Where the Light Was Coming From
By Deborah A. Miranda
What good is a story? Great storytellers, and great literature, craft story out of a few crucial strategies: metaphor, allegory, mythology. Story is everything we are. Human beings are made of words and the patterns we construct out of words. Fourth graders, their parents, their teachers, tourists to the missions, even historians, often learn and perpetuate only one story about California Indians: conquest, subjugation, defeat, disappearance. Somehow, this story manages to get told without any real mention of the violence and violations that accompanied colonization. The mission dioramas, glossaries, coloring book pages, timelines, thrilling tales of the discovery of gold, forty-niner mining-camp songs, and accounts of the adventures of rowdy, good-natured frontiersmen all sidestep the realities of the physical, emotional, spiritual, and cultural pain, or death, required to bring about such iconic mythology. In short, this story is one dimensional, flat, and, worst of all, untrue.
California Indians, however, have many other stories. They aren’t easy; they are fractured. To make them whole, what is needed is a multilayered web of community reaching backward in time and forward in dream, questing deeply into the country of unknown memory—an extremely demanding task.
But why do we need to know about violence and loss? What good would this knowledge do fourth graders? Tourists? Indians?
I think of a story told by my grandfather, Thomas Anthony Miranda, whose voice comes to me from recordings made by other family members searching for shards. In “The Light from the Carrisa Plains,” my grandfather narrates his experience about being drawn toward a mysterious light while working as a vaquero far from his birthplace in Monterey. His yearning toward this light started Tom on a journey around California’s landscape that took most of his life.
I have learned two important and seemingly oppositional facts about that light.
One, the light my grandfather yearned toward came from the top of Mt. Diablo, about three hundred miles away. He said, “I’ll tell you what made me leave there: I could see a light from the Carrisa Plains every night, and I said, I wonder where the hell that light is? You could see it from the Carrisa Plains as soon as it got dark every single night.” The geography Tom spoke of was significant: he was being pulled homeward.
Mt. Diablo, at the upper end of the San Joaquin Valley, and Big Sur’s Pico Blanco are both considered places of emergence, places where the world began after a great flood, by local Indian peoples—including some of my ancestors, whose community at the Carmel mission was artificially created by the cramming together of Ohlone, Costanoan, Salinan, and other tribes from that general area.
Places of emergence are sacred; the Wintun, Pomo, Northern and Southern Sierra Miwok, Nisenan, and many other Indian peoples also revered the mountains from afar or traveled there to conduct important ceremonies. Who we are is where we are from. Where we are from is who we are.
As the Esselen and other communities went into the missions, forcibly encouraged to leave behind their individual cultures for a Mission Indian template planned by the Franciscans, their beliefs and stories began to merge. In this time of great loss, as people from different Native cultures intermarried, lived together in close quarters, and shared survival knowledge, there was also great innovation and resourcefulness. It isn’t hard to see how Indian peoples might have lost the specificity of which mountain was sacred for which community, while retaining the knowledge that a sacred place of emergence, a mountain, did exist. Isabel Meadows knew only a few words of Esselen that she learned from an elderly Indian woman hired to help out with childcare on the Meadows Ranch. Omesia told her, “Xue elo xonia eune,” which means “I come from the Rock.” Ethnohistorian Philip Laverty writes, “The Rock in question is associated with Exegun . . . and is likely located either in the Santa Lucia range or along the Big Sur coast.” Others have suggested this landmark is Pico Blanco or Mt. Diablo. Omesia’s relationship to the world, her identity as an Indigenous person, depended upon her relationship to the land in very specific ways.
This is an excerpt of “Where the Light Was Coming From”