’s were teens who attended YNS some other year.  The young adult RA’s were Navajo, Yurok, Paiute, Luiseno, and Kumeyaay.  The old-fogey adults were Ron Funk (cook and logistics), Marc Chavez (Director, YNS) and his family in their new camper, Jim Box (photographer), and me (science instructor).  Marc’s wife Tiffane is from Belize, their 7-year old son Ammon is smart and fun; their 6-year old daughter Amaya has cerebral palsy and travels by stroller.

            Events at Patrick’s Point State Park: We started in this park with a talk by 25-or-so-year-old Skip Lowry, a Yurok Ranger at the park.  He led us through the Sumeg traditional village and spoke the ancient wisdom that keeps humans healthy.  We climbed down past a waterfall to Agate Beach to collect agates and redwood driftwood.  The first night I camped out under the stars.  In the morning, Tiffane said she worried about me all night because of the bears.  BEARS?  No one told me about the bears!

            Events at Requa, the Yurok village along the mouth of the Klamath R.:  We were invited to participate in the Brush Dance events that were going to begin that week.  The Brush Dance was a 7-to-10-day event a family threw when there was a sick baby with something the medicine person couldn’t heal.  Today, it is a 3-day event and a rich family can have one to wish a new baby a happy healthy life.  The family invites all the surrounding tribes and feeds them for the entire event, as well as port-a-potty rentals, police, and clean-up crews.  Our event lasted 3 days, had around 200 attendees, and 7 port-a-potties; I think we were the only outsiders invited.  People kept coming around to our tent camp and shutting up our teens, because you are supposed to be respectful, thinking only about the health of the child.  For the ceremony, the medicine woman and her teenage assistant fasted for 10 days to prepare themselves.  The family does the same.  A couple of our teens fasted also. 

The first dance was Thurs. night and it lasted past my bedtime.  The main dance was Sat. night, and I stayed up a long time.  Our teens were asked to help with the big brunch feast for Sunday morning.  I got up at 4 AM and helped cook all day.  Jaime Peters (Yurok) taught us how to make fry bread and how to fry it in lard.  I ate smoked salmon for one lunch and fresh salmon at the brunch.  I asked the baby’s grandfather what science jobs were needed on the Yurok rez and he said: hydrologists.  Oh my god, I had walked right in the middle of one of the biggest fights in Calif.—that on the Klamath River where the traditional salmon eaters fight with the State of Calif. and the US Federal Government to remove the 5 upstream dams and allow the salmon to spawn. 

            We camped out along the lagoon between the Klamath R. and the Pacific Ocean.  We  wandered over to the ocean to watch the whales and sea lions.  I helped gather driftwood for our fires and I collected drift redwood.  We saw elk.  A story teller came by our camp to tell the stories having morals to our teens.  I cried when I realized I was in the place I needed to see to help me finish writing my novel about the First Americans arriving here from across the ocean 40,000 years ago. 

            My favorite teen:  There was one fabulous 15-year-old, a Quinault from WA.  She is a canoe paddler--participates in the annual Return to Lummi (which I wanted to go to so badly--it's this week).  She's been an asst. paddler since she was 8.  They paddle for 16 hours and then pull out.  The journey is usually around 2 weeks.  She has giant trapezius muscles on her back--our raft leader did too and someone pointed this out to me, or I wouldn't know what a trapezius muscle was either!

One early morning, she and I went out to the beach to collect driftwood.  We had cookfires and warming fires up all over the place and she realized people would need firewood;  she asked me to go with her while she collected.  This is where we saw the whales--she sang whale songs to call them, I learned the songs, and we sang and sang and sang and sang them over and over until the whales came.  She says they can hear the vibrations of your songs.

            Events at EPA offices: Brilliant Marc Chavez (I call him Saint Marc) talked the reservations around the area to teach environmental issues and their need for trained scientists.  So we got briefed at the EPA offices of the Resighini (Yurok) Rancheria, Elk Valley (homeless tribes) Rancheria, and Smith River (Tolowa) Rancheria.  The teens asked lots of questions, once I got the conversations shifted from numbers of acres and Federal regulations to what professions do you hire and need?  I got interviewed by a reporter and I talked about the need for native scientists, especially hydrologists. 

            Events on Hupa lands:  The Hupa people blew me away.  They affected me deeply by their thoughtfulness, generosity, and levels of education.  We camped at their Tish-Tang camp ground, us and the poison oak and the stories of the “little people” who harass campers there.  They didn’t bug me; I slept out in my sleeping bag and woke daily without incidents.  I only got one poison oak spot.

