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Mixed Media



Margolin’s Way

By Dashka Slater

Malcolm Margolin is prone to ardent enthusiasms. He falls in love with things, with ideas, with places, with cultures. When he does he’s like a man careening downhill on a bicycle—you never know where he’ll end up. "It may have to do with being nearsighted," he says. "I just do what’s in front of me and if I’m lucky one thing leads to another."

Margolin's fascination with California Indians is a case in point. In 1975, having published a couple of books of natural history under his own imprint, Heyday Books, Margolin thought he might write a pamphlet on the Native Americans who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area before the arrival of Europeans. As a transplanted Bostonian who became enamored with Northern California, he was curious about what it was like before humans altered it. He imagined a simple people living in an untroubled wilderness.

What he found, during three years of research, was that the Bay Area hadn’t been a wilderness for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. The Ohlone Indians, living in what may have been the densest population of Native people in North America, had sculpted the environment around them for hundreds of years, burning huge swaths of forest to clear brush and germinate seeds, damming streams to catch fish, hunting and trapping vast quantities of game, pruning wild plants, cultivating clam beds, even regulating fishing seasons.

Non-Natives often assume that Native people shared the contemporary environmentalist’s preservationist ethics, living lightly on the land and killing animals sparingly. The reality, Margolin says, was much more intimate and complex. The Ohlones, for example, hunted constantly, but for them hunting was a spiritual act. "There was a deep knowledge and a kind of amazing love even for the animals one hunted and killed," he says. "Killing is an act of warfare in our culture, but back then it wasn’t, it was more like wooing. You went out and the animals gave themselves to you, because of your goodness, and you received them with gratitude instead of going out and conquering something."

At 61, Margolin is a man of Old Testament appearance, with an immense white beard that could be a natural landscape in itself—a tattered cloud perhaps, or a nesting place for birds. He has a narrow, bald head surrounded by wisps of white hair; gold-rimmed spectacles; and an eye for the humorous, ironic, and subtle. His book The Ohlone Way came out in 1978 and has been a regional favorite ever since. Three years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle named it one of the century’s best nonfiction works about the West. Heyday Books, which Margolin founded in 1974, has gone on to publish 20 books about California Indians, ranging from a collection of traditional Maidu myths to an anthology of contemporary art and poetry. Many have been written by California Indians, some in tribal languages like Wintu and Karuk as well as English. Margolin also publishes a quarterly magazine, News From Native California, that serves as a forum for Native people across the state.

"I started writing about Indians because I was interested in nature," Margolin explains. "And then the most amazing thing happened—I started to meet real Indians and developed some real friendships. And I developed a sense of usefulness around it all. There was no one writing about this world and there was a hunger for it. There’s a different sense of the land that you develop being around Indian people. I always thought of California as new—I was just kind of thrilled by the newness of it all. And then I found out that all of the rocks have names and stories and the landscape is just soaked with history and I felt differently toward the world around me."

Still, Margolin is very clear that he is an outsider in the Native world—a Jewish guy from Boston who has become a kind of friend of the family to Native people and gained a new perspective. "I remember being up in the Klamath River for a World Renewal Dance," he recalls. "It’s a dance that takes place in different locations every couple of years, where the earth is restored. In ten days they dance the world back into harmony and back into balance, because this is people’s work. And there’s something marvelous about viewing the human race as having an important piece of work to do in creating harmony, rather than the view of so many environmentalists that human beings are an evil curse on the world. We’re not; we have systems that are, but people and their nature are not necessarily so. There are other ways to be human."

For more information about Heyday Books or its quarterly publication News From Native California, go to

Dashka Slater is a regular contributor to Sierra.

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