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IN THE GARDENS OF POPELOUTCHOM Margo Angel Man

Ascencion Solorsano

1854 - 1930

Margo Angel Man is a Native American whose ancestors were the Westerners of this article. She has access to personal testimonials as well as the documentary evidence available at the Smithsonian Institution.

IN THE GARDENS OF POPELOUTCHOM ; Margo Angel Man Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 13-18, May 1978...

The Westerners were the Mutsun who inhabited the area from Gilroy to San Juan Bautista. Mutsun is a name of one sub-group of the indigenous Ohlone people of California, as well as the name of the language they spoke.(also known as San Juan Bautista Costanoan)

THEIR garden of this world was called Popeloutchom. It was a place of beauty and constant delight where work was unnecessary, the air clean, the water clear, and the earth naturally fruitful. The people of Popeloutchom were gentle, as the breezes that caressed them each evening. They believed their garden to be the most beautiful place in the world. And because of this they had no desire to travel far to look upon lesser lands created by the gods for lesser men.

In the English translation from their own language—a language long since lost— they called themselves "The Westerners" because they were the westernmost group of several distantly-related Indian tribes. But over the years they had lost contact with their eastern cousins who had, like snow before the summer sun, gradually melted away. But the gods had seen fit to preserve and sustain the Westerners in their lovely gardens of Popeloutchom.

The Westerners were an ingenuous people who knew neither treachery nor deceit. They welcomed strangers who stumbled upon their villages. The strangers were treated as honored guests who might convey the legends and the wisdom of distant places.

And so the Westerners welcomed the first white men who "discovered" their gardens. But unlike the earlier sojourners in this land, the white visitors had come to stay. They brought swords and guns and Bibles and plows and horses and built dwellings and missions. They also brought their deadly irresistible trinity—cholera, small pox and measles. The Westerners died in bunches. Those who lived were taught the virtues of work and contrition. They were even given a new name by the white men. They were now called the San Juans.

And so the Westerners welcomed the first white men who "discovered" their gardens. But unlike the earlier sojourners in this land, the white visitors had come to stay. They brought swords and guns and Bibles and plows and horses and built dwellings and missions. They also brought their deadly irresistible trinity—cholera, small pox and measles. The Westerners died in bunches. Those who lived were taught the virtues of work and contrition. They were even given a new name by the white men. They were now called the San Juans.

In the twentieth century, when historians and ethnologists sought to record the saga of the Westerners, they found that those people were no more. Some time around 1850, it was concluded, the last member of that kindly and tolerant race had passed away. Like any unprotected endangered species, they were now extinct.

It came, then, as a momentous and pleasant surprise when word was relayed to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., that the Westerners were not all gone. There remained a single surviving full-blooded member of the tribe. She wished now to share the full story of the Westerners. And so it was that John Harrington, leading ethnologist of the Institution, rushed to California in order to transcribe the final testament of this relic of another age, this Last Westerner.

 

Last Member Gives History

Her name was Ascencion Solorsano and for as long as anyone could remember she had resided in Gilroy. There she was known, because of her mystical curative powers, as a great and generous doctora. For several years the remaining Indians of northern California had known of the powerful doctora whom the Great Spirit had placed in their midst. Her wisdom was the accumulation from several generations of Westerners.

Each year hundreds of sick and lame Indians made the journey to her home. They lined up in the doorway and camped at night in the yard. Inside, the doctora listened carefully to their tales of physical woe. Then she mixed tonics and ointments from local roots and herbs and gave them to the suffering. It was rumored that the doctora’s remedies were always successful. She restored the health of anyone who sought her aid. Those who could pay gave what they could afford. But most could afford no money and paid simply with praises and prayer.

For many years the doctora tirelessly carried on her practice. Then, early one fall, a light evening breeze whispered a troubling message to her. For all of her life Ascencion had read such portents and signs in the wind and rain and the songs of birds, and she was as certain of this message as she had ever been. It said that she would die in three days. Now the things that remained to be done had to be done quickly.