We swam in the (mercury-polluted) Klamath R.; there are 4 superfund sites along this river.  The river is totally trashed by dredging for gold--I freaked out seeing all the rocks and no fine-grained sand/silt/or clay at all along the river.  The Indians of NW Calif. lost their lands, their lives, and their traditions because of the gold.  Before we jumped into the river, we got a lesson on how to flow with the swift current and how to get out of the current.  It was quite an experience and I was vigilant when my 7-year-old buddy, Ammon, was in the water. 

The Hupa invited us to their traditional village site, which still has some ancient structures on it.  They talked to our teens—the women members included an administrator, a high school principal, and an English teacher.  The men were various professionals.  They showed us their version of the Brush Dance, and then they blew me away with a reconstruction of the girl’s puberty ceremony. 

For the Brush Dance, one of the participants was a teenage boy.  He wore the traditional headband of woodpecker feathers, and the traditional pants (with his underpants sticking out, of course).  He made a big hit with our teens. 

The puberty ceremony is a big-big deal.  In my culture, we have the bar mitzvah and the bat mitzvah; we Jews still have our puberty ceremonies.  But many Indian tribes have lost theirs.  The Hupa discussed this for 2 years, reading all the Spanish and anthropological literature and talking to elders, trying to figure out what their traditional ceremony was like.  They knew they needed it—teens were moving down the bad pathways (pregnancy, alcohol, drugs, loss of respect for elders, etc.)  Finally they decided to start with the girl’s puberty ceremony.  Five girls have been through the 10-day (5-day, or 3-day, depending on how much money the family had to feed everyone) ceremony.  All five are on the college path.  One is at Stanford, on a basketball scholarship, working on a BA in International Traditional Affairs.  I asked the spokesperson what do you tell the young women: “today you are a woman, now you can go have sex?”  She said, “nope, today you are a woman, you can go to college and become a doctor.”

            I realized that this tribe needed a trained hydraulic bio-engineer (I made up this field) to help bring the river back to health.  I asked the spokesperson if there were any teens interested in this.  She said, “indeed, the young man with the underpants hanging out.”  He told me that his dad is an engineer.  He was really interested in what I had to say; he had already learned ecology in high school, so he was open to hydraulic bio-engineering.  His name is Chance George?, and I expect a thank you in 10-15 years after he gets his PhD and works on reconstruction of the Klamath R.

            The next day was our rafting trip down the rapids of the Trinity R.  The Trinity is the clean tributary to the Klamath.  The rafting company is Hupa-owned and the raft crew were young men from various tribes.  One Mescalero Apache crew member was getting his MS in Greek Classics (I think he said Cornell).  My crewperson was a Hupa philosopher, biology major, physics minor.  For any process, he would first use the Hupa explanation and then the physics explanation.  He would then say, “see, it’s the same thing.” 

We were in 4 rafts, we swam in the water, ate salmon on the bank, saw an eagle (maybe two), and an osprey.  We also rafted past a copper mine leaching Cu-U-Co into the “clean” river. 

The next morning we went to watch the banding of Northern Spotted Owls in the forest.  The US Forest Service biologists were Hupa and Yurok.  We watched them capture a baby and then take its blood for genetics and West Nile virus.  They banded the babies with a Forest Service band and a cohort band (to tell what year the babies were born).  Many of our teens and RA’s didn’t attend because they came from tribes that consider owls to be harbingers of death.  My culture doesn’t believe this, and I found it all to be totally fascinating. 



Then we went to lunch back at the Hupa site on Table Bluff Reservation.  Blackberries were planted in circles all around the site; they were lush and I ate and ate and ate them.  I was in a frenzy, didn’t pay attention to the thorns.  That night I saw that thorns had scraped me through my clothes—long bloody gashes along my legs.  Gross. 

That night was also amazing.  We got invited to play basketball at the Neighborhood Facility against the high school team that went to the finals of the California State Basketball Championship.  Right.  Thank goodness the teens decided to mix the groups and turn it into fun.  It also began to pour outside.  The Athletic Director invited us to go get our sleeping bags and sleep inside the gym that night.  We did that—the things inside our tents were dry.  I had (luckily) put my sleeping bag inside the women’s RA tent before we left camp.  Jaime Peters showed up while we were doing this, she was worrying about us.  She had brought her teen daughter with her—she wanted to learn how she could provide the YNS advantage for her daughter.  They followed us to the gym.  Jaime got agitated—the gym was the community meeting place to hold funerals.  She said there were bad spirits there.  That quieted down our rowdy teens.  Then she insisted on singing the spirits away and giving us a blessing.  We were blessed, no bad spirits that night.

