When Boy Watching Sky returned from three nights on The Mountain, he walked into Sour Berries’ camp and said, “Hey Uncle, I need to talk with you.” Sour Berries sighed, “You are back early, get me some firewood.”
Now, calling someone Uncle is an honor, they say. He may not be your blood Uncle, but he is an Elder you have respect for, same as calling an Elder woman Auntie.
So, Boy Watching Sky went to gather firewood. Coming back, he asked, “Uncle, is this enough wood? I need to sit and talk with you.”
Well, you never ask an Elder if that is enough, because it never is. Sour Berries replied, “Get me another arm load.” So, Boy Watching Sky got another armload of firewood, and finally, Sour Berries told me to sit and tell him why I returned from The Mountain early.
I rolled up a log and sat down to tell Uncle Sour Berries what happened on The Mountain. Uncle said to get some water for tea, for both of us. I’d had nothing to drink for three days, so I made some tea in a basket with hot rocks from Uncle’s fire. The wild mint tea smelled good to me.
“Uncle,” I said, “I want to do something important for my village. Sour Berries asked why. “Because I want to earn respect from my village and have other villages respect me too. Can you give me some guidance, please?”
Uncle Sour Berries’ Advise
Uncle told me to get some Brodias1 and make a stew for my first meal. “But Uncle, I am hungry and need some Nop2.”
Uncle just threw wood on the fire he was sitting next to, and tossed in a couple of cooking stones. I filled a basket half full of Mem3, added a couple Brodias, along with some pepper grass and snuck in a piece of jerky lying there. He never saw me throw in some Noo-oohl4 too. I rinsed off the cooking stones with a splash of water and put them in the basket. Those cooking stones boiled it up fast. A few minutes later, my stomach started to grumble and ache. As I ran off into the bushes to let it flow, I could hear Uncle laughing at me. When I came back, Uncle gave me some more mint tea to drink. Sure did soothe my stomach.
Like I was saying, I wanted to earn respect from my people. “How do I do that, Uncle?” He said, “Throw another piece of wood on the fire. I am getting cold.” I sat there for awhile until Uncle saw I was tired, and he told me to go lay down in the Cewel5. I did lay down, and I slept until early next morning.
When I stepped outside, Uncle was sitting next to the fire. He saw me and said to go get more firewood. This time, when I came back, I didn’t ask if there was enough wood. “Uncle, I need to talk to you.” Sour Berries replied, “Go to the First Fire. Tell Short Foot why you returned from The Mountain early, and he may need some wood too.”
“But I don’t want to talk to him. All he ever does is sit around that fire all day and all night. I think he must be lazy. He is nice, but I am asking you, Uncle.”
Sour Berries just put another piece of wood on the fire and sat there.
On the way over to the First Fire, I gathered an arm load of wood for Short Foot, as Uncle told me to. Well, I know you don’t go to this fire without wood. Short Foot was sitting next to The Fire, as usual. He was happy to see me bring some wood and smiled. “Thank you,” he said, “but what are you doing back so early?” Ay, did everyone know I came down from The Mountain early?
Short Foot had been Fire Keeper for many years. The Fire Keeper for the village must keep the fire going all the time, even in summer when it is really hot, or in winter when it is raining or snowing. If The Fire dies, the people might also die.
Every other fire in the village must come here and get a coal to take back to their camp, so they can cook or keep warm. No cooking is done at the Ceremonial Fire, and no trash in this Fire either. Only the Fire Keeper is the one to feed The Fire. We didn’t really think about it. That is the way things are done.
Short Foot’s Name
Short Foot got his name when he went hunting for a ceremonial bear with the men. They found the cave where the bear was sleeping and sent in someone small who could move fast in a very small space. So his father sent in Short Foot with a stick to wake the bear. Well, the stick wasn’t very long, and he had to wake the bear, so he kicked it. The bear woke up and grabbed his foot and took a bite out of it. Laughing Boy, his name was then, couldn’t get out of the cave fast enough. But he didn’t laugh for a long time after that because his foot never healed right.
We chatted for awhile, and I told him why I was at The Fire, to talk, and that Sour Berries had sent me. I told him that I wanted to earn respect from my people. Short Foot asked me to go get more wood for the fire. When I came back with a big oak branch, he told me to lay that one over next to the wood pile. Running Waters had brought him breakfast of smoked salmon and acorn mush. She was really happy to see me. Now, she wasn’t usually that happy to see me, but anyway, we all ate together. Short Foot stood up when Running Waters took his hand, and they snuck away. I sat there for a moment and hollered at them. “Hey, where you going?” Short Foot just hollered back, “Don’t let The Fire go out!”
“Uncle, why are people packing up? Charlie Stand Up has made more arrows than anyone can use. Song Bird has made five new baskets. Uncle, you made a twenty foot rope. Is it time for the Big Times at Turtle Bay?”
“Yes Nephew, but you will not be going.”
“Uncle, I have to. Leaves Falling is waiting for me to go see her.”
“That may be, but you have not fulfilled your commitment. You have not been Fire Keeper for a year.”
