It was a day of learning, wrapped in the guise of storytelling and song.
Carlos Geisdorff, the Me-Wuk language program manager for the Tuolumne Tribal Council, gave a free seminar at Jack Knight Hall in Calaveras Big Trees State Park on Saturday, July 6.
The event was sponsored by the Calaveras Big Trees Association as part of a series of educational programs in the park.
At 2 p.m., an eager crowd entered the hall, filling almost every seat.
Geisdorff spoke on the daily lives of the Me-Wuk people, both before and after the settlers arrived, and shared songs, stories and historical items.
His cousin, whom he referred to as “Junior,” passed around native plants and informed the audience about their historical and current uses. While “Junior” spent years away from the area, he now resides in Tuolumne, where he works for a family wellness center. “It’s great to be back here, and to get back into the culture,” he said.
The seminar began with a traditional Me-Wuk song performed by Geisdorff and “Junior.”
Geisdorff explained that speaking through the microphone wasn’t necessary for him. He told a story about his microphone breaking while speaking in front of a crowd of 3,000 in Humboldt County.
“Everyone still heard everything I had to say,” he said. “Sometimes when you got to amplify your voice, you can do it. If you have something to say, and it’s meant to come out, then it’s going to come out. That’s how I was taught by the elders.”
At a young age, Geisdorff discovered that he had a talent for learning traditional Me-Wuk songs. He spoke of attending a Big Time celebration in Tuolumne at 8 years old and quickly internalizing the songs and dances that he witnessed.
He learned quickly, and then taught others. “I was able to run with that and learn from that and to teach,” he said.
Geisdorff explained that his knowledge “wasn’t just something that we learned from a book, it was a long tradition that was passed down to us, thousands of years for our people.”
“All these teachings are forever,” he said. “They don’t just happen overnight … All of my knowledge I got from speaking with elders and learning from them.”
“There was always a story, there was always a teaching,” he said. “There was no hurry; there was no hopping in the carpool lane and going fast; there was no ‘Hurry up and charge that phone because you got to speak to it.’”
Geisdorff also expressed gratitude for the researchers who have studied native languages and helped to preserve them.
Changing times require people to adapt, Geisdorff said. He talked about having to invent a new Me-Wuk word for “selfie” because young people wanted it.
At one point, Geisdorff’s young daughters approached the front of the room and sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” in Me-Wuk.
Geisdorff said that it was important to remember and to learn from the past.
“Through the trials and errors and tribulations and things that have happened throughout all of the different places, no one should ever be mad,” he said. “There’s always going to be different people walking through your life, and it might be good or bad … but you can focus it into something positive.”
“We don’t have to be mad about what happened before, but we can learn from it, we can learn from these things,” he said. “That’s why I come and share with you … And the most important thing that I can share is the stories.”
Geisdorff tells his children to listen to their elders. “Listen to Grandma and Grandpa,” he said. “Listen to what they got to say, because there will be a time when they won’t be there.”
At 43, Geisdorff stressed that he still had a lot to learn. “Even at 80 years old, we’ll still be learning,” he said.
The lecture ended with another traditional Me-Wuk song, which received enthusiastic applause.
Rodger and Holly Orman, of Murphys, were in attendance at the seminar. Both volunteer as docents at the park.
“It was a really well-done talk, and I learned a lot about Me-Wuk culture,” Rodger Orman said.
His wife echoed his sentiments.
“We loved hearing the children sing,” Holly Orman said. “It was really interesting, and I would love to hear more.”