Merkie Oliver Shares the Old Days, Old Ways, With Visiting Friends
Yurok Man Acclaimed for Dancing, Fishing, Eeling, Boxing and More
By MALCOLM TERENCE, Two Rivers Tribune Contributing Writer
When his two friends entered the room, Merkie Oliver, the storied Yurok fisherman, straightened his back and broke into a huge smile. It was not the easiest thing to straighten in the hospital style bed where he, by his own estimate, had been confined too long.
The friends were Brian Tripp, the Karuk artist and ceremonial singer, and Thomas Dunklin, the prolific photographer from Arcata. Merkie looked overjoyed at their arrival and Brian took Merkie’s hand to begin singing a song at bedside. It was a song from the Brush Dance, a healing ceremony, and Merkie, whose voice has grown feeble, sang along quietly.
Brian, grew up near Merkie in Klamath, but now lives in Orleans, Panámniik in Karuk language. Brian began playing to him with a square drum and sang more songs. Some were in Karuk language or in rhythmic chant but he threw in an old one, a ditty almost, part in English.
It went more or less, in part, “I like macaroni, and chicharoni, I like Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio.” At that, Merkie tossed aside his feebleness and started laughing.
Tripp started listing the great singers of ceremony that they’d both known: “Albert Grey, Hector Sims, Sam Jones, Bill Patterson.” And more.
“So damn many of them,” Merkie said. “I got to dance with all the greats. I was born at the right time. You might think I’m bragging, but I got to be good at it. It was a gift from god. I got to dance with all the old fellows. I listened to my mom and my uncles and they told me what to do.”
Old 1950s film footage of him dancing is available online at http://goo.gl/6LRXYe . The film voice-over is a brush dance song by Brian Tripp and was posted a year ago by Brian’s brother Phillip.
Merkie jumps into center of the dance circle with a radiant smile, his head held high and a straight back, much as he’d straightened it when his friends entered the room. If the Brush Dance is a prayer, one imagines the creator’s attention was riveted.
Brian told Merkie that he used to sleep next to the dance area when he was young so he could wake up for Merkie’s round in the morning.
Clarence Hostler, a Hupa tribal member, explained, “When we’re dancing in ceremony it’s prayer in motion. When I saw Merkie dancing, I saw what my uncles were telling me. For years, for decades, Merkie was the best and it was my dream to jump center with him.”
Clarence’s chance came 21 years ago at Ka’tim’îin, the Karuk dance house in Somes Bar. Before the dance, Merkie gave Clarence instructions. When the time came, Clarence said he hollered and went to the left; Merkie hollered and went to the right.
“Together we did what my uncles taught me,” Clarence remembers. “We went to the ends of the world to bring down the power.”
Although Brush Dance is usually staged to heal a child, Clarence remembers a brush dance in Weitchpec in 1955 to heal two brothers returned from the Korean War and burdened by what would now be called Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome or PTSD.
Two years ago, already afflicted by failing health, Merkie had asked for his own Brush Dance. Over 200 friends from local tribes attended and Thomas Dunklin, the photographer, presented Merkie with a framed picture of the throng. It was inscribed by Brian Tripp in his blunt, colorful script.
While gifts were presented, Merkie was given a glistening white braid of fresh garlic from Susan Terence, a gardener on Salmon River. He was tickled by the gift and joked whether he could eat it all in one day to get healthy. “If you live through it,” he was told.
By then the visitors were joined by Merkie’s ex-wife Jeannie Perry and two grandchildren. One was Numi’koy, a three-year-old girl, whose name means “dawn” in Yurok language. The other was her one-year-old brother Cher’ery, the Yurok word for “bear.”
As Brian Tripp played his drum and sang to their grandfather, the two toddlers stopped in their play transfixed.
Besides his dancing, Merkie is renowned for his skill catching fish and eels. He had advice for aspirant fishermen: “Just get out there and do it.”
Brian Tripp said that maybe it went with his name Merkie. That’s the Yurok word for the Great Blue Heron, a species that thrives on fish. Merkie agreed that his reputation was deserved and said, “I could get fish where nobody else could. It was a gift. That name was given to me the day I was born.”
