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Ancient Totems

For thousands of years, Mendocino County history was memorialized in spirit rocks like the giant granite message board at the headwaters of Feliz Creek, and another near Cloverdale on the Russian River. All are federally recognized archeological sites. The more accessible ones are fenced off, and none have been decoded, so far as I'm aware.

Feliz was clearly a busy route for the original people of Clearlake that led them to their annual sea banquets at the Pacific. Farther north, ancient shell mounds on the Lost Coast testify to thousands of years of summer feasts.

The Feliz trail led over the hill from Lake to Hopland, up the creek to its lush headwaters, from there steadily west up and over the ridge to the Y Ranch area of present-day Yorkville, out Fish Rock to the ocean. Spirit rocks are covered with thousands of years of travelers' comment, all of it in laboriously wrought symbols whose meaning is lost to time.

And there was the Arrow Tree, unremembered now by any living person and the tree itself long gone, but it was a mile east of Korbel, which is six miles east of Arcata, an ancient redwood noted by the first white men to pass through on their way to the Trinity gold fields.

Arrow Tree

This site is said to have been used by Indians to commemorate an important peace treaty. In memory of the treaty, each tribe, upon passing, was supposed to have shot an arrow into the bark. 

For thirty or forty feet the Arrow Tree must have looked like a giant porcupine because of the hundreds of arrows shot into it over many hundreds of years by many hundreds of Indians. Indians said that way back, when time was young, coast tribes were at war with the tribes who lived in the hill country. There was a great battle with untold losses on both sides, with the hill tribes getting the worst of it. The carnage was so great the Indians vowed never to repeat it. Ever after the memorial redwood became the border between the coast people and the hill people, and the tree, because of its significance as both boundary and a symbol of the bloodshed preceding the boundary, was ever after considered sacred.

Whenever Indians from either side passed the tree they shot a commemorative arrow into its soft bark. At first the arrows may have been war arrows, but within the memory of the last Indians who knew its history, they have been merely sharpened sticks. Gradually, the significance of the tree faded into the mists of endless time, and it became more and more an altar for worship and a place of prayer for the last Indians able to remember it as it was. 

And then the tree died and Korbel became the site of tree worship of a much less reverent type when timber executives erected a combined lodge and rumpus room not far from where the Arrow Tree had stood all the way back to when time moved slowly.

The Rain Rock sits on the Trinity River in Sugar Bowl Valley four miles from Hoopa. At not more than four feet in diameter, the Rain Rock is hardly noticeable. It was called the “Rain Rock” when white people became aware of its importance to Indians, who called the smallish boulder Mi, or Thunder’s Rock. The Indians believe a weather spirit has its home in and around the stone which, when it’s unhappy with the Indians, calls down killing frosts on Hoopa’s gardens or prolongs the rains until it floods or withholds them to bring on drought and famine. When some natural or human catastrophe affects the Indians, the Indians believe the spirit inhabiting the Rain Rock is angry with them, and that only a mandatory feast which everyone must attend at the site of the rock will restore order to the world. 

Announcing and accompanying the feast, fires are built in the canyon as a kind of illuminated path to the Rain Rock where a final fire is kindled to cook the food for the appeasing banquet. After the people have eaten, and the remnants of the feast have been burned, the priest makes a prayer for temperate weather as he sprinkles the sacred rock with water in which an incense root has been mingled.

According to legend, probably a legend that had its beginning among the pre-Gold Rush Indians, a Sanel Indian maiden named Sotuka jumped from the top of the foreboding Squaw Rock, rechristened in these allegedly more enlightened times as Frog Woman Rock. Sotuka, while holding a great stone, landed, as she’d hoped, on her faithless lover, Chief Cachow and his new bride who were sleeping below, killing the three of them. 

FrogWoman (Squaw Rock)

Squaw Rock, some local liberals claim, is a vulgar reference to female reproductive organs, but its mammoth stone bulk looms so large beside the Russian River between Cloverdale and Hopland that stories about it seem inevitable. “Squaw” may not be as vulgar as some people claim, but given its prevalence among the first ad-sals, as Indians called the first white settlers, the term is unlikely to be reverential. (White settlers were also called "Goddams," the curse Indians heard so often from the murderous intruders it became synonymous with pale faces.)

Comparably famous Indian landmarks are everywhere in the Redwood Empire. Few of them are remembered, but wherever the landscape suddenly becomes startling, you can be sure it was as significant to Indians over a much longer time than the Golden Gate Bridge has been significant to us. 

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