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The Vagaries of Family Survival 

Traveling tales along the river

One of my favorite purveyors of family accounts was my great aunt Violet's treasured cousin Ramona. Back in the days of her spritely late 80s (she passed away when she was 97), I would pick her up from her home in Eureka (sometimes with little or no notice) and take her to visit Auntie Vi out in Orleans. In her youth, this trek by trail and ferry crossings would take several days. She and I would make the same trip in a mere two hours. Her eyes dimmed by cataracts and body ravaged by arthritis, she would still twinkle with mirth as she entranced me with stories drug up from her eidetic memory.

After an uninterrupted yet invaluable lecture of 45 minutes, she would take a deep breath and slyly say, "Now, let me tell you something." She would then proceed with another lengthy session of lessons to be taught — humorous narrations and deeply personal memories that I was honored to share with her. Ramona would talk of when she was sent to a distant boarding school. She told me of how her brother was forced to ride on the running board, desperately clinging to the car that was whisking them from Orick, where they had hiked down to from outside of Somes Bar, to Crescent City on their way to a train station that would relocate them from their homeland and families for several years.

She didn't relay any of this with remorse or sadness. It was just her matter-of-fact manner, serenely understating the impact this journey into a foreign world light years from the village of her youth would have upon her and, in turn, the resulting ramifications for her family. Those of us who were not forced to go to boarding school must remember the struggles our elders survived to return home to keep our people going. The ripple effects have long lasting repercussions, concentric rings moving outward in the grand scheme of things. In Western philosophical constructs, this is posited by Carl Jung as the collective unconscious. The more pertinent postulation in a Native context is the concept of inter-generational trauma and the related PTSD as espoused by Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart. Also called historical trauma, these scars are the result of genocide, racism, displacement and alienation from our traditional culture. Psychologist Kathleen Brown-Rice defines this phenomenon: "Native Americans are experiencing historical loss symptoms (e.g., depression, substance dependence, diabetes, dysfunctional parenting, unemployment) as a result of the cross-generational transmission of trauma from historical losses (e.g., loss of population, land and culture)."

Ramona was a great teller of tales and I am saddened that I was to hear but a few in our flights of fancy up river. Another of her stories that stays strong in my memory is a retelling of what should have been a routine trip along the Salmon River. "Routine" in this instance is highly subjective, as the remote, rocky trails are still harrowingly perched between steep drop-offs to the river and the mountainside ready to slough off tons of dirt and rocks at any given moment.

When only 15 years old, my great grandfather Bob Johnny was sent to the small trading post 8 miles distant. He was supposed to pick up a stock of sundry supplies for his family larder. Hearing a noise, he climbed up a tree to see what or who was coming up behind him. The only tree he could find was a madrone with its meager vegetation; this shabby hiding place would have to do. When he was concealed as best as possible, given the scant foliage, he could see over the cliff, down to a river bar that held a Chinese mining camp where two Asian prospectors were hard at work.

Up in the tree, Grandfather Bob spied two drunken uyúnyun apxanntínihich (crazy people with kind of a wide hat — the Karuk word for "white man"), singing loudly in a slurred melody slinking along the path. When they got to the trail that went down the bank to the mining camp, they dismounted, went down to the river, confronted and summarily killed the miners after cutting off their queues, or long braids. This was a barbarous act of great humiliation as the braids signified allegiance to their homeland.

My grandfather watched the braids and the two bodies disappear down the rapids and around the bend. The murderous pair then poked around the camp, looted what valuables they could find, took a triumphant piss, remounted their horses and went on their merry way. Bob waited a good amount of time before climbing down out of the tree and scooting off home to the relative safety of his village.

It is amazing that the life of entire future generations of family can be that tenuous. I am only here today because my great grandfather was prescient enough to take precautions when he felt alarmed about something unknown coming his way. Our entire family tree could have been torn asunder into so much firewood — like those of the two murdered men — if young master Johnny had not harkened to his Spidey senses. Its rippling effects are not dissimilar to how the experience of the matriarch of a large clan being sent off to boarding school had a trickle down impact on her descending brood.

I have said it before and undoubtedly will say it again, truly all things are connected.

No matter your ethnic identity, take the time to seek out the Ramonas of your people. Ask them about what they can remember of their youth and your family history. You will come away with new knowledge that helps you make sense of your place in this world full of crazy people with those wide hats. Share what you know with your children, nieces, nephews and younger cousins so they, too, can learn about what makes them connected to your bloodline as they make their own travels and travails through life.

Just my two dentalias worth.

André Cramblit is a Karuk tribal member from the Klamath and Salmon rivers in northwest California, and the Health Promotions and Education Manager for United Indian Health Services, Inc. He lives with his wife Wendy and son Kyle, and still warily travels the trails of Northwestern California.

Read more personal essays on Have your own story to tell? Email [email protected].

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André Cramblit

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