“Uncle, I will replace myself!”
“Boy Watching Sky, you are being honored to take care of the village and the Elders who cannot make the journey. They need someone who will make them feel safe. I promise to talk to Leaves Falling, her parents and the Elders. She may not want you.”
“Stop, Uncle, she wants me. Uncle, I need to go.”
“Nephew, what you need to do is keep your word. She doesn’t want a whiny boy, she wants a man. Your mother will decide if she wants Leaves Falling for a daughter. Enough said.”
Rocks In Her Hands arrived at The Fire, and she could see her son was not happy. She opened her arms and gave me a big hug. We sat and chatted about The Fire and good things in life. Boy Watching Sky saw a tear of pride in his mother’s eyes as she looked at her son. Rocks In Her Hands left her son with a hug and told him he could find his name if he wished. He was no longer a child.
Left To Village Duties
While the village was gone, most of the Elders moved into the Round House so they could be together. I was glad because I didn’t want to be running around so much. I was so busy for the first two weeks, I never knew what day it was.
I was about to put more wood on The Fire. One of the Elders, Sleeping Dog, was running out of the dark, screaming and throwing rocks behind her. I could see two eyes close to the ground and ready to leap. Oh no no, a cougar was chasing Sleeping Dog. I wanted to run, but found myself holding a stick that was on fire. I didn’t even think. I just started running after the Cougar. Everyone knows wild cougars are scared of fire. When I returned, the Elders were throwing wood on The Fire. I started to tell them that was my job, but then realized they felt safe with fire.
The next couple of weeks were uneventful, just chores. I felt closer to my Elders, and it was good. One day, the dogs started barking and running around excited. I left The Fire and ran up the hill to see if the village was returning. I saw them but could not see if Leaves Falling was with them.
I ran down the hill to ask my mother where Leaves Falling was. But Sour Berries stopped me and told me my mother was tired. She had been doctoring most of the time. Running Waters was pregnant, and the journey was hard on everyone. Short Foot would go up on The Mountain as soon as he was rested. “Uncle, where is Leaves Falling?” Sour Berries sighed, “Nephew, we are all tired. Let us rest, and we will talk later.”
“Ok Nephew,” Sour Berries said as he walked up to The Fire, “we can talk now. I am rested.” I tried to be patient, and Uncle knew it. “Yes, your mother wants Leaves Falling for a daughter, but you need to complete your commitment here and replace yourself. If you want to be with Leaves Falling, you will need to leave here and go live in her village. They need more men in their village, and we are good for enough women. You will live on Dog Creek, north of Turtle Bay, just off the Sacramento River. We will take you there and see to it that you build her a strong Cewel to live in. Then, we will return home and leave you to your new family.”
“No, Uncle. I don’t want to leave my home, she needs to come here. I have never been away from my family. Uncle, what will happen to my mother? She has no husband. She has been alone for four years now, since my father was killed by those Hoopa people.”
“I see you are still a whiny boy,” said Sour Berries. “Nephew, your mother has doctoring to do, and it is very hard for a man to deal with that. Your father was very special that way. Your father knew when to support her and just leave her alone, especially during moon time. She still mourns for him.”
Sour Berries’ Story
“Remember now, my family and I are from Hayampom, way past Hayfork. I came here when Calm Water and I were your age. She passed when giving birth to our second child, Bear Paw. We needed Calm Water’s sister, who’d just had a baby, to feed Bear Paw.”
“I see, Uncle, so Plants On A Hill is not Bear Paw’s mother?”
“Well Nephew, she did not give birth to him, but she did raise him as her son.”
“Uncle, so that is why Bear Paw is always seeing to you and talking and hunting with you. I was jealous that he was talking to you and being with you. Plants On A Hill has a husband, so she could not be your wife. But I see her leaving your Cewel early in the morning sometimes.”
“Nephew, you need to mind your own business. Now go see your mother. She is waiting for you.”
Short Foot’s Return
“Ayee! Short Foot, welcome back,” I greeted, “how was your time on The Mountain?”
“The time was good, Sky Boy. Now I need to go talk with Running Waters, to see how she is with her pregnancy…”
“Well, my mother has been sleeping in your Cewel and doctoring her.”
Short Foot carried on, “…and thank you for the wood. You do remember about being Fire Keeper.”
What’s In A Name
We grow and find our name, so our name changes. “Chala, chala beskin! Good morning, Short Foot, how is Running Waters?” I asked.
“Chala, chala, she is good. The baby is resting and growing inside of her. Sky Boy, can I sit and talk with you?”
“Ha! Well, bring me some wood,” I joked.
We laughed about me being Fire Keeper and him wanting to talk with me. Then, Short Foot said he had grown into a new name.
Sky Boy replied, “Ayee! So have I. My name is Walks With Plants.”
