INTERVIEW: Ann Marie Sayers, Ohlone Storyteller and Tribal Chair of Indian Canyon
ANN MARIE SAYERS, Tribal Chair of Indian Canyon in Hollister, California, is also an Ohlone Indian storyteller. She lives in Indian Canyon. At its entrance is the site of the traditional village where her ancestors thrived some 4,500 years ago, long before the arrival of Spanish missionaries, long before homesteaders of European descent pressed West for land to claim as their own, and long before California, as a new state within the U.S., sought to rid Coastal California of its Indian population. “We are still here,” she says. Existence, survival, recognition, the earth as mother, honoring ancestors, tribal language and culture. These are among the intense subjects that braid through Ann Marie Sayers’s daily life.
You live in Indian Canyon. Could you tell our Trail Blog readers about this place and its setting? What makes it unique?
Indian Canyon is the only federally recognized “Indian Country” for 300 miles along coastal California . It is still inhibited by the descendants of the original people. This canyon served as a safe haven for many of the native peoples who did not like the restrictions at Mission San Juan Bautista. And today, as well, it serves as a safe haven for all indigenous people in need of traditional land for ceremony. What makes this canyon unique are the ancestral spirits that are here. You can feel all the life that surrounds you and the water that flows down the waterfall and through the canyon. It is the ceremonies that take place that attract California Condors, positive energy, and all life is vibrant and sacred.
You are an Ohlone storyteller who remains grounded in the traditions of your ancestors. How did you learn to be a storyteller? Did someone in particular pass down traditional stories or songs to you?
I have always been around storytelling, let it be telling stories or learning from stories, it is not something that you learn, it is just who you are. My mother shared traditional stories. And song has never been my forte, whereas my daughter grew up singing many traditional songs both in the Mutsun and Rumsen languages with other Ohlone groups.
The first story you remember hearing as a child. What was it about?
There are so many stories, the one that made quite an impression – I still remember, was about Steller Jay. (Cyanocitta stelleri.)
Do you tell stories in both English and an Ohlone language? We learned a little about the Chochenyo Ohlone language from Vincent Medina Jr., who was also interviewed for our Trail Blog. If you told Vincent a story in your ancestral language, would he be able to understand it?
The Mutsun language is as different from the Chochenyo language as French is from Spanish. So there are words that are similar. We have not had a fluent speaker of the Mutsun language since the 1930’s. The revitalization of one’s language allows you to understand why you are the way you are.
Great storytellers have a magical ability to mesmerize audiences, to pull them far away from everyday life and into a world where everything – time, the pace of breathing, the atmosphere encompassing them – becomes unusual, at moments also exhilarating. How do you accomplish this?
Before I welcome people to Ohlone territory, offer a blessing, or participate in storytelling, I offer tobacco to the ancestral spirits, asking for guidance so that my words and actions will honor them, the original people upon whose land I am on.
The art of storytelling walks a fine line between tradition and innovation, the old and the new. How do you see this balance? Can traditional stories adapt to technological innovations such as the Internet and iPods? Or to unsustainable land use of the kinds one sees in parts of Coastal California today?
How does one walk in two worlds, the fine line between tradition and innovation? Very delicately. There are many stories that are very sacred and many stories that are lessons which teach you how to become one with your mother.
What are some of the animals that figure in your story-telling tradition? Are any of these animals still visible in Ohlone regions of California today?
We hosted the Bear Dance for eight years, and many stories have come from both the bears and the dance. The One Thousand Hummingbird gathering was conceived at Indian Canyon; it is the hummingbird that flies in and out of many of our traditional stories. And, there is Coyote who is the eternal thread that weaves his way through many of the stories of the different Native people of California. The bear no longer roams here. But the red tail hawk, hummingbird, and coyote are alive and well. Stellar jay is still squawking.
And what about characters? Do you have a favorite one?
My favorite character is spirit; spirit is in every story I have ever told. The Ohlone word Noso-n translates to “in breath, so it is in spirit.” If something breathes, it is alive, it is in spirit.
Indian Canyon is home to the Indigenous Plant Restoration Project, which aims to “create a garden of native
California plants that are used by Indigenous people.” It also seeks to “promote understanding and appreciation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge” while “bringing people closer to their traditions with the earth.” Could you tell us more about the relationship between earth, plants, and culture?
All indigenous people have a song: Earth my body, water my blood, air my breath, and fire my spirit. This helps us to identify with our mother and realize we must take better care of her, to take care of us. We are all one.
Are you passing on storytelling to a new generation? Do you find that young people are eager to learn the art of storytelling as well as other forms of expression?
