Wednesday, October 17, 2007


In 1959, Theodora Kroeber published The Inland Whale (University of California Press), a collection of foundation myths and stories from the Yurok and other Northern California Native Americans. I was given this book within months of moving to San Francisco in 1978, and I found these stories essential in understanding Northern California as a geographic region. I was particularly struck by how well these people, who had lived in this area for tens of thousands of years, understood plate tectonics and the mechanism of earthquakes. My favorite story of them all is about Umai, and I'm retelling it below as best I remember it.

(Photo of Theodora Kroeber 1970 © by Paul Bishop)

Theodora Kroeber is better known for her book Ishi In Two Worlds, about Ishi, the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe whose people were wiped out by white invasion and genocide. Ishi was close to Theodora and her husband, Alfred Kroeber. Into this anthropological family was eventually born a daughter, Ursula, now known best as Ursula K. LeGuin.

(Photo of Ursula K. Leguin © by Dan Tufts)

Several years ago, I wrote a poem about Umai and much of what I had absorbed from California Indian culture. I sent it to Ursula LeGuin, along with a letter. To my surprise and pleasure, she replied personally, saying she liked the poem very much and she thought her mother would have, too.

(Photo of green flash at sunset © by George Howard)


In Yurok cosmology, the World Within The World was our physical earth, a flat plate floating on a sea which was the Ocean Within The World, also known as Downriver Ocean. Bisecting this world was a river that led to an inland sea, Upriver Ocean. Yurok lived along this river, now called the Klamath River.

Above the world was a bowl of sky, and beyond the lip of the bowl was another ocean, the Ocean Beyond the Ocean, which lapped at the shores of the World Beyond The World. Waves traveling through the oceans bobbed the bowl of sky up and down, creating a brief gap through which the two worlds could catch glimpses of one another. Thus, Yurok standing on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific occasionally saw a bright flash of light near sunset on the horizon. Sometimes this had a green cast to it, which to the Yurok meant there was vegetation in that world. What follows is an explanation of that flash. A flash I have seen myself.

Umai was a young woman who lived by Upriver Ocean along the river. She lived in a collection of friends and family, and was busy, but often she was restless. She liked to watch for the flash of light at sunset, and wondered what it was like in that World Beyond The World.

One day, her restlessness overcame her. She went into her family's house and took a small toy canoe that belonged to a younger sibling. She carried it to the edge of the river and set it in the water, placing her hands inside the canoe. She began singing a magic song, the words of which we no longer remember. As she sang, she pressed at the sides of the canoe with her hands, and it slowly expanded, until finally she had a canoe big enough for her to ride in. She sat down in the canoe and pushed herself away from the bank.
(Photo of Yurok canoe)

She had no paddles, but she did not need them because this was a magic canoe. She could direct it by means of song. She traveled downriver to Downriver Ocean, into the surf, and began crossing the Ocean Within The World. It was a long journey, and night began approaching, but as she got closer to the edge of sky, the light from the World Beyond The World grew brighter.

Umai knew, as all Yurok did, that after every eleven waves on the ocean was a twelfth, larger wave. This larger wave would create a bigger gap between the bowl of sky and the surface of the sea. She counted waves until the twelfth one came along, and as the sky went up higher than usual, she sang her way through the gap and found herself in the Ocean Beyond The Ocean.

She could now see that the light was coming from a huge fire on the banks of the World Beyond The World. She sang her canoe toward this light. As she entered the surf, she could see a figure standing near the fire, watching her come in. When she landed, this figure came to meet her. It was Laksis, a young woman whose name means Shining Light. Laksis lived all alone in the World Beyond The World. Her loneliness was intense, so every night she came to the water's edge, gathering driftwood and built a huge fire, hoping someone would see her light and come to investigate.

Umai and Laksis fell deeply in love and remained together for a year. However, Umai's restlessness returned, and she became very homesick for her family, her friends, and her home by the river. She longed to see them again, and began talking of going back for a visit. She begged Laksis to come with her, but Laksis was afraid. She decided to remain in the World Beyond The World and wait for Umai to return. She promised to light a fire every night, as a signal beacon for Umai, and Umai promised to follow it back to Laksis.

When Umai got home, however, she was greeted with overwhelming joy. They had not known where she had gone, and they had missed her terribly. She got caught up in the celebrating, and right after that it was time for the annual salmon harvest, and after that it was time to gather acorns. She became re-absorbed in the work and life of her people, and she kept putting off her return to Laksis. She sang her canoe back to toy size and put it away for safekeeping. Eventually, she married and had children, and she never returned to Laksis.

(Photo of Yurok acorn basket -- Northern California Indian baskets are often considered to be the finest in the world, water-tight and capable of boiling stews within them, as well as with extraordinary designs and artistry)

But Laksis still waits for her, and every night she builds a fire on the shores of the World Beyond the World. Watch for it, and think of Laksis.


The Ocean Beyond The Ocean
Is full of drifting wood --
Not shipwrecks or logjams escaped
Downriver into open sea
Because there are no sailors, no one
To tender logs -- Not jetsam, then,
But the debris of unseen storms
The offcast of unpeopled forests
Flotsam lush on empty shores.

On one such strand, the solo tenant
Of the World Beyond The World
Nightly piles a lean of wood
And blows her spark into its base.
Before it coals she makes her supper
Stews of hake and cherry clams
Dulse and scallops, cattail roots
While pelicans fly in a line
To sleep (someplace she's never found
But, without a doubt,) together.

She'll tend her flames until the dawn.

The sunset here on the other side
Of cloud-bowl sky -- whose rhythmic thump
Up and down onto the depths
Gives birth to waves, the dozenth wave
A little stronger than the rest --
The sunset here is green entire
With wash of lime and celery
Spread low along marining sky.
In such a dusk, her scarlet flames
Are irresistible -- She hopes.
She does not know that now and then
The twelfth wave uplifts lip of sky
To flash a ray of verdure light
Into the sunset of our world
Where all of us go home at night
To share our stew and sleep entwined.

During the month before hard frost she walks two days to red-oak hills
Treading acorns ankle deep, she grinds the nuts into strong meal
In boulder mortars with rounded rocks, then carries skins of raw red bran
To sandbank creeks with fuel nearby. The meal is rinsed in streamside holes
With water boiled in basket pots until the tannin tox is gone.

While she waits for boil to come, she takes the acorn mast, the hulls
And strings them nested onto strands of sinew from a tule deer
Spirals this lace around her calves from knee to instep, leggings strong
Against the nettle's rip and grab, but also rattles to warn off bears
And make her own particular clatter in a world where creatures speak
To one another, yet never with the language of her kind.

It takes three pours to leach meal clean.
Think if you will about how long
She must have tried her brain's fine seine
To solve that riddle: Meal to food --
Rinsed not just once or twice but thrice
Before the poison is leached out.

Patience is the grain of love.
If we do not find the way
To parboil love out of our flesh
And skim away the loneliness,
Our blood will stop inside our nest
Of arteries. Then our hearts,
Beating in an air-starved lope,
Will burst. From lack of love

© 2003 Maggie Jochild, 21 November 2003, 11:30 a.m.


shadocat said...

pretty high praise, from Ursula
LaGuin herself, already! She loved that poem and so do I

Margot said...

Reading GB I stumble upon Laksis and Umai. Curious, I google, and google brings me back to you. I love you.