She looked so small, so strangely ageless as though the weight of her 95 years was a garment to be hung carelessly around her shoulders. How to describe her brown, somewhat lined face that was still smooth as to cheekbones, warm tan skin, as crisp and ruddy as an autumn leaf.
Amelia Brown, age 95, American, in the truest sense of the word, oldest, and one of the last of the Totooni tribe that once dominated the northwest section of California, in and around Crescent City. During the next two hours I was lost to time and place as I traveled backward through nearly a century of living, by the simple graphic words of this small, brown woman.
I not only heard, I seemed to see her as a small girl, motherless at five. Amelia was born in Crescent City, not the bustling town of today, but a very small place with one main street (Front Street) that boasted only two or three stores and a butcher shop.
The growing up years could not have been easy for motherless Amelia, even with a devoted father and an older half-brother. The Amelia of today shook her gray head over the memory of that little girl, indulged, petted, incapable of meeting everyday problems efficiently. Amelia was the queen of a home that she was incapable of managing. She recalled this in words with, “My father never made me mind. Dishes used to pile up in the sink. I didn’t care.”
“One time my father took me to a lady who said she would keep me and let me go to school if I would help her. The first night was fine, but the next morning! The lady looked at me and said: “Now honey, you fill up the wood-box!”
“I was angry that she would ask me to work! If she had sworn at me I would have felt worse. I went out and got the wood. I threw it in the box.
“The lady looked at me, ‘Now honey, change your dress and go to school’.”
“I changed my dress and I left, but I didn’t go to school. I went back home.”
“What did your father say when you came back home?” I asked, thinking of this father who had loved his daughter enough to endure a childless home in order to send her where she could “be educated and become a lady.”
“My father felt terrible,” answered Amelia. “When I walked in he looked at me and said, ‘What happened?’”
How the proud, young Amelia must have tossed her head as she answered, “That lady wanted me to fill her wood-box!”
“What did you expect?” retorted her father. “If you stay and go to school, did you expect to do nothing? You have to help and earn your way!”
“He didn’t take me go back,” mused Amelia, “and I wouldn’t go. Now I wish he had taken me by the ear and marched me back, made me go to school. Now I can’t read or write,” and a look of sorrow passed over her face, and her intelligent eyes dimmed, as she sensed the world of imagination she had missed.
“Men did different in those days,” she continued. “No rules to make you go to school. They didn’t care.”
Amelia was married the first time at 14 years old, and spoke little of this period of her life. But I sensed what a yoke of responsibility this marriage must have laid on her proud, willful shoulders. She briefly mentioned the three children of this union: two boys and a girl, who all died in infancy. “I was so young,” she said sadly, “and I didn’t know what to do. But I think of them, I think of how, if they were living, they would be fathers and grandfathers and grandmothers now. They would have me come and visit them.”
The eternal flame of motherhood burns in sorrow as well as in joy, counts all children hers, and cradles the lost shadows as well as the present realities.
Somewhere along the way, Amelia learned the discipline of living, and her great love for her fellow men. Somewhere along the way the spirited, untamed, indulged girl became a woman, striving in her way for the best. Perhaps this seed of greatness, of giving, was always there, and life’s lessons had to be learned to nurture it.
Her second husband, Brown, was a casual worker, trapping in the northwest for furs, tanning hides. And Amelia worked hard “in other people’s kitchens” because she had not gone to school, because she once did not want to fill a wood-box.
But out of other people’s kitchens she learned to cook, to sew, and to grow great in the art of practical nursing.
The knowledge of healing must be a gift, and this gift was laid in the capable, small hands of Amelia Brown. Her knowledge of Indian lore and the wealth of the woods and fields were coupled and the things she had learned from doctors and nurses in long vigils in homes where she had worked. She casually told me of curing a consumptive (“the lady was spitting blood all the time, coughing and getting thin”). One day, when the woman lay weak and coughing she became much worse. So Amelia got some ordinary table salt and fed it to her, a little at a time, until the hemorrhaging had stopped. “Then,” said Amelia, “I went out and dug up the roots of some blackberry vines and boiled them, and had her drink the tea — the bleeding stopped.” She mentioned this calmly, as calmly as she had handed the gift of life, not once, but many times through the years.
“Someone once told me — someone who did practical nursing, if you aren’t scared of a disease, you don’t get it,” offered Amelia, and in her case it was true.
She shook her head again, over the fading of old ways to new. “People don’t know, or don’t believe any more,” stated this woman who worked miracles in sick-rooms. “They don’t know the plants to get or how to use them, or they can’t get them because the land isn’t theirs, and they are trespassing,” and her eyes filled with tears as she thought of the wealth of the woods, denied to humanity.
