Rio de las Uvas?
Fluency II (Usable Past)
Sunday, December 4, 2005
River, Interrupted. The dams literally interrupt the natural flow of the water. But, as I wrote about Deb, I realized acutely that there is something beyond this that gets interrupted as well - something that’s much more difficult to articulate. Again, I am up against a language barrier because the lexicon does not seem to exist to support it. I need to find a usable past to place myself in a greater context of the river. I have only experienced the river within the context of its structure in the beginning of the 21st century.
This morning I began reading about the history of the Yuba. Usable past gap number one occurred with the explanation of the origin of the name Yuba. Its naming has been forgotten, but a few theories remain. General Vallejo, in the Marysville Herald of August 1850, stated that during Captain Luis Arguello’s 1820 expedition the captain named it El Rio de las Uvas – the Grape River. In the Anglicization of the name it became ‘Yuba.’ Later that month in a letter to the editor, Johann Sutter disagreed with Vallejo by asserting that the river was named after the native group of people who lived in today’s Yuba City called the Yubu. But nobody remembers anymore. Regardless of the origin of the name, it appears we have a very short remembered history.
The Nisenan people who once lived here had been decimated by 1870. The Gold Rush wiped out the entire native oral history and culture and people of the river in about 20 years. By the turn of the 20th century, the South Yuba was already blocked by its first hydro-electro dam below what had been the confluence of the South Yuba River and Fordyce Creek, creating Spaulding Reservoir. This is the only history we remember. And what if we don’t have a usable history to follow and guide us? I suppose the only thing to do is create one. What was the river like before the dam was erected, before 1cfs was released from the bottom of the structure, before the miners dumped tailings in the water, and before entire hillsides were transformed into valleys by hydraulic mining? What did the river feel like when salmon and steelhead swam between the rocks? Did the river have the same voice then as it does now?
This morning I felt angry toward the gold miners. I scowled in the direction of Coloma where John Sutter discovered gold in 1848, and where I now teach kayaking in the summer. I thought about the historical landmarks scattered along Highway 49 through Marshall Gold Discovery Park that walk visitors through gold mining procedures. I had no idea that Coloma had been a Nisenan village until this morning. So had Nevada City. But our remembered history begins with the Gold Rush as if nothing existed before.
Frustrated I got on line to see what Dallas Morning News’s Beatriz Terrazas is up to with her Rio Grande story. As if to rub it in, she covered San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico. There the story is similar in that the Pueblo Indian’s lives changed dramatically with the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500’s. ‘When the Spanish arrived in the Pueblos, they rounded up the people and took them to the river. Priests cut long branches from the cottonwoods, dipped them in the river, and christened the people into a new religion. The people rolled in the dirt, trying to remove what they had been christened with.’ The Spanish ‘killed a way of life.’ The miners killed an entire people.
The Pueblo people still have a usable history of the river. They have passed down the memory of it through generations. They still honor it and its connection with their past and present. ‘Water is a gateway so revered that the Pueblo people won’t discuss its religious meaning with outsiders. The secretiveness is their way of preserving long-held religious traditions, some of which still take place at the river.’ I certainly don’t blame them for wanting to protect the spirituality of the river by keeping it within their culture. Our culture has proven with our history to destroy all that is spiritual within the river.
Herman Agoyo, a tribe councilman and former tribal governor, was Beatriz and Erich’s guide through San Juan Pueblo. He shared his poem, ‘River Voice Card,’ with Beatriz. Part of it reads:
To us you are P’oekay (strong water)
You are the source of life and joy….
You are arayui (sacred water serpent).
You fed our sacred springs, ponds and wells.
Because of you Ohkay Owingeh (Village of Strong People) was born.
Because of you, we are still connected to our place of birth and emergence.
I will borrow this to begin to construct my usable history of the Yuba River. Thank you Beatriz and Herman Agoyo.
Beatriz concludes this Sunday’s account of her experiences asking, ‘Will I ever connect in a deep way to the river I knew growing up? …I have never explored any deep, personal emotion I might have for the river.’
Beatriz – you are beginning to construct your usable past of the river you grew up on. You are learning through other’s experiences and connections. You are placing yourself within its greater context – something that stretches beyond yourself. It’s a beginning. But when are you going to go to the river to construct your own story? Are you willing to go there yourself to hear what the river will tell you? Are you willing to go beyond being a journalist to tell your own story?