From the Diary of Victoria Greenway
Four Years Later
My duties at the Center for Southwest Studies often sent me on interesting assignments. The story that I am about to tell may be the most unusual among them, and, as I look back, it was surely the most memorable. The experience profoundly altered my basic understanding of American history.
The assignment required me to establish relationships with a small Native American nation whose reservation is located near Yuma, Arizona. The purpose was to develop an environmental education program. The type of program was left for the nation to determine should they agree to such a project. The center for which I worked provided technical assistance on matters such as water quality and protection of native species within reservation lands. The education program was another way to engage people to assist in these goals. The irony of this arrangement was not apparent to me right away but dawned over the brief time I had the privilege to meet and talk with the elders and other tribal members.
I eagerly accepted the project, imagining it to be an adventure into a part of the West I had never visited, and a worthy endeavor to foster good relations with a nation whose cultural roots ran as far back as 3,000 B.C. No guidance was offered by my superiors, who hoped I might find success where, apparently, others had failed in the past. That spurred me to try but cautioned me to not plan too far ahead.
My first trip to Yuma from Phoenix, Arizona began in the sparse landscape of low desert, where creosote, arrow weed, cholla and barrel cactuses dotted flat plains of baked soil covered with mats of pebbles. As the sun rose higher in the sky, and the highway steadily dropped to below sea level, I understood why Yuma was often regarded as a hellish landscape: the heat radiated off everything in shimmering drafts of rising air, sucking what little moisture remained in the soil. The low scrubby plants that grew steadily in this environment possessed superb adaptations that allowed them to thrive there. Dust devils—swirling wind vents that lift desert soil skyward—crossed the highway carrying skeletons of tumbleweed with them.
On the edge of town, gaudy billboards advertised motels, car repair, and local watering holes where one could hole up with a large ice water or cold beer, and delicious Mexican fare. Signs for military bases and directions to several reservations mixed in with my directions to meet David Tejano at The Crossing Restaurant.
The cool and darkened interior of The Crossing was welcome relief from the heat. It buzzed with diners and scurrying waitresses. On the far side of the main dining area a tall, strongly built man stood from behind his table and waved me to join him. How he knew who I was remains a mystery as I think back about our meeting that day. Put in the context of his life as I later learned about it, I would just say he navigated his waters well.
David Tejano extended his hand, but his handshake was but a soft touch, nothing like the sudden grip Westerners associate with assertiveness. This was the first cultural difference among hundreds of others I would learn along the way.
“Hello. How was your trip?” he asked as we sat down.
“It was easy driving,” I said. “I have never spent any time in Yuma.”
“Most people are just passing through,” he remarked without emotion.
I immediately regretted my comment.
“Are you hungry? I can make some recommendations,” he offered.
“Yes, and please do, I have not eaten since breakfast.”
Thus, our relationship began through a gastronomical introduction to the Crossing, where Colorado River Indian Tribes, Mexicans, U.S. military personnel, snowbirds from the U.S. and Canada, and passers-through comprised the new ebb and flow of a once wild river. Instead of the roiling, swift waters of the free Rio Colorado, Yuma residents swelled from 50,000 to 90,000 residents in the winter before receding during the late spring to its die-hard residents, able to withstand the broiling summer temperatures. The term snow-birds for those who flew the coop as the sun bore down on the region, was more than accurate. Most of them were seniors with flowing white or silver hair, retirees with money to gamble in the casinos of the local tribes, the original people of long-standing presence.
In performing his duties as a social worker, David Tejano held important information about the protocols to observe when meeting with members of the Tribal Council and elders. The population on the main reservation was only 2,000. There were many more below the border where they were known as the Cucapa’s. He knew everyone.
David’s manners were impeccable. He made sure that I had water first, then suggested his favorite dishes at The Crossing.
“The chili rejenos are almost as good as my mother’s, or if you like tortillas, try their soft taco platter,” he suggested.
