Dissenters Find a Stranger in Their Camp: An Excerpt From Greg Sarris’s “The Forgetters”

"The Forgetters" cover

Today, we’re pleased to present an excerpt from Greg Sarris’s new collection The Forgetters. Writing about the book earlier this month in Literary Hub, Jane Ciabattari had this to say: “These new, intricately spun stories narrated by twin Crow Sisters are parables passed down through generations, re-envisioned for a 21st-century world fraught with unnatural dangers. They offer all of us the possibility of healing, connection, even love.”


Dissenters Find a Stranger in Their Camp

There is a road from Nicasio to Tomales Bay. It snakes between hills where outcroppings of rocks stand like sentinels keeping watch on passersby below. The road, like many roads and even highways in this land, was once a trail used by the Natives, and when the sheriff and his posse chased the Coast Miwok off their rancheria in Nicasio, the Indians hurried along the trail to safety at Tomales Bay. But it is told that a small group veered from the path and set up camp well hidden below one of the large rocks. To this day, old timers will point to a rock and ask, “Was it that one?” 

There were five people altogether, two couples and a single woman of middle age. They were frightened, and of course angry. The Spanish padres left the rancheria to the Indians, nearly four hundred acres, after the Mexicans took over the land. The Indians then worked for the Mexicans, but it wasn’t until after California became a state that the Indians were forced to leave the rancheria. Officials, apparently sent by the local sheriff, gave the Indian leaders whiskey and duped them into signing away the land. No one knows if the five individuals who left the group did so because they lost faith in the leaders or if they might have been themselves the outcast leaders. Maybe they just didn’t want to be exiled to Tomales, where it was cold and windy. They kept hidden, only burning fires at night. They hunted and gathered acorns and berries, always covering their trails. For nearly six months they lived undiscovered, until one morning they woke to find a white man next to their fire. Had he seen smoke? Certainly there was nothing left of the night’s fire but embers. Who was he and where did he come from? 

He sat cross-legged. Next to him was a large cloth sack that lay on the ground like the shrunken skin of a dead animal. The Indians were too stunned to think that maybe they at last had been caught. They didn’t know what to do. The stranger just sat looking from the five of them to their huts, or kotchas, and then back to the ashes, which is why, after some time, one of the men approached and asked in Spanish who he was. The stranger did not answer but only looked up confused for a moment, and then he went back to looking around the small camp. 

The single woman of middle age said, “Can’t you see he’s not Spanish or Mexican?” 

“Then speak English to him,” the others suggested. 

She had worked for an American settler family near Nicasio, and they called her Mary, which is how she introduced herself to the white man before asking him in English what his name was. He said nothing for the longest time but then said, “I got lost in these hills,” before looking away from Mary again to his surroundings. 

The two Indian men were brothers, one older and taller, the second shorter and stout. Their wives, too, were sisters, though the older and taller of the two was married to the stout brother, while the shorter, younger sister had married the older brother, who, as leader of this small group, had spoken first to the white man. 

The stranger didn’t speak another word, but continued to study the camp and surrounding hills, as if trying to get his bearings. Mary again asked the man his name. She tried Span- ish, though, as was clear by his boots and overcoat and his fair skin and blue eyes, he was American. She turned then to the tall leader, whom she addressed as hoipu, or chief. 

“All we know is that he is lost,” she said.

“Can we believe it?” he asked Mary.

She explained that she didn’t know enough English to further question the stranger. They wondered if he might be Russian, long lost after Russia abandoned Fort Ross, farther up the coast. And yet he spoke English and he wore clothes the recent American settlers wore. 

After two days, when he hadn’t left the fire except for the necessary trip to the bushes, the Indians couldn’t think but to believe him. They fed him acorn mush, laughing to themselves when he turned down his mouth at the taste. Roasted rabbits and quail he relished. They brought him water from a nearby creek, which he drank heartily from their watertight baskets. More than once, Mary attempted with hand gestures and her limited English to point him toward San Rafael, from whence they figured he might have wandered. She knew better than to lead him from the small encampment lest he find his way back with the sheriff. But, as it turned out, he showed little interest in leaving, only sitting by the fire while the Indians brought him food and water. 

