Life Along The River

Michelle L. LaPena

The burial mound is piled higher than I could ever imagine. We had to create a wider berth for the mound around the edges, a new generation to keep the sides from slipping under too much weight. All day, I went to the river and back, bringing loads of sand and gravel to cover them. I’m exhausted, but there’s not time for rest. It took so long to bury the dead, that more died, and we didn’t have time to eat. But no one is hungry anymore.

It started when three Ohlone men passed through the village trading clamshell beads, salt and flint. They were sick; one was worse than the others, suffering from a fever and deep cough. The men were pale, ashen, with dark circles around their eyes. We quickly traded with them, exchanging deer meat and hides, and then ushered them away. The sickness travelled quickly until it seemed like the entire village was coughing until they bled; they heave until they drown, suffocating in their own blood. My younger sisters and my mother died first. My father and I have been trying to stay strong, at least long enough to bury them all. But we can’t keep up with the death.

The burial mound is located on the ocean side of the river, just above the confluence of the Tah’mum with the No’tahmum. The mound overshadows everything in the valley and is nearly the size of Estom Yamani, the middle mountains. It is taller than the greatest oak and wider than the Tah’mum. Our village, Suh’mah, is the largest village on the ocean side of the Tah’mum, once thriving with over one thousand Nis’sim Pay’wen’an. Today, we are only one dozen, a clutch of almost dead. We are each covered with a layer of filth that tells the work that we are doing. I smell like a river otter, musky and covered with scum. It helps mask the rotten, sweet stench that covers the village like a suffocating blanket.

Last night I fell asleep listening to a quiet that revealed the steps of small animals and birds nesting. Without the sounds of people, these everyday noises gave me goose bumps and the hair on my neck thickened, like prey that is stalked by bad spirits. I moved my lodge away from the others, as if distance will prevent me from catching the sickness that I touched all day. But I didn’t actually touch the dead. I’m only eleven.

The mud that I bring from Tah’mum is rich with clay and when mixed with the river sand, it dries into a hard outer shell. The mound looks pregnant with my dead family who are travelling to the other side. In the mound our bodies become part of the river. We are buried in layers so that we can be close together. Worms and bugs churn our bodies into soil and eventually our blood finds its way back into the river. We go back to our Mother that way.

When I was very young, I wondered about the mound and was confused by what my parents told me. I thought that it was a great earth lodge where my relatives were dancing to songs that I could not hear. I asked my mother how they could dance when they were tied up; she told me that they were not in their bodies anymore. They were dancing on the other side of the world. Their spirits were travelling to Mis Misa where that great mountain would direct them up to the Milky Way. There in the stars, they would dance forever in a great roundhouse that was guarded by the Three Sisters; we could hear the songs only if we had very careful ears.

We are mindful to bind up the bodies before they become stiff; enfolding them into embryos that we put back into the Mother. With our knees pressed close to the body and arms wrapped tight around us, we can sleep forever in our Mother, only feeling the loving crush of our family as they come to join us. We will hear the rush of the river underneath us, knowing that eventually we become water and our essence free to travel throughout the spirit. As long as our bodies are there in our Mother, the rest of us is free to move about and join the others in great roundhouse.

Those of us left behind now wake up each day to new cry songs, to new death. I must not be the only person wondering why this is happening to us. We keep hearing about people that have white hair and blue eyes; some have red hair and green eyes. They wear coverings on their bodies that look very tight and hot. They wear protection on their feet that makes loud sounds as they walk, which seems very stupid. We wear tanned hides on our feet, so they will protect us from cuts and bites, but not make loud noise when we walk. And when its warm, as it is now, we only cover the places that need protection. But these strange men must be very smart because they arrived here in large ships that carry hundreds of men, not just a few, like our boats. They are too large to travel all the way up the river so they can’t get here as easily as they can get to the coast. The sick Ohlone men that brought the coughing to us told us to avoid them if we can.

Suh’mah men can travel in the rivers and creeks in our tule boats, all the way to the ocean. My uncle returned from trading on the coast after the Ohlone had already left and he told us of the strange men who have weapons that they use on every Ohlone they see. When they were done killing people, they killed the animals, and they don’t always eat the meat. The coast and now the valley, smells of rot. Buzzards, wolves, panthers and coyotes are circling us as never before because they think that we have broken our pact; our offerings no longer carry any weight. Now the burial mound is the only place where we can protect the dead from the angry scavengers.

Before he died, the headman was responsible for choosing each person’s place in the mound. He walked around the mound, looking at it from all angles. After a time, he would find the right place for them. He would crawl carefully up the side, find the place to cut the outer shell, dig down and then position the close relatives together; mothers with their children; wives with their husbands. He arranged their personal things with them; their shell money, their medicine and sometimes their dance feathers.

We don’t have women to weave the burial sac anymore, so we just bind them tight and wrap them with their hides and their clothing to keep others from taking them. Once they have their place, they are covered. We sculpt the mud; create a thick, dense barrier that keeps the smell from overtaking us. Thankfully, the outer skin also keeps the scavengers out. With so many new burials, we keep watch now just to make sure that the dead are left in peace.

I was watching over the mound today, it’s been many days and there are only six of us left. I am learning how to eat when I don’t want to so that I can stay alive. I saw smoke from a fire on the ocean side of the delta. It was not a friendly fire and we are worried. Somehow in the smoke, I could see clearer than I have for many days.

