strolled down the rolling slope from his house toward the California
shoreline that had once been part of his tribe’s “fishing
trap.” The land hadn’t changed much during Yurok-Na’s
lifetime, but his family had recited many times the stories of the
great sea monster who conspired with the moon to carve out the cul-de-sac,
a place to hide the sea monster’s favorite fish from the whales
that roamed the coastal waters in search of the delicacies. In exchange
for some of the fish to be used as food, Yurok-Na’s people had
promised the great sea monster to watch over the fish.
As the stories had been told time and again, Yurok-Na had never questioned
whether or not there was any truth to these ancient myths of his people;
he was simply content to fish and live on the land as a boy and follow
in the traditions of his people as he grew to manhood. But his people were
few now. The younger ones had gone in pursuit of happiness and the old
ones had moved when the developers arrived to clear the way for northwest
California’s newest “land find.” That’s when the
state “acquired” the land which ran along the shoreline as
part of the land “settlement” for highway construction. As
part of the settlement, Yurok-Na had his own house rebuilt. It was a modest
wood frame house, built mostly from local cedar, on ten acres of land that
ran from a small wooded area, all the way to the ocean. Yurok-Na liked
to sit on the porch which ran the full length of the front of the house
and around the west side, where he could sit and watch the sunset.
Yurok-Na had not thought about land development that morning; he had other
pressing matters. He had awoke early out of a vivid dream in which he saw
his family picking up long sticks and throwing them into the sea from the
bluff near his house. In the dream he heard his grandmother telling the
sea monster story to a blond-haired man who was trying to put her in a
box. But his grandmother kept appearing outside of the box and continued
telling the sea monster story. Yurok-Na was puzzled by the dream and had
decided that a walk to the shore would help clear his head.
As he neared the bluff, he could see the mouth of the crescent-shaped inlet
that appeared to be closing around the body of water where he used to fish.
The landscape formed around the lagoon like a cylindrical rock sculpture,
half emerging from the surrounding sea. Yurok-Na had always marveled at
the grandeur and beauty here, even though the new owners had built a four-lane
highway on top of a naturally occurring plateau that had settled about
twenty feet below where he now stood. The highway clung close to the rock
wall which descended almost straight down from Yurok-Na’s perch.
A few paces to the right was a natural path which was used by Yurok-Na,
and others before him, to travel to the shore’s edge with fishing
tackle and baskets to be filled with the day’s catch. Now, however,
the path was truncated by about three feet at the bottom where it connected
with the plateau. Highway road construction had not considered that Yurok-Na
had used the path as access to the fish trap. To the road engineers, the
outcropping was simply a geological form that needed to be sheered so that
there would be sufficient room to erect a big yellow sign with the warning, “Caution!
Falling Rock,” indicated by a dark squiggly line beneath the letters
suggesting a curvy road. But Yurok-Na didn’t feel any inconvenience
by the new developments. To the contrary, he found the sign and its sturdy
post a useful thing to grab when climbing up and down the path. It was
as though the state had inadvertently given him a planted hiking stick
to make the journey a bit easier on his tired bones.
The highway curved and arched slightly as it bent around the bluff, where above,
Yurok-Na paused before turning to descend the rock-step path. Directly
across from the highway, a spacious plateau stretched out another two hundred
feet or so before dropping off to the rock and sandy beach a hundred and
fifty feet below. It was here, Yurok-Na remembered, that the people would
bring the day’s catch to clean and divide among the households of
his village. Those seemed, in his mind, to be happier times. But now, the
grassy plateau was no longer the resting place for cleaning fish or dividing
shares among friends. A man had come with papers and words declaring his
ownership of this scenic piece of real estate. It was this newcomer and
all the commotion around him that caught Yurok-Na’s attention when
he reached the bluff overlooking the highway, the plateau, the peaceful
lagoon and the bounteous sea beyond, where the sea monster lived and where
the sun took its bath at the end of each day.
With agility and ease, Yurok-Na walked down the path, reached the bottom, and
grabbed the signpost for his final twirl like a veteran firefighter sliding
down a pole in the firehouse. With both feet firmly planted on the gravel
shoulder of the road, he walked over to his special leaning rock and settled
back to watch the scene unfolding before him.
