Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Book Review: Deep Hanging Out by Malcolm Margolin

Reviewed by John Krieg

Deep Hanging Out: Wanderings and Wonderment in Native California 
by Malcolm Margolin
Heyday Books. 

If you want a jolt to any complacency and smugness that you may have fallen prey to as a member of the boomer generation, or if you’re a millennial seeking to know the unbridled truth about the volatile European settlement of California, by all means, buy this book.  Know that sometimes the truth really doesn’t set you free, but rather binds you to a sense of responsibility and accountability.  The truth can be heart wrenching.  

     This work contains a series of essays as they predominantly appeared in the monthly journal News from Native California, which was founded in 1987 by Margolin, David Peri, and Vera Mae Fredrickson.  The essays range in date from 1981 to 2019.  Margolin founded the nonprofit Heyday Books in 1974 and served as its executive director until his retirement in 2015.  The winner  of the American Book Award along with numerous other literary accomplishments he was intensely interested in Native American history and their contemporary culture.

Margolin is white, Jewish, and hails from Boston, Massachusetts.  How would anyone with those credentials become involved with Native Americans in California?  Well…he is also compassionate, empathetic, generous, and imbued with a rock solid basic sense of fairness  that prods him to speak out against injustice, and Eurocentric man’s treatment of indigenous peoples across the globe ever since over oceanic exploration came to the fore is just about the greatest injustice in human history.  It should also be noted that he moved to Berkley after graduating from Harvard University while in his late twenties during the late 60’s at the height of its revolutionary ethic while concurrently serving as the epicenter of hippiedom.  Back then peace and love wasn’t just a popular saying, it was a way of life.  Margolin still lives it and still lives in Berkley.

Malcolm Margolin is a journalist’s journalist.  A journalist strives to always have their boots on the ground where the story is unfolding.  They don’t rely on television or secondhand information, they have to be there, they have to hang out where the action is.  So, just how deep is Margolin’s deep hanging out?  It started over 50 years ago and is ongoing.  He explains this endeavor in his recently written introduction:

I’ve often explained my time spent with California Indians as “deep hanging out.”  The phrase has a connotation of hippie casualness, but it was coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz in 1998 to describe anthropological research done via informal immersion in a culture, as opposed to research done by conducting formal interviews and distanced observations…

As a practice deep hanging out very much corresponds to Indian ways of gaining knowledge.  It is an older way in which you don’t pursue knowledge as much as you put yourself out there with the hope that knowledge will come to you.  I learned much from sitting on people’s porches, playing checkers with them, listening to their stories, telling stories of my own.  My academic reflections come from hours spent in libraries reviewing anthropological treatises, linguistic reports, and field notes.  I’m proud of the research that I’ve been able to do and very grateful for the trust and the access to their lives that Native people have given me (p. viii).

Consider the wealth of environmental diversity in California pre-European contact estimated to have occurred in 1542.  From the seacoast to the deep forests to the interior plateaus to the salmon rich river valleys natural food sources were readily available to those who lived a sustainable lifestyle that never overexploited their source of sustenance.  Deer, elk, and antelope abounded while flocks of ducks and geese were so thick that they blotted out the sky.  The botanical marvels of oak and mesquite trees provided acorns and pods that could be stored in granaries throughout the winter and feed an entire village.  Statewide, there were well over 100,000 Indians living lightly off the land which was a lifestyle long ago abandoned by the European nations.  The damage that was wrought upon the unsuspecting indigenous inhabitants through oppression, diseases, and intolerance  has been well documented ad infinitum elsewhere, and while Margolin makes solid reference to it, his primary focus is mainly on the living, on the restoration of cultures through a return to their traditional customs and the redemption of their languages, many of which were considered lost to history.

The depth and breadth of the man’s intellect is on high display in his article entitled: Life in a California Mission (1989)  because it answers the haunting question of why would the Indians have ever accepted Spain’s mission system?  Margolin explains:

Part of what drew them was, of course, the dazzle of Spanish goods. Guns, metal, cloth, exotic foods, horses that obeyed people and bore them effortlessly and majestically for great distances, cows that patiently gave them milk, carts pulled by stately and well-muscled draft oxen, boats in full sail that came from beyond the ocean – these were, for a people who had never conceived of such things, bewildering in their power and beauty (p. 169-170).

This is a work filled with kind-hearted admiration and understanding with an occasional undertone of remorse that is quickly dispelled with ample examples of hope.  In short, it is an extraordinary and vitally important account of the human spirit and the will to survive.  In the essay entitled Still Here (2019) the author humbly sums up his life’s work through the publication of News from Native California:

As is obvious from the listings in the very first issue, we didn’t create the cultural revival, we reported on it and, in reporting, spread information about it from one community to another.  I’m proud of what we did.  In that age before the Internet, many areas of California – especially rural areas - were isolated from one another, spreading the news of how, in various communities, members of a younger generation were, by and large on their own, reviving language, dance, song, traditional arts, and skills, as well as spiritual practice, was a laudable service (p. 246).

Malcolm Margolin has done a huge service for not only the state’s original population, but for all Californians.  Deep Hanging Out is a book that is well worth hanging out with and referring to time and time again.

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