Twice a day Mary asked him his name, once in the morning when she brought him warm acorn mush and water, then again at night after a meal of meat and fresh berries while he sat watching the two brothers take turns stoking the fire. The two men and their wives worried that this stranger might take an interest in Mary and want to kidnap her. Or maybe just to have a woman friend in the camp, now that he had food and water and a fire to keep him warm at night. What else did he need? 

Mary—they say her Indian name was Hatsumat—was single; she’d long been a widow, since, more than twenty years before, her husband, a Mission Indian from Sonoma, was trampled after falling from one of General Vallejo’s horses. She was well into her forties, still youthful and attractive, and she’d artfully dodged the advances of men over the years, Indian or settler, but the stranger in the weeks and months ahead never made the slightest inappropriate gesture toward her; he showed no interest. So, what did this man want? It was Mary who laughed. “‘What does this man want?’ Look, he wants nothing. We feed him, take care of him, and all he has to do is sit there by the fire.” 

As if the stranger had understood the Coast Miwok language they were speaking, he was on his feet first thing the next morning, standing by the fire. “I want to help. Teach me,” he told Mary. 

And that’s what happened. He became suddenly so industrious that the tables had completely turned, so much so that the Indians found themselves taking his place by the fire. 

He learned from the older brother to make a sharp arrow- head by chipping obsidian, and from the younger brother he learned to hunt with a bow and arrow and where to find deer close to camp and how to trap rabbits and quail in the brush. The older sister taught him to stitch clothes with only a bone awl. The younger sister taught him to weave baskets, using the same awl. Soon he could make both twined and coiled baskets. And Mary taught him songs for luck in hunting, and songs, too, for crafting arrows and for focus while weaving baskets and stitching clothes. He learned that even an arrowhead and awl needed a song if the hunter and basket maker were to be successful. Soon he was doing everything. He hunted. He cooked. He hauled water from the creek, serving the brothers and their sister wives and Mary, who now all sat day and night by the fire. They didn’t live in their kotchas anymore. Their abandoned kotchas soon fell apart. This stranger with no place by the fire at night found fresh willows and tule and constructed for himself a kotcha twice the size of any that had been in the camp. 

He didn’t visit with anyone, always retreated at night to his kotcha. They still didn’t know his name. When he rested, after packing a large deer back to camp or hauling water up the hill from the creek, he sometimes sat looking at the large rock near the top of the hill. They worried that he might be attempting to gauge his whereabouts so that he could find his way from their hiding place. After all, if he found his way back to wherever he had come from, he could return with the sheriff. But he never did leave. 

Soon, though, with nothing to do, this group of dissenters began to argue, not just about this stranger and whether or not he wanted to leave, or even about what his motives might be, but also about petty issues between themselves. Jealousies and suspicions arose between the brothers. When the older brother remarked that his wife, who was short and stout, would appear to others to be the wife of his short and stout younger brother, the younger brother immediately assumed the older brother de- sired his taller wife. The younger brother then questioned why his older brother should be deemed hoipu of the group when in fact the younger brother, though short and stout, was more agile, by far the better hunter. 

The sisters, too, bickered, recalling past offenses, real or not, from their childhoods. “You stole your basket designs from me,” the older and taller sister claimed. “Yes, and wasn’t I the one who taught you to weave in the first place?” the younger, stouter sister retorted. Both couples suspected Mary had used a love song on the stranger, that even as she had plenty to eat and was warm enough at night, she had intentions to move into the large kotcha with the stranger. Mary found out what they were saying about her. “You fools!” she shouted. “You insult me. I loved one man and one man only, and he died under the general’s horse. If I could sing any song, it would be to put each and every one of you six feet under. But I’m not that kind of person. I would sing only to shut you up, each one of you.” 

They knew what they needed to do. They needed to get busy again, return to the task of feeding and caring for themselves. But, alas, they discovered they could do nothing. The older brother could no longer chip obsidian to make sharp arrows. The younger could no longer hunt, much less remember where he might find rabbits or quail. Neither sister could stitch clothes or weave baskets, for they couldn’t even remember how to hold an awl. Mary forgot the songs. No one remembered how to build a kot- cha so that they might cover themselves at night instead of sitting by the fire, exposed to the elements in the dark. 

