Malcolm Margolin

Learning From Native Ways

Recorded: May 31, 2013

Malcolm Margolin is an author and publisher, whose deep curiosity about California Native American culture in the 1970s helped rekindle its importance to all cultures. He begins with an endearing story about his early childhood experience with nature. He tells us a bit about publishing and the founding of Heyday Books. Malcolm then shares some examples of what he has learned about sustainability and alternative ways of being from the native people's perspective.

Malcolm Margolin is an author, publisher, founder, and executive director of Heyday Books, an independent nonprofit publisher and cultural institution in Berkeley, California. Malcolm Margolin holds a degree in literature from Harvard University (1964).  In 1974, Margolin founded Heyday with the publication of his book, East Bay Out a guide to the East Bay Regional Parks.

Margolin is the author/editor of eight books including The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area, named by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the hundred most important books of the twentieth century by a western writer. His essays and articles have appeared in a number of periodicals including The Nation, Small Press, National Parks, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Los Angeles Times.

Malcolm has received dozens of prestigious honors including Lifetime Achievement Awards from the San Francisco Bay Area Book Reviewers Association and the California Studies Association, a Community Leadership Award from the San Francisco Foundation, and a Cultural Freedom Award from the Lannan Foundation. In 2012 he received the prestigious Chairman’s Commendation from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Mr. Margolin has taught publishing courses at University of California Extension, Berkeley, and has served as advisor and mentor to many other publishers. He has lectured at dozens of universities and colleges throughout California.  In 2001, he co-founded Bay Nature, a nonprofit quarterly magazine focused on the natural world of the San Francisco Bay Area, and for a time served on its board of directors. He has also served on the boards of the Yosemite Association, Alliance for California Traditional Arts, and the Publication Committee of U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.

Huey Johnson:    Malcolm Margolin, what a pleasure.  So you have a nonprofit organization [Heyday Books], I’ve – I can envy you in one sense.  It would be great fun to be dealing with different authors all the time; you get to know people and their ideas.

Malcolm Margolin:    It is utterly wonderful.  I meet people when they have a great idea, when they have – when they’ve written something beautiful and this river of beauty flows through this place and I view myself as standing on the banks with a ladle and just dipping into it and pulling out things and calling them books.

Huey Johnson:    Tell me, how you came up with the love of nature.

Malcolm Margolin:    I can’t imagine anybody that wouldn’t; that people don’t have it is the mystery.  I grew up in the city. I grew up in Boston. I grew up in Dorchester.  It was a heavily urban area.  We would look out the back window and there were birds out there, there were pigeons, and it was Yiddish ethinal zoology.  And there were faygelah, the little birds and foygl were the big birds. The faygela were the sparrows.  And my mother would look out the window and it would be wintertime and there would be snow on the ground and the little faygela’s were going, they were going barefoot, they were going boorvisser fiss.  And she felt so sorry for these little birds going barefoot, and she would cook up in a little shissel, in a little sauce pan, she’d cook up some milk and some good Jewish bread, and she’d boil it up and she’d throw it out into the snow for the birds to have something warm to eat.  And the hot bread would hit the snow and it would tunnel down.

And the little birds would come along and look down to this thing, and this whole thing was  just this most ridiculous lack of knowledge, but there was love in that one.  There was the sense that those little birds wanted good Jewish bread that they had, that going barefoot was bad, that you took care of them.  I think that I learned more from that kind of folk love of something than I did from people that had their biology straight, that had their taxonomies straight.  There was something about the fact that the birds had – were like us.  And I would look at them and I would be so amazed by them.

Huey Johnson:    How about your interest in native cultures?

Malcolm Margolin:    You’d go into every hippy’s house had pictures of Geronimo, had sepia pictures from Curtis, Indians were all around, and I figured, wouldn’t it be interesting to write a quick book on Indians in the Bay Area?  The more I got into it, the more complicated it became.  And then I started to meet people. And there comes a time in your life where you want to be useful, where you just  – I’d written a couple of books and when I started writing about Indians, I found myself useful to the Indian community and I found myself in touch with a generation of people.  They had been brought up by grandmothers’ and aunts’ that remembered California before the coming of Europeans, before the gold rush, and they were in direct contact with that old world.  And you’d meet them and there was a humor to them.  Only defeated people could be this funny. Only people that had lost everything could be this deeply funny.  There was nothing to lose in that humor.  There was a beauty to that humor.  There was a nobility to them.  There was a generosity.  There was a rootedness.  There was violence.  There was a sense of magic and black magic was poisoning each other.  There was all that undercurrent in there.  And I looked and these people were the most gorgeous and amazing people I had met.  And I started to interview them and I started to create magazines and books around them, and then I created this magazine, News From Native California in 1987 and it was in a sense, a eulogy for what I felt was a passing generation.

And as time passed, out of that magazine, grew new organizations, grew language groups, grew basketry groups, a whole cultural revival came about.  And here I came to write a eulogy and I found myself witnessing a birth and it was this birth of a whole other world of people regaining language, of people renewing culture, of people renewing the tonality of that old world.  It’s not just the technology.  It’s not just the facts.  It’s the – it’s your posture to the world.  It’s how to be human.  And it’s the sense that the world is more mysterious than our capacity to understand it.  That the human capacity to understand is modest, the world is big and mysterious and there was something about the – you know the intense tenderness of people.

I remember these hunters would go out there, they would hunt and they would talk about these animals with such tenderness and such love.  It was an emotional attachment, everything was connected.  The strawberries would ripen, you would have strawberry festival, you would have strawberry dance.  Then you’d wait four days and the brodiaea would be ripening on a particular hill.  Then you’d wait for a particular bird to sing and you’d know the salmon were going to start running.  You know all these things were connected, the land has this dense history, and you go around and every corner has a place where there had been an incident, where there had been a god, where there had been a divinity, where the poles, the center posts for the roundhouse had been taken.

It gives the land personality.  It gives the land meaning.  It gives the land myth.  It comes from dwelling in a place for thousands of years.  It comes from deep living in a place.

Ownership in those Indian worlds was – if there was a tree over there, you might own wood collecting rights, I might own woodpecker hunting rights, she might own acorn collecting rights, but nobody owned the whole tree.  And the ownership had responsibility attached to it; you own something to take care of it in a way.  If you didn’t take care of it, you could be held responsible for it.

Indians get into trouble often with National Parks Service and Trust for Public Land and Nature Conservancy and places that set land aside for preservation, they want to use it.  The theory is that plants want to become baskets because the plant wants to be beautiful in the human world and the human being and the basket act together to give the plant it’s fulfillment.  And the plant and the human being are part of the same system that get fulfilled.  There’s something in there that when you see it, when you dwell on it is something that is just heartbreakingly beautiful.  I just fell in love with the whole thing.  And I’ve been doing deep hanging out; that’s my spiritual exercise is –deep hanging out.

Huey Johnson:    Wonderful idea.

Malcolm Margolin:    This advertising world tells us that to be happy, we need certain things.  We don’t need those things.  You could be happy in different ways.  There are different ways of organizing yourself.

Huey Johnson:    Boy that would be an important lesson for us to learn.

Malcolm Margolin:    And its not that we can imitate any of those, it’s not that we can go back and be Indians.  It’s not that we can live those ways.  But what it teaches us is that there are different ways of being human.