The newcomer had been there before, Yurok-Na remembered. Once he had come with
a man in a bright green-plaid sports jacket, and they frantically paced
across the grassy field, back and forth, up and down, all the while pointing
in every direction and gesturing as though they were somehow conjuring
up some great mystery. Another time, the newcomer had driven onto the field
with a woman in his car. They both quietly watched as the sun stripped
off its yellow robe before dipping its bare red-pink body into the sea.
And then they drove away without ever getting out of the car. Of course,
it was winter then, and the strong cold wind kept most people indoors,
especially those not acclimated to the harshness of winter’s icy
visitation. It was springtime now, though, and the newcomer was excitedly
watching construction workers unloading lumber and building materials for
his new house. Yurok-Na had learned of the newcomer’s building plans
from a neighbor who had a few horses that grazed on Yurok-Na’s ten
Dan Wright was talking with his architect and contractor while his wife stood
by quietly admiring the view. As they were surveying the area, Dan noticed
his curious neighbor leaning against the rock observing the goings-on.
At first he thought he was just seeing a traveler, or migrant worker, who
had stopped to rest before continuing on to the vineyards for the seasonal
work provided by the wine growers of the region. But then he remembered.
The real estate agent told him that the land east of the highway was not
part of the development plan because it belonged to one of California’s
vanishing Indians. Dan Wright knew the development potential of that parcel
of land above his and would love to profit in its improvement. For now,
however, he was quite pleased he had acquired the property he was building
Dan Wright walked with the builders and nodded his head as the surveyors lined
off the areas where the foundation and footings would be laid. This was
a proud and happy day for Dan, and although he was slightly annoyed by
the presence of his “neighbor,” he thought himself to be shrewd,
yet a hospitable young business tycoon. After all, he was building an elaborate
edifice to his success. Besides, he pondered half-heartedly, why not show
a neighborly gesture and introduce himself to this “vanishing Indian.”
Dan motioned to his wife to accompany him across the road. He took a deep breath,
exhaled, and strode across the highway to where Yurok-Na was leaning.
Yurok-Na was curious, yet not apprehensive as the young man approached. Yurok-Na
noticed the man’s walk was forceful and proud, that he was a bigger
man than Yurok-Na himself. The man had a big smile, blue eyes and golden-blond
hair. To Yurok-Na this man seemed to typify other non-Indian men he had
met since the development of the area began. They also had moved about
with this air of confidence and self-conceit, as though they knew what
was best for the land. Yurok-Na also noticed Dan’s wife, who appeared
small, frail-looking, and somewhat aloof. He was reminded of his own wife,
who while alive, would carry baskets of fish, weighing almost as much as
Dan’s wife, from the beach to the plateau above the cliff where they
Dan Wright slowed as he approached where Yurok-Na was leaning and half-turned
as though he was surveying anew the spectacular view before them. He stood
a couple of yards from Yurok-Na, crossed his arms, bowed his head slightly,
and took another deep breath before he exhaled, “Sure is a beautiful
place, isn’t it?” He glanced toward Yurok-Na, anticipating
some agreeable acknowledgment.
nodded his head as though he had received some cue to proceed with
his plan. Without offering his hand to be shaken by the frail-looking
old man, he uncrossed one arm and pointed from one side to the other
saying, “I’m Dan Wright, and this is my wife, Susan.” Yurok-Na
nodded in acknowledgment of her, then turned his eyes toward Dan when
he heard him saying, “I own all this property. I’m building
a new house, a mansion really. Got this land for a steal, though the
expense was not important. I could buy anywhere, but we fell in love
with this place.”
Yurok-Na did not move, but his eyes rolled toward the big man standing next
to him and gave a half-smile to Mr. Dan Wright.
Seeing that the old man was somewhat amiable, Dan asked, “What do I call
old man replied.
rock, neh, me Tarzan, eh?” Dan said, thinking himself clever
in sharing a bit of cultural wit that was completely lost on the old
Yurok-Na detected, however, that Dan Wright was attempting to evoke a humorous
response, so he chuckled along with the newcomer.
