Mabel McKay, Pomo (1907- 1993) by Stella Cho
Mabel McKay was the last member of the Long Valley Cache Creek Pomo Indians. She was the last Dreamer 1 of the Pomo people and a basket making prodigy who also became famous for her exceptional doctoral skills. Her nephew, Greg Sarris², a renown writer, published a book called, Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream 3, which is about Mabel’s life. Mabel’s story gives historians and readers alike another window through which they can learn about the declined culture of the Pomo Indians.
Much of our knowledge about Mabel comes from the biography that Sarris arranged with much difficulty in Weaving the Dream. Because Mabel disliked the “white man’s way” of organizing a book by themes, this book strictly follows Mabel’s way of storytelling – a continuous one with many anecdotes mainly describing her work as a dreamer, doctor, and basket weaver.
According to her grandmother, Sarah Taylor, who raised Mabel, Mabel was “unusually quiet. The little girl was observant enough, her eyes darted about all the time, but otherwise she was still, solemn. The boys thought she would be lazy like her father. Sarah didn’t know what to think. In time, Sarah had her hands full keeping the girl out of mischief, as she would any child. Once little Mabel swallowed kerosene. The white doctor came all the way from Woodland and pumped her stomach. For the longest time, she could only take pureed fruits and vegetables…. She had heard the girl mumble in her sleep, she had seen the long stares, and watched her chase away a poisoner with a piece of meat.… [Mabel] wouldn’t eat or screamed at the top of her lungs in the middle of the night. [Sarah] knew what was happening, the girl [Mabel] was Dreaming, and she didn’t know where to turn for help” (20-21).
As she grew older, Mabel would sometimes sleep for days and Sarah Taylor would have a hard time waking her up. In some cases, during her sleep the spirit would talk to her and tell her necessary steps to take in order to fulfill her role in life as a doctor. Her destiny as a dreamer lay hand-in-hand with her fate as a doctor because, like a shaman, Mabel was a medium between the spiritual and the real world.
Once the spirit felt that Mabel was ready to be a doctor, it taught Mabel everything she needed to know. For instance the spirit said, “Listen to me now. You make a basket to spit out the sickness you suck with your mouth. Your throat has already been fixed, given. That extra tongue can catch the sickness and many sicknesses. Some move fast, so you have to put them to sleep with certain songs I give you. The songs I give you will leave after you are finished with the patient. You won’t remember. You won’t even know what you are saying through me to the patient and the crowd. That’s why you will have to have an interpreter who thoroughly understands your language and can tell the people what you are saying while you are under me. And there’s more… you will have an elderberry clapper and a cocoon rattle for keeping the beat with your singing and for calling me to work. Do you understand? … Your baskets, they will all come from me. You will be famous. People will want you to make baskets. They’ll offer you lots of money. But you pray to me first. I’ll show you what to make for each person. Each of your baskets has a purpose. Each has a rule. But a lot of people won’t understand that. You must explain, show the people that the baskets are living, not just pretty things to look at… you’ve been cut out different. Just like you’re a different kind of doctor. Many people are doctored under me in different ways. You can’t be a doctor like that person, and the next person can’t doctor like you. They have to be cut out different. But it’s made by that same spirit, not two or three spirits. I am many. I am many places” (72-74).
The spirit not only enabled Mabel to heal people but in fact, brought a whole community together. The resurgence of old traditions encouraged those living in the present to appreciate their culture and to celebrate their heritage. Mabel was the last of the dreamers to pass on that legacy of Pomo Indian customs which connected tribesmen to their spiritual side as well as educate many around the world.
Dreamers renew a tribe’s history and culture. In fact, Sarris once said that dreamers are those “ who directed people in the correct ways of doing, or not doing, dances, sacred activities. They left people with some basic rules, all of those having to do with profound respect in the face of creation” (Aug. 2005).
According to Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, the Dreamers religious sect began with a man named Smohalla, a chief of the Wanapum tribe.
After Mabel McKay and Essie Parrish, Sarris doesn’t believe that there is a universally acknowledged dreamer today.
--Stella Cho, June 2006