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

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