A detailed, readable account of traditional acorn preparation in terms of how-to and cultural significance, by Julia Parker as told to Beverly Ortiz. Parker is a Kashia Pomo Indian who gives demonstrations of traditional arts and crafts at Yosemite museum, but her style of acorn making is from the Miwok/Paiute tradition, and was learned from her husband's mother.

The book begins with a brief account of Parker's life story, and then plunges into a step-by-step account of acorn-making, complete with anecdotes, advice, and accounts of how Parker learned it. It's an incredibly labor-intensive process, but one not seen as mere labor. It has cultural, social, and spiritual significance, and the way Parker describes it reminded me of martial artists and other traditional artists and craftspeople from many cultures, who transform repetitive, painstaking work into a form of meditation.

I would really like to try making acorn from the black oaks on Dad's property, but it could be a multi-visit process. Alas, I cannot do the traditional hot-rocks-in-woven-basket technique, as I have no basket (or none I'd want to risk ruining) and there are dire warnings about exploding rocks. Also dire warnings about boiling acorn mush exploding out of stainless steel pots, with a note that Parker usually cooks while wearing a protective leather skirt.

The book also contains instructions for easier-sounding and non-explosive traditional recipes, like manzanita cider. I might tackle that one first.

It Will Live Forever : Traditional Yosemite Indian Acorn Preparation

ETA: If anyone wants a signed copy at $15.00, I am pretty sure the author will be selling them at the fair tonight, and if you speak before I leave, I could grab one for you.
I found this in my father’s library while visiting his house in Mariposa, near Yosemite. It’s an evocative and enlightening book which tells, in alternate chapters, the history of the Nim*, who are California Indians from the area I was staying in, and the personal history and experiences of the author, who grew up practicing many of their traditional ways. The non-historical chapters are arranged by seasons, beginning with spring and ending when winter begins to warm into another spring.

Lee’s style is alternately scholarly, poetic, personal, and frank. He wrote this, the first personal account of the Nim by a Nim, partly because the existing written material on them, compiled by white anthropologists, was misleading or outright wrong. Some information is left out because it’s “none of anybody’s business;” other material, mostly involving the medicinal or food use of local plants, is deliberately vague to prevent foolish and inexperienced people from accidentally killing themselves.

The history is the usual tale of stolen land and broken treaties, attempted cultural genocide and fighting back. (One of the lighter bits quotes John Muir’s horror at the incredible filthiness of some Indians he encounters while hiking in the woods; Lee points out that they were in a mosquito-infested area, and the Indians had sensibly covered themselves with a natural repellent – mud!) The personal narrative is written in a more intimate voice, sometimes earthy, sometimes funny, often moving. Lee’s love for his family shines through every page.

I liked this a lot, and I think anyone who likes memoirs or nature writing would enjoy it. My father, who doesn’t read much narrative non-fiction, was fascinated by it, and we had several long conversations about it as we hiked in Yosemite. If you have a particular interest in California history or California Indian culture, it ought to be essential reading.

*The I in Nim has a diacritical I can’t reproduce, but is pronounced like the u in put. Also, Lee explains that while the Nim and the Mono speak the same language and so have been lumped together by anthropologists, they do not consider themselves to be the same people. So the subtitle is a bit odd. Possibly it was added by the publisher.

Walking Where We Lived: Memoirs of a Mono Indian Family
These are young adult historical novels written in a diary format, clearly intended to teach history in an entertaining manner. My local library has pretty much all of them. I like being amused by history, I like faux diaries, and I already like some of the authors (Joseph Bruchac, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Laurence Yep, Walter Dean Myers), so I thought I'd give some a try.

My Name Is America: The Journal Of Joshua Loper, A Black Cowboy, by the usually reliable Walter Dean Myers, was a bit disappointing. While it was well-researched (as far as I could tell) and had some good comic bits, it felt even more like "one thing happened and then another thing happened" than I expected given the diary format, and the overall effect fell flat.

Has anyone read any of these? Are any worth checking out? And while I'm at it, does anyone know of any diaries by actual historical black cowboys?

I already know to avoid the books in this series about Indians (Native Americans) written by white people. But some of the Royal Diaries look pretty interesting: Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba, Angola, Africa, 1595 (The Royal Diaries), Anacaona: Golden Flower, Haiti, 1490 (The Royal Diaries) (Royal Diaries), Lady of Ch'iao Kuo: Warrior of the South, Southern China A.D. 531 (The Royal Diaries)...

ETA: Hey! Looks like Scholastic India has a "Dear India" series! I wonder if I can get my hands on any of those. Not at my library, that's for sure...
Ing Hay was a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine (herbal, pulsology) who practiced in a small, primarily white Oregon town from about 1900 to 1948. He got extremely impressive results, by all accounts, and quickly expanded his practice from the Chinese community to everyone in the vicinity, and eventually became so sought after that people starting traveling to see him. He even sometimes treated patients long-distance, via letters and packages of medicine!

