1998 Tempe, Arizona
Vicky Greenway finished her last lap with a sprint to the finish. She pulled herself onto the pool’s edge like a sleek otter flows onto an embankment. Basking in the hot Arizona sun, she pulled off her swim cap, releasing her long ebony hair to tumult down her back. Vicky studied the other swimmers in numerous lanes across the university’s Olympic-size pool. Her mind rambled over the morning’s surprise meeting with her director at the Center for Southwest Studies where she served as an Education Liaison.
“How would you like to blow this joint for a very unusual assignment?” her director asked with a wry grin.
“Oh, Lord,” Vicky intoned, wondering what thing she was being offered that no one else wanted to do. Vicky was the junior employee at her workplace—the “go to girl” her male colleagues tagged her, which Vicky translated to “the fall girl”.
“No, I really mean it,” her boss emphasized. “This will take you to the Lower Colorado River valley near Yuma to work with a small tribe—the River Peoples.”
Vicky stared into her director’s quizzical face. She was concentrating on Yuma.
“Isn’t Yuma where we send hardcore prisoners to roast in their jail cells?” She recalled that Geronimo had been entombed there as punishment for outwitting the U.S. Cavalry.
“That was then. Now it is a huge sprawling Southwest city.” He emphasized Southwest as if to remind his employee this was official business. Gerald Abrams watched the thunderclouds roiling across Vicky’s beautiful face, the sparks of lightning glistening in her brown, almond-shaped eyes. He’d once had a huge crush on her until she’d made it perfectly clear that affairs with married men were not in her repertoire of relationships.
“Sounds like I am being banished to a god-forsaken dusty town to do something no one else wants to tackle. Could I be wrong?” Her sharp wit ignited over her desk. Gerald knew then that she would take the assignment because Vicky Greenway loved a challenge. She’d said it herself: her best assignments possessed cognitive dissonance. That penchant for unruly situations resulted from years of teaching middle school students.
“Okay, let’s review this ‘opportunity’ as you put it,” Vicky said, sitting straight up in her leather office chair and leaning on the glass-topped desk. “There is no river in Yuma now, and I’ve never heard of the River Peoples. So why is our center suddenly interested in them?”
Gerald crossed his legs, wrinkling his pressed Dockers and showcasing the worn edges of his running shoes. Dress at the center was casual, a reason Vicky liked working there. She was an athlete, a runner, swimmer, and lately a rock climber. In her late 30’s she was the picture of health in her running pants, tight yoga top, and flip-flops. She delighted the all-male staff, most of whom were pushing 50.
“That’s the crux of the matter, Vicky,” Gerald said. “The changes in that imperiled river are mirrored in changes the River People are experiencing.” He paused with furrowed brow and a pensive stare at the floor. “There is not one drop of Colorado River water flowing past or through their reservation – for people known as The River People. Their history reaches back at least 1,000 years when that river was wildly carving a path to the sea. It’s an extraordinary transformation that includes the destruction of habitats as well as lives.
Victoria Greenway was getting over her initial skepticism. Maybe this was really an important assignment, one where she might learn something new while helping in ways yet unidentified. But still, that did not answer her initial query about why her?
“This kind of relationship building takes someone who can tolerate ambiguity, and who is patient beyond what males are capable of.”
Greenway laughed out loud. “What a cop out!” she said.
The two were silent, Vicky staring at Gerald, and he looking back but not directly. “There have been a small number of university professors and researchers who have gone to the tribe to make oral history recordings, to conduct environmental impact studies, etc., but they’ve all come home like defeated troops. The River People are wary, as expected, but it goes beyond that. The River People are known as the only tribe among the Colorado River Nations who resisted attempts by the government to herd them like sheep onto one reservation, as if all nations were the same.”
Vicky liked that. Her government had wreaked unforgivable violence on Native Americans.
Gerald continued, “With disrupted ways of life, the level of poverty is high, and now diabetes and alcoholism are rampant.”
Another silence. Vicky was confused. “But that is the work of social workers and medical specialists,” she said. “What exactly do you want me to do down there?”
Vicky was beginning to back away from the assignment, sensing that her director really had no plan.
“Well, I’ve been in touch with the EPA official based at the reservation. He described many issues in habitat restoration for which we both discussed the need to engage the members of the tribe to help manage it.”
In the ensuing silence, Vicky heard the conqueror voice again. The “help manage it” bristled inside her. Shouldn’t they be asking the River People what they needed?
“Let me get this straight,” Vicky said. She stood up to rearrange her seat cushion.
Gerald could see storm clouds gathering over Vicky’s brow. Before she could launch a counter to his idea, he asserted, “Vicky, we need to go there to ask the tribal council permission to talk with the elders, to explore whether they might participate in the efforts of the EPA biologist, and maybe even bring along the youth to learn about caring for the habitat.”
Now the nature of the assignment became clear. Vicky was shocked Gerald would even consider such a plan.
“Okay, again, let me get this straight. We destroy their habitat by damming the river, running them off their tribal lands, lands on which their people have lived and thrived for a thousand years, and now you want me to go there to ask them to help clean up the mess we made?”
Greenway’s cheeks flushed with red as her outrage grew. “Oh, and, gee I forgot, we ask them to do it when they are very sick and depressed about what has been done to them? Are you kidding?” Now Vicky was yelling, while standing behind her desk with her hands on her hips.
“Well, no! Hell, no!”
That was how Vicky took the assignment to accomplish the impossible, the improbable. It was just the kind of work Gerald knew she could not turn down. A military brat who had learned to land on her feet anywhere and get along with everyone, and a woman with a big heart and superb skills in project development. The director of the Center for Southwest Studies had found his emissary in Miss Victoria Greenway.