Dan went on to tell Yurok-Na about how he had been able to successfully work
the stock market while finishing his MBA at Stanford University. And how
three of the top brokerage firms in the nation were vying for his attention
because of his impressive academic and business record. He had been one
of the first, outside of the medical community, to see the enormous investment
potential in AIDS related pharmaceuticals. It was through his business
acumen that he was able to capitalize on the production of AZT, by buying
shares in the company during the research phase of its development. “With
the profits from that single investment,” he boisterously added,
as though he was asked to laud his own accomplishments, “I was able
to pay off my graduate school costs, build a portfolio, and practically
buy bids from firms wanting to employ me. I made the best choice, of course.
What could be better than a senior sales executive with Merrill Lynch,
and pulling down a comfortable six figure salary each year with a full
range of investment options and benefits.”
Dan felt the need to impress upon the old man that his youth and personable
nature should in no way obscure the fact that he was somebody big and important,
a genuine mover and shaker in the business world.
Yurok-Na tried to listen intently to what Dan was saying, but noticed that
he kept speaking louder and louder, like young people do who think that
all old people have grown deaf. This slightly irritated Yurok-Na, who could
listen, and hear, quite well despite his years. He was somewhat familiar
with the content of Dan’s disclosure, though he used a different
language and frame of reference to describe it. He hinted that he and Dan
were in a similar line of business by saying, “I collect animal dung
from my farm, and combine it with fish guts from the fish I catch and clean,
to make some mighty potent fertilizer.”
went on to say, “My people fished in this region for over four
hundred years and they were able to support many families through the
Dan unconsciously contorted his face as though he was just confronted with
a bad smell. He didn’t fish and certainly didn’t handle manure.
The closest he ever got to fishing was eating California style sushi, and
what he called farming was directing yard workers to where they would find
the lawn-care equipment.
I can’t stand around here all day. I’ve got to get back
to business.” “It was nice meetin’ ya, you rock,” Dan
Wright said with a smile. He then turned to Susan, who seemed lost
in admiring the landscape, he cupped her under the arm and they both
scurried across the road.
the old man thought to himself as he watched Dan turn to cross the
road. I am called Yurok-Na.
Dan smugly patted himself on the back and thought his meeting had gone pretty
well. He had sized up the old man, and felt assured that with the right
amount of persuasive charm, he could acquire the land upon which the old
man now lived. He felt, too, that the world was his that day.
The old man awoke the next morning and sat for a long time on the edge of his
bed. He thought about the meeting with Dan Wright, the construction across
the road, and the dream about his people throwing sticks off a cliff. He
remembered how his grandmother had taught him to pay attention to his dreams,
for they were shadows of things that give insight into this world. The
images of his recent dream and the words of his grandmother whirred about
in his head until they became syncronized with the buzzing of the cicada
outside his window. The sound of the bug broke through his drowsiness and
brought him into an awareness of the day. The dream, the thoughts and images
of the day before faded and were replaced with his slow movement toward
his breakfast of tea and tortillas.
After his breakfast, Yurok-Na completed his few chores and headed toward the
bluff where his new neighbor’s building project was going on below.
He had no sooner gotten comfortable leaning against the same rock that
he had leaned on the day before when Dan Wright and two other men crossed
the road carrying a couple of large objects. The men shuffled about some
and set up an easel and what appeared to be (from where Yurok-Na was leaning)
some sort of painting. The men stood back from the painting with Dan and
talked with one another until Dan noticed the old man standing as though
he had not moved from the spot where he had been when he had first seen
him. At that moment, Dan stood back from the men and proudly motioned for
Yurok-Na to come to where the men were standing.
Yurok-Na shyly approached the three men, all of whom were smiling and commenting
on the painting. When the old man reached the men he could see that they
were looking at a picture of a very fine house, a mansion, really.
Dan, who was quite pleased with the rendering, said to Yurok-Na, “Isn’t
she beautiful? What’ya think, old man?”
