Storyscapes: living songs in native lands

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Authors: Philip M. Klasky and Melissa Nelson
Date: Fall 2002
From: ReVision(Vol. 25, Issue 2)
Publisher: Heldref Publications
Document Type: Article
Length: 5,373 words

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The bird songs are used at wakes invoking the spirits of our ancestors. We respect and honor the elders who gave us the songs. They have become a spiritual shield from our ancestors. Protecting us.--Wally Antone (Quechan)

The small town of Needles, California, is located on the banks of the Colorado River in the east Mojave Desert. The once-wild river now runs cold and tame on a prescribed course through tilting vistas of creosote bushes and yucca. At the gymnasium near city hall, the federal Bureau of Land Management is holding hearings on the proposal for a nuclear waste dump at a place referred to on maps as Ward Valley and named Silyaye Ahease (Land of Mesquite and Sand) by the Mojave Indians. For a decade, the nuclear power industry, along with its allies in government, attempted to force through a plan that would have buried long-lived radioactive wastes from nuclear reactors in shallow, unlined trenches above an aquifer eighteen miles from the Colorado River, in critical habitat for the endangered desert tortoise and on land considered sacred by the five Colorado River Indian tribes.

Outside the gymnasium, Quechan bird-song singer Wally Antone has arrived with a group of Mojave singers and dancers. The women dancers are dressed in traditional regalia of black and red shawls and dresses--diamonds dance on the hems of their skirts. They enter the building, followed by a group of elders and supporters, and approach the microphone. According to rules set by the government, speakers are allowed three minutes to express their views on a proposal that would impact the next twelve thousand generations. All morning local residents, scientists, small-town officials, and tribal leaders testified against the dump with arguments that ranged from emotional pleas to technical analysis.

The group begins to sing, their voices accompanied by gourd rattles, in a music that has endured the centuries. The songs tell of the ancient journeys of their spirit mentors through a landscape that is both earthly and symbolic. Ward Valley was a stopping point along the journey, a place where mesquite beans were collected, along with medicinal herbs, and where people lived and travelers rested, a landmark in a sacred landscape described within the story of the songs.

The hall is silent and the songs are captured by a whirling recorder as they are entered into the administrative record. Even the bureaucrats seem affected by the songs. Wally ends with a signature sustained twirl of the rattle and says.

Can you understand what we are doing here? This is our land, our sacred lands, our ancestral lands. We have been placed here by our Creator to protect the river. If you poison the land, you poison us. We have been here since time immemorial.

Years later the dump project was defeated by a combination of lawsuits, exposes, scientific criticism, and an occupation of the land by Native Americans and their allies. The songs assumed a central role in protecting Silyaye Ahease by calling forth the strength and...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Klasky, Philip M., and Melissa Nelson. "Storyscapes: living songs in native lands." ReVision, vol. 25, no. 2, 2002, p. 11+. Accessed 15 Jan. 2021.
  

Gale Document Number: GALE|A95148589