“We’ve let this man do everything, and now we’ve forgotten,” the older brother said, noting the obvious, before adding what no one wanted to hear: “We will now have to join the others in exile at Tomales Bay.” 

Very quickly his short, stout wife added, “We can’t do that, for he’ll follow us and maybe cause more trouble there.” 

“And think how we will look to the others, not able even to stitch a piece of clothing after this white man took everything we know,” added her tall older sister. 

“So, we are trapped,” her short husband, the younger brother, chimed in. “We can’t lead him to the trail lest he find his way to San Rafael and return with the sheriff.” 

Mary spoke up then. “We have no choice but to join the others at Tomales Bay without him. We must escape while he is out hunting. Who knows what he might do with us now that we’ve been rendered helpless?” 

“How can we escape?” the older brother asked. “He never goes far enough from the camp for us to make a safe getaway. At night he sleeps with his head near the kotcha door, where he can keep an eye on us.” 

“We must kill him,” said the younger brother. 

They devised a plan whereby the older brother would place a rock on the path to the creek, causing the stranger to fall when he went for water the next morning. Once he was on the ground, the younger brother could then crush his head. They all agreed. What else was there to do? 

While the others slept that night, Mary slipped away from camp. She found the trail that led to Tomales Bay, and while the morning star still shone in the sky, she returned with an old medicine woman. The old woman summoned the two brothers and their wives a short distance from the camp, out of earshot from the sleeping stranger. 

“You got lazy,” she told them. “You got forgetful.” She looked at Mary. “You gave the stranger our songs. We do everything with songs. These old rocks on the hills—like the one here just above your camp—they contain the memory of all things and the songs. This white man has the songs, which is why you see him looking at the old rock on the hill. The rock is attracting him.” 

“Might he learn more from the rock?” a remorseful Mary asked. “How will we get our songs back?” 

“How will we ever know how to take care of ourselves again?” the older brother asked. 

“I will sing this old rock’s song so that it will return the songs you need to be able to hunt and gather berries again and sew and weave baskets.” 

And thus, the old woman sang: 

Eyes old as stars 

Eyes old as stars 

Eyes old as stars 

My eyes old as stars 

Morning dawned on the camp. The first thing they saw was the stranger’s cloth sack, swollen and propped against his little kotcha. 

“That’s where he’s keeping our songs!” Mary exclaimed. “And our arrowheads and quail traps,” said the two brothers. “And our willow reeds and sedge roots and awls,” said the sisters.


They rushed and opened the sack. Songs flew up into the air and landed in their hearts and in the trees and everywhere in the morning sky. When they emptied the sack, turning it upside down, out spilled beautiful obsidian arrowheads and awls and watertight baskets, even white man’s flour and sacks of spices and herbs and seeds from faraway countries, all of which the men and women quickly gathered. 

They were so busy they had not noticed that the stranger had awakened and now was but five feet away, seeing his empty sack on the ground. When they saw him, they were alarmed, frightened, until they realized that the man was just as he had been when he had first appeared, and once again he only said, “I got lost in these hills.” 

The old medicine woman pointed to a satchel of sweet pea seeds and instructed Mary to give the satchel to the stranger. 

“Take those seeds,” the old woman said, speaking to the man in English. “Put each one down as you go on your path, and that way you will not get lost.” 

When she asked that they return the flour and spices and herbs to the man, he refused the offer, gesturing for the small group of dissenters to keep them. 

After that, they led him to the trail and pointed him to San Rafael. They went in the opposite direction, to Tomales Bay, where they joined the others who’d left Nicasio. Whatever differences the five individuals had once had with the others, whatever the reasons for veering from the group, were long forgotten. And they soon forgot below which rock the dissenters had made their camp. But they never forgot the stranger. They figured he’d let them keep his flour and spices because he was thankful for the old medicine woman’s advice, and they wondered if he himself might’ve been escaping the sheriff. For, as it turned out, he didn’t go to San Rafael but instead west and north into Sonoma County, where each spring they see clusters of beautiful pink sweet pea blossoms on trails and along roads and highways, wherever the stranger had traveled. 


Excerpted from The Forgetters (available 16 April 2024) by Greg Sarris. Reprinted with permission from Heyday Books, © 2024.

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