But a fire glittered there when she spoke of one incident of trespassing.
“I went strawberrying with two women friends. We picked some baskets of berries, and at noon we at our lunch. When we sat down in a nice place near the edge of the woods to eat. I joked, ‘Maybe a man comes and drives us away.’ Just then I saw a man coming. And he was angry! He walked with big steps up to where we were and shouted at me in a loud voice, ‘What are you doing here?’ We said, ‘Picking wild strawberries.’ He answered this with, ‘This is my land — YOU GO!’ I stood up and looked him in the eye. ‘This is your land?’ I asked, ‘Where did you get it?’ ‘I homesteaded it from the government,’ he said.”
How I would have loved to have seen this tiny woman straighten her shoulders and look him in the eye, as she replied with the passion of an orator: “This is not your land, this is Indian land. All this land belonged to the Indians. We aren’t in your backyard. We’re out in the woods. God didn’t make the earth, the grass, the ground and everything that grew for just one person. he made it for everybody!”
Slightly daunted but still determined, the irate “owner” returned, “This is my land. I want you to leave those strawberries there and get off!”
He didn’t know the mettle of his adversary.
“You don’t get these strawberries we picked! These belong to the land! How do you expect the Indians to eat? You take his land, you take his rivers, you take his forests. God planned this land for everybody!”
“Well,” hesitated the man, “you and your friends can stay for three hours, and then leave. I’ve got to go to church.”
“Church!” said Amelia, “Church? For you? You mean that you go to church, and yet you say that God didn’t plan this for all of us? Church, where everybody loves everybody? You don’t belong in church!”
I hope this landowner remembered the philosophy of this woman as he went his way. This woman, who gave of her time and healing ability to white and brown alike, regardless of race, creed or color. This same woman who, lacking a formal education, was at times filled with the power of eloquence and who spoke truths as she saw them. A wonderful friend, and a powerful opponent, who clearly stated the problems of the Indians in this state.
“One time,” Amelia told me, “I saw a man on the beach, way down the beach digging clams. He says to me, ‘Look, the Indians come to this beach and take all the clams, and now I dig here and only find one!’”
“Indians nothing!” retorted Amelia. “White men! The Indians had plenty before the white men came. They killed a deer, and they used it all — the hide, the meat, and they only killed one! They came and fished, they took only what they could use, they smoked and dried their fish for the winter. In those days there was plenty of clams, plenty of deer, elk walked the forests. Now the white men come, they are like hogs, they take it all!”
What could this man reply? Who can deny the wisdom of this woman who has seen the land of plenty robbed and looted of its natural resources by “white men, who act like hogs.” Fortunately for us, there are those who will pause and act, before conservation is too late, but the Amelia Browns, wise in their ways, know it is already too late for many things. For no more will the elk tread freely through the forests, forests denuded of trees, open to winds and weather, changing the soil, washing away good land. Clams are growing scarce, because of the greediness of a few who refuse to leave the necessary amount for restocking.
Indian ways have changed, and Amelia mused on this. Some for the better, some for the worse. There is no more buying and selling of women, which used to be common practice in the early days. Amelia told of someone who wanted to purchase her daughter Anna. “My husband said,” quoted Amelia, “‘What do you think she is? A cow to be sold?’” The sale ended there, with no purchase. These ways were good to end. But the secrets of the forest and fields, the herbs, and the knowledge of health and how to keep it, are being lost as each generation accepts the comforts of its age. These are tragic.
Every summer Amelia moves to the beach near Crescent City where she lives for two months in a small cabin. How she looks forward to the move, to the challenge of the sea, the tang of the salt air, and fishing, which is one of her favorite sports.
Healthy, yes, alert, vigorous, this is Amelia, still contributing to the life of the community that loves her. I can picture her at Smith River where she makes her home, the vital essence of her being, that is like a clean, healing breeze, a heart that has forgiven much, that loves deeply and grandly, and a wit and a sense of humor, together with the lingering challenging spirit of the small Amelia, who went pounding home because she wouldn’t fill a wood-box.
But she has filled many wood-boxes since, and many lives as well. A mixture of down-to-earth herb gathering, fishing, crocheting, and sewing, with a spirit that speaks of tall, windy pines, of starlight, and love for the Creator and His creations. 95 years of living for Amelia Brown, oldest living member of the Totooni tribe, and long-time resident with the How-one-quaght tribe in Smith River, wise, with the wisdom of the Mother-spirit of the earth. (Charmian Blattner, )