Ascencion took out the black silk dress shehad sewn in which to meet death. She bade farewell to her friends in Gilroy and traveled quickly to the home of her daughter (a half-Indian), in Monterey. In her daughter’s tiny two room frame house she would wait for death. A bed was set up in the living room and several pillows were placed on it so that Ascencion might sit up. Neighbors and friends were summoned. Ascencion wished to share with them all the stories and the wisdom of the Westerners. It would be the final gift of the lost tribe to the children of the despoilers of the garden of Popeloutchom.

The gods of the Westerners maintained their compassion. And so, as Ascencion began to talk her strength was restored and death was postponed. When Harrington arrived from Washington, Ascencion looked at him in silence for a long time. Then she pronounced her evaluation of the enthusiastic scholar. "You are a vehicle of God," she said, "that comes to see me in the eleventh hour to save my knowledge from being lost. I will teach you up to the last day I can and see if I can tell you all that I know." And this is what she told him.

"I have lived for 83 years. My mother, Barbara Sierra, lived for 84 years. And my father, Miguel Solorsano,lived for 82 years. One week afterthe death of Barbara Sierra my fatherdied of grief at the loss of his lifelongcompanion." Ascencion, an only child, learned the legends and language of the Westerners from her parents. But with their deaths, the dialogue in the native tongue was relegated forever to the world of the spirits.

The Westerners traced themselves back hundreds of generations to a time when men had descended from the gods and had been placed in Popeloutchom. This was followed by a great flood that caused the ocean waters to rise to the top of the Gabilan Mountains. Following the flood, the founder of the tribe taught his children how to live on the earth, how to heal sickness, prepare food, build homes and to assuage the gods. The father/teacher had then departed to the world of the after life in the west, beyond the sunset. There, after death, each Westerner would in his turn be welcomed by the father/teacher. After death, however, they might still visit their children and friends in this world in dreams.

Among the Westerners, Ascencion said, age was respected and venerated. Itwas not, as among the white men,
considered simply a purgatory prior todeath. With age, the Westerners knew, came wisdom and magical power. Agedwomen, it was believed, had the power to control the growth of plants. Death was not feared by the Westerner. When death came, relatives of the deceased covered themselves with ashes and mourned openly. Some even removed themselves from the others of the tribe for several days and fasted and chanted songs of death.

 

Nature Provides Tribe’s Needs

In the garden of this world, Ascencion said, "nature provided such abundance of food that the Westerners always had an oversupply of wild fruits, greens and seeds." Consequently, they did notpractice agriculture and never cultivated the land. And except for the simple process of gathering food each day, work was unknown to the Westerners. They lived only for pleasure and play and there was no worry or care for tomorrow.

The men and boys of the Westerners wore no clothing. And the women wore only a simple brief buckskin skirt. Yet, Ascencion insisted, they did not burn in the summer nor did they catch cold even in the most severe winter.

The secret of their health, Ascencion believed, was the daily immersion in cold water. In the morning, as soon as they had arisen from their sleep, each member of the tribe walked to the nearest river or stream.Even the smallest infants were borne along.Then each Westerner jumped into the water and totally immersed himself. The practice was followed every day of the year, no matter what the weather. When they left the water the Westerners returned to their dwelling for the morning meal.

Fifty years before the birth of Ascension, the white men had come to Popeloutchom. They examined the countryside and named the land San Benito. They built a mission and named it, ironically, after a white man who paid great deference to immersion in water— John the Baptist. The mission they called San Juan Bautista. And the inhabitants of the 23 villages in the area of the mission were called, simply, San Juans.

 

Earthquakes No Deterrent

Not long after the white men had arrived, the spirits had shown their great displeasure with the immigrants. The gods stamped their feet upon the earth, causing buildings to fall and great cracks to open in the ground. The white men were terrified, but they remained. They lived outside their mission for several days and nervously questioned the Westerners about the shaking of the earth. And they remained.

The basic food of the Westerners was a mush consisting of acorn kernels that had been pounded and then bleached with water to remove the bitterness, then boiled along with meat, fish or greens. Following a short breakfast, the Westerners began their daily activities. The gathering of food and fuel—the most important activities—were considered an adventure and were carried out in both a communal and a leisurely fashion.

