Mavis McCovey is a Karuk medicine woman who has lived in the Klamath 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 wrenching 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 training 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 dimension, the visionary reality of a Karuk medicine woman. Her ability to move through all of these worlds makes her a master of mobility, for it is arduous work.
Mavis was originally trained by the medicine women of her tribe to be a Fatawanun’s woman. In Karuk life, a Fatawanun 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 romantic 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 Pikiawish world renewal ceremony 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 begins to go up into the mountains around Orleans for about a ten-day period. During this time there are rounds of going to the river to pray, to the sweathouse, and leading ceremonial dances. Each day he goes to a portion of the fifty-seven miles of medicine trail terrain to visit the tribe’s sacred altars, doing ceremony at each one.
In this spiritually emancipated 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 woman to find the man when he is drifting and set him back on the trail so he can return safely.
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 beloved 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 outside! (chuckle) This Karuk woman is reticent to launch into a detailed description of what happens as she journeys on the medicine trail, and perhaps 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 moving through the world?
Although Mavis was trained to become a specific type of medicine woman, the Fatawanun whom she was to work with was never born, so her original assignment didn’t happen. Instead, she was released from this form of potential service when she was in her teens and shortly thereafter, 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 Northern California at the time, Darrell 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 husband’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 medicine doctor, who had helped raise her after both Mavis’ parents died when she was six.
The timing of the move was quite synchronistic. When she returned, the visions began in earnest and she was to remember the words of her medicine woman aunt — that she would “pick up her power” when she was around age forty-five because maturation of the mind happens around this time.
“So when it pulled me out of the kitchen and picked me up, I didn’t have any choice in the matter. I didn’t do anything to get picked up like that. I had no conscious effort in it at all — suddenly I was gone for three or four hours, but it seemed like fifteen or twenty minutes. When that happened, I didn’t make the choice, I was chosen and picked up.”
In a passage from the book Mavis notes, “I had been told that when the time came I would pick up my power, but in fact the power picked me up. So I don’t think the power is mine. I’m like a conduit and this spiritual power is somewhat like electricity.
It comes through me when I need it or it needs to use me, but it isn’t something that I walk around with all the time. I think it comes from the spirit world when I need it; the spirit world sends what power I need at the time.”
When asked what she thinks is happening, she responds, “We have God and the holy spirit. I don’t think I am talking to God, but I think the spirit of God is coming to me. It also sounds insane (chuckle). I think the medicine training was quite imperative, really. We would get guidance all the time, and they (elder medicine women) would interpret the visions for you and start teaching you what you are seeing, so it convinces you that you are not crazy.
“Like what they say in the Bible, it’s like looking into a mirror darkly, which later you shall see face-to-face. So when you look at your vision, it’s not clear-cut, you have to interpret. Sometimes it will just scare the hell out of you. At the same time it is scaring you, you have to look at it piece-by-piece, because a lot of times it is showing you something you don’t want to see.”
Mavis has seen many things that brought a deep sense of unease because of what was potentially being foretold in the vision. When this happens, she will do what her tribe’s people have done for many generations, she will ask to ‘change the face of it.’
When asked how this occurs, she responds, “You just talk. You don’t get up and say a ritual prayer. You talk like you would to anyone and say, I don’t want this to happen in this way, is there any way you can change this? Is what you are showing me really true? Can it be changed?
That’s when we say, can you change the face of it so it will look like something different? Sometimes it works and sometimes it happens like you saw it.” When asked if Mavis thinks from her experiences that reality can be shaped and changed, she replies, “I think so.”
The deepest sense of concern is raised with visions that don’t show the face of a person because these are showing it is someone she is close to. When Mavis was young, the medicine women had told her that not all of her children would live long. Mavis lived with this possibility, and indeed two of her five children have already preceded her in death.
One year Mavis began to have visions about three men being dead in the woods, and she knew it was a warning that someone really close to her could be involved, because the figures had no faces. The same vision came repeatedly for months and she enlisted her friend Josephine Peters to pray with her. When she drove through Orleans she could feel and see the vision.
Then one day the recurring vision scenario began to play out in this realm. Her son Long Gone went into a local bar when a man came in and upon seeing him said, ‘I came here to shoot Bart Starritt, but instead I’ll shoot you.’ He proceeded to open fire. Both Long Gone and another man, Dennis Donahue, did their best to dodge the line of gunfire in their direction, but they were shot.
Fortunately, both men lived. Long Gone was very lucky, he survived a bullet behind his aorta that caused him to lose half his blood. Evidently though, the prayers were able to ‘change the face’ of the haunting vision of death that shadowed Mavis for months.
The Karuk have a saying, ‘Life is good, but it isn’t easy.’ The clash of cultures that began with the gold rush one hundred and sixty years ago changed their way of life forever. It has taken a lot of fortitude to rebuild since their tribe was decimated from both outright slaughtering attacks to immune deficiencies that caused a significant die off of their small population.
The main diseases proving to be most deadly after initial contact with the new settlers were measles and chicken pox. The Karuk in the area didn’t have good defenses to ward off the influx of gold prospectors or the diseases they carried, and between the 1880’s and 1920, their population dipped down to a low of about 800 from earlier estimates of 1500-2700 in the 1850’s. The Natives who lived have been intermingling with the settlers since the European influx.
