Song of the Land:
Weaving Cultural Preservation and Environmental Protection
Philip M. Klasky

Outside the elders' home on the reservation, a flock of grackles swoop and hop inside a mulberry tree, chattering in raspy, high-pitched bursts. A merciful breeze drifts through the living room. I place a tape player and small tape recorder on the dining room table and point the microphone toward the elder. Mr. Barrackman takes off his glasses and bends over the table, closing his eyes in concentration. He is wearing a pin striped shirt and an elaborate turquoise and silver belt buckle. At 82 years old, the Mojave Indian elder is one of the few people alive who can still remember the old stories and songs. I set the player in motion and turn on the recorder. The voice of another 82 year old man begins to speak. Slowly, as he absorbs their meaning, Mr. Barrackman translates into English the words of Emmett Van Fleet, the last of the Mojave Creation Song singers. Van Fleet's songs, recorded three decades ago, are accompanied by the slow cadence of a gourd rattle. The richly textured voices of the two elders, as elegant and durable as raw silk, are woven together in a conversation over a bridge through time. As Mr. Barrackman speaks, an epic creation poem emerges.

Heaven. God. Sky. God. Land. House of Night. He finished his house before he died. He is a doctor, a medicine man. Learn to sing. Learn to hear the different songs God gave to them. God calls it the House of Night. Creation songs. He gives the songs to the Northern tribes. He gave them a good dream. He gave them an aching heart. He is not human. He is only a wind.

I stop the tape machines to catch up on my notes. Llewellyn Barrackman, a highly respected elder who has served twice as the chairman of his tribe and decades as their spiritual leader, takes a sip of coffee and leans back in his chair. A year ago, while conducting research into the oral traditions of the Mojave people in order to establish aboriginal land rights, the elder showed me a cache of reel to reel tapes they had been storing for nearly 30 years. The tapes contained the Creation Songs of the Mojave people.

For the last nine years, I have been working with the five lower Colorado River Indian Tribes to stop the proposal for a nuclear waste dump on their sacred lands at Ward Valley, California, a place the Mojave call Silyaye Ahease, or the Place of Screwbean Mesquite and Sand. The Mojave's name for themselves is the Bipa Aha Macav or Keepers of the River, instructed by their creator to protect the Colorado River. Radioactive wastes from nuclear power reactors buried in shallow unlined trenches above an aquifer and 20 miles from the Colorado River would eventually contaminate this source of water for the five lower Colorado River Indian Tribes and 22-million people in the Southwest and Mexico.

Land tenure, tribal dominion and aboriginal territory are determined by story and song in cultures with oral traditions. The songs of the Mojave people are central to their oral history and are cultural maps with spatial and temporal dimensions. They describe the mythical journeys of the Mojave's spirit mentors while serving as a guide for the ancient traveler through the exacting desert environment with directions to sources of food and water. The songs are part of a 525 song cycle and describe travels along the Colorado River from Avi Kwa Me or Spirit Mountain (Mt. Newberry, Nevada) to Avi Kwahath or Greasy Mountain (South Mountain, Arizona) investing the natural landscape with multi-layered stories of both the profound and the mundane. The 525 song cycle was sung from sundown to sunrise at the wake and cremation ritual.

Emmett Van Fleet's songs were recorded in 197 by Guy Tyler, an amateur ethnographer who worked for the American Broadcasting System in Los Angeles. Tyler traveled out to the Colorado River Indian Reservation in Parker, Arizona on the weekends to record the elder.

With Barrackman's encouragement, I took the reel to reel tapes to the language laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley where they were transcribed onto cassette tapes and onto compact disks for archival purposes. The task of translation had become an exciting journey of discovery. Listening to the voices of the elders recount rituals of death and cremation, it felt as though I had entered into a secret chamber in an ancient tomb.

Story is essential to the identity of a people and becomes a highly developed craft in cultures with oral traditions. Recounting stories and events is a universal practice among peoples, as basic as food and shelter. Nested and preserved in the narrative are the mores, art, archetypes, collective knowledge, history, jokes, foibles, social ways, perceptions and relationship with the natural world of a distinct people.

