Lucy & the Wagas: Notes on Playing Tribe

Lucy & the Wagas: Notes on Playing Tribe

After the long cold foggy summer in San Francisco we decided to chance a weekend camping trip to Tomales. The Marin coast is often just as gray and cold as the city in fog season but being out on the bay sitting round a campfire with friends is more fun than sitting at home alone with the heater on.

We take our holidays with a group of friends and most years in June we haul up to a spot on the Eel River, an hour from the nearest town and set up our tribal headquarters. At the end of the summer we regroup out on Tomales Bay and do our hippy hangout thing again before the winter sets in.

This wouldn’t be a lot of folks idea of a relaxing break, whether we go to the river or the bay there is considerable hard work involved, carrying in the off-grid supplies, washing dishes without soap, traipsing to the homemade outhouse & dealing with the mosquitoes there….

We are the last contingent to arrive at Marshall boatyard, dusk is falling fast but Jim is hanging on waiting for us, his little boat bobbing on the white caps just beyond the jetty. We clamber on board and head for the far shore, the wind low and persistent and the boat, heavier now with us and our stuff on board, slams magnificently into the waves. The boys scream with terror and delight as we are instantly drenched.

On the Bay our kids spend their time searching for arrowheads and dentillium beads; a sprawling midden at the far end of the beach is falling into the water, disgorging  many broken oyster shells and precious bits and pieces which the Indians left behind.

These sheltered coves on Tomales Bay were where the native Miwok spent their summers not so very long ago, fishing, swimming, eating and probably sweat lodging too.

In our hippy way we try to emulate them, revitalizing  ourselves from the rigors of our twenty-first century lives with a little time in nature. I always feel a streak of sadness as we sit here on their shore looking over the bay at these same carefully preserved rolling hills.

That night as we sat around the fire the moon disappeared into a fat black cloud, it was dark and Adela talked about their dog that had passed that week. That cloud seemed like a prompt to her and we all mourned Kemmet while the sky was black.

Chantal and I slept down by the shore, its an extraordinary feeling looking up to the stars and space, laying right on the crust of the planet: small yet connected. My dream before waking was of reaching for a pair of baby moccasins slung high up on a pole.

When the weather is good we swim in the bay, the kids  wakeboard or just tootle around learning how to drive the boat. Grown-ups generally hang out by the fire smoking, talking, drinking coffee, making meals and endless snacks. We’ve had up to thirty people camping out on this particular beach, looking like a wild hippy tribe, kayakers wave to us and beach further down.

We fall under the spell of the elements; the movement of the trees at the shoreline, the shift of the tides, the time frame of our normal lives fades away into irrelevance.

On this trip the resident night heron squawked her discordant friendly squawk and the local seals popped their heads out of the water to check us out. Our conversation  ran like a wildly successful discussion group; we don’t get to hang like this much and we talk a lot about what we are reading and what we think of it all. Lessings’ The Cleft and  David Grey’s new gender expose, Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice got a good work-out but we end up with our favorite, Lucy Thompson’s only book: To the American Indian: Reminiscences of a Yurok Woman

Lucy Thompson, was born into an influential family of Yurok shamen whose ancestral lands are on the Klamath River. She was born in 1853 and named Che-na-wah Weitch-ah-wah, but became Mrs. Lucy Thompson when she married Milton Thompson and assimilated with the European incursionists.  To the American Indian was published in 1916, the first book by a native woman and Lucy certainly mastered the nuance of turn-of-the-century literature, but her story was not popular: she disses her fellow Indians for abandoning their traditional life so quickly  and pours scorn on the Europeans for their voracious appetite for territory and their greedy over-fishing practices.

The reason Lucy wrote at all was to try and preserve her tribe’s cultural history, the book details the Yurok way of life, their myths and religious beliefs. Lucy’s mother was on another tip with this process: Lucy tells us that her aged mom would walk some good miles back to their old village and spend the day smashing up ceremonial bowls and artifacts, what she couldn’t smash she buried, she didn’t want their holy items handled by unbelievers and set in glass cases for white people to gawp at.

Like most native tribes, Yurok religious customs were tethered to the natural world but part of their belief system centered on a very ancient myth: Lucy tells us that when the Yurok arrived on the Klamath there were already people living there, they were white people, with light eyes. They were called the Wagas  and they were very kind to the Yurok, teaching them everything they knew about animal husbandry and farming and sharing the land with them. The Wagas and the Yurok, never fought, they intermarried sometimes and shared the land for thousands of years. In the end the Wagas left, they traveled north and then ‘up to heaven’, they built stone lines and obelisks on high and exposed ground before they left and the Yurok maintained these sites in the hope that one day the Wagas would return. Needless to say that when the European hunters and trappers arrived it did not take the Yurok long to realize that these smelly folk were not their beloved Wagas.

I believe that there is a tribal trend in contemporary holidaying: people to want to be with like-minded souls not stuck with random others on a package holiday.It’s the allure of that mythic time that draws us in; like the partnership societies of the Neolithic, a true tribal life where humans have not yet imagined themselves outside of nature.While it is easy to dismiss these yearnings for tribal life as sentimental and unrealistic its easy to see why we romanticize.