“Yes, you have always walked with plants, as your mother and grandmother have taught you. And, I am no longer Short Foot. I am Laughing Creek. My wife, Running Waters, and I are bonded for life. Before the bear took my foot, I was Laughing Boy. I never was Short Foot, that’s just what people called me. Running Waters and I have talked, and she gave me her blessing to take back Fire Keeper. Now you can leave and go be with Leaves Falling in her village.”
“Wow, Laughing Creek. I love you.”
“Hey Cuz, watch that. A simple thank you is okay.”
“I need to go tell Uncle Sour Berries and my Mother, Rocks In Her Hands.”
“Uncle, Uncle! Short Foot, I mean, Laughing Creek is Fire Keeper again. So I can go to Leaves Falling’s village.”
“Okay, and do you know where her village is? Go tell your Mother the news.”
“Uncle, Rocks In Her Hands can’t go. Mother has doctoring to do here.”
“Well then, Nephew, do you know where Leaves Falling’s village is?”
“No Uncle, I don’t,” and Sour Berries said, “Well Nephew, this will be your challenge.”
“What do you mean, my challenge?”
“Nephew, this is your journey. Bear Paw and I will take you to Trinity Center and then follow a day behind. But you must find Dog Creek down to Leaves Falling’s village by the Sacramento River. If you get to The River, you have gone too far. To be a man, Walks With Plants, you will spend many years with Scared Cat, their Medicine Man. You may be a powerful Medicine Person, if he thinks you are worthy.”
I didn’t realize how hard it would be to say goodbye, but Mother scolded me and said how proud she was that her son was a man, on his own path. She would go to Turtle Bay next year to see if Leaves Falling was pregnant.
So we sang, and sang, and the whole village put me in the center circle to receive their blessing. I cried as each person told the story of my life. Uncle told me to stand and receive this as my going away gift.
Uncle Sour Berries hollered, “Nephew, wake up! It is time for you to leave.”
“Hey, the sun is not up yet!”
“No whining, you are a man.”
For an Elder, Sour Berries sure can keep me running. I hope I am as strong as he is someday. The journey took until almost sundown to make it to Trinity Center. We could smell their fires and the meal they had waiting for us. Uncle said, “Eat up, young man. You won’t eat again until you get to Leaves Falling’s village.”
“Uncle, what if it takes me two days?”
“Are you still whining, nephew? Bear Paw and I will eat for you.”
“Ay, that must be The River. I had gone too far.” I could smell their fires as I arrived at the village. Leaves Falling ran across the creek. Guess she knew I was on my way. Sour Berries and Bear Paw were already eating. They had beat me there, oops… People were laughing and teasing me about getting lost on the way. Leaves Falling scolded the people to leave her husband alone, that she loved him, and to stop teasing. I thought, “Wow, my wife stood up for me. I like this.”
Scared Cat, their Medicine Man, spoke up, “We weren’t married until after I ran…”
“Uncle, what are they talking about?” But Sour Berries said, “Nephew, this is your family. Ask.”
Scared Cat laughed, “Let go that woman, and come with me.”
We went to Scared Cat’s camp and talked until early in the morning. He told me to rest because I was to get up very early the next day and run to Medicine Lake, then pick a piece of obsidian and wrap it up. He handed me a deer hide, saying, “Don’t cut yourself.” Someone would run with me so I wouldn’t get lost. Scared Cat laughed, “Buck Horn, Leaves Falling’s brother, will run with you.” We would need to return before breakfast. We had a long way to run.”
Leaves Falling said she would have breakfast ready, so I had better run fast, that her brother was a strong runner. So I went to bed early and didn’t sleep too well, praying that I would make her proud.
Buck Horn hollered, “Walks With Plants, get up! It’s time to run.”
“It’s still dark out!”
“Oh yeah, Sour Berries told me you were a whiner. Pick up that hide, and let’s get going.”
As Buck Horn took off, I realized this was a test, it was time to grow up. No more whining.
As we approached the summit, Buck Horn told me to go without moccasins and walk on the obsidian without cutting myself until Olibis6 gave me a big rock to take home.
Rite of Passage
The sun was rising as we ran into the village. Leaves Falling was cooking our meal. After breakfast, Scared Cat told me to sit with him. He asked Leaves Falling to join us after awhile. As I asked her to be my wife, he gave us his blessing. Before I could sleep or rest, Leaves Falling and I were married. I got it, we would be with each other for life.
Willow Tree ran into the village all excited. Someone was coming, and they had hairy faces, more dogs and long sticks that made a loud noise. We knew nothing about these people with guns.
We all gathered around as they came closer. Who were they? Where did they come from? They sat down with beads in their hands, an offering. Ay, we didn’t have beads like this. One of the strangers was choking and coughing. Our Medicine Man told them not to visit our village, to go away. Scared Cat had seen these people in his dreams and said his village would get sick if they came any closer. So the strangers left us their beads in a blanket and left. We didn’t know their blanket would make us sick.
Note: A version of this story was told to me by an Elder named Don McMorrow.
Some Wintu Words:
1 Brodias — Potatoes
2 Nop — Venison
3 Mem — Water
4 Noo-oohl — Salmon
5 Cewel — House
6 Olibis — Creator