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Medicine Trails: A Life in Many Worlds Paperback – September 1, 2009
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About the Author
Mavis McCovey has lived along the Klamath River in northwestern California all her life. Trained as a child to be a medicine woman, she assists with the traditional ceremonies of her tribe, the Karuk. The mother of five children, she has also worked as a community health representative and a nurse, and she has been an advocate on issues affecting the health and well-being of the native people of her region. Dr. John Salter is a cultural anthropologist, teacher, and writer who has worked intermittently with the Karuk Tribe of California and Karuk people since 1968. Trained by Gregory Bateson, Salter received his Ph.D. for a study of the social ecology of the Salmon and Klamath River area. He currently lives in Sacramento, California.
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As Salter says in his introduction, reading this book is very much like being at Mrs. McCovey's kitchen table, listening to her tell the story of her life -- the life of a Karuk medicine woman, whose remarkable adventures with the spirit world are mixed in a matter-of-fact way with the history of her family and tribe, births and deaths of friends and relatives, work as an Indian Health Service nurse, contending with racism, environmental degradation, socioeconomic tragedies and triumphs, even feeding kitchen scraps to the chickens. She and Salter have done a beautiful job of maintaining the feeling of her life's realities (in several dimensions) while making the story accessible to the ordinary reader.
This is a remarkable book, that belongs in the library of anyone who wants to learn about, or from, indigenous culture, history, and concepts of spirituality.
It provided insight to world views from Karuk, Yurok, and non-Indian perspectives. Ms. McCovey is a humorous writers. Thank you Mavis for your wonderful book. I originally was lent a copy but then bout 3 copies: For our county library, public school, and one for myself.
By Mavis McCovey and John Salter. Heyday Books.
By Malcolm Terence
As a young woman, Mavis McCovey was trained to enter a spirit world by her Karuk Indian elders -- older medicine women. What's unsettling is that McCovey, now an old woman in the Klamath River town of Orleans, sounds somehow believable. For us materialists, judging magic is simple. It's all either delusional, illusional or confusional. But that pat judgment gets dicey when the spirit guide is a hero of what we now call the Herbicide Wars of the 1980s. This magic is not easily discounted.
In her new book Medicine TrailsMedicine Trails: A Life in Many Worlds, which she wrote with the seamless assistance of anthropologist John Salter, McCovey begins a narrative of her life from her birth in 1933 and goes back several generations before. There are the tragic histories like the time her grandfather, then still a boy, watched white miners burn their village and shove Indians back into the burning buildings. Or the great-grandmother who was kidnapped and raped in her early teens by soldiers in Oregon, then rescued by an itinerant peddler and returned to Orleans.
As a child, McCovey repeatedly had visions of future events that she might blurt out to the embarrassment of the adults around her. She talks also of her training by elders, some of it in a form of telepathy wherein their instructions entered her mind without speech. But the stories of magic are interwoven with the daily life of several generations in Orleans and, after her marriage, in Yurok villages downriver.
As she grows older there are stories of summoning medicine in the sacred high country with a combination of fasting, dancing, smoking herbs and prayer. On occasion, she describes leaving her body to rescue a young fatawanun, a medicine man, when he gets lost on a spiritual trail during a ceremony.
Besides her Indian medicine, McCovey spent years as a nurse and a community health worker for the tribe and was a key whistleblower when the Forest Service was applying large amounts of 2,-4D and other dangerous herbicides in dozens of old clearcuts around Orleans. She spotted a disproportionately large number of miscarriages and other illnesses, an observation that got picked up by Bay Area media and enviro campaigners. Her findings were such an embarrassment to the agencies that they sent her to a conference in South Dakota to prevent her meeting with investigators.
The stories of foiling Indian devils are stacked back to back with tales of ordinary Klamath River life -- hitchhiking as a teenager with the wild Grant boys, for example. McCovey is a world-class storyteller and Salter leads her gracefully from one story to another. It becomes easy medicine to swallow.
When I look at the things that are happening to the people living along the Klamath and Trinity rivers now, it sickens me. The rivers are being poisoned, and the land as well, because of the dams and logging. It seems to me that it is a warzone because corporate/government people want to control the water for use elsewhere, and use the land for something other than as a home for the people born and raised there, who's ancestors lived there long before anyone else even knew it was there.
It is my hope that the Yurok, Karuk, and Hoopa people who call that place home will always be able to live there, that soon the people trying to move them out will leave them alone. It is hard to believe that the US government is still working at eliminating natives by paying them off, or, it seems, killing them off. Natives who are members of federally-recognized tribes can take a one-time payment from the US goverment that renounces any right they possibly have as natives for maybe $10,000. So, they can give up their right to land that's been in their families for untold years, the right to fish, hunt, or gather, the right to hold or attend traditional ceremonies. They can't ever go back. I don't think that's worth any dollar amount, but some people still take it. The more I think about it, the more I am grateful that those weak-willed people are gone, because that means only the strong ones are still there. Still fighting, never giving up.
This book is not the best book I have ever read, but it is still a good book. It has a lot of good information, and the experiences shared help the reader to broaden their perspective. Hopefully more people will read it, and pass it on.