The Way We Lived:  California Indian Stories, Songs and Reminiscences

Edited with Commentary by Malcolm Margolin  (Heyday Books, 1993)

(This excerpt printed for academic purposes only.)

Rolling Head (pp. 22-24)

Throughout California menstruation was regarded as an important event.  A menstruating woman was generally seen as unclean, defiled, injured.  At the same time menstruation gave her extraordinary magical powers, able to inflict illness or bad luck upon her enemies.  Rituals were needed to restore the woman's "health" lest she come to harm and to neutralize her power lest she inadvertently bring harm to others.

Thus during menstruation a Wintu woman had to undergo a variety of restrictions:  she lived alone for several days in a separate dwelling; abstained from meat, fish, and salt; refrained from sexual activity; and ate from special baskets and utensils.  The first menstruation - the onset of puberty - demanded even more severe restrictions.  For a full month the pubescent girl lived alone in a brush shelter several yards from the family dwelling.  She struggled to remain awake for the first five days to prevent dangerous dreams.  She ate nothing but acorn soup; she could not comb her hair or even touch her own body.  She had to keep out of sight, and whenever she left the shelter to relieve herself she covered her head with a basket or deerskin lest a glimpse of her face bring bad luck to others.

The fears and rituals that surrounded menstruation - common everywhere in California - seem puzzling to us.  We view menstruation as a relatively minor and decidedly personal occurrence.  But in a society in which everyone was organically connected nothing was personal.  The perceived dangers of menstruation affected not only the "moon-sick" woman, but other people to whom she was linked.  A husband, for example, would not go hunting during his wife's menstrual period because her condition would affect his prowess and luck:  after all, they were of the same family and thus connected as a unit.  And a woman who was careless about her menstrual obligation, especially at puberty, would bring ruin not only upon herself, but upon her entire family - one of the underlying themes of the following Wintu "horror" story.

Long ago people came into being and lived at a village; it was filled with people.  People lived both on the flat on the west side of the river, and on the flat on the east side of the river too.  There was a chief at the head of the people who had two daughters.  The younger one reached puberty, but she did not tell her mother.  However, her parents knew it.  So they were to call a puberty dance, and they met and discussed it.  In the evening the father spoke.  "Early in the morning go strip bark for a maple bark apron," he said.  "But don't take the girl who has reached puberty with you.  Go secretly," he said.

The rest of the women got up early in the morning.  They all went secretly, quite a little way north they went, and even some went north uphill and crossed the ridge to the north.  Then later she woke up, the one who had reached puberty.  And she went, though she was forbidden to go she went, going behind the others.  She kept going until she reached them.  Some were stripping bark and others already had much.  She went right up to them and cut off maple bark.

All at once, she stuck her little finger with a splinter.  It bled.  Her older sister came up to her and wiped it with dead leaves.  They they said, "When will it leave off?  The blood cannot stop flowing."  And the rest of them all left, they knew already and were afraid so they left.  She and her older sister were left behind alone.  Some who had already gone reached the house and told the father.  "She got stuck with a splinter while stripping bark," they said.  And the old man said, "She does not listen to me."

She who had reached puberty, who was downhill to the north, now sucked blood and spat it out.  Then more blood came and though she sucked the blood she could not stop its flow.  Meanwhile the sun began to set.  Until early evening she sucked, she kept on sucking, not being able to help herself.  Then she got tired, not being able to stop it any way.  Suddenly she happened to swallow blood and smelled the fat.  It tasted sweet.  So now she ate her little finger, she ate it, and then ate her whole hand.  Then she ate both her hands, devoured them.  Then she ate her leg, ate both her legs.  Then she ate up her whole body.  Then her head alone was left and rolled about.  She went rolling over the ground, her sister still beside her.

The old man in the house said, "From the north she'll come, she who went to strip maple bark.  Put on your clothes, people.  Get your weapons.  We people are gone."  And the people dressed themselves and got their weapons.  And from the north they saw her come, she came rolling toward the house.  She arrived in the early evening and lay there.  After she had stayed there a while, she bounced up to the west across the river to the flat on the west, where she threw the people into her mouth, ate them, devoured them all.  Only her eldest sister she left for a while.  And she went about the world, and when she saw people she threw them into her mouth and ate them.  Each evening she came home, each morning she went about the world looking for people.  Always she went searching.

One day she climbed up the northern edge of the sky and looked all over the world, but she saw no one.  So in the evening she came home, and the next morning she got up and threw her elder sister into her mouth.  Then she came on her way, until she reached the edge of a big creek.  She did not know how to cross.  And from the other side she called.  A man was sitting there.  He threw a bridge over from the other side.  She was crossing, and when she had gone halfway he jerked it, and it went down at Talat.  And she fell into the river, and as she fell into the water a riffle pike jumped and swallowed her.  And it is finished.  That is all.



