The story goes that once upon a time, all plants and animals were people. One of them was Coyote, who created the world from the top of Sonoma Mountain. His village elders became the redwoods – crimson colored to remind everyone that we are all of the same blood. One only had to look west to the coast redwoods to remember.
Greg Sarris, the longtime chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria (Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok), recounts this tale in The Ancient Ones – part of a collection of essays in a new book, The Once and Future Forest: California’s Iconic Redwoods, published to commemorate the centennial year of Save the Redwoods League and available for purchase. Evoking the folklore of his ancestors, he traces the stark parallels between the enslavement and genocide of indigenous peoples of central and northern California and commercial logging of the redwood forests with which they coexisted for millennia.
“The landscape was our sacred text, and we listened to what it told us. Everywhere you looked there were stories.”
Just as redwoods can become grafted to one another for survival, the natives and these living giants have always been entwined. Sarris describes a time when the trees provided for his relatives, from fallen wood used to build homes and canoes, to leaves warmed in a fire for a poultice to heal earaches. The power of the redwoods was both practical and phantasmic, inspiring deep reverence in the Pomo and the Miwok, who rarely entered the darkness of the forest without a purpose. Cutting down a tree was seen as an act of violence.
“Early ethnographers characterized our culture as being predicated on black magic and fear; but might we not see it for what it was: predicated on profound respect and a fundamental belief that no one of us is the center of the universe?”
Today, only five percent of the original two million acres of redwood forest remains. According to Sarris, the survival rate for his people is even lower: the 1,450 enrolled members of his nation are descendants of only 14 survivors out of 20,000 who lived in the area now known as Marin County and southern Sonoma County when settlers arrived.
“Where did the redwoods go? Increasingly, we became strangers in our homeland. … No wonder the white man’s religion began to make sense to some of us. Home isn’t here, it’s in the sky someplace.”
Sarris admits that before he knew of his indigenous roots, and even after, the giant trees occupied only tiny spaces in his mind. Of all things, a reoccurring attempt by tribal elders to pass him an ancestral love spell would bring him full circle. Only then would he see with fresh eyes what his forebears were the first to witness, possibly as early as 10,000 years ago: the past, the present and the future in a sea of redwoods.
Reflective and reminiscent, this piece illuminates an important narrative within the redwood story – one that gives voice to their closest human relatives, who stood in the periphery watching the trees live on and on.
Read more of Greg Sarris’ essay, The Ancient Ones, in the new book, The Once and Future Forest, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of Save the Redwoods League. Visit SaveTheRedwoods.org/Heyday to order your copy of this limited edition book today.
5 Responses to “The Ancient Ones: Redwoods Through the Eyes of a Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok Native”
Paradoxically, I hold old forests in reverence but have only hiked among them twice in my life. Grandparents especially among my mom’s people valued them. Their depth and life stuns me and moves me to listen… and to care for their health and survival. Seeing old forests may not be something I get to see live again, but that does not mean I can not work on their behalf.
I’ve been a longtime supporter of Save the Redwoods league, and just read the two stories –the Southern Pomo/Coast Miwok, and the story of the man who lives in close union with a redwood tree. Some years ago, I first saw the redwoods in Muir Woods, and a Great Northern Spotted Owl came to me. My Dine’ (Navajo) families told me it was a blessing and a warning… I wrote a poem “Within the Redwoods,” which was on the website for a number of years. Given this celebration of 100 years (a moment in the life of a redwood), I’m sending it again, in tribute and in gratitude:
Within the Redwoods
They carry the cries of seals
and hold the cormorants
and the sea fog
If I am very quiet
and enter their deep silence
they will speak.
Like the owl who warns
in its silent eyes
they will see me
and they will let me be with them
because all their lives are old and young
as they fall with the wind
and grow with fire
and renew their being.
They are always still
and always becoming
and speak among themselves
and you may listen.
© July 23, 29011, Carol Snyder Halberstadt
Written after being within the redwoods for the first time, at Muir Woods
near San Francisco, and a Great Northern Spotted Owl came to us…
Save the Redwoods League
Thank you so much Carol for the lovely poem and post. In case you need it, here’s the link to the page that includes some of your other wonderful poems: https://www.savetheredwoods.org/get-involved/take-action/redwoods-art/
I tried to order The Once and Future Forest.. Clicked the Get a Discount button and when I entered the code, got message ‘This promotion has expired.’ I find that odd since I just received this email today. And I don’t remember seeing the book offered previously but guess I missed it. Should I go to Amazon to order it at the discounted price? I really wanted to order thru Save the Redwoods.
Save the Redwoods League
We’re sorry that you had difficulty ordering the book with the discount code. We’ve contacted Heyday books to see if we can remedy the technical issue. In the meantime, please use this code RM1AC at https://aerbook.com/maker/productcard-3930588-4706.html for the discount. Let us know if you have any issues with this code. Thank you for all your support!