Yurok-Na glanced at the picture and then moved his eyes to the clearing, then
across the lagoon and finally out over the open sea beyond. He said very
plainly, “I would not build there.”
first, Dan didn’t quite believe what he heard the old man say.
But he was not going to let anything spoil his prideful jubilation
over his prospective homesite. So he retorted with an almost admonitory
tone, “Well old man, I own this property, and I am going to build
here! Besides, you could not afford to build a two million dollar estate
on your income, but I can and I will.”
Yurok-Na took no offense at the harshness in Dan’s voice. After all,
he thought to himself, I already have a house and have no need of so much money.
*   *   *   *  *
spring brought forth its bounty of natural richness, which meant that
Yurok-Na would be busy with his farm activities. He especially liked
to tend his garden and pick fruit from a few trees that grew next to
a lean-to barn that kept his tools and some of the animals from the
rain and wind. Close to the trees, near some wild grape vines, stood
three wooden bee hives that provided all the sweetness that the old
man required. He relished having fresh honey on his tortillas at breakfast,
and in all the years he had worked the hives, he had never been stung
by the bees. Yurok-Na thought that since he shared the flowering vegetation
of his farm with the bees, then they should share their honey with
him. Thus far, it had been a harmonious and mutually beneficial arrangement.
After attending the chores around the farm, Yurok-Na always seemed to find
the time to check on his neighbor’s house building project. He would
walk to the edge of the bluff, sometimes descending the path to his leaning
spot, and at other times he just stood above and watched the builders move
about. At times he would stare in wonder, but mostly he would walk away
and quietly shake his head and ponder about the changes he was witnessing.
Throughout the weeks and months of its construction, Dan Wright rarely visited
his house. His work kept him quite busy. However, on some weekends he would
visit to check on the progress the contractors were making as the house
began to take form. He noted that developments were moving on schedule
and he expected to move in by late summer or early fall.
The house was two stories high of contemporary, almost radical design. At the
front it had (the appearance of) a glass and granite cathedral, with two
large hand-carved, Honduras mahogeny doors, surrounded by glass in the
center of the main house. A two car garage and storage room angled off
the main house at one end, and a modest guest house completed the symmetrical
design at the other. Its shape was that of three sides of an octogon with
each of the wings on both ends extending a little more than half the distance
across the front of the main house.
Through the open doorway in the front of the house, the ocean and the horizon
beyond could be seen. The house appeared open, and sunlight cascaded down
onto a white marble floor from a gable skylight that ran through the center
of the house, from the front archway to the patio. From the patio the land
was terraced and landscaped to accentuate the opulence of the house itself.
Dan Wright had envisioned his mansion to be a majestic dwelling, a symbol
proclaiming his wealth and rising prominence. Architecturally and aesthetically,
the house was all that he had hoped.
*   *   *   *   *
had come and almost gone when Yurok-Na was visited by his sister’s
son, Ben Franklin Horse. Ben was sent by his mother to check on the “old
man,” and to bring back some of the baskets that he wove to be
sold in the seaside restaurant and antique store they owned near Bolinas,
northwest of San Francisco. Yurok-Na liked to weave baskets, but had
no use for them just filling up his small house. Besides, his sister
and little Ben were able to sell all the baskets he could supply. They
would advertise the baskets as rare, hand-crafted baskets, woven in
the old tradition by an “ancient” Indian. Yurok-Na did
not consider himself ancient; after all, he was only eighteen years
older than his sister. Anyway, it made them happy to sell them, and
he was happy to make them.
When Ben arrived he found Yurok-Na to be in good health and in good spirits.
He also found fewer baskets than he had on previous trips, so he was curious
about what his uncle had been up to.
