831 [tales From The Area Code]
Sacred Stories: A Native American storytelling festival draws tribal tale-tellers from three counties.
Thursday, July 24, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: Keeper Of The Land: Ann-Marie Sayers is in charge of Indian Canyon''s sacred falls.
"When the ceremonies stop, so will the Earth," says Ann-Marie Sayers, tribal chairperson of the Indian Canyon Nation. I think of her at Indian Canyon, a verdant 270 acres lying in a secluded area of the Gavilan Mountain range just south of Hollister, as we speak by phone about the upcoming California Indian Storytelling Festival, a ceremony of stories, song, dance, food and arts scheduled for July 26.
Sayers has been in charge of Indian Canyon, which she says is the only "Indian country" between Santa Barbara and Santa Rosa, for the past 15 years. The Central Coast tribes--who call themselves Ohlone, versus the name Costanoan that was given to them by the Spanish and English--view all things in nature as having a spirit, Sayers says.
Some places exude more sacred spirit than others. One of those sacred spots is the waterfall at the head of Indian Canyon. Ceremonies have taken place here for tens of thousands of years, as attested to by the archaeological remains of an eight-year-old boy and mortars and pestles found on the property.
The granite under the falls has weathered away so that they are much smaller today than they were in the past, but the day I visited, someone had placed rocks in a circle to the left of the falls, hinting that they are still used for this purpose.
Indian Canyon has long been used as a place of refuge. Its secluded location behind swamps, accessible only by dangerous trails, made it a sanctuary for California tribe members fleeing San Juan Bautista Mission. In the 19th century, a surveyor''s map called the area "steep and useless," which kept away settlers. For better or worse, the canyon was left to landless, homeless Native Americans well into the 20th century.
In 1904, Sayers'' great-grandfather Sebastian Garcia received 150 acres spanning the mouth of the canyon from President Taft as federally held trust land. Seventy-five years later, Sayers and a group of family and friends worked to reclaim the sacred falls at the head of Indian Canyon as trust land under the 1887 Individual Allotment Act, which promised land to Native Americans who were not given reservation land. After an eight-year struggle, the group was successful in obtaining another 123 acres of Indian Canyon, including the waterfalls, in 1988.
Today, Sayers lives on this land and lets Native American tribes use the original allotment area at the mouth of the canyon for assemblies and celebrations. But the public is also welcome to visit, she says, suggesting that people look at www.indiancanyon.org to find events open to outsiders.
Aside from performances, there''s a lot to see on the property. Tule dwellings made from golden-beige cattail-like plants invite inspection, but visitors should get permission before peeking in the subterranean sweat lodges, where ceremonies are held to honor the Earth and tell traditional stories.
Indians told stories at night around village fires, but "they were not told for entertainment" says Tony Serta, one of the storytellers who will participate in this weekend''s festival. Serta, tribal chair of the Costanoan Rumsen Carmel tribe, can trace his heritage back to the 1700s, when his 12th generation grandfather lived in a village called Echilat located in the mountains outside present-day Carmel.
I asked Tony for a Costanoan story from the Carmel area, and he told me about the trickster Coyote, who mistreats his friends by the Carmel River and ends up howling at night. Coyote is a character used by all the California tribes to represent the egoistic spirit. He is not evil, like Loki in the old Germanic myths, but represents self-serving individual interests as opposed to community interests.
"Stories mean different things to us as we mature," says Greg Castro of the Salinan Nation Cultural Preservation Association, who at the festival will represent a tribe whose roots lie just south of Monterey. Elders in the Salinan tribe used stories to help bring stray village members back into the fold of the community, Castro explains. Without naming names, elders could tell a story that an individual would know was destined for him or her in villages where generation after generation lived together in the same place. Native American stories do not usually have a stated moral at the end, says Castro. The story about a man who makes a bear sick to see what healing herbs the bear uses so that he can pick them for his own ailing family has an obvious lesson. Other stories require pondering at ceremonies and quiet walks alone in nature''s sacred canyons to reveal their meaning.
The Indian Canyon festival may have provided the impetus for two other storytelling festivals now held in northern and southern California. About 200 people attend it each year, says Sayers, and storytellers from five California tribes will spin their yarns this weekend. The Amah Ka Tura dancers will open the festival and the Humaya Dancers will do a healing dance to end it.
The eighth annual California Indian Storytelling Festival will be held at Indian Canyon, July 26 from 1-5:30pm. 637-4238.