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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 9, 2002 - Issue 54


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Karuk Elder Keeps Culture Live Through Coyote's Tales

by Karen Pierce Gonzalez, Special to The San Fransico Chronicle
credits:Actors portray Coyote while Charlie Thom narrates "Coyote's Journey."
Charlie "Red Hawk" Thom has always had a special relationship with Coyote, a popular American Indian spirit teacher who has been around for more than 7, 000 years.

Thom, a 74-year-old Karuk elder from the Fort Jones/Klamath River area of Northern California, first met this wise and wild animal guide through tales his grandmother told when he was a boy.

"I was about 3 when I fell in love with Coyote and his stories," said the tribal leader who is a respected drummer, dancer, and singer. A ceremonial leader for his people, he is also a noted storyteller who keeps Coyote's tales alive.

Thom, who has dedicated his life to preserving and promoting the ancient Karuk culture of the Klamath/Trinity rivers, has recently narrated "Coyote's Journey" -- a tale of how Coyote composes the world's first love song and frees salmon into the Klamath River while on a search for a mythic inland ocean -- to theater and video audiences in the Bay Area.

Narrating the story in English, Thom works with ShadowLight Productions, a nonprofit interdisciplinary performance group based in San Francisco that combines traditional Balinese shadow theater with film techniques, a large 30- foot-by-15-foot screen, and live actors.

In traditional shadow theater, character (puppets or actors) images are projected onto a blank screen. ShadowLight Productions has Westernized this style with lights, sound, and even scenery.

They have performed "Coyote's Journey" several times and will release it soon on videotape.

"Coyote's Journey" is part of ShadowLight's "Tales from Native California" project, which videotapes stories and oral histories of California Indians in both their native language and in English, then translates them into shadows to invoke their mythic power and dreamlike qualities.

Shadows can serve as a bridge between visible and invisible worlds, said Larry Reed, artistic director and founder of ShadowLight. Shadow theater, which has grown out of shamanic mysteries, deal with dreams, myths, and legends, he said.

A perfect fit for Coyote.

"He's a figure of Native American mythology whose spirit teaches you and tricks you," said Jose Rivera, a Nahuatl/Apache and director of education for the Marin Museum of the American Indian in Novato.

Placing him in a contemporary format, such as ShadowLight Productions, not only preserves an aspect of American Indian culture, it makes it available to a new audience: "young Indians and non-Indians alike," he said.

The project is supported by a variety of funding sources, including the National Endowment for the Arts, California Arts Council, Creative Work Fund, Native American Cultural Center and the Native Performance Fund.

It also enlists the efforts of other California Indians, including Brian Tripp, a Karuk singer, artist, and poet, and Vince La Pena, a Nomtipom Wintu regalia-maker and storyteller.

Project advisers include linguistics Professor Leanne Hinton from the University of California at Berkeley and Malcolm Margolin, founder of Heydey Books and News from Native California.

The production's project manager, Clarence Hostler, first brought Thom into the bilingual project.

Hostler, a descendant of the Hupa, Yurok and Karuk tribes, serves as a consultant for "Tales from Native California" and also sings and drums in the performance. He also is a storyteller who has shared the tales of his tradition at California Indian Storytelling Festivals.

A resident of San Francisco, San Anselmo and Willow Creek (Hupa country in Northern California), Hostler stands between traditional and contemporary worlds.

"Clarence is young enough (about 50) and traditional enough to be a bridge. He is pivotal in the preservation of culture," said Rivera, also a noted storyteller.

Reed credits Hostler and Thom with moving the theatrical company from "ignorance" to being "very deeply moved by the culture and caring about it."

"As non-native Californians, we had no idea of the culture's richness. They would explain some aspect of the story so that we could understand the cultural context," Reed said. For example, the culture respects all animals equally. "Humans are not at the top of the food chain. So, when Coyote eats lizard's entire basket of berries, he is being disrespectful."

The result of this exposure, according to Reed, is "a deeper connection to the Northern California landscape."

Smiling, Thom said, "Coyote does many things and his stories come from the heart." A great educator, he teaches discipline. "He tells us to not take what isn't ours," noted Thom, who has depended upon Coyote's wisdom for years.

"And Coyote's not through with me yet. I'm still learning," he laughed.

Finding "Coyote" For information about ShadowLight's performance schedule or its videotape ($25), call (415) 648-4461 or visit


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