The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1983, Volume 29, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

The Way We Lived: California Indian Reminiscences, Stories, and Songs. Edited by Malcolm Margolin. Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1981. Illustrations. Map. 209 pages. $12.95 cloth. $6.95 paper.

Reviewed by Robert L. Hoover, Head of the Social Sciences Department, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo; and Director of the Mission San Antonio Archaelogical Field School.

Aboriginal California was a fantastically diverse area, containing more variety in natural regions and cultures than almost any other part of the world. Anglo readers often forget that the political pan-Indianism of today is a recent phenomenon forced upon the surviving native Californians by the excesses of the prevailing culture. It is a poor substitute for the richness of native cultures existing before 1770. Much of that original cultural complexity has been captured in this collection of California Indian stories and songs. What will really be a pleasant surprise to the average reader is that so much of the ancient lore has survived two centuries of Hispanic and Anglo acculturation. The persistence of native family ties and the consuming interests of various anthropologists in recording these stories have done much to preserve the valuable record of the past.

The book is not a continuous narrative, but is divided into sections representing major themes or stages of life in aboriginal California. Thus, eight selections deal with the topic of growing up, eight with old age and death, six with love, etc. The book becomes a useful reference work if one wishes to take up a particular topic later. Each story is attributed to its appropriate cultural group. Malcolm Margolin, a sensitive self-taught layman, has conducted extensive research in interpreting each story. His introductions and postscripts clearly place each selection in the context of California Indian cultures.

Of particular interest is the section containing Coyote stories. Coyote, a supernatural figure among many tribal groups, combines human and animal traits. He exhibits the characteristics of the eternal trickster. Coyote has aspects of cleverness and foolishness, good and evil. Modern readers will have a difficult time at first in thinking of supernaturals in both human and animal terms. One should not read the tales for absolute literalness. They all have morals and many are humorous, but they can be best understood by knowing something about native beliefs. Throughout the book, the Indians’ close relationship with the natural environment and the supernatural world is emphasized. While much effect is lost by not being able to hear the voice of the speaker or the embellishments which each orator employed for the edification of his audience, Margolin does a great deal to capture the original feeling of the stories. It is possible to imagine the ambience of a night around the campfire in a cedar or thatched house surrounded by several generations of kinsmen.

The only disappointment the reader might find could be the last section. The “Arrival of the Whites” is a collection of sad tales of atrocities and demoralization since the 1850s. Otherwise this anthology is very enjoyable and can be recommended to anyone interested in California’s first inhabitants. Heyday Books should be congratulated for publishing both this book and the earlier Ohlone Way by this talented author.