Ever since the great coming-together of Woodstock, the camp-out festival has become a way to spend time with other people and engage on a different social platform.When I was a teenager living in the West Country I went to Stonehenge at the summer Solstice and marveled at the wild anarchist party aesthetic, it was mind-blowing to a provincial hipster like me. The rarified atmosphere of the counterculture at events like this enticed the masses and spurred the growth of camp-out parties like Glastonbury, which in turn grew huge and more mainstream. The English mega-fests, Glastonbury, Reading and Knebworth eventually spawned, as a reaction, what is known as the ‘boutique festival’ scene. The Big Chill, originally a Sunday afternoon ambient club in North London started putting on a campout festival in the 90s and quickly became well-loved by grown-up ravers who liked their music leftfield and the flavor high-brow alternative;  Spiralling popularity turns festivals into immense temporary cities and for some participants the conditions are intolerable, the tents too close to rowdy neighbors and uncomfortably proximate to the portable toilets. Other parties, recognizing this, impose a limit on numbers, choosing smaller venues, annual events like Free Rotation in Wales and the Sunset Camp-out in California are communal  experiences for the lucky few hundred they accommodate.

Burning Man is the ultimate expression of our contemporary tribal desire – Larry Harvey, spokesman and founding father, does not consider Burning Man to be a festival rather a re-invention of a public world. Harvey, a baby- boomer, believes that the rabid growth of consumerism in the last fifty years has commodified life and destroyed the meaning of community, our materialistic value system has led to moral coarsening and social cynicism. Black Rock City, the temporary municipality which has emerged on the desert playa for the last twenty years is the greatest expression of our desire to come together in  re-imagined community. The premise of Burning Man is that each participant creates their vision and shares it in the public environment, ergo, many amazing art installations and fellows either painted day-glo,  jiggling naked or dressed like chorus girls. Money is banned in BRC and  only gift-giving is allowed, this Harvey hopes  creates a moral bond instead of the cold abstract commodity exchange of buying and selling.  The exponential growth and popularity of Burning Man clearly illustrates that there is a global community dedicated to both surviving the harsh desert conditions and reveling in the true nature of community.

Harvey himself may or may not concede an element of tribalism at Burning Man, I haven’t found anything on the record to say either way but for me the Burners are a tribe: the best bad-ass art tribe ever and while I’ve never participated, I’m enthusiastic about their scene. My understanding of a contemporary tribe is one of alignment: a way that people create identity and a social reality which isn’t defined by the standards of the larger society. We are simply reaching out for each other in the artificial  world we find ourselves in.

As religion lost its iron grip on Western society communal urges filtered into other formats: in Britain the formation of Butlins, the first holiday camp initiative in the 1930s brought many families together to vacation in a entertainment–laden environment. The emphasis was on talent shows and bingo as well as crafts and sporting pursuits, and the initiative was wildly popular. These were people who as late as the 1950s and 60s went to the pub for a sing-song around the piano as much as for a pint. With the acceleration of technology the fabric of community life in the West has been rapidly worn down by the desires of a secular materialistic culture: through the twentieth century people accrued more and more sophisticated stuff: cars, televisions, telephones, all of which are widely acknowledged as advances in the quality of life. Perhaps we didn’t look too closely at what we lost as we accrued our luxuries.

We didn’t realize that living in community meant so much to us, although the phenomena of long-running soap operas should have given us a clue: we don’t know who lives next door to us but we know all about the fictional neighbors on tv.

I’m not sure that seeking a communal holiday experience is exclusively a sign of our times but like so many forms of contemporary cultural expression there is a sense of déjà vu, and perhaps this is a good sign, a harbinger of the Archaic Revival.

When I woke on our second and last morning on the bay I thought I could hear women singing together, I sat up and looked over to where our four camping girls were still sleeping by the firepit, but it was not their sweet voices I had heard.Before we leave Adela and I swim naked in the cold still bay. Kate has made more coffee and ululating modestly shows us the tiny dentillium bead she has found.

“You know,” she says, “Maybe we are the Wagas, we just don’t know it.”

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2 Responses to Lucy & the Wagas: Notes on Playing Tribe

  1. geoff greentree says:

    Thanks Billee another beautifully written and thought-provoking piece. Ananda and I spent three weeks this summer hols camping out, and boy did it do us good.. For me it all started at Stonehenge too, innocent Hampshire lad aged 15; never looked back. I met Sid Rawle, “King of the Hippies” there back in the late 70s, who talked with me for an hour or so, and this summer he was there in the Forest of Dene with us in our camp of 150 or so like-minded souls. He passed on, satisfied at the end of a great camp, sitting by his campfire; sad but in many ways so fitting. A contemparary visionary like Larry Harvey, across the Great Water. Sid had obituaries in all the UK broadsheets (and 15 minutes on Radio 4), so you can read about him online if you like. The Big Green Gathering will be back, except smaller..
    ” You cant kill the spirit”..Love to you all x G

  2. geoff greentree says:

    PS: will track down Lucy Thompsons book-looks good ..

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