Ancestral Present

The fruits of a decades-long inquiry into contemporary Indian culture

A Desert Mallow plant in California's Morongo Valley (Trish Gussler, Flickr/ trishrg)
A Desert Mallow plant in California's Morongo Valley (Trish Gussler, Flickr/ trishrg)

Deep Hanging Out: Wanderings and Wonderment in Native California by Malcolm Margolin; Heyday, 272 pp., $29

 The title of this book suggests a dip of hippie, and it is true that Malcolm Margolin on occasion has introduced himself as “a member of the hippie tribe of Berkeley.” True, too, that he came west in a Volkswagen bus in 1967. A Boston Jew fresh out of Harvard with a degree in English literature, he arrived in time for the hippie incursion, as well as student demonstrations against the Vietnam War and in support of the women’s movement, civil rights, and the two-year occupation of Alcatraz by a collection of American Indian tribes. In 1970, Margolin and his wife Rina—who had come west with him—settled in Berkeley. I was already established there and over the years, I’ve run into him any number of times at different events.  He’s hard to miss, what with his high bald head and wild gray beard. Decades later, we’re both still in Berkeley.

Margolin found the city to be “a laboratory for reinvention,” and would himself become one of its major reinventors, focusing on what he calls his “intense surges of interest.” The first was nature, and in 1972, The Earth Manual: How to Work on Land Without Taming It was published. Soon after, he launched his own publishing house, Heyday, and spent the next 40 years bringing out books that fit the Berkeley ethos, including his own, most notably The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area (1974). It marked, perhaps, the most intense of his surges of interest—contemporary Native American culture in California.

Margolin’s new book, Deep Hanging Out, is a collection of 29 excerpts dating from 1974 to 2019, most from books and magazines that Heyday has published. In 1987, Heyday began putting out a magazine called News from Native California, which gave Margolin access to whole new communities of Indians living in the Bay area, bound together in a complex web of different tribes, as they attempted to protect their ancestral traditions from extinction.

To write these stories, Margolin adopted a practice called “deep hanging out,” a  term coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz to describe research done not by academic methods of interviews and observation, but by informal immersion. Margolin writes that he learned a lot from “sitting on people’s porches, playing checkers with them, listening to their stories.” You know, hanging out.

He acknowledges that his book is not an objective study, but something much more personal. Altogether, Deep Hanging Out makes for excellent bedtime reading, an episode or two a night. Most selections dispense a unique, and largely positive, look into the lives of California’s local tribes, collected and written by Berkeley’s most Compleat Angler, adept in cultural appreciation rather than cultural appropriation.

The first excerpt, titled “Center Post for Kule Loklo,” is from an article Margolin wrote in 1986 for the inaugural issue of News from Native California. Kule Loklo is a re-created village on the Pt. Reyes National Sea Shore, just north of San Francisco. It was built by a group of Anglos to study the extinct Coast Miwok tribe. Programs offered by teachers and park rangers proved popular to children and their parents—and also to the people of the Coast Miwok, who began to hang out at the village and became an important part of its operation. (In 2000, The Coast Miwoks, some 500 strong, were finally recognized by the federal government as a tribe with full rights.)

The “center post” of the chapter’s title is the main support beam of the village dance house. Vandals had set fire to the structure, and now a group of Anglos, including Margolin, and Indians arrived to replace the beam, which required more than just heavy lifting. “Ester, Lanny and other members of the Coast Miwok and Kashaya Pomo people had been dancing and singing in the house for the last four nights,” Margolin writes, “holding a wake for the old center post that was dying, preparing a welcome for the new post that would be installed.” The ceremony, in its blend of past and future, serves as an apt metaphor for Margolin’s book.

The other 28 episodes explore efforts to revive the old languages before they disappeared, save the old songs and stories, and retrieve ceremonies only dimly remembered.

“Baseball and Bird Songs” is about John Andreas, of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, who studied bird songs with one of the last traditionally trained singers of the tribe, and who was also terrific at baseball, another Cahuilla tradition. His grandfather had played in the Indian leagues and his father for the Morongo All-Indian team. At 12, John was already playing fast pitch in a Palm Springs Men’s league, went on to play semi-pro ball, and spent the rest of his life coaching youngsters.

Other episodes are more pedantic (“Indian Pedagogy: A Look at Traditional California Indian Teaching Techniques”) but not chronological, so readers can skip over any of them. But then they wouldn’t find out what “bird song” means: “Linked verses that once were sung for four nights straight … recounting the wanderings of divinities over the world in the earliest moments of creation,” writes Margolin.

Margolin, who turned 80 last year, retired from Heyday in 2015, but he continues to take part in the always active cultural, environmental, and literary life of Berkeley. In the preface to the most recent edition of The Ohlone Way, he included a list of traits that, for him, define a healthy society. It also appears in Deep Hanging Out. An abbreviated version:

  • Sustainable relationship with the environment
  • Few outcasts—prisoners, homeless, unemployed, insane
  • Relative egalitarianism.
  • Widespread participation in the arts
  • Love of place. “A sense, perhaps embodied in spiritual practice, that the individual is an insignificant part of a larger, more abiding universe.”
  • Work done willingly or at least with a minimum of resentment
  • Lots of laughter

The list reflects the belief system of the Ohlone Indians, Margolin writes. It might also be a credo for Berkeley.


Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Shirley Streshinsky is the co-author, with Patricia Klaus, of An Atomic Love Story: The Extraordinary Women in Robert Oppenheimer’s Life.


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