“ Do you have a new girlfriend?” Ben querried.
do you? and you just want to compare notes?” Yurok-Na replied,
humoring his nephew.
no. I just see that you have made half as many baskets as the last
time I visited, and I was wondering what had captured your attention,
that’s all,” Ben said.
wanting to let Ben off the hook, Yurok-Na responded, “Oh, you
and Lucy Sits-On-A-Horse are worried about the profit you make from
my tedious labor?”
uncle,” Ben exclaimed, half pleading and half wanting to shrink
away from some bit of truth that his old uncle was always keen to see
into. He continued, this time without any snide overtone, “No,
I am curious about what you have been doing with yourself since we
visited last winter.”
is good to see you, too, little Ben,” Yurok-Na said with a chuckle.
was relieved, and wondered why this always happened when he came to
visit his uncle. He would always prepare, like someone psyching himself
up before a big chess match, only to be checked after a couple of opening
moves. He was constantly trying to get one over on the old man, but
he always felt a slight, yet non-lethal sting of the old man’s
mastery whenever he tried.
Ben and Yurok-Na spoke about the events of the season and brought themselves
up on all of the pertinent gossip. Finally, Yurok-Na told of the new building
project that was taking place on the land where his people had cleaned
and prepared their fishing catch in the old days. After a smoke and some
tea, Yurok-Na and Ben walked down to the side of the road and looked at
the house, which was nearly complete, except for some finishing and trim
work. While they were standing there, Dan Wright drove up and got out to
inspect his mansion. From where they stood, Yurok-Na could see that Dan
was excited and pleased. In fact, feeling the need to gloat and wanting
to see who this person next to Yurok-Na was, Dan walked across the road
to where the two men were standing.
Dan was grinning, as usual, and Yurok-Na smiled and nodded at Dan. Ben, who
had known and dealt with many people similar to Dan in his business, stood
up straight, smiled and prepared to greet him.
I’m Dan Wright.”
waiting for a pause, Ben replied, “Pleased to meet you. I am
Ben Horse. My uncle here told me about your house and I wanted to come
take a look for myself. It sure is a beautiful place.”
my wife and I plan to move in very soon. In fact, we should have it
furnished and decorated before Labor Day,” Dan beamed proudly.
Dan and Ben both stood there admiring the house together and making small talk
while Yurok-Na surveyed all. And then Yurok-Na, in a moment of silence
uttered something in a tongue foreign to Dan Wright. Ben heard it and understood
it, at least understood it was the language of his mother’s people
he had been taught it as a child.
turned to Yurok-Na and then to Ben and asked, “What did he say?”
replied, while looking at Yurok-Na, “He said, ‘I would
not build there’?” Ben knew that his uncle had spoken these
words, yet he was not sure why.
on the other hand, had heard them before, but now he was too elated
to be disturbed by them and simply shook his head, chuckled and muttered
to himself, loudly, “That old man.”
Ben continued to look at Yurok-Na, who was distant, almost trancelike in his
stare out to sea, and he wondered what his uncle had meant. He knew that
his uncle was not openly antagonistic; usually he was just the opposite.
Ben knew his uncle as an humble and selfless man who rarely spoke in adversity,
if he spoke at all. He knew he would have to find out more if he was to
understand. He also knew that his uncle was not one prone to tell much,
if anything, that would help him. His mother had always said of her brother, “He’s
a little strange, even for an Indian.”
Ben’s pondering was broken with a start as Dan abruptly begged his pardon,
said his good-byes and stepped back across the road. Ben and Yurok-Na stood
there for a few more moments and then went back to the farm for an evening
Yurok-Na and Ben sat quietly throughout their dinner, and neither felt moved
to fill in the silence with chit-chat. After the dishes were cleaned and
put away, Yurok-Na invited Ben to share a pipe of sage and tobacco with
him on the porch. When they had settled and smoked a few puffs, Ben asked
Yurok-Na if he had gone fishing lately. Yurok-Na listened as Ben complained
that work at the restaurant had kept him too busy to do much fishing, or
anything else for that matter.
After a pause from listening to Ben, Yurok-Na took a puff on the pipe and laid
it on the porch beside him. He exhaled the smoke and watched as it dissipated
into the moonlit air. And then he said, “I had a dream, and my grandmother
was speaking to me.”
In that moment Ben knew that Yurok-Na was aware of the “real” question
behind his lead in. He knew that his uncle was uncanny and direct, and always
seemed to sense what was preeminent in his mind. Ben also knew that Yurok-Na
would say no more than he had already said, so he decided to dismiss the whole
event before he went into the house to sleep. Ben thought to himself, I’ll
be leaving in the morning and returning to my own troubles. But still, Ben
thought of his uncle, and he thought of the strangeness of the encounter between
Dan and Yurok-Na at the side of the road. Soon, however, tiredness overcame
him, his thoughts turned to mush and he went to bed.
