The Kashia Pomo people lived on these lands which they called Metini for thousands of years. What was the arrival of these strangers (the Russians) like for the Kashia? Of course, it is very difficult for us to know how the Kashia really felt about the people they called “the undersea people.” The Kashia did not have written language at that time. Most of the written information about what life was like for the Kashia during the Russian occupation was written by the Russians themselves, which only tells their story.
The Kashia story is oral, in other words, spoken. The stories of the past were passed down through storytelling, and that is how the people learned and remembered their own history and legends. Through the years oral history relating to their past and the presence of the Russian American Company (RAC) has been lost or untold. Fortunately, in the late 1950’s, Robert Oswalt, a linguist from the University of California at Berkeley recorded several oral histories of the Kashia and Coast Miwok people as he studied their languages. He conducted hours and hours of interviews with several Kashia ‘informants’, or storytellers. Robert Oswalt understood the importance of preserving the stories and tales which the elders told him.
Several stories are told by Herman James, who was the grandson of Lukaria. Lukaria was about eight years old when the Russians arrived at Metini. She lived in this area for almost her entire life. She died in 1908 when Herman was in his twenties. Herman heard these wonderful tales throughout his life. There are also stories from Essie Parrish, considered the last shaman of the Kashia People.
It may take some creative reading skills to understand exactly what Herman James is describing in the passage below. Go slow, and maybe have the kids make a quick sketch of what they think is going on in each paragraph.
Grain Foods told by Herman James – “My grandmother told me this too about what the undersea people did. What I am going to tell you now is how they ground their flour when they raised and gathered wheat. Where the land lies stretched out, where all the land is at Metini, they raised wheat which blanketed the land. When it was ripe everywhere, then the people, by hand, cut it down, tied it up, and laid it there. Then in a sea lion skin, they dragged it to their houses.
They had made a big place there, with the earth packed down hard by wetting – there they threw down what they had tied up. Next they drove horses down there. The person who drove the horses around there in a circle was one man who took turns with various others. When it was that way (threshed), when it had become food alone, they put it in sacks. While loading it in sacks, they hauled it off in stages to where their storehouse was. They filled that place up with lots – many sacks.
In order to make it turn into flour, they had something which spun around for them in the wind – they called it a ‘flour grinder.’ When they got ready to grind with that they poured the wheat down in there to be ground, while tossing the sacks up – they did that all day long. Then they filled the sacks up with flour, and hauling it away as before, they piled it in a building. There was a lot for them to eat in the winter.
Once, while a woman was walking around there, she happened to get too close while the wind was turning the grindstone. At that time, women’s hair was long. The woman’s hair got caught and turned with it. The woman too was spun around, all of her hair was chewed off and she was thrown off dead. They picked her up, carried her home, and cremated her – at that time they were still cremated. That is the way it happened; the flour grinder snared the woman and she died.
They also used to tell that the Indians in their different fashion also gathered grain when it was ripe by taking a tightly woven packing basket and knocking the grain so it would fall into that. When they filled the baskets, they would store that at their houses. They too had a lot, a lot like that for winter, and pinole too. Then they found out; they say how they, the undersea people, stored their own food. At that time, the Indians didn’t yet know much about flour. Later on when the Russians had lived there a while, the Indians ate flour too. They also ate pinole in their own way.
This had been a true story that my grandmother used to tell me, one that she saw herself – at the time that she saw those things, she was still a young woman. When she had grown old, she told me that true story. That is what I have told, the true story that our grandmother told. This is all.”
The story about the woman who got her hair caught in the windmill is one of the enduring legends of Fort Ross. The paragraph which refers to threshing grains is a little difficult to understand. Indeed, the Russian method of threshing was to make a hard dirt (later wooden) round floor, surrounded by a plank wall. Horses were led in and stampeded around in a circle until the wheat was separated from the chaff. Many visitors to the Ross Colony wrote descriptions of the process.
The name “undersea people” is an appropriate one for those who arrived here in 1812. If you are standing on the shore and see the white sail of a ship approaching from the distant horizon, it looks as if it is coming from under the water.
The First White Food told by Essie Parrish – “It was also there at Metini that the white people first discovered the Indians – having come up, they found them. After they discovered the Indians, they wanted to domesticate them. In order to feed them food, in order to let them know about the white man’s food, the white men served them some of their own white food.
Never having seen white man’s food before, they thought they were being given poison. Having given the Indians their food, they left and returned home, but the Indians threw it in a ditch. Some they buried when they poured it out. They were afraid to eat that, not knowing anything about it – all they knew was their own wild food. They had never seen white people’s food before then.
This is what the old people told us. This is the end.”
Over time the Indians became accustomed to the white man’s food. As the Russian agricultural efforts increased and traditional gathering and hunting grounds got covered by Russian grains and cattle, white food became more and more a part of the Kashia diet.
There was much intermarriage between the local Natives and the Alaskans and Russian employees of the company. This too would have played a significant role in teaching the local women about white food and how to prepare it.
Selections from Kashia Texts by Robert L. Oswalt – Read more from Herman James and Essie Parrish.