The last elder, my great uncle, told me that the time has come to prepare for death. I was watching the smoke from my usual place by the river and he walked over and sat by me. He asked me, “Sochi, shall we wait for them to kill us or should we all walk into the river together?” The thought of walking into the Tah’mum and letting it fill me up, would have scared me when I was little, but it sounds so much better than drowning on my own blood. Even worse, we could be shot and wounded, or be captured and those men could cut me to pieces as I die very slowly. I heard stories about the strangers, about how they like to capture the men and cut their privates off, their hair and scalp. They keep pieces as trophies, and keep the dead from traveling to the great roundhouse.

My elder said that we come from the same parents, his parents were my grandparents, which I already knew, but I still listened. He taught me my grandfather’s death song and I am ready now.

I told my father about our uncle’s idea; that we all walk into the Tah’mum and let her swallow us. I thought my father would object to our plan because he has always protected me from harming myself. As a young boy he taught me to watch for snakes, to avoid certain plants and to be sure to give offerings before, during and after any journey. Instead, he looked at me with his dark eyes, and for a moment I saw them light up with hope. He understood that our plan was a good one. There was no other choice if we were to be buried near our family and be free to become spirit with them. We knew that our elder was right and so we gathered the others together for a meal.

My father built a cooking fire and asked the last three women, who were not much older than I was, to get some water to make some acorn soup and he would roast duck and epos, which was my favorite. The women also have talked to our elder and they understand that we can eat the rest of our stores because we will not need it tomorrow. Together, we make a feast as none of us have seen for many, many days.

The epos always absorbs the flavor of the duck in its juices when we wrap them in tules and roast them over a layer of red coals, covered by a shallow layer of soil in a pit that we cover with earth. After enough time has passed, we open the earth oven and the comfort of steaming duck and epos remind me that I am famished. The duck is greasy with fat, and is tender from being cooked with the salt that we bought from the Ohlone. The women also made sure to season the meat and root with dried pepperwood leaves, something that my father and I often would always forget until it was too late. The duck and epos is tender and I scoop it out of the wrappings with the elk horn spoon that I was given by my grandmother when I was younger. The warm juices run down my chin, and I let it stay there.

As we ate, we discussed our plan and we knew that we must act quickly, but we didn’t want to begin our journey to the otherside in the night. Although it was warm outside and the stars were bright by the time we were finished, we wanted to greet the morning at the Tah’mum. We had time for more acorn soup and some elderberry tea which one of the women, Nilada, made in her grandmother’s cooking basket. She said that she was going to take her baskets with her to the river and tie them around her waist so that she could fill them with river rocks to keep her from changing her mind. We all agreed that this was a good idea for the women. They could take all of the baskets with them.

My father and I went through our belongings and each began to tie a long string of things we wanted to take with us. I chose to take my pouch with my arrow points, my otterskin quiver, my bow, spoon, the willow cap that my mother had woven for me, and my rabbit skin blanket. My father took much of the same, but also his rabbit stick, tobacco and pipe. We would all wear our family wealth, our clamshells disks and magnesite. My father would wear his feather cape. His uncle asked us to help him gather his things, which fit into a small pouch, except for his money, which was the longest strand of disks and stone that I have ever seen. It wound his body like a heavy armor made of clamshell, abalone, and different shades of red.

After we finished preparing for our journey, we gathered around a small fire to smoke and make our final plans. The dark sky was bright, and the stars were alive with meteors. Our elder rolled out the star chart and he marked the place for this last meteor shower. He asked us, “Should we take our chart with us or should we bury it with our family?”

My father waited for the women to speak among themselves.

The youngest, Sanar said, “We should burn it in this fire so that no one will ever know about it.”

The older woman, Nilada, said, “We should bury it at the base of the mound so that it’s with our family forever.”

The oldest woman, Wiliweras said, “We should leave it out in case someone comes looking for us. They can take it and tell others what happened.”

I wasn’t sure what to do, there were so many things left behind, our tule houses, our roundhouse; we couldn’t take care of everything.

“I’m tired of burying things. I think we should wrap it up and hide it in the bushes by the river. A smart Nis’sim Pay’wen’an or Patwin will find it and take care of it.”

My father looked to the elder and said, “You have spent the most time with the star hide. I think you should tell us what to do with it.”

The elder rolled up the hide and he gently set it beside him. “I would like to take it with me.”

We each nodded and then smoked together. We looked at the sky as our elder told us one more time about the Star People and how we are related to them. He told us the story about when Coyote raped Moon Maiden, and she was so ashamed that she escaped to the sky. I covered myself with my rabbit blanket and fell into a deep sleep.


The next morning we woke early to the sun rising. We gathered our things quietly and walked to the river. The women gathered rocks and sand to fill their empty baskets. The oldest filled a large burden basket for the youngest and strapped it onto her back. It was heavy and she said, “I’m going in, if I stop, it will be too late.” The other two women joined her hands and they walked in together. I didn’t want to watch so my father and our elder took my hand and we walked in quickly. The water was cold.

My father said, “The Tah’mum has given us a strong current to welcome us.” And we walked into the water.

I was planted in the water

Like the salmon returning home

I swam into my mother

She swaddled me with her waters

The waters she received from her mother.

The cord tied us together with each breath

The blood she received from her mother.

I am with my mother

I am flying on the back of an eagle

To Mis Misa

To the great roundhouse

Of the three sisters

With the Spirit


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