Yurok-Na continued to sit on the porch after his nephew went into the house.
He thought about the day and about Ben Franklin Horse. Yurok-Na desired
to see in his nephew some indication that he would follow in the path of
his people. Instead, the old man saw a young man living in two worlds,
like a horse with two heads -- he could move along, but he could never
be sure in which direction to move.
*   *   *   *   *
weeks had passed since Ben’s visit. It was the beginning of the
Labor Day weekend. Dan Wright’s house was now built and he had
moved in most of his furnishings. Yurok-Na had spent the time since
his nephew’s visit weaving a couple of baskets and stocking his
pantry with his newly harvested batch of wildflower honey. In the midst
of his chores, Yurok-Na went to see Dan’s completed house and
he noticed what appeared to be a flock of geese flying their wedge
toward the south. He knew that fall’s chill would soon settle
in to take summer’s place in the cycle of changing seasons. He
sensed the change and was busy making his own preparations for the
On Sunday, Dan Wright drove to his house to make one last inspection before
he moved in. He wanted to assure himself that everything was perfect before
he brought his wife to live in their mansion by the bay. Everything was
perfect. Dan stayed and walked around the house and grounds until it was
dusk. He got into his car and drove away beaming with pride and thinking
that he was one of the most successful and respected men in the world.
Yurok-Na did not see Dan that day, for he had not gone down to the cliff. Instead
he stayed around his own house and whittled on a piece of pine most of
the afternoon. That night, Yurok-Na went to bed and fell quickly to sleep.
At about 2:00 a.m., he awoke from a dream. It was the same dream he had
earlier that year about his grandmother, his people and the sea monster.
Only this time, he had the distinct impression that his grandmother had
told him that the sea monster was here, or it was near. He sat up in bed
and tried to determine what his grandmother was telling him. He sat for
a long time before drifting off to sleep again.
Yurok-Na awoke that morning to the sound of the horses whinnying as though
something had spooked them. Then he felt a slight tremor, a very faint
shaking. He wasn’t fearful. He was more concerned with the animals
and their noises, for now the birds, the dogs and whatever bug could muster
a sound was making a racket. Yurok-Na stumbled to his feet, but before
he could get dressed to go outside and see what the nature of the disturbance
was, the chorus had ceased its clattering.
In the silence that followed, Yurok-Na remembered that he awoke from a dream
earlier that morning. As the images slowly came back to him, he found himself
still unclear about his grandmother’s words in the dream, so he decided
to have his morning tea and take some time to reflect on the meaning of
his dream. He did not sit for very long before he felt restless and fidgety.
He walked around the outside of his house and spoke to all of the animals
that were awaiting their morning feed. After tending to their needs he
headed for the cliff overlook to catch a glimpse of the sea as it separated
from the dark blue sky when the sun appeared behind him. When he reached
the cliff’s edge, he stopped and took in all that was around him
and before him. He had been standing there for only a couple of minutes
before he heard the sound of a car coming up the highway.
Dan Wright was chatting with his wife as he wheeled his car around the slow
turn toward his house. He noticed some rocks and dirt scattered across
the road immediately in front of them. He slowed the car to a stop a few
yards from where the falling rock caution sign stood. He and his wife got
out of the car and walked toward the sign, and when they were just even
with it, they stopped and stood in the middle of the fallen debris. Dan
stared as if staring into emptiness. For like a shard of ice that had broken
away from a glacier, the cliff had fractured. And the land, the house and
one man’s dream had slipped down into the awaiting sea below.
Yurok-Na saw Dan out of the corner of his eye as he stood looking into the
hole that had been left in the place of his house. And without recalling
the dream he now knew clearly what it meant.
Dan saw Yurok-Na out of the corner of his eye as he stood peering into the
hole created by the sea monster. And the old man’s words kept ringing
in his ears: “I would not build there.”