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Song of the Land

Outside the elders' home on the reservation, grackles swoop and hop in a mulberry tree, chattering in raspy, high-pitched bursts. A merciful breeze drifts through the living room. I place a tape player and a small tape recorder on the dining room table and point the microphone toward Mr. Barrackman. He takes off his glasses and bends over the table, closing his eyes in concentration. He's wearing a pin-striped shirt and elaborate turquoise and silver belt buckle. At 82 years old, the Mohave 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. Another 82-year-old man begins to speak. He is Emmett Van Fleet, the last of the Mohave Creation Song singers. His songs, recorded three decades ago, are accompanied by the slow cadence of a gourd rattle. Carefully, as he absorbs their meaning, Mr. Barrackman translates Van Fleet's words into English. The richly textured voices of the two elders, as elegant and durable as raw silk, weave 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. Long songs. He gives the songs to the Northern tribes. He gave them a good dream. He gave them an aching heart. Don't forget what he gives to you. He completes it, completes the land. The sky and all over the world. He gave them language. God said, cremate me when I die. You should learn everything. He is tired but he is still alive. He is not human, he is only a wind.

I stop the two 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 for decades as their spiritual leader, takes a sip of coffee and leans back in his chair. His wife, Betty, is preparing lunch in the kitchen. Betty Barrackman is a master craftswoman whose pottery and beadwork are part of museum and personal collections across the country. She speaks to her husband in Mohave and they laugh. “We are going to have to teach you to sing, draw tattoos on your face, grow your hair long, and speak Mohave,” they say. A year ago, while I was conducting research into the oral traditions of the Mohave in order to establish aboriginal land rights, the Barrackmans showed me a cache of reel-to-reel tapes they had been storing for nearly 30 years.

For the last nine years, I have been working with the five lower Colorado River Indian tribes to stop a proposed nuclear waste dump on their sacred lands at Ward Valley, California, a place the Mohave call Silyaye Ahease, or The Place of Screwbean Mesquite and Sand. The Mohave, whose name for themselves is the Bipa Aha Macav or Keepers of the River, were instructed by the 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 tribes and 22 million people in the Southwest and Mexico. Through research into stories and songs and from the oral histories of traditionalists and elders, it has been established that Silyaye Ahease was used by the Mohave and Chemehuevi people for the harvest and hunt, the collection of medicinal herbs, for social gatherings, and as a rest stop along running trails used for ritual, commerce, and long-distance communication.

In cultures with oral traditions, land tenure, tribal dominion, and aboriginal territory are determined by story and song. The songs of the Mohave are central to their oral history and are cultural maps with spatial and temporal dimensions. They describe the mythical journeys of the Mohave's spirit mentors while guiding the ancient travelers through the exacting desert environment to sources of food and water.

The songs are part of a 525-song cycle sung from sundown to sunrise at the wake and cremation ritual. They 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 stories in the songs begin by recounting the death of the great god Mutavilya and contain his instructions to the Mohave for his own cremation, thereby establishing Mohave death rituals. Then they describe the mythological journeys of legendary and totemic figures, hunting, fishing, and farming techniques, and the discovery of fire.

Years ago, as the original songs were dying out with those who sang them, the Mohave adopted the lively songs of the their indigenous neighbors to the west, the Cahuilla Indians, who lived in the inland basin between the Colorado Plateau and the Pacific Coast. According to Mr. Barrackman, members of the Mohave Indian Tribe brought Cahuilla Bird Songs back to his people sometime in the early 20th century. Some researchers believe that the transfer may have actually occurred earlier.

Cahuilla Bird Songs tell of a legendary journey that happens in mythic time and in abstract space. Opinions about the meaning of the songs differ among Cahuilla singers and range from global voyages to journeys that take place on a regional scale. According to Paul Apodaca, professor of social science at Chapman University and an expert on Cahuilla Bird Songs, the songs describe three journeys around the world. They are composed of cryptic statements open to interpretation and include, among other things, elaborate descriptions of migrating birds that aided the traveler in the timing of the journey. Travel from one source of food and water to the next depended on the appearance of the birds described in the songs.

The Mohave may have been drawn to the Bird Songs by their similarity to their own Creation Songs. The use of the rattle, the melody structure, and the presentation style probably made the Cahuilla songs seem familiar. But some singers believe that the Creator gave all the desert peoples the same songs and that the land sings them to those who are gifted to hear them. Initially, the Mohave used the adopted Bird Songs for recreation, then through time, the Bird Songs were sung at funerals and other rituals, taking over the ceremonial roles of the Creation Songs.

