One of the questions I am often asked about Heron’s Path is how the Nanchuti, the indigenous tribal group I created for the novel, evolved. As I mentioned in my last post, a trip to the Klamath River while I read In the Land of the Grasshopper Song hit me at such a sensory level that it compelled me to write. My husband Bill and I camped on a sandy bank of the Klamath in one of those weeks in July where the temperatures hovered around 100 degrees. I remember listening to the river, feeling the consciousness of the forest around us, and felt so removed from the modern world. This experience is about as visionary as I get, and I had to make something out of how the river was affecting my body, imagination, and emotions.
I naïvely went about reading about the Karuk tribe. I purchased a couple of books I don’t remember now and read as much as I could find by Alfred Kroeber on the Karuk and Yurok ethnic groups. So, a few years passed, and I finally finished a draft of the novel that I thought worth sharing. (For such a short book, it took almost two decades to write, tucking it away for years in between until I worked out various problems. I learned to write with the novel, and I needed a long apprenticeship.)
I contacted a professor at Humboldt State, whose name I apologize for not remembering (this was in the 90s!). She was Yurok and invited me to her house to discuss the novel where she very kindly let me know I had no business writing about her culture, telling me that I really could not understand it. So, another year or two passed with fretting about what to do. I wrestled with the idea of creating my own people, how could I meld it with the historical aspects that I did want to portray? Would an alternative California work?
The elements I did keep from my original manuscript were the ideas of the doctors, medicine people, and sacred dancing that, to the best of my understanding, the Karuk did to create balance with nature. Again, apologies if this is not correct. I confess I stole the idea of the Baby Growl straight from In the Land of the Grasshopper Song.
Last spring I read from Heron’s Path on a public radio station. The only response I got was from an angry woman (who said she was not Native American) upset that I would dare to write about Native Americans. I had already hung up and couldn’t respond that the point of my creating a mythic tribe was because I did not want to do any washee (Nanchuti for “white people”) misguided writing about aspects of a culture I do not belong to. All I can say is that I fell in love with the stories and information I read about the Yurok, and though their culture is the seed from which the Nanchuti grew, they are MY creation.
One last thought: Kroeber’s daughter, Ursula Le Guin, was a very strong influence on me as a young writer. I devoured her work long before I ever heard of her famous parents. Her mother, Theodora Kroeber wrote Ishi: the Last of His Tribe, which chronicled the life of the last member of the Yahi tribe. So, a large part of the spirit of Heron’s Path is in debt to her, especially the book Always Coming Home. It gave me the courage to create a language for the tribe, a process that I really enjoyed.