Llewellyn Barrackman explains, "This is our map. We have always lived along the river. This is our area. God put us here to protect our lands. We have been singing these songs since time immemorial. If they try to take away our lands, the government could try to take away our lands again, the songs will tell which are our lands, the songs will protect our land."

Ceremony has played a central role at numerous gatherings at Ward Valley, organized for the purpose of political organizing and spiritual presence. The Mojave, Chemehuevi, Quechan, Cocopah and invited singers, dancers and spiritual leaders from tribes throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico have consecrated the land through ritual and performance.

Last year, during the successful 113 day occupation of Ward Valley by Native Americans and environmental activists, traditional song and dance were performed to assert religious freedoms and to inspire the protesters to stand in defiance of federal orders to vacate the land. Alerted by word of mouth and through Indian as well as activist networks, hundreds of people came to defend the land, provide support for the occupation and bear witness. Federal law enforcement officers set up a command post outside of the occupied territory with sophisticated surveillance equipment and a fleet of rangers ready to break up the protest. On the eve of the order to vacate, Bird Singers and Dancers began their cycle of songs at sunset. A row of men singing to accompaniment of gourd rattles faced a row of women dancing in full regalia, in shawls and skirts of red and black diamonds. They sang all through the night. As the morning approached, federal officials advanced toward the line of defense. At the entrance to the occupied land, the rangers found the traditional singers and dancers surrounded by elders, old women in their 70s and 80s, protected by their young warriors who were encircled by hundreds of Indians and activists. After some deliberation among themselves, the federal officers retreated, unwilling to try to arrest the elders while they were engaged in ceremony. A few days later the command post was removed, and the government began negotiations with the tribes.

For now, Ward Valley is safe. After years of resistance against great odds, the tide has changed. Through a series of successful court challenges, legislative barriers and scientific and economic analyses, the defense of environmental justice and religious rights for the indigenous peoples of the region and the growth of a potent grass roots movement, decision makers have no recourse but to retreat from plans to bury nuclear wastes at Ward Valley.

Acknowledging the defeat of the Ward Valley dump, California Governor Gray Davis has appointed an Advisory Committee to present him with options for radioactive waste disposal. Since I was appointed to consult with the Scientific Panel advising the Advisory Group, I have attended every meeting and made numerous presentations to the group. Concepts such as intergenerational equity, environmental justice and the precautionary principle were considered foreign to the panel whose membership was dominated by those associated with the nuclear industry and its academic allies. The Bay Area Nuclear Wastes Coalition, the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe and San Francisco Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility presented the most far-reaching option calling for a cessation of nuclear power, internalization of waste containment costs, on-site in highly engineered storage facilities, segregation of the waste stream by hazardous life, generator liability and source reduction. Other environmental groups engaged in the process have supported compromise measures that lead us down the dangerous path of appeasement. The other options to be presented to the governor include disposal in shallow land burial sites and generator immunity to crimes against the future. The public must remain vigilant so that we will not have to fight other shallow landfills in some minority community elsewhere.

I leave the Barrackmans' home as the sun lies low in the western sky on its descent beyond the Paiute Mountains. I am full with the stories within the stories. The songs have had a meditative, almost hypnotic effect on me. Part of the haunting beauty of this desert is the inconceivable age of the land, the course of its rivers through millennia. A metaphor for distant time can be found in the great vistas of unmediated landscape where one can almost see the very curvature of the Earth. As I look toward Avi Kwa Me, I hear the abiding rhythm of the rattle and the elders' voices as old as we have known rivers and mountains.

For more information about Ward Valley or the Storyscape Project, contact 2760 Golden Gate, San Francisco, California 94118; (415) 752-8678;

Philip M. Klasky is a writer, teacher, poet and environmental activist living in San Francisco. He holds a Master's degree in Geography and Human Environmental Studies and is director of the Storyscape Project, working to preserve indigenous story, song, language and sacred lands.

© Earth First! Journal, August-September 2000