Emmett Van Fleet was the last of the Creation Song singers. His songs were recorded in 1972 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 the Barrackmans' 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. At that point, the task of translation became an exciting journey. Listening to the voices of the elders recount rituals of death and cremation, I felt as though I had entered a secret chamber in an ancient tomb.


After a short rest, we begin again. Emmett Van Fleet begins by telling the story of the next song in detail, speaking in the Mohave language. Mr. Barrackman sits back in his chair and hums along with his elder. We listen to the portion of the song cycle describing the supreme god Mutavilya's illness and death as revealed through the repeated phrases, “Don't forget, don't forget, God is singing, I'm telling you, don't forget,” sung with a low, slow vibrating tone. The story and song lie in a dusky landscape of mountains and dreams. A frayed black and white photograph of Van Fleet shows the singer as a large older man in a western shirt painted with lightning and diamonds. His head is lifted, his eyes are closed as he sings.

The Mohave believe that all knowledge is given at birth and is later revealed throughout a lifetime in dreams. A vocation or calling, a skill for hunting, making pottery, or singing are dreamed into being.

You can dream and see all these things. People will be around. He will speak to you when you are asleep at night. Songs. If you know the words you can sing them. When you get up from dreaming you will know how to sing these songs. Him himself sings the Cremation Songs. The sun. Look at the sun and it will tell you. He's talking about the sun. Going down. And the glow when it sets, like when a fire goes out. Go inside the house. You will hear this, you will see this.


Van Fleet ends the song with a chuckle, to which Mr. Barrackman immediately responds with a laugh of his own. The singer had momentarily forgotten the next few lines, a lapse he attributes to age. Guy Tyler joins in the conversation by encouraging the singer to rest a while and by instructing the listener to turn over the reel. I feel a certain kinship with this earnest white man with a deep southern drawl. The room is crowded with the presence of singers and their scribes, past and present.

Story is essential to the identity of a people and becomes a highly developed craft in cultures with oral traditions. 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.

Mrs. Barrackman brings three cups of hot coffee to the table and we take a break from translation. Hot coffee on a hot day. Betty Barrackman reflects on the songs and their importance to her people, “If we don't preserve these songs they won't be remembered by anyone. It's important for the children to know how we came to be Mohaves, especially the creation stories.”

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.”

Last year, during the successful 113-day occupation of Ward Valley by Native Americans and environmental activists, traditional song and dance was 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 and activist networks, hundreds of people came to defend the land, provide support for the occupation and bear witness. Outside the occupied territory, federal law enforcement officers set up a command post 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 the 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, encircled by hundreds of Indians and other 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 the Mohave, as for other indigenous people, story, song, and landscape are inseparable. Multiple layers of meaning accompany the legendary journey of the Mohave through the natural landscape, and the difference between the mythical and practical, the natural and supernatural vanishes like smoke. The Keepers of the River defend their sacred lands from the threat of contamination by the long-lived poison fire from the inferno of a nuclear reactor as the struggle to maintain the sustenance of culture is reenacted again and again. The Creation Songs, reclaimed from near oblivion, provide the inspiration and guidance to protect the story of a people and their land.

For now, Ward Valley is safe. After a series of successful court challenges, legislative barriers, scientific and economic analyses; after a successful argument for environmental justice and defense of the religious rights of the indigenous peoples; after the growth of a potent grassroots movement, decision-makers retreated from plans to bury nuclear wastes at Ward Valley. This important victory was achieved despite the nearly overwhelming influence of the nuclear power industry.

The road has been long and challenging. Multi-cultural coalitions experience difficult periods of adjustment dealing with the prejudices embedded in society. Trust is built slowly, sometimes person by person, and collaboration requires patience, persistence, and the practice of compassion. Gathered around the sacred fire for sunrise ceremonies at Ward Valley, we found ways to join hands in a protective circle around the landscape of our unfolding story.

One great benefit from the long battle over Ward Valley is the rebirth of traditional culture as the indigenous people of the region turn toward their traditional stories and songs, their elders, and the natural landscape for strength and guidance. This profound commitment to the land has inspired the entire movement.

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 curve of the earth. As I look toward Avi Kwa Me, I hear the abiding rhythm of the rattle and the elder's voices as old as we have known rivers and mountains.


Philip M. Klaskyis a writer, teacher, poet, and environmental activist living in San Francisco. He is director of the Storyscape Project, working to preserve indigenous story, song, language, and sacred lands. For more information, call 415/752-8678 or e-mail pklasky@igc.org.

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