(Sherwood: his predecessor, also a Chinese herbal doctor, was “Doc Lee.”)

This slim book gives a reasonable précis of his story, and that of his business partner, Lung On. The latter sounds like quite a character as well. Unlike Ing Hay, he spoke fluent English, dressed in western clothes, and apparently had not-particularly-discreet affairs with white women. Because of their barbaric attire and so forth, Lung On and a friend of his with similar predilictions jokingly called themselves “Oriental barbarians.”

Though the material is fascinating, the book suffers from a dry writing style and a lack of background and investigation. It’s very much “just the facts,” without much follow-up into their background and context. A reader unfamiliar with the period would need an explanation of the Chinese Exclusion Act (alluded to but not detailed within); a reader who already knows that sort of basic context, like myself, would have appreciated some explanation of things like, for instance, where Ing Hay was getting his Chinese herbs. (From other Chinese herbalists in San Francisco, who imported them from China. But I had to look online to find that out.)

Interesting history, so-so account.

China Doctor of John Day, Oregon
I haven't finished reading this yet - I've been reading it off and on, on my Kindle - but I'm doing a mini-write-up before I utterly forget all that came before.

It's the autobiography of an American pioneer, full of lively and sometimes horripilating details. He starts out in the East, where life sounds fairly decent but the earth is hard to cultivate, and then his family moves to Wisconsin, where life sounds great. This part is full of excellent details on life, food, work, social mores, etc. Then they all hear that life is even better in California. Plus, there's gold! Uh-oh.

He and some buddies go ahead of the general party to scout. They run into some Indians, and despite the buddy's reluctance, Manly hauls them all to go have a chat. Neither party speaks the other's language, but they communicate pretty well with gestures and drawings. They trade food and horses, then Manly explains their intended route west. The conversation proceeds, more or less, as follows:

Indian: "WTF!!! Are you serious?! THAT way???"

Manly: "Um, yes. Is there a problem with that?"

Indian: "Oh hell yes. There's no water for BILLIONS OF MILES."

Manly (to buddy): "Let's try a different route."

Buddy: "You can't trust Indians! Ignore him. He's probably trying to lead us into a trap."

Manly: "I dunno. He's been friendly so far. Plus, he lives here and we don't. It's possible he knows the land better than we do."

Buddy: "Never trust an Indian!"


Manly: "Thanks for the horses!"

Buddy: "Onward to Death Valley!"

I realize that the conversation as depicted in the book may have been informed by hindsight, but it remains one of the best bits of ironic foreshadowing I've come across, whether or not it actually happened. (And no, it was not actually named Death Valley until after most of their party died there.)

I've just gotten to the part where Manly and a different buddy have left most of the party behind in Death Valley, and pressed on by themselves in the hope of bringing back help. The descriptions of the desert and its privations are marvelous: great cubes of rock salt like blocks of ice, wine-red alkaline lakes, dirt soft as flour. They brought dried beef from the oxen they had to slaughter, but despite their hunger, their mouths are so dry that they can't swallow, and they finally spit out their mouthfuls of jerky and lie down for the night, wondering if they'll wake up.

Free on Kindle: Death Valley in '49

Hard copy: Death Valley in '49: The Autobiography of a Pioneer
Exactly what it says on the tin: a breakdown of how to get to California if you’re a pioneer in 1859, written by a US Army captain who draws heavily on his own experience. Lively, readable, a fascinating insight into the attitudes and the often-wrong science of the time, and an excellent resource if you’re thinking of writing something set in the Old West or in a world with similar geography and technology. He covers everything: what kind of food won’t spoil, what to wear, how to get mules across a river, how to prevent your horses from stampeding, how to ride a cow, and what sort of gun will stop a grizzly bear.

Note that this is written by a white man in 1859 America, and he has typical white man in 1859 America attitudes. He calls Indians bloodthirsty, stupid, possibly not even human… and then swings right into an anecdote about an Indian he knows, one of the bravest men he’s ever met and generally awesome all-round. People have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize.

I was especially interested by the chapter on medicine, and the bits where he goes into great detail on theories of how disease is caused and spreads, and how to avoid it, often getting the right idea for the wrong reasons. Yes, it’s a bad idea to have a lot of people camping for ages in the same area, but not because of “exhalations” or the noxious effects of moisture in the air.

A little blue mass, quinine, opium, and some cathartic medicine, put up in doses for adults, will suffice for the medicine chest. Blue mass is mostly mercury. YIKES.

The Prairie Traveler: The 1859 Handbook for Westbound Pioneers (Dover Value Editions) (The free Kindle edition lacks maps and illustrations.)


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