Events on Wiyot lands: The next day we drove to Arcata and got hotel rooms at the Quality Inn.  That hotel will never invite us back again, the teens ran amok all night, so I heard.  I was in another wing and slept like a baby.  The team went to the laundromat and washed clothes for 5-6 hours (I heard).  By this time, I was tired of being around teenagers.  I went to Radio Shack and bought a new camera.  I had filled the chip in my Olympus; the extra chip from my new Olympus camera wouldn’t work.  The Radio Shack guy explained that Olympus had changed chips from the universal chip to the M chip that wouldn’t work in my camera.  So I bought a new camera—a $99 special on a Samsung with a 256-megapixel chip; the camera is wonderful.  But my 5-year-old Olympus is waterproof and gets into the water periodically (you know, I work with kids). 

Next we went to the United Indian Health Service, Potawot Health Village.  The building is stunning, recycled redwood planks, recycled redwood 2x4 flooring, 26 ft. redwood canoe in one wing, stunning basketry in cabinets, and perfect acoustics.  The facility has western and traditional doctors.  It services 12,000 Indians from many tribes, and was built with grants.  Outside is an organic garden; we picked our lunch—peas, lettuce, carrots, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, it was all amazing.  I haven’t picked a carrot since 7th grade.  At their store, I bought my family and friends a healing salve made of calendula and plantain.  I needed this salve—all the bites, scrapes, sores, and even my swollen finger were healed with it. 

That evening they provided a sweat lodge experience, girls first, boys second.  Those of us that have sweat before were prepared.  But several of the teens had never done it and were apprehensive.  Our facilitator gave the girls an easy experience; they will sweat again.  The boys’ healer was tough on them (“turn them into warriors”) and I heard some of them complaining. 

The next day was a highlight--they took us to Indian Island in Humboldt Bay to help the Wiyot’s clean the site so that they can hold the World Renewal Ceremony again.  The stories there break your heart.  In 1860, during the last World Renewal Ceremony, white settlers sneaked over to the island with knives and clubs and killed all the Wiyot women, children, and elders.  They didn’t take guns, so neighbors couldn’t hear what was happening and intervene.  One baby girl survived the massacre.  The men were off the island, back in their village resting after a night of dancing.  The Wiyot’s were devastated.  But they survived because of the typical intermarriage practices of the northwestern tribes.  Afterwards, the island was purchased by a settler, he put in dikes, made the island bigger, and raised cows.  Then it was bought by a dry-dock ship repair company that buried used marine batteries below mean high sea level to use as erosion control.  They used PCP’s to coat the boats and ships.  So now the site is leaching lead and dioxin into Humboldt Bay.  It was to become a superfund site, but the Wiyot’s purchased 1.5 acres of the most contaminated land in 2000 and began the remediation.  The City of Eureka realized they could get rid of clean-up liability and so gave 80 more acres to the Wiyots in 2004.

So now the Wiyot EPA is trying to remediate the site so they can bring back the World Renewal Ceremony, whose purpose is to bring the world back into balance.  They need 1.8 million dollars and if you know any moneybags, it’s a perfect place to help the environment.  We went there to help weed for 3 hours—to weed out the non-native plants and pull plants off the land coated with PCP’s, so there wouldn’t be organic matter for soil bacteria to use to produce dioxin. 

Well, our teens were not really interested in this activity.  Let me take that back, out of 18, two worked.  We adults worked—we understood the honor we had been gifted with, helping the Wiyots bring back the World Renewal Ceremony into a world that needs it badly.  The professional photographer said he kept walking around from group to group trying to find two teenagers working at the same time so he could get them both into one photograph.  He and I are going to produce a CD to send to funding sources in San Diego County.

My birthday: The last day fell on my birthday.  I had a blast that day, Tiffane got up early to wish me well and say goodbye, Mom and Penni called and sang to me, and the photographer who is now my friend drove me to the airport.  At home, Bri greeted me with the money to buy an iPod.  Now I am a 65-year-old with an iPod. 


                                                            Love, Norrie

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