Anthropologic Regrets

by Saxton Pope

 

 

Here I am, sitting alone before a campfire, with my back against a great rock. It is evening

and a soft cool breeze drifts down the canyon. The velvet shadows of the cliffs deepen into purple.

Tranquility pervades all nature.

Before me, on a narrow plateau, lies in suggestive outline, the abandoned Indian village of

Ya-mo-lo-ku.

 

Marked by shallow circular pits in the ground, almost obscured by shifting soil and deep in

meadow grass, hardly discernible in the fading light, is the ancient camp site of the Yana.

In the rushing stream below, these Indians fished for salmon; up at the base of those granite

walls they hunted deer; where the digger pines and oaks dot the floor of the valley, they gathered

their winter store of nuts and acorns.

In this canyon of the Sierra Nevada mountains the Yana lived the life of the Stone Age.

There were warriors, a simple and a brave people, but they are gone.

The westward march of civilization carried them off into oblivion. I view but the vestiges of

their existence.

Over there, at my left, those scattered and decayed logs are all that remain of a cabin, the

homestead of some early pioneer, superimposed upon this aboriginal culture.

The pioneer has long since departed.

That circular group of stones represents the camp of more recent deer hunters.

I am a wanderer in these parts, a hunter with the bow and arrow; just my dog and I. Dick the

hound has curled himself up in the warm leaves, not far off and sleeps.

From his unconscious muffled barks and growls, I assume that he is living over in dreams

our last chase of the mountain lion, whose track is below us, in the sand at the edge of the creek.

My bed is made, my bow and quiver of arrows lie at my side; let the gently night descend

I am with my friends.

Ten years ago we were here once before, Ishi and I. We slept on this very spot. Ishi was a

California native, the last of the Yana. Through some strange circumstances this one man had

survived the slaughter of his tribe by the whites and lived for years in the impenetrable brush and

volcanic maze of this country.

He was entirely untouched by modern life, a pre-Colombian Indian: a man from the neolithic

age. Ultimately he was captured and brought into civilization. There, at the University of California, in

the Department of Anthropology, he was retained for study,  As an instructor of surgery, in the

University, I met him and learned to speak his language. Later, he taught me to shoot the bow and

we hunted together as his people were wont to do. After a while we went back into the mountains,

even to this very place, his old haunts.

Together we swam the streams, climbed the cliffs, explored the musty caves, and hunted

deer in the forest and upland glades. At night we sat under the stars and he told me the legends of

his people. We talked of the worlds above and the life to come in the land of plenty where the mighty

hunter meets the bounding deer, the panther and the grizzly bear.

He was a wonderful companion.

I learned to love him as a brother, and he counted me as one of his people. Four years he

lived with us,

But civilization destroyed him. 

Tuberculosis and a tremendous pulmonary hemorrhage killed him. 

 I was with him at the time, directed his medication and stroked his hand in token of sympathy

and friendship. 

 

He did not care for marked demonstrations.

 He was a stoic, unafraid, and died in the faith of the Yana. He had no word for good-bye. 

He said, “I go: You stay!”

 

He has gone and hunts with his people in the land of shadows. Ten years have passed since

he sat here at my side, looking into the glowing embers and breathing the warm sweet fragrance of the pines and hearing the innumerable tongues of the water below.

I have come back to view these happy grounds again, alone.

Today swam the stream and climbed the trail up the cliff that leads to his old retreat. High

on the canyon’s shelving rim, by a steep ascent I clambered. Volcanic boulders and thick brush

obstructed the way. Time had obliterated all landmarks and the course was difficult. Deep in a mass

of stunted trees, buckthorn and manzanita, he had built a hiding place.

Often during my ascent, so precipitous was the ground it was necessary to scramble on

hands and knees. Once thus, my bow slipped from my hand and like a snake it instantly disappeared

in the jungle. Materialistic as I am, I was struck with the thought: “Here is a woodland sprite at play.

Some evil genius of these Indian folk has robbed me of my bow!”

Search as I would I could not find it. No mundane philosophy seemed to explain the phenomenon. No industrious search availed. Then  I called to the spirit: “Ah, wise one of the past, I acknowledge your power, pardon my entrance into your domain:  I am but a friend of Ishi”

Then I found my bow. There it lay waiting for me beneath a laurel bush! My heart was grateful.