While it proved a good thing for both populations to share their genes in terms of immunity, it has been more precarious for the Karuk to maintain the continuity of their tribal ways while living in Klamath River country. Along with the European infusion came a lot of judgment that Native ways were inferior.
“With drugs and stuff that started in the 1970’s and the drinking that started when the miners came, it’s been a struggle to keep the culture alive.” The Karuk have had their problems, like other people, but the temptations of the white world have posed a particular threat to maintaining balance in the Karuk way of life from the perspective of this elder tribal member.
While the original plan for Mavis’ medicine-woman training wasn’t realized, her broader role of picking up her power was, and she came into her purpose to help make the world a happy place, a much needed offering to the Karuk community. When asked what this looks like, Mavis offers, “All I do is just talk to people. They come in and visit like ordinary people. Some are looking for something like peace of mind from what is distracting them, and I spend more time with them.”
This humble heroine demurs when recounting her contributions. As a medicine person, she has spiritual power that she uses to help others become more focused in their lives because she sees that they can use some support.
While Mavis often works in subtle ways as a medicine woman, she has also been outspoken about injustice where she felt the need was calling her. The local Indian wisdom is to ‘live very carefully,’ yet at times Mavis stepped out because she felt much harm was being done, even though she was warned it could be quite dangerous to her own life.
In the 70’s there was a time when the Forest Service began spraying herbicides on broadleaf plants as part of a plan to make more room for conifers. At the time Mavis worked as a community health representative at the tribal clinic, and her role shifted to become an environmental activist in favor of the community’s health as she realized what was happening. Mavis’ husband Darrell used to call her ‘Earth Mama’ and it particularly suited her role in this situation.
She got to witness directly the evidence that herbicides were having a dramatic effect; “It came to our attention that they were spraying the hillsides and in the morning it would come down into the valley.” Odd symptoms began cropping up in copious ways. “I was telling the doctor, something’s going on — three hundred bladder infections? Then mothers and pre-school kids started getting these little sores with pustules.
I said something crazy is going on — then the miscarriages happened. Of twenty-four women who were pregnant in this little town, everyone lost their babies!” From 1976-1978, not one Karuk pregnancy was carried to term in the Orleans area. Mavis commented that the Karuk women rarely miscarried.
“Finally, I said it was the spray, since the only new thing around here was the spray. The Indian community didn’t want to get into it. I got into it anyway because there was too much happening and it was bothering people’s health.”
Mavis put her involvement into perspective by offering what she told the officials at that time, “You have to believe it’s so. I’m a reliable source because it would be better if I kept my mouth shut with my daughter and my daughter-in-law both working in the Forest Service and my husband and sons working in the woods.”
After years of community campaigning in Orleans and elsewhere, another group won a court case against the spraying. Eventually the spraying ended around Orleans, but not before there was a very destructive effect on the people and the land.
According to Mavis, it took ten years for local birds and lizards to repopulate one particularly decimated area near the G-O Road. Although the chemical being used was only one molecule different from Agent Orange, the Forest Service saw no problem spraying the valley community for years. It is worthy to note that once the spraying stopped, eventually so did the epidemic of miscarriages and bladder infections that had plagued the community.
While the local tribes people didn’t receive any compensation, it showed solid vision and leadership for Mavis to speak up when most Karuk community members didn’t want to raise the issue. This is another way Mavis has used her medicine ways to change the face of a dire situation, applying herself with tenacity in this realm, to sustain the Karuk way of life on their ancient lands.
Few can claim the heritage they have in the Klamath River country. Archeological evidence suggests Karuk have lived in this area for at least 8,500 years. This ancient culture has survived many changes in their long tenure upon this land. As Mavis shared, it is an abundant area, so usually, as peaceable people, they would just move over a bit to make room when newcomers arrived.
Avatar has struck a resonant chord in so many, not only as a visionary animated action feature film, but how it touched upon a pain that has been largely unacknowledged for destroying the way of life for many of the first peoples and their honoring connection to the Earth.
Not only does art sometimes imitate life, sometimes it serves to express what the collective has not yet been able to adequately address and therefore fulfills a great role. Unlike so many stories that have been recorded, in Avatar, we get to watch the course of cultural and environmental destruction averted, as the people and creatures of the Earth claimed the strength of their real power to affirm life.
Like other indigenous peoples, the Karuk have had their fair share of upheaval in the last one hundred and sixty years. While life hasn’t been easy, even with all the challenges, they still say it is good. The work of medicine woman Mavis McCovey hasn’t been all that easy either, yet she has one of the best job descriptions — working to help the people in Klamath River country to be happy.
She has learned how to do her work well and has made an enormous contribution to this tribal community that is her home. Despite enormous setbacks to her culture, Mavis is a living legacy of continuity, of gathering power and sharing good medicine with her people.
“Medicine Trails: A Life in Many Worlds,” published by Heyday Books, is available at local bookstores. For more information about Mavis’ work, contact: www.heydaybooks.com.
Donna Strong’s first book is “Coming Home to Calm.” Visit her at www.donnastrong.com and spiritsynergy.wordpress.com