Portrait of a Poisoner (p. 108)

Illness - or at least one class of illness - was generally seen as a physical object (variously called a "pain," "poison," or "bad medicine") which had been magically shot into the body by an enemy or by a shaman who had been hired for the deed.  Once the disease lodged in the body another shaman had to be engaged to find it and suck it out."

A man's father, when he begins to make him a poison shaman, places a crystal on the left hand of his son.  After placing it there, he makes him eat the root of a plant with poisonous properties.  The father takes his son into the brush, he does not eat anything for a day.  He gives him porcupine quills, and he sticks a feather into the ground at a distance.

        "Hit that!" he says, "Hit that!" giving him the porcupine quills.  He shoots the feather at the porcupine quills.  Then he scatters earth upon it, and he calls the feather by name, as he scatters earth upon it...

        [A man who is a poisoner] must live far away from everyone.  He must go out there near the place where he is living, and when he gets there he rolls a log about.  He shouts, he hates to let his poison go.  The poison is like fire.  He calls the name of the one he is poisoning.  He commands the poison, "Go to his head!" he says.  Sometimes he says:  "Go to his breast!"  To whatever place is mentioned, there goes the poison.

        After poisoning and killing someone, he cries for the man more than anyone, he grieves for the one he kills.



The Creation (pp. 125-126)

Different Maidu communities seem to have had widely differing versions of how the world was made.  There was no dogmatic orthodoxy, and the idea that war might be waged over matters of belief was simply ridiculous.  "This is how we tell it; they tell it differently," is a sentence still heard in many Indian communities.

The version of the creation epic that follow begins with a vision of the world covered with water.  A raft with two being floats out from the north.  A feathered rope drops from the sky, and Earth-Initiate climbs down in the raft.  Who made the water, the raft, the trinity of Earth-Creators?  Like many California creation epics, the Maidu account seems to begin in the middle of the story.  Mysteriously, elements of the world seem to have always been present, their existence apparently beyond question or speculation.

In the beginning there was no sun, no moon, no stars.  All was dark, and everywhere there was only water.  A raft came floating on the water.  It came from the north, and in it were two persons - Turtle and Pehe-ipe.  The stream flowed very rapidly.  Then from the sky a rope of feathers, called Pokelma, was let down, and down it came Earth-Initiate.  When he reached the end of the rope, he tied it to the bow of the raft, and stepped in.  His face was covered and was never seen, but his body shone like the sun.  He sat down, and for a long time said nothing.

At last Turtle said, "Where do you come from?" and Earth Initiate answered, "I come from above."  Then Turtle said, "Brother, can you not make for me some good dry land, so that I may sometimes come up out of the water?"  Then he asked another time, "Are there going to be any people in the world?"  Earth-Initiate thought a while, and then said, "Yes."  Turtle asked, "How long before you are going to make people?"  Earth Initiate replied, "I don't know.  You want to have some dry land:  well, how am I going to get any earth to make it of?"  Turtle answered, "If you will tie a rock about my left arm, I'll dive for some."  Earth-Initiate did as Turtle asked, and then, reaching around, took the end of a rope from somewhere, and tied it to Turtle.  When Earth-Initiate came to the raft, there was no rope there:  he just reached out and found one.  Turtle said, "If the rope is not long enough, I'll jerk it once, and you must haul me up; if it is long enough, I'll give two jerks, and then you must pull me up quickly, as I shall have all the earth I can carry."  Just as Turtle went over the side of the boat, Pehe-ipe began to shout loudly.

Turtle was gone a long time.  He was gone six years; and when he came up, he was covered with green slime, he had been down so long.  When he reached the top of the water, the only earth he had was a very little under his nails:  the rest had all washed away.  Earth-Initiate took with his right hand a stone knife from under his left armpit, and carefully scraped the earth out from under Turtle's nails.  He put the earth in the palm of his hand, and rolled it about till it was round; it was as large as a small pebble.  He laid it on the stern of the raft.  By and by he went to look at it:  it had not grown at all.  The third time that he went to look at it, it had grown so that it could not be spanned by the arms.  The fourth time he looked, it was as big as the world, the raft was aground, and all around were mountains as far as he could see.  The raft came ashore at Tadoiko, and the place can be seen today.


"As in a dream," is perhaps the best way to describe the Maidu creation myth.  Motives and actions are suffused with dreamlike indetermination and vagueness.  Even Earth-Initiate seems oddly befuddled.  "I don't know," he answered when asked when people will be created, and his making the world out of mud seems a rather homey and spur-of-the-moment affair.  The Maidu earth-makers were far from omniscient and omnipotent.  They appear, in fact, rather tentative and at times confused - as figures in a dream tend to be.

As for Pehe-ipe who shares the creation raft, throughout all of creation he remains uninvolved - a witness to this most awesome of events, never a participant.  His name literally means "Father-of-the-Secret-Society."  During Secret Society dances a Peh-ipe impersonator appeared and played a major role:  curiously, that of the clown!