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The People from the Top of the Land

Hannah Hoffman Hannah Hoffman digs in a surface test unit.
Brewing huckleberry tea and learning to thank the earth

FORT ROSS, CA – We're getting the hang of this archaeology thing now that we're in Week Three. Not only are we gathering artifacts like chert and obsidian flakes (byproducts of the making of tools); and abalone, mussel, clam and oyster shells; but we are spending time with native Kashaya elders learning about their ways of living and eating, their stories and traditions. Understanding the Kashaya's past in a personal way will help us interpret the artifacts we are collecting and know this place better.

The Kashaya elders — Vivian, Violet and their brother Otis — come from a high-ranking Kashaya family. Their mother, Essie Parrish, was the spiritual leader of the tribe until her death in the mid-1970s. It was her job to lead the Kashaya people in the right direction spiritually, ceremonially and socially through her visions. She has passed on much of her wisdom to her children, and they are kind enough to share it with us.

I have spent a good amount of time with Violet and Vivian in the kitchen (it's no surprise that I would be in the kitchen as much as possible!), gaining their trust. They have been sharing stories as well as traditions and recipes. I am honored to have their trust, and Vivian and Violet have asked me to come visit them to make huckleberry pies. Yum!

The Kashaya still make medicines from native plants and prepare them in the traditional way. Someone in camp was suffering from an upset stomach, so Vivian and Violet prepared a tea using huckleberry leaves. The tea is prepared by gathering the branches from a huckleberry bush. The branches are thin and the leaves are about 1-inch long and a 1/4-inch wide. The color varies from dark green in the older leaves to light green in the younger leaves. It is very important when collecting plants for medicine that one "bless the plant in your own way." As I am not Kashaya, and cannot say the Kashaya prayer, Violet told me to thank the plant and ask it to help me heal with its leaves.

After we gathered the leaves, we removed them from the branch and gently washed them. We heated a small pan of water with a handful of leaves until it came to a boil. Then we removed the pan from the heat and let the tea steep until it was the "color of medium-strong tea," according to Violet. The tea can be drunk warm or cold and after a cup or so, one should feel relief. It seemed to work for our friend. He was much happier after he drank it.

To the Kashaya people, the idea of taking from the earth and giving back is quite important. When one goes to gather food, a bit of what is taken must be left or "re-fed" to the plant that it was taken from. For example, give some acorn to the tree and give thanks for the food.

When fishing, one is taking food from the ocean, which is presided over by the Fisherwoman. The Kashaya view women as the providers, and here, Fisherwoman appears as a rock off of the incredibly beautiful California coast at Fort Ross. The Fisherwoman rock is sacred to the Kashaya people, and when a man or a woman goes to take any living thing from the sea, such as kelp, mussels, oysters, fish, abalone, chitins, turban snails or sea grass, they must ask the Fisherwoman for permission. When a man or a woman gets to the ocean to fish, they repeat their request to the rock four times. The request starts off by calling out "Poycamen!" — the Fisherwoman’s name — and then the request, "Can we please have some of the ocean foods?" After calling her name and saying the prayer four times, you then have permission to fish and take from the ocean.

The Kashaya are very sensitive about respecting the earth and each other. Here at Archy Camp, we are beginning to see why it is so important to do the same and to respect this beautiful landscape that we call Fort Ross and that the Kashaya call home.

— Hannah

Hannah Hoffman is a fourth-year Anthropology major.