Mark Coyote

By John Curl
Thursday September 22, 2011 - 09:57:00 AM
Mark Coyote
Mark Coyote
Pomo Family
Pomo Family

This year’s Berkeley Indigenous People’s Day Pow Wow, on Saturday, October 8, is dedicated to the memory of Mark Gorrell who, with his wife Nancy, for two decades worked for the rights of native people and all people, and made profound contributions to the origin, celebration, and meaning of Indigenous Peoples Day, but now has walked on. 

This will be the 19th celebration of the annual pow wow in Berkeley, always held on the weekend closest to the anniversary of the beginning of the European arrival in the Americas, formerly called Columbus Day. 

The pow wow is a community coming together, a traditional celebration of shared culture and values, respect for the Earth, sustainability, balance, Native culture, and brotherhood among the peoples of the world. From the first Berkeley pow wow 19 years ago, one of Mark’s annual jobs, as a trusted elder, was to handle the group finances. He was also always chosen to chalk the pow wow circle in the form of a turtle, representing Turtle Island. This was an important honor, as the circle is the spiritual center of the pow wow, representing the land and the earth, which to Native people is sacred.Turtle Island is the continent, which according to stories in many tribes, arose from the ocean during a great flood, when each of the animals dove down from the turtle’s back one by one to the bottom of the sea, brought up a handful of earth, and placed it on the turtle’s shell. 

People who knew Mark recognized his spirit. He always was an important member of the smudging circle, cleansing negative energy out of our bodies and minds, and purifying the area. We will miss his energy, smiles and long term commitment to the Indigenous Peoples Day Pow Wow, the well-being of the community and the planet. The wry humor with which Mark dealt with the world shows us that he had more than a bit of Coyote in him. Many Native tribes and nations tell stories about Coyote, who was a trickster and at the same time a very powerful creator. 

Mark and Nancy had been key members of Resistance 500, the group that in 1991 brought the idea of Indigenous Peoples Day to the Berkeley City Council to replace Columbus Day. Until that time it was not widely known that Columbus was not only an explorer, but a military leader who led the attack on Native people, invented European imperialism in the Americas, began slavery in the New World and the transatlantic slave trade, took personal leadership in the genocide of the Taino Indian nation, and organized the enslavement of the survivors in mines and plantations. 

The idea of replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day was proclaimed in 1990by representatives of 120 Native nations and human rights activists at the First Continental Conference on 500 Years of Indian Resistance in Quito, Ecuador. Upon return from the conference, participants and others began organizing in their communities. Native people of Northern California organized the Bay Area Indian Alliance, which joined in a broad coalition with non-Native people to coordinate 1992 activities with Indigenous leadership, called Resistance 500. The Bay Area had been chosen by the U. S. Congress as the national focus for the planned Quincentenary Jubilee celebration, with replicas of Columbus’s ships scheduled to sail into the Golden Gate in a grand climax (eventually canceled because of widespread opposition). The Berkeley Resistance 500 Task Force, set up by the City Council, proposed replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, and in October, 1991, the City Council unanimously declared that Indigenous Peoples Day would be commemorated annually. The Berkeley Pow Wow quickly became a local tradition. 

This year’s head woman dancer is Aurora Mamea (Blackfeet); head man dancer, Larry Harrison (Navajo) ; head gourd dancer, Earl Naconie (Kiowa). The M.C. will be Randy Pico (Luiseno) and the arena director, Henry Johnson (Paiute). The host northern drum will be All Nations; the host southern drum, Southern Brothers. The pow wow coordinator is Gino Barichello (Mvskoke) and the vendors coordinator is Hallie Frazer. 

Here is one story told about Coyote, the trickster, in a version from the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma. It reveals a bit about Mark and the way he dealt with the world. 

In the beginning, death did not exist. Everyone stayed alive until there were so many people that there was hardly any room left. A council was held to determine what to do. One man arose and said that it would be good to have the people die and be gone for a little while, and then to return. As soon as he sat down Coyote jumped up and said no, that will not solve the problem, if people return soon there will be not enough food or room for our grandchildren to live on earth. The others objected, saying that there would be no happiness in the world if their loved ones died forever. All except Coyote decided to have the people die for a little while, and then to come back to life. The medicine men built a large grass house facing east. The next time someone died, they assembled in the medicine house and sang for the spirit of the dead. A whirlwind blew from the west, circled the grass house, entered through the east, and from the wind stepped a handsome young man. All of the people rejoiced except Coyote. The next time someone died Coyote hurried to the grass house and quietly sat by the door as the others sang. When he heard the whirlwind coming he suddenly shut the door. The spirit in the whirlwind passed by. The people were very angry, and chased Coyote away, and since then he has had to run from one place to another. But ever since then the door has been shut, and Coyote’s trick preserved the world for all the future generations. 

This year’s pow wow will take place on Saturday, October 8 at Berkeley, Civic Center Park, Allston Way at MLK Way, 10 am to 6 pm. Native crafts and foods, and raffles all day. Exhibition dancing, featuring Native California Pomo dancers, will begin at 10 am; gourd dancing at 11 am. Grand Entry will be at 12 noon; contest dancing all afternoon, and closing ceremony at 6 pm. 

Celebrate with us in honor of all our ancestors, the people continuing the spirit today, future generations, Mark, and Coyote.