An important voice for her people by the first published Native American female author
Lucy Thompson (or to give her the correct Yurok name Che-na-wah Weitch-ah-wah) was notable among authors since she was the first Native American woman ever to write a book and have it published in the English language. Although this book first appeared in 1916, it received ‘The American Book Award’ in 1992. Born in the Klamath River village of Pecwan, Northern California in the later 19th century as a member of the Yurok tribal elite, Lucy Thompson married Milton ‘Jim’ Thompson. Her original intention for the book was that it would record the traditional stories of the Yurok which were being lost to posterity though, perhaps inevitably, the book also brought attention to the injustices and violence that had been brought upon the indigenous peoples of her region by ‘white’ settlers in what she considered to be deliberate acts of attempted genocide. This is a remarkable book on many counts and is rightly considered outstanding as the voice of an early feminist and champion of Native American rights.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
There is a large and silent river that flows through the shadowy vale of death. On the banks of this awful and mysterious river dwells an old woman, called Sye-elth, and she keeps at her side a large dog, Chish-yah, (the common name for dog).
When an Indian dies, if he has led a dishonourable and wicked life, a broad path leads his soul down to the banks of the river to the very door where the old woman lives in her house. When the wandering soul reaches her door, the Chish-yah tries to drive it back to the dead body, but the old woman fights the dog off and if she is successful in her efforts, she takes charge of the miserable soul and sends it on to the opposite side of the river, in the shadowy land of endless anguish. If the dog is successful in fighting the soul back it returns to the dead body where life is regained and the person lives again. This seldom occurs, and only where the body lives in a state of coma and is supposed to be dead, but after a few hours comes out of that state and revives into life again. The Chish-yah is seldom successful, as a case rarely occurs. This is why the Indian never likes to scold or treat the dog badly.
The old Indians do not like to look at a photograph or to have their photographs taken, because they say it is a reflection or a shadowy image of the departed spirit, O-quirlth. They do not like to see spirits, but they say they have often seen them. This is the reason they turn their backs on the camera and object so strongly to having their pictures taken. Often have my people been ridiculed for their strange actions, but they have a reason for every one of them. If the civilized man could only respect the reasons and simple ways of the highest type of primitive man, as much as primitive man venerates his civilization.
When the spirit comes back to the tired and weary body, and that body lives again, that person is said to meet a very unfortunate existence. It is said he is never satisfied with earthly things again. He is very restless and unhappy as nothing can satisfy his longing soul, and always meets death suddenly.
On the shore of this mysterious River of Death awaits a young man, Pa-ga-rick, in his canoe; he is always ready to receive the soul from the old woman as she hands it into his care. His canoe is similar in shape and size to the earthly Indian canoes, with the exception that if one may note carefully that all the canoes contain in the bow a knob in the centre, some three feet back from the bow, which is the heart, and they say it is the life of the boat. Also, the canoe the Indians use is burned inside and out, and polished smooth. The canoe that Pa-ga-rick uses for the crossing of the souls is neither burned or polished and has no heart, therefore it is called the dead boat, merm-ma. In olden times no Indian would venture out in a boat upon the water that did not contain a heart, as they said it was lifeless and would be sure to sink or some disaster befall it. We call our canoe here on earth, Yatch.
Sye-elth just on the bank of this dark River of Death, Charreck-quick-werroy, where she gets the souls away from the dog. She takes it to the water’s edge and gives it to the man in the dead boat. He takes the soul into his canoe, paddles it across those silent waters, the awful stillness, the awful fear of death. When the canoe, Merm-mo or Nee-girk, either name, touches the opposite shore, Pa-ga-rick, takes the soul, O-quirlth, and banishes it into exile, exile without an end or example in story, and leaves it in a wilderness. In this wilderness it is damp, a constant gloom is cast, dark and fearful clouds forever flit, cold winds forever howl and shriek the agonies of hell.
In this terrible wildness, the souls of the condemned men and women sustain their misery up on bitter berries, bitter grasses and roots, and cannot die. They had never lived but a wasted life upon earth, therefore they can wait to die, as souls never die. These wretched souls since Time began, and I think the time is sad and heavy through all the weary ages, since they go wandering, hallowing, mourning, weeping and wailing, grieving grief without an end and suffering pain, intense pain that knows no ending. Thus, Wah-pec-wah-mow, the Great God has seen fit to punish his disreputable children until the judgment day.
Sye-elth, this old woman, is the Satan of my people, Chish-yah, the dog, is our Guardian Angel. This old woman is our evil doer who is always trying to influence the Indians away from the path of rectitude. She hovers about them in life unseen, seeking out their weak points, that she may lead them evil ways and vindicate her cruel wants upon their death by taking their souls down the broad path to the wilderness of anguish. Fearing her powers, fearing the Unhappy Land, the Indians struggle to live simple and peaceful lives and never quarrel over their religion.
The wretched souls banished into the wilderness of anguish do not quarrel with one another, as they are to wretched in their own agony to concern themselves about others.
The Indian seeing a vision of the unhappy land tries to live the simple and honest life, near to nature, and their nature’s God. However, there is not a tribe however well-guarded but some and sometimes many stray afar from the path of rectitude and is lead into the wilderness of anguish by their cruel Satan, Sye-elth.
My people believe that there will sometime come a chance for them to become regenerated, or reborn, so that many of them will be given the opportunity to recompensate for the wickedness of their former lives and given a chance to live good clean lives in their second birth. Thus, given the opportunity by God when they die again, they will be rewarded in going to Heaven, Werse-on-now. However, if the ones given the opportunity of being saved, do not live lives of integrity after their second birth, they are cast off and destroyed forever.
The Indians who had always lived the life of integrity on earth when they die their souls or spirit travels a narrow and winding trail which takes the soul to north, to a land far away from their native haunts. This far northern clime is said to be the old land of Cheek-cheek-alth, where the spirit finds a ladder that reaches from earth into Heaven. As the spirit climbs the ladder to Heaven it reaches God on that infinite shore where it dwells forever in flowery fields of light, straying together with the Master in peace and love, and joining the spirits of those that have gone before them.