As a young woman, Mavis McCovey was trained to enter a spirit world by her Karuk Indian elders -- older medicine women. What's unsettling is that McCovey, now an old woman in the Klamath River town of Orleans, sounds somehow believable. For us materialists, judging magic is simple. It's all either delusional, illusional or confusional. But that pat judgment gets dicey when the spirit guide is a hero of what we now call the Herbicide Wars of the 1980s. This magic is not easily discounted.
In her new book Medicine Trails, which she wrote with the seamless assistance of anthropologist John Salter, McCovey begins a narrative of her life from her birth in 1933 and goes back several generations before. There are the tragic histories like the time her grandfather, then still a boy, watched white miners burn their village and shove Indians back into the burning buildings. Or the great-grandmother who was kidnapped and raped in her early teens by soldiers in Oregon, then rescued by an itinerant peddler and returned to Orleans.
As a child, McCovey repeatedly had visions of future events that she might blurt out to the embarrassment of the adults around her. She talks also of her training by elders, some of it in a form of telepathy wherein their instructions entered her mind without speech. But the stories of magic are interwoven with the daily life of several generations in Orleans and, after her marriage, in Yurok villages downriver.
As she grows older there are stories of summoning medicine in the sacred high country with a combination of fasting, dancing, smoking herbs and prayer. On occasion, she describes leaving her body to rescue a young fatawanun, a medicine man, when he gets lost on a spiritual trail during a ceremony.
Besides her Indian medicine, McCovey spent years as a nurse and a community health worker for the tribe and was a key whistleblower when the Forest Service was applying large amounts of 2,-4D and other dangerous herbicides in dozens of old clearcuts around Orleans. She spotted a disproportionately large number of miscarriages and other illnesses, an observation that got picked up by Bay Area media and enviro campaigners. Her findings were such an embarrassment to the agencies that they sent her to a conference in South Dakota to prevent her meeting with investigators.
The stories of foiling Indian devils are stacked back to back with tales of ordinary Klamath River life -- hitchhiking as a teenager with the wild Grant boys, for example. McCovey is a world-class storyteller and Salter leads her gracefully from one story to another. It becomes easy medicine to swallow.
Note: Mavis McCovey and John Salter will discuss Medicine Trails at two events on Tuesday, Nov. 2: At United Indian Health Services' Potowat Village at noon and at Northtown Books at 6:30 p.m.