On a good day he could catch 100 fish. Also eels. 200 of those on a good day and sometimes 1000 in the smokehouse. Even Blue Herons would think that pretty impressive.
He’s caught them with dipnets, hooks, hands and baskets. The old style eel hooks were made with a wood handle and a nail but Merkie carves beautiful ones with a wavy wood handle, not unlike the shape of an eel, and a long wire shaped into a hook at the end. Several of them were arrayed on the walls of the room.
“You need something long, narrow and strong, like old-time car antennas,” he said. “The antennas off cop cars work best,” someone in the room offered.
Hawk White, a Karuk from Somes Bar, remembers years ago when he was logging near the mouth of the Klamath, that he would check out the driftwood logs near the river’s mouth for eels that others had missed. One morning he found one of Merkie’s distinctive eel hooks and returned it to him.
Merkie was delighted and showed that his daughter’s name was carved into the wood. “It was a sneaker wave. Almost got me and I lost the hook,” Merkie said. He gestured to the eel hooks on the wall and invited Hawk to take his pick as a reward.
When he was 17, Merkie was part of an Indian boxing club in Eureka. He said he fought 18 fights and lost only two. Then a cloud of melancholy shaded his face and he said, “Now I’m the only guy left of that team.”
Once the floodgates of the old stories were opened, talk shifted to the Fish Wars, the time in the late 1970s when heavy-handed Federal officers tried to stop Yurok and Hupa fishermen from using their ancient family fishing sites on the Klamath and Trinity Rivers. These fishermen had to battle on the water and in the legal system to assert the aboriginal rights to catch fish.
It was a time of boats rammed, nets confiscated and guns and Mace brandished by the Feds. “It’s a wonder somebody didn’t die,” Merkie said.
He remembers once his boat had three or four companions and was assaulted by Feds. Merkie saw a black man in the back of the government boat and thought he looked ashamed. Merkie remembers yelling, “Hey, Black fellow! Hey! Why you down on Indians? We never did anything to your people. God put us here a long time ago.”
The tribes prevailed in the end, and Merkie says his own theory of why the Feds relented was when a visiting troupe of Japanese drummers set up on the beach, singing and playing loudly in support of the fishermen. “The government guys got really scared and left,” he said
What he liked of the Fish Wars, as they came to be called, was the way the disparate parts of the tribe became unified in support of the fishing rights. It’s a unity that Merkie misses in the present day actions of the tribal council and he is their persistent critic.
“They (the council) should be making it right for our people,” he complained. And he added, “I’m not mad. I’m just sad. Are they Injuns any more?”
He said that he had never run for council because he felt “too dumb.” He explained that he’d been sent to the Indian boarding school at Chemawa in his early teens and bailed out after his third year.
He came home to learn hunting and fishing and “how to live like an Indian.”
“It’s harder than hell to be a man. You want to live like a man, you have to show a lot of respect. Try to do something respectful. That’s a good way of life. Now I can die.”
The visit went a long time but people would leave the room now and then to give him rest. He is staying at the house of his daughter Orowi Oliver, named with the Yurok word for dove. While he rested, she took them on tours of the house.
The house is decorated with his eeling sticks and family photos. On one wall hangs a deerskin dress that has the look of very old regalia. She said she thinks it goes back before the arrival of White people.
With pride, she points out the decoration, weaving of iris fiber, bear grass and maiden hair fern, and hangings of abalone shell.
She said that her father was suffering from congestive heart failure, a sometimes fatal disorder, but she and her mother agreed that he was slowly improving and getting stronger everyday.
Merkie halfway agreed but seemed to feel that he wavered in a misty zone between recovery and death; he was not sure which. No matter which, after a lifetime of great strength he is tired of being bedridden.
His friends checked in one more time before they left and he said he had been very honored by their company. There are many charismatic people in the world and a few of them have the gift that whoever they talk to feels like they are the most important person in the room. Merkie has that gift. Add that to his list of gifts: dancing, fishing, eeling, boxing and more.
He took each visitor by the hand and did more than shake, he held the hand and talked quietly to the person. To each he said, “kowis-cha” several times, “thank you” in Yurok language.
Then he opened his eyes wide and said, “I would like to dance one more time.”