Each year there are hundreds and some years, thousands of students i.e. 4th & 5th graders and college students taking American Indians studies classes, that come to the canyon. It is all about sharing gifts and storytelling. We do not charge a fee for this, what we ask is; each student, parent & professor to make a pledge of allegiance to the earth.
One of your titles apart from ‘Storyteller’ is ‘Tribal Chair of Indian Canyon.’ What are some of your core responsibilities as Tribal Chair?
As tribal chair of Indian Canyon – my main focus is to honor my ancestors and the manner in which they cared for our mother. Another important responsibility is outreach. We still live on our land – the land we have always lived on – we still partake in ceremonies –and inviting the public to view the world with a different lens.
Honor the Past, to Shape the Future. This phrase is strongly associated with you. It shows up on your Facebook
profile, and elsewhere. Could you tell us more about this idea? What are some of the ways that honoring the past can influence the future?
We must honor the past in every aspect – particularly with truth in history. We must acknowledge the fact that the foundation of this country is built on lies and deaths of the native people. This acknowledgement is important – so we may move on in a good way.
If you could tell a story that the whole world would hear in a single instant, how would it begin?
If I could tell a story that the whole world would hear in a single instant, this is how it would begin;
A long long looonng time ago and in reality only an instant………
Our mother has only one question: I know you can hear me – but are you listening????
In this day and age, many people feel disconnected from the earth, from other people, and even from themselves. If you were advising them, what would be your first recommendation about what they could do to attain a more harmonious, less strife-ridden life?
Many people suffer from Nature Deficient Disorder. I am not sure if I am one to give advice, in my humble opinion –I would suggest –be thankful with all your senses for the life that surrounds you.
See the color of the sound of the water — as you listen when you taste it from
Your hand, before it drips away. AMS
Mission Santa Cruz State Historic Park features the only neophyte housing that remains standing in California’s mission chain. By chance, the mission at Santa Cruz is also renowned as a place where Ohlone and other Indians were abused, and where they rose up to kill the Franciscan friar who abused them. As an Ohlone Indian and Tribal Chair, what are your thoughts and feelings when you visit this historic site, or when you reflect on it?
Leslie Dunton-Downer, you asked me what are my thoughts and feelings when I reflect on:
“the mission at Santa Cruz is also renowned as a place where Ohlone and other Indians were abused, and where they rose up to kill the Franciscan friar who abused them.” LD-D
When I reflect, it is not much different than the other 20 missions. I would like to see truth in history and the fact that we are still here. In history books, we are past tense –and that simply is not the case.
Ann Marie Sayers is noted as someone who is “living her dream, honoring her ancestors.” Could you expand on this for our Trail Blog readers? How old were you when you discovered your dream? How has your life changed since you embraced this dream?
Leslie, I am living my dream, and my dream is unfolding in front of me.
This interview was done via email by June 28, 2012. Thank you Ann Marie Sayers for adding your unique voice to our Trail Blog.
Join us to hear to Ann Marie Sayers’s speaking and storytelling voice on September 1, 2012, when The California Mission Ride will be at Mission Santa Cruz for special events, including storytelling around the fire pit in the mission’s compound. Check our website’s Calendar page for updated event details.
Explore more about Ann Marie Sayers and Indian Canyon on YouTube:
Present! features Ann Marie Sayers in Indian Canyon in 2006, when Mel Van Dusen of KMTV visited her at her home for an interview. Here is his description of the 26-minute program: “Ohlone Indian Ann Marie Sayers talks about the importance of respecting the Earth, sacred ceremony, Indian history and life at Indian Canyon.” Kanyon Sayers-Roods, Ann Marie’s daughter, sings the traditional Grandmother song you can hear on this program.
For a recent YouTube presentation of students visiting Indian Canyon’s Indigenous Plant Restoration Project, and talking about plants as well as storytelling and more, click here: “On April 1, 2012 Indigenous Peoples Media Project of POOR Magazine went with a group of San Francisco State University Native Studies student volunteers who are participating in the Indigenous Plant Restoration Project happening at Indian Canyon.”
Ann Marie Sayers addressed the American Indian Movement’s 2009 conference in San Francisco. Watch her short, powerful speech. She talks about the arrival of the Spanish, missionization, land grants, the Gold Rush, California becoming a state, the claim that Indians ‘no longer exist,’ and the insult of a culture and people being denied Federal Recognition by the U.S. government – together these events have devastated California Indians in particular. “But they didn’t get all of us. And my ancestors, who did survive, and many ancestors, have descendants that are Ohlone living here today.”