Farther on I climbed and at last after becoming hopeless about the location, I found myself,  all at once, standing in the deserted refuge. The fallen ridge pole, the decayed thatch of his hut, the sunken pit, a few hearth stones were all that remained.

In the very center, a deer had made her bed. The sun shone gently through the laurel trees,

an intimate silence rested upon the spot.  I sat beneath the overhanging shade and let fantasy go

wandering forth.

In this tangled refuge lived Ishi, for a long time his aged mother and uncle also dwelt with

him. The uncle was the medicine man of the Yana. At one time he had been caught in the steel jaws

of a bear trap, and in consequence he had a broken and deformed leg. These three had escaped the

general massacre of the tribe.

Ishi was the hunter and fisher. Daily he sallied forth with his bow or his salmon spear and

brought them food. He was the youth of their camp.

 

His very name means: “Straight or Stalwart One.”

 

They taught him the lost arts: how to flake arrow heads of obsidian; how to make fire with

sticks of buckeye wood; how to weave nets and snare birds. They taught him the folk lore of the

Yana. They told him of the evil ways of the strange white men who dealt in death.

Time passed, and the old ones died. In the custom of his people, Ishi cremated their bodies,

and in the same fire he set his hair ablaze as a sign of mourning. With their ashes he smeared his

face, and grief was heavy upon him!

He left this place of departed spirits and wandered forth into the outer world; The rugged

volcanic country around Mount Lassen. During his aimless meanderings he was captured and

brought into civilization and there we became friends.

This sheltered nook, once the boundary of his life, is now deserted, far from the roar of the

world. A lizard suns himself on a rock; the distant cadence of a canyon wren thrills the quiet air;

dapple shadows strew the ground and wild deer frequent the spot..

These bear testimony of him. They knew him to be brave, wise and kind. His was the mind of

a philosopher, the soul of a child. The memory of him echoes in the hushed voice of Nature.

My heart was swept with a great sadness; I rose and went down the mountain. I swam the river on my way home and pulled myself out of the water by the branches of an overhanging tree.  Deep in the bark of this alder I carved the name of my friend, Ishi, with an arrow beneath, pointing toward his camp.

Coming along the trail I passed an old village site, also the location of one of the terminal

massacres of the tribe. Here I turned up the earth with my hands and found evidence of prehistoric

industry Deep circular house pits, hearth; cooking stones, obsidian flakes and broken implements;

beads of wampam; bones of deer and bear, past tokens of the chase. It was as though these people

had left but a short time ago.

One has but to turn the leaves on the ground; almost, and find the foot print of prehistoric

man.

This land was theirs and here they were working out their destiny. We came and utterly

destroyed them, as a thoughtless child stamps upon a mountain flower.

And the saddest thought is that we never recognized the good in these people, but in the

stupidity of our arrogance we lost them before we could learn to understand them.

Thinking thus I trudged down the trail, bow in hand, quiver of arrows at my shoulder and

hound at my heels. Very few people ever come into this part of the country, but on my way I

met a  sheep herder. I said to him, “What is the name of the little branch creek that flows past the old Indian camp?” He said, “I do not know, it has no name.”

“Then I will tell you,” said I. “(Ishi’s tribal name) lived here, and old friend of mine. Let us call it after him!”

“So I will carve his name on this tree to let you know who first owned the land.”

And now I am back at camp. My supper of rice and tea is finished. Dick has had his boiled corn meal and jerky. We are settled for the night. Tomorrow we leave this country, probably never to return, so I look around wistfully at each familiar landmark.

Overhead rises a great buttress of rock, where Indian legends say the coyote doctor dwelt.

Often Ishi has told me the tales of this mythical character, and of his many amusing exploits.

Tonight, it is outlined In massive density against a heaven of dusky azure. My camp fire burns low. The spirit of the past fills the canyon. In the prattle of the stream hear the babble of many tongues. It ebbs and flows like the talk and laughter of an approaching multitude. The incense of the earth and grasses drifts past me as a breath from paradise. The great rock walls lean over and caress the valley with their shadows.

 

In the jeweled heaven above is imperishable and impalpable beauty. 

A great peace rests upon us and I almost feel the touch of a vanished hand.