Breathing New Life into Ancient Stories

By Scott LankfordOctober 16, 2017

Breathing New Life into Ancient Stories

How a Mountain Was Made by Greg Sarris

AWARD-WINNING Native American author Greg Sarris’s new collection of stories, How a Mountain Was Made, presents a stunning array of ancient California Coast-Miwok narratives freely reimagined as contemporary allegories. The tales are deeply rooted in the past, present, and future of the Northern California landscape. As Sarris himself explains,

This is the story of Sonoma Mountain […] a special place for Coast Miwok people. The stories from the Mountain teach important lessons, and many of the songs that Coast Miwok people have sung since the beginning of time are gifts from the Mountain and come from the stories. It is said that Coyote was sitting atop Sonoma Mountain when he decided to create the world and people.

This is admittedly treacherous territory, even for an author of Sarris’s stature. For generations, Native American narratives have fallen prey to what literary critics derisively call the “as-told-to” trap — from poet John Neihardt’s heavily altered and unreliable text for Black Elk Speaks in 1932 to the pseudo-autobiographical memoir The Education of Little Tree (1976), which topped the New York Times best seller list in 1991 until its author was unmasked as a former KKK member who penned white-supremacist speeches for George Wallace. Even legitimate scholarly renditions of traditional Native American tales run the risk of falling into this same “as-told-to” trap, effectively embalming living oral traditions in the formaldehyde of formal English.

How a Mountain Was Made succumbs to none of these pitfalls. As the elected chief of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, Sarris first penned these tales for his Tribe’s monthly newsletter. The delightful result is neither an arid anthropological text nor another pseudo-Indian as-told-to fabrication. Instead, Sarris has breathed new life into these ancient Northern California tales and legends, lending them a subtle, light-hearted voice and vision (appropriately presented without illustrations by Heyday Books, a leading publisher of respected texts on California history and culture).

Many of the animals featured in How a Mountain Was Made will already be familiar to readers of Native American literature: including the trickster-creator, Coyote, as well as Chicken Hawk, Frog Woman, Eagle, and Buzzard. Others — such as those unforgettable romantic rivals, Fog Woman and Warm Wind — are delightfully unique to coastal Northern California. Even the titles of the stories are endlessly evocative (and frequently amusing), ranging from “Centipede Calls for a Footrace” to “Coyote Throws His Sons into the Sky” to “Rattlesnake Wins Hummingbird’s Heart.”

Introducing each tale are a series of comedic arguments between the quarrelsome Crow Sisters, Question Woman and Answer Woman, both fluttering side-by-side on a Sonoma Mountain fence. Answer Woman’s frustrated responses to her forgetful sister’s endless queries about why things are link each new tale in a continuous narrative. As Answer Woman herself explains it:

[I]n addition to knowing each animal’s story, we must see that in its story there will always be the stories of other animals too. In that way, we are reminded of how all of life on the mountain is connected, that in fact all of the stories together make up the one big ongoing story of the mountain — the lesson we must never forget.

“I think I understand,” Question Woman replies, “at least for the moment.”

The serial catastrophes recently visited on California by climate change — a seemingly endless litany of epic fires, floods, droughts, heat waves, plagues, infestations, and species collapse — give these ancient tales a true poignancy and power. In a recent article in Bay Nature magazine, Sarris asserts that the collective memory of the Coast Miwok tribe dates back at least as far as the end of the last Ice Age: when the Golden Gate and all of San Francisco Bay were a lush dry-land valley, and the coastline extended all the way out to what are now the Farallon Islands, 30 miles further west (until 1970, a dumping ground for nearly 50,000 metal drums filled with nuclear waste). In this context, the marvelously amusing and light-hearted little tale “Waterbug Walks Away with Copeland Creek” reads like a kind of prophecy — or a dire warning.

