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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


November 3, 2001 - Issue 48


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 Revival a Way to Reconnect With Land


 by Benjamin Spillman-The Desert Sun-October 29, 2001

OLD WOMAN MOUNTAINS -- Today meandering cattle and the occasional four-wheel drive vehicle are the closest things to traffic near the shamanís cave and ancient Chemehuevi Indians village site deep in the Mojave desert.

The painted cave on the edge of the Old Woman Mountains is about 30 miles from the nearest paved road.

But the sun-baked rock formations and native drawings have not always been isolated.

In the generations before European settlement, the area was crossroads for ancestors of todayís Chemehuevi Indians and other tribal people.

The landís significance isnít lost on California Indians of today. A Coachella Valley group is organizing a drive to purchase the ground and preserve it for future generations. They formed the Native American Land Conservancy and are attempting to raise $250,000 by 2003.

If successful, the group would buy and manage the land using traditional native land practices.

Meaning: Clifford Trafzer, an American Indian history professor at the University of California, Riverside, said the land is more than dirt, rocks, plants and animals. It is the raw material needed to preserve Chemehuevi culture.

"For some people Ö for people who have lived there once before, the plants and animals are part of their community," said Trafzer whose Wyandot Indian ancestors lived in what is now Ontario, Canada, and the eastern Great Lakes states.

The desert land lies near the confluence of the near-forgotten trails once used by the nomadic tribes as they criss-crossed the desert, stopping to hunt, camp, live and pray.

Preservationists say they hope the area can be revived as a spiritual site for tribal people and an educational opportunity for non-Indians.

"It will be used by Indian people as a place to connect to the rest of the world, the natural world," said Tony Madrigal, a Cahuilla Indian whose ancestors lived in the mountains near Anza.

After purchasing the desert land, the group has its eyes on a canyon that was home to Madrigalís ancestors.

Back to nature: Madrigal, an attorney who is working on a masterís degree in American Indian history, said even though his ancestors lived in the mountains, he feels a connection to the sacred desert site.

"We donít live that way today. These rocks and plants and animals were almost other beings," Madrigal said from inside the cave. "It wasnít that man was in control or here to use them. It is just harder to reconnect now because of all the distractions."

Just a short climb from the sweltering desert floor, ancient medicine men sought refuge there.

Once inside, they enjoyed spectacular desert vistas to the east and a birdís eye view of nearby rock formations in the west.

In the summer they were cooled by the shade and gentle cross breeze. In winter they were sheltered by dense rocks on which they painted.

"To the Chemehuevi people it is identified as a very special place," said Matt Leivas Sr., a Chemehuevi man who treats reviving his ancestorsí culture as a life mission. "There is a lot of information, a lot of history."

But abandonment has not been kind to the area.

Erosion: The walls of the cave are chipping away.

Outside the ground is littered with car parts, rusted barbed wire and spent .22 caliber rifle shells.

Cattle, unable to recognize the invisible boundaries of the ranchersí leased grazing grounds, trample the native creosote, cactus and Mojave yucca.

Sanctity for the desolate, desert cathedral may not come easy, though.

With European settlement of the desert beginning in the late 19th century came land use practices that were foreign to its original occupants.

In addition to cattle ranches, gold mines -- now abandoned -- moved into the desert.

Power lines cross the terrain and wide networks of dusty roads attract all-terrain vehicles and curiosity seekers.

"It is scary because you never know what kind of destruction is going to happen," Teresa Mike, a member of the Lummi Indian Nation near Bellingham, Wash., said of the Old Woman Mountains site.

Although the land borders a 330,000-acre ranch, cattle grazing is not the biggest threat to the area, said Molly Brady, field manager of the Needles office of the Bureau of Land Management.

The ranch is home to just about 100 cattle, Brady said.

The real danger comes from dumping, off-roading and vandalism.

Brady said there are just seven BLM rangers to patrol 3 million acres around Needles. She looks forward to the day when the native group starts protecting the shamanís cave area.

"It is such a great area. Even though it is (outside the BLMís jurisdiction), we feel it is worthy of protection," Brady said. "If we lose it, we lose it for good."

Roads leading to the site and few patrols increase the vulnerability of the landscape, Brady said.

Cleaning up the land and preventing future dumping will be difficult but crucial, she said.

"It will probably be a constant problem for them," Brady said. "It is pretty fragile, when it is impacted, it stays impacted for a long time."

Public access: Not all who use the desert landscape view themselves as interlopers.

The ranching communities consider cheap government grazing leases vital to their livelihoods and the economies of rural Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.

Campers and off-roaders are attracted to the pristine, wide-open skies.

Others, like Ron Stanford of Bullhead City, Ariz., view open access to the vast desert as a right and precious resource.

A self-proclaimed "rock hound," Stanford bemoaned the dwindling acreage of public land with open access.

He and a friend happened on the sacred site by accident while exploring.

"It makes you feel pretty insignificant," Stanford said as he marveled at the landscape and serenity of the mountains.

Stanford scours the deserts of California and Arizona for minerals he can carve into jewelry and sell.

The lure of the clean air and abundant minerals of the desert is strong to Stanford and other rock hounds.

He suspects some folks will always be drawn to exploring and cautioned against too many land restrictions.

"Most rock hounds are very environmentally conscious. A lot of times, we pick up trash and haul it in," Stanford said. "Like anything, you have a few people who donít think of anything but themselves."

     Maps by Travel

Chemehuevi Indians of Southern California
Pathfinder-priest Father Garces became the first white man to Ďdiscoverí the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe by entering the Shoshonean Territory with the help of the Mohave Indians.

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

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