The men were charged with providing meat, skins and fish for the village. Women were responsible for gathering plants and vegetables and fuel. The men hunted in small groups, leaving the camp each morning and then returning late in the day. They roamed the hillsides and the low places of Popeloutchom in search of game, particularly deer. They were informal during the hunt, making it something of a sport. When other local hunting bands were spotted, the groups would stop to talk and exchange stories. If game had already been taken, part of it was cooked and eaten by both groups. Athletic competition—running, wrestling and archery—was also popular at these informal meetings.

The hunters, through centuries of observation, had learned the habits of their prey, Ascencion recalled. Thus, they could cover themselves with deerskin, walk on all fours like a deer, and approach their prey very closely. A small bird in flight could be hit by most of the men with a single arrow. In the rivers of Popeloutchom, the men clubbed fish or trapped them in shallows and shot them with arrows. Sometimes, when hunting parties traveled to the ocean, they took sea otters, seals and sea lions. And occasionally the hunting parties came upon a small whale that had washed ashore—food for several weeks for a single village.

While the men hunted, the women gathered acorns, roots, nuts, greens, fruits and other foods. In the quest for these, Ascencionrecalled, they mixed talking, laughter and singing. Like the men, they went about their unstrenuous task in small groups. Firewood collection meant greater effort and travel, so there was seldom more than a single day’s supply in any village—even when heavy rain clouds threatened. The women also provided water for each household of the village. This they carried from the streams in basket jugs, woven by hand. The jugs were made from the roots of "cut grass." When filled with water they swelled and did not leak, not one drop, Ascencion insisted.

The men and women of the Westerners mastered various crafts and passed the pride of workmanship on to each succeeding generation. The men hand crafted beautiful and powerful bows, reinforced with layers of sinew. They were accomplished archers and could string and fire with surprising swiftness. Their arrows, guided in flight by eagle feathers, passed easily through the body of bear or deer.

The women were the weavers of baskets. They sat in a large circle out of doors and wove baskets while they talked and sang. Each woman gave her baskets a distinct design which was to reflect her creative spirit. The patterns were neither repeated nor copied. At a woman’s death her baskets were burned or given away to strangers.

For both sociability and protection, the Westerners lived in small villages. Each home looked like a beehive. They were formed by driving willow poles into the ground in a circle and then bending the tops together and tying them. Horizontal poles were then laced through the verticals and deer grass was applied as a cover. A few small holes were left as windows. The door was small and low and faced away from the prevalent wind. The earth was the floor. Sleeping mats were woven from bullrushes. And robes from bear and deer hides served as blankets.

 

Popeloutchom’s History Recorded

Harrington listened and wrote. He was surprised at the comprehensiveness and vividness of Ascencion’s memories. He noticed that her illness seemed to have enhanced her memory and even interjected an other-worldly spiritualism into her narrative. After several weeks Harrington was only one of several dozen witnesses to Ascencion’s story. Chairs were set up facing the bed in small even rows and listeners came daily to sit silently for hours while the last Westerner sang and chanted and whispered the old tales again.

And as she told of the world that was no more and would not be again, she drew on untapped reserves of strength. Through October, November and December she talked and Harrington wrote. The audience increased as word of the wise woman spread. Now, manywhom she had cured, traveled a great distance to pay their last respects by listening.

And as she told of the world that was no more and would not be again, she drew on untapped reserves of strength. Through October, November and December she talked and Harrington wrote. The audience increased as word of the wise woman spread. Now, many whom she had cured, traveled a great distance to pay their last respects by listening.

But in January her strength began to slip away rapidly. As the end neared, she began seeing and hearing spirits of the Westerners in the room. She would point to someone sitting nearby and call out, "The spirit of Miguel is sitting beside you!"

Finally, she heard the spirits tapping at the door beckoning to her. She closed her eyes and began picking imaginary flowers from the bed. Then, without any struggle, she stopped breathing. Quietly, peacefully, she was united with the others of her tribe. It was January, 1930, when the last Westerner, Ascencion Solorsano, left the ruins of the garden of Popeloutchom.

Ascencion Solorsano was buried at Mission San Juan Bautista.