January 23, 2012

Two California River Stories

Our guest blogger is Kat Taylor, a part-time Intern with the Water Ethics Network, who has a background in indigenous land and water issues in NW Australia. She served as “Water Facilitator” for the Kimberly Land Council, an Aboriginal Corporation dedicated to “Getting back country, looking after country, and getting control of our future.” Kim is currently spending a year traveling around the United States, and along the way, she will be writing about the land and water issues. She sends us this report from Northern California:

The streams of Northern California hide stories. My first impression only took in their charm. This foreign traveler was tempted to assume their character is unchanging. But then, I started to talk to some locals people and learned two contrasting stories:

The first story was about the dams on the Feather River. The network of dams allows sections of river to be turned “on” and “off”. This ability was used in a novel in-situ study of the river bed; a
section of the river was temporarily emptied so a research scientist could examine the gravel. What a lucky researcher! Looking at the river, it seemed like strange magic. Imagine having the power to turn off the water like a giant's tap.

Over beers on a Chico front porch, I heard a contrasting tale. A local Tribe, the Winnemem Wintu, are in an ongoing struggle with the Forest Service. Unlike the researcher, they didn’t ask for the river to stop flowing. They applied for a section of the McCloud river to be temporarily closed to recreational boat traffic. Restricting boat access makes it much safer for the participants of Bałas Chonas (Coming of Age Ceremony). During Balas Chonas, the girls swim across the river. The Winnemem Wintu, who are not a “Federally recognized” tribe, have applied for river closure several times with varying levels of success. In 2006 the Forest Service closure was not granted and drunken boaters disturbed the ceremony. Full closure was granted
in 2010 and the ceremony took place in peace. In 2011 closure was not granted, so the ceremony was postponed to 2012. The Winnemem Wintu will campaign for full closure again this year.

These two stories say a lot about what is valued. Scientific understanding and its contribution towards healthier waterways is recognized as important. We value it so highly we will drastically alter the river flow itself, as contradictory as that sounds. The importance of maintaining cultural river health, on the other hand, does not have the same recognition. When we involve rivers in the most sacred aspects of our lives, we are drawn closer to Nature (and to each other). When cultural and spiritual values are recognized as having importance and legitimacy, perhaps we will see a shift in our relationship to water.