Thursday, February 21, 2008

All Sentient Beings

The Indians of California faced genocide when the Spanish arrived, reaching SanFrancisco in 1776. However, when Americans swarmed in during and after the Gold Rush of 1849, the natives' suffering was multipied many times. They were pushed off their lands, enslaved, decimated by new diseases, hunted like deer, starved, and broken in spirit. In one generation, 90% of the population was wiped out. Yet among the small numbers who survived and found ways to live along with the white man, the one thing they didn't lose was their sense of humor.


The Basque nobleman Jaime de Angulo did anthropological field work between 1911 and 1935 while living with various tribes and learning 17 languages in their cultural context. He was also an Army psychiatrist in WWI, which is why he is called "Doc" in the following story. From the appendix of his book Indian Tales, this is a record of his experience taking down the language of the Pit River Indians in 1921 in Modoc County, California.


. . . . Wild Bill arrived. He was a horse-breaker by trade and I had known him in the days of my venture in ranching. A delightful fellow, always full of fun and jokes, and a superb rider; in fact he was a crazy daredevil. We had always been friends.


Later that evening, as part of the language study, Bill told the story of how Coyote and Silver Fox made the world, and he ended the story:


That's the way they made the world, Doc. Then they made mountains and valleys; they made trees and rocks and everything. It took them a long time to do all that!

"Didn't they make people, too?"

"No. Not people. Not Indians. The Indians came much later, after the world was spoiled by a crazy woman, Loon. But that's a long story. . . .I'll tell you some day."

"All right, Bill, but tell me just one thing now: there was a world now; then there were lots of animals living on it, but there were no people then. . . . "

Wha' d'you mean there were no people? Ain't animals people?"

"Yes, they are . . .but . . ."

"They are not Indians, but they are people. they are alive. . . Whad'you mean animal?"

"Well . . . how do you say 'animal' in Pit River?"

". . . .I dunno. . . ."

"But suppose you wanted to say it?"

"Well . . . I guess I would say something like teeqaade-wade toolol aakaadzi (world-over, all living) . . . I guess that means animal, Doc."

"I don't see how, Bill. That means people, also. People are living, aren't they?"

"Sure they are! That's what I'm telling you. Everything is living, even the rocks, even that bench you are sitting on. Somebody made that bench for a purpose, didn't he? Well then it's alive, isn't it? Everything is alive. That's what we Indians believe. White people think everything is dead. . . ."

"Listen, Bill. How do you say 'people'?"

"I don't know . . . just is, I guess."

"I thought that meant 'Indian'."

"Say . . . Ain't we people?!"

"So are the whites!"

"Like hell they are!! We call them inillaaduwi, 'tramps', nothing but tramps. They don't believe anything is alive. They are dead themselves. I don't call that 'people'. They are smart, but they don't know anything. . . . Say, it's getting late, Doc, I am getting sleepy, I guess I'll go out and sleep on top of the haystack. . ." .

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Being smart without knowing anything sums it up nicely - what puts us at risk of being a short lived species.