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/ A W A R E N E S S M A G A Z I N E
J A N U A R Y / F E B R U A R Y 2 0 1 1
6 / A W A R E N E S S M A G A Z I N E
J A N U A R Y / F E B R U A R Y 2 0 1 1
avis McCovey is
a Karuk medicine
woman who has
lived in the Kla-
math River area
of Northern California her
entire life, now 77 years. Her
book Medicine Trails: A Life
in Many Worlds, written with
Anthropologist John Salter,
is a compelling and wrench-
ing story of the upheaval and
genocide of tribal people in
this area and their way of life,
beginning with the gold rush
influx of European settlers in
the mid 1850's.
A Native elder whose train-
ing began when she was three
years old, Mavis has learned to
move through many worlds,
the Native community around
Orleans where she grew up,
the white cultural world, and
spiritual dimensions that are
beyond this physical dimen-
sion, the visionary reality of a
Karuk medicine woman. Her
ability to move through all of
these worlds makes her a mas-
ter of mobility, for it is arduous
Mavis was originally trained
by the medicine women of
her tribe to be a Fatawanun's
woman. In Karuk life, a Fata-
wanun is a priest that does
ceremony, calls upon spirit to
gather power and bring it back
to bless the people and the
land. A woman who is chosen
to be a Fatawanun's woman
is herself a medicine person,
and these women are usually
a decade or so older than the
man, to keep the focus more
on the service aspect than a ro-
mantic liaison between them
in their union.
As Mavis explains, it is the
job of the Fatawanun to fast
and go through very rigorous
rites during the White Deer
Skin Dance that takes place
every other year of the Piki-
awish world renewal ceremo-
ny to correct imbalances from
the past year. A tribal medicine
man chooses the Fatawanun
and prays with him to begin
the process.
The Fatawanun fasts for 2-3
days and abstains from even
taking in water, and then be-
gins to go up into the moun-
tains around Orleans for about
a ten-day period. During this
time there are rounds of go-
ing to the river to pray, to the
sweathouse, and leading cer-
emonial dances. Each day he
goes to a portion of the fifty-
seven miles of medicine trail
terrain to visit the tribe's sa-
cred altars, doing ceremony at
each one.
In this spiritually emanci-
pated dream-like state, the
Fatawanun might go off the
medicine trail and this could
be deadly dangerous. It is the
work of the Fatawanun's wom-
an to find the man when he
is drifting and set him back
on the trail so he can return
In Avatar, paraplegic hero
Marine Jake Sully uses another
form in order to move around
and mingle with the locals on
the faraway world of Pandora.
In Klamath River country, real
world medicine woman Mavis
has had her own experience
with changing form to move
through visionary worlds.
By an accounting of her be-
loved husband Darrell, when
she was doing spirit work, her
physical form would disappear
from their home for hours at a
time. Mavis says "I'm not sure
if I just go there in my mind, or
if I'm going up the trail in an
altered state. I can't see myself
-- I just know where I'm going.
Something changes and I'm
not sure what, but my husband
swore I would disappear. He'd
look for me. I'd say to Darrell,
"You know I was here," and
he'd say "Why?" and I'd say,
"Because you know I wouldn't
walk and the car was still out-
side! (chuckle) This Karuk wo-
man is reticent to launch into
a detailed description of what
happens as she journeys on
the medicine trail, and per-
haps it doesn't really matter.
But the Western mind wants to
know -- did she sprint out the
door on her way to do good
medicine for her tribe, or is
she using other ways of mov-
ing through the world?
Although Mavis was trained
to become a specific type of
medicine woman, the Fata-
wanun whom she was to work
with was never born, so her
original assignment didn't
happen. Instead, she was re-
leased from this form of po-
tential service when she was
in her teens and shortly there-
after, at age fifteen, met the
man who would become her
husband for fifty-six years.
To give a sense of what it
was like in up country North-
ern California at the time, Dar-
rell walked seventeen miles
each way to see Mavis while
they were dating. Married in
1950, Mavis and Darrell had
five children and she describes
this fifteen-year period of time
in her life as the `happy years.'
As is tradition, she moved
to the Yurok area of her hus-
band's family in Klamath River
country when they married.
Around 1965, Mavis was called
back to Orleans where she
grew up to care for her ailing
aunt Caroline, a Karuk medi-
cine doctor, who had helped
raise her after both Mavis' par-
ents died when she was six.
The timing of the move was
quite synchronistic. When she
Mavis McCovey
A Medicine Way of Life
by Donna Strong