First the Indians came, soft-footed, moving silently along their wooded trails, to reach the coast. There they must have frolicked like children in the clean, breezy salt air, and fished with eagerness and then contentment. They would eat greedily at first of their huge catches of fish, then fall heavily in the sand to relax, melting into the beach, the sand, and the sky. California was their Eden, the land of mild climates and food in abundance. In this climate they grew peaceful, and war was seldom heard of.
These people were well versed in the law of the woods and fields and the first white settlers tell of amazing cures, for one of their attributes was to share their land, their food and their knowledge.
This was to undo them in the end, for barbed wire fences have kept them from some of their best herbs, and the settlers greedy clutching of the land made the natives outsiders. What a sad travesty on so-called “higher civilization” that we not only robbed these Indians of the lands, but also of much of their culture and oftentimes of their lives.
Old timers of Mendocino County can still recall their grandfathers and fathers telling of the hideous massacre in Potter Valley where helpless women and children were also killed. Some of the very early settlers here prefer to forget those bitter days of first possession when the Indians were driven to the beaches of the ocean and were either shot or drowned as their world ended around them.
But there were gentler settlers too. My grandmother often told of the brown, warm-skinned squaws who camped on their land by the river, obviously the summer camp of these nomads. There they gathered acorns, game, and had their ritual ceremonies involving their huge sweathouses where they would heat themselves to almost suffocation then run down the trail to dive into the cold headwaters of the Navarro River.
My grandmother who was only a matter of weeks away from Australia, fresh from a boat that docked at San Francisco, had interest and compassion and liking for these brown-skinned sisters who were being displaced. She traded them loaves of bread for what they had to offer and oftentimes the bread was a gift.
I think of the last trek that these Native Americans must have undertaken to the coast, watching fearfully the changes that were beyond their control. They must have made themselves small and silent and watched in silent agony as their world vanished and a tighter, harder society forced them to conform if they wanted to survive.
This was the end of a beginning when California had remained the same for thousands of years, soft, pliant, green and satisfying, welcoming its first inhabitants who loved this land as their mother.
Oftentimes when fierce winds blow here in wintertime more devastating because of the huge amount of timber taken in too big amounts I think how gentle these same winds were to the Indians who knew how to live with the earth and their environment. The early settlers could have learned so much had they but looked and listened.