Danville Express

Cover Story - February 16, 2007

Tribal lessons

Two local authors learn firsthand about the California Indian way of life

by Natalie O'Neill

As authors Gail Faber and Michele Lasagna sat nervously among members of a tribe of Hupa Indians, one thing was clear to them.

They were different.

The Hupa people studied their unfamiliar pale faces curiously, high in the hills of the Trinity Alps reservation. Sun poured in through the trees and the tribe sat together motionless, silent with the anticipation of the White Deer Skin Dance.

"You didn't write or talk or eat - you just sat. Nobody spoke and the children were remarkably quiet," Faber said.

After about an hour, a distant thumping of drums could be heard at the base of the foothills, moving up, inching closer. The booming sound grew louder and men in pristine white deerskin capes appeared, then disappeared as quickly as they had come.

The ceremony was fascinating to the two women, budding writers from Danville and Alamo; they had trekked to the reservation as part of the research they were doing for a book called "Whispers from the First Californians."

The sacred ritual was meant to thank the gods for their abundance of food. Since it was a spiritual dance, the Hupa prohibited the writers from bringing pencils, cameras or notebooks of any kind to the ceremony.

"It would have been like taking pictures at church," Lasagna said.

So they just watched.

Since then Faber and Lasagna have written a series of books on California history, including "Whispers Along the Mission Trail" and "Pasquala: The story of a California Indian Girl." They will be doing a book signing at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley in Danville on Saturday, Feb. 24.

At that time, the two had already acquired information from books, museums and local experts, but they hadn't yet immersed themselves in the culture. But meeting the people was essential, they said.

Becoming acquainted with modern day Native Americans drastically changed their perspective.

"They became very alive to us," Faber said.

The notion that American Indians are people in history books, that they no longer exist here, is one idea the former fourth-grade teachers have spent the last 20-some years trying to dispel.

"Unfortunately there are kids and even still adults who think that Indians were wiped out by the cowboys. They're not living in 'tule' homes out by the river, but they're still right here," Lasagna said.

Back when Faber and Lasagna taught fourth grade at Rancho Romero Elementary in the early 1970s, they were required to cover extensive lessons on the history of the state. The textbooks, however, skimmed over the history of the California Indians.

The books were written on the East Coast and provided only a few pages to cover hundreds of years of history on the California Indians, Lasagna said.

"They were teaching about (American) Indians in college and high school classes, but there was nothing for little kids to read," she said.

When a fire destroyed most of the textbooks in the summer of 1973, Faber and Lasagna offered to put together a small booklet on California Indians for some elementary schools in the area. With two weeks to piece together as much information as they could, they had to work quickly to include central, coastal and mountain Indians.

And the more they learned, the more they wanted to know.

"We were hooked," Faber said, recalling that the two worked out of a small room in her house that summer.

When the booklet was completed, it was distributed to elementary schools in the school district and the women received $50 for the task. Much to their pleasure, their own fourth-grade students and surrounding schools responded to the curriculum with overwhelming curiosity and enthusiasm.

Using Faber and Lasagna's booklet, many teachers in the Central Valley began teaching their students more about the first Californians - how they survived, what they believed and how they came to be. But while the women were satisfied with the enhanced curriculum they had spear-headed, they still felt the information they provided could be more thorough and accurate.

"We knew we could do better," Faber said.

That's when they began working on their first book, "Whispers from the First Californians," a state approved textbook that has been used in elementary schools across California.

The book uses simple language to discuss hunting and gathering, prayers, trading, housing, way of life, and how they came to be here - from both a scientific and creation-story perspective.

"You must be fair with them and give them both sides," Lasagna said.

While both of the women have since retired from their teaching positions, they still teach the docents for the Indian Life exhibit at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley. Now elementary students from the area visit the exhibit for a 45-minute class on the Indians.

Faber and Lasagna allow the docents to teach using their own style but stress important points they should cover.

Kids tend to think of American Indians from the perspective of western movies, Faber and Lasagna said, and they are amazed to learn how friendly and peaceful California Indians are and were. They are also surprised to learn that tribes still exist.

"The children are like, 'Awwww, you're kidding!'" Lasagna said.

One point they touch on is how much the San Ramon Valley Indians valued the Earth. The San Ramon Valley provided them excellent freshwater, fishing, nuts, berries and shade.

"They were the first ecologists. If they came to a bush, they wouldn't eat all of the berries, they would leave some for the animals and some for the Great Spirit," Lasagna said.

After spending so much time with California Indian tribes, the women said it meant the world to them that the tribes they had spoken with approve of their book. They wanted them to see it as accurate and respectful.

Faber recalled a time she had to prove her good intentions with one of the tribes she visited. She arrived at the reservation hoping to speak with an elderly Indian woman and at first the woman was very hesitant to talk.

"She observed everything, almost as though she was just getting a feel for you," Faber said.

Faber said she explained that she had always been intrigued by the ways of the Indians and that she wasn't there to degrade or objectify them. The Indian woman studied her and her husband silently and then said, "Well, what do you want to know?"

"I thought, 'I'm in!'" recalled Faber.

When the authors returned to the tribe after their first book was published, they were happy to find the tribe approved of the book.

"They liked it and accepted it," Faber said.

There were, however, some mixed feelings about the second book they wrote on the missions, as some California Indians felt that the missions had taken away their culture.

In spending time with them, Faber and Lasagna also learned that the tribes prefer to be called by their tribal names or "Indians" as long as a distinction is made from the Eastern Indians.

For example, a tribe would likely prefer to be called Dakota Indians as opposed to Native Americans. Anyone who was born in America is a "Native American," they told the authors.

The authors also said many California Indians don't like the term "powwow" because only Midwest Indians have powwows. They call their tribal meetings "gatherings" or "festivals."

Faber and Lasagna have contributed pieces to the Sword and the Cross exhibit on the missions that is currently at the Museum of the San Ramon Valley, running through May 5. Their books also include "Clara Rides the Rancho" and "Clara Rounds Cape Horn." Some copies can be purchased at the museum.

"Kids need to know that there were people before them - who they were and why they came," Lasagna said.

Authors at the museum

What: Five authors with their books that focus on California's colonial history

Who: Michele Lasagna and Gail Faber; Malcolm Margolin, author of "The Ohlone Way"; Dr. Gregorio Mora-Torres, "Californio Voices: The Oral Memoirs of Jose Maria Amador and Lorenzo Asisara"; Naida West, "River of Red Gold" and "Eye of the Bear"

When: 10 a.m.-1 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 24

Where: Museum of the San Ramon Valley, Railroad at Prospect Avenue, Danville

Information: Call 837-3750 or visit www.museumsrv.org


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