Although written years prior to the Standing Rock protests (or the recent presidential election), this tale ominously concerns the fate of a fat, ugly, vain, wealthy, and marvelously manipulative old man named Waterbug who falls in love (or lust) with Quail, the most beautiful woman in the Village. His first wife, Frog Woman, divorces him in disgust, pleading: “How long do I have to put up with him?” “[A]nd in that moment,” Answer Woman assures us, Frog Woman “rose into the sky and became an eagle, the greatest of soaring birds.” To seduce Quail, Waterbug concocts an elaborate scam, distracting the villagers with a huge bonfire (around which they gather to tell themselves endless tales). Meanwhile, the wily old Waterbug imprisons Copeland Creek behind a dam, trapping her Water spirit in a dark underground cave. Starved into submission, she is finally forced to surrender her secret Song.

These special songs, unique to each spirit, form a powerful recurring motif in the stories, counterbalancing the slapstick elements. Water’s lovely and seductive song, for example, runs as follows:

Bending to me
You see your love
Bending to me
You see your wide open eyes

Everywhere I go
Everywhere I go
Like that
Like that
Hey Hey  Hey Hey

Eventually, the distracted Villagers wake up to realize that their world is literally drying up and dying all around them. They themselves will soon starve to death and die of thirst if they don’t take action quickly. “‘We have been tricked,’ Raccoon said. ‘Yes,’ Bobcat said, ‘Waterbug kept us busy so that we would not see what he was doing.’” Snatched high into the sky by his vengeful ex-wife Eagle, Waterbug denies it all to the bitter end — until he is finally forced by fear to cough up Water’s sacred Song. Then the pathetic old Waterbug himself is finally hurled back to earth so violently that his broken feet point backward forever more — causing him to skim across the surface of the water like a perpetual warning.

As a professor of Native American Studies and Creative Writing at Sonoma State University, Sarris is clearly capable of rendering more anthropologically precise, scholarly versions of these same ancient tribal tales and traditions. Indeed, he often has done so: Weaving the Dream (1994), his award-winning biography of the legendary basket-weaver and medicine woman Mabel McKay, remains a standard text in Native American Studies and Anthropology courses nationwide. Similarly, Sarris’s Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts has stayed continuously in print since its publication in 1993. In the realm of fiction, Grand Avenue (1994), Sarris’s debut novel, inspired the first full-length film honest enough to portray contemporary urban Indian life (in place of racist cowboys-versus-Indians horse operas), and his second novel, Watermelon Nights (1998), remains a perennially popular selection in American Literature and LGBTQ Literature courses. Yet in penning How a Mountain Was Made for his fellow tribal members, Sarris has found a fresh way to weave contemporary and historical Native American experience together as one.

Clearly, Sarris and his Tribal Council have taken these lessons to heart: funding tens of millions of dollars in greenbelts and parks locally; paying union wages and providing generous health benefits for all casino workers at the Graton Resort & Casino (a radical first for the American gaming industry); and heavily subsidizing an astonishing array of essential local community services, from education to law enforcement.

Capitalizing on the universal appeal of such stories, San Francisco’s celebrated Word for Word theater company, in collaboration with the California Schools Youth Arts programs, has recently staged several of the tales gathered in How a Mountain Was Made. As the enthusiastic applause these productions have won from students statewide attests, children of all ages (adults included) will find these tales, rooted in the mountainous landscape of California’s Wine Country, irresistible. So too will readers with a serious stake in the power of story to transform and sustain us.


This review was written prior to the destruction by wildfire of most of the homes and woodlands on Sonoma Mountain on October 9, 2017. And — full disclosure — although it was a long time ago, Sarris and I overlapped for a couple years in graduate school.


Scott Lankford is professor of English at Foothill College. His book Tahoe Beneath the Surface was named Bronze Medal Nature Book of the Year by Foreword magazine in 2010.

LARB Contributor

Scott Lankford is a professor of English at Foothill College in the Silicon Valley. His book Tahoe Beneath the Surface was named Bronze Medal Nature Book of the Year by Foreword Magazine in 2010.


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