Everything about David was large. His bronzed fingers were notably thick as he pointed on his menu for me. His thick, dark hair was neatly trimmed, and his dress was casual-professional—ironed by someone who knew how to place a crease. No one ironed their own clothes in Vicky’s world in Phoenix, but the flakes of starch on his shirt collar told her this was probably the work of his wife or maybe even his mother. Oddly, that made her feel good.
Deep lines in his forehead perhaps revealed his age or his work stress, but for the most part he appeared to be in his 40s.
I noticed that as we began to talk about David’s work and the River People Nation, that he did not look directly in my eyes as those in my white culture do. Later I learned this was a sign of respect and I adopted the same behavior in meeting and working among the River People.
After the large platters of food were delivered to our table, David began to tell me more about the people of his nation.
“Our people are the ancestral nation of this region,” he said. “We’ve been here for millennia and our people’s memory goes back to times when this land and its river were entirely different than what you saw on your way down here today.”
He paused to take a few bites, followed by a few sips of iced tea, while I shoveled in cheesy tortillas, hot salsa, and frothy Pacifico beer, not realizing until then how hungry I was, and in need of the mollifying effect of the alcohol. I’d been very nervous about the meeting. White guilt, I guess, was a burden I was carrying with the knowledge that David’s ancestral culture had been all but wiped out by my culture’s dominance across the land and its resources.
“We, like other tribes across this land, grew up with knowledge of the land, its wildlife, its seasons and gifts, and its hardships.” He paused to reflect in silence, then continued his story. “We became river people, living by it, travelling on it, and taking from it the gifts of the creator for our livelihood. Even its mud was used to prevent sunburn and to hold our warriors’ long hair in sculpted shapes. We, like other native people, clothed and decorated ourselves with what nature offered us.
“Perhaps our greatest achievement was how we learned to farm in the floodplains of the river in the late spring, after the flooding waters withdrew. The seeds we used conferred great health to our people. If you can imagine it, the river supported forests that grew thickly along the shores. It is said that the forests of cottonwoods and willows, and the mesquites were as broad as 7 miles along the river. Imagine that! Game, fruits and seedpods from mesquite, cottonwood, and willow woods provided many important medicines and materials.” David seemed to drift in his own imagination as he described the land and his people before European contact.
I listened carefully. This man was taking time to help me understand the transformation to present day. I instantly grasped what a gift it was, that he had no obligation to do that, especially for someone representing a culture that had all but destroyed what he described for me.
David continued to present day. The nation was suffering from widespread diabetes, depression, and alcoholism—from generational loss of their lands and the dilemma each person faced about how to live in a culture whose values conflicted with their own.
David was the first college graduate among his people. He had returned to help his people bridge into the dominant culture, to find meaningful work and build security for their families once again. It was a daunting task. He referred me to books in the River People Museum and Cultural Center.
“There are a few trusted sources whose work we sell from the Museum.
“So many have come and taken from us,” David said as he looked up at me. “I wish you luck, Miss Greenway, but you can never tell how it will go. The River People have met with many emissaries such as you, only to have their words and their culture stolen, printed in some book, without their permission. It happens time and time again. So, don’t expect much.”
My heart sank. Suddenly, the nature of this meeting seeped into my awareness: two nations were meeting across our table. I felt like an ambassador, and David, one for his people. I fully realized how delicate and important this work would be. My curt nature with my director a month before made me ashamed. Perhaps he too had not really grasped the meaning of the opportunity to meet with leaders of one of our nation’s original peoples. They had no reason to do it, no reason to trust. Yet, a hand was offered by David Tejano.
I followed David’s vehicle to the reservation. We traveled through back roads among numerous canals lined with orange and almond groves, then out onto country roads that cut through broad agricultural fields of broccoli, lettuce, and corn. It was beautiful in its own way. Colorado river water, diverted by the canals, ran blue and bubbling through the fields.
At the entrance to the main reservation a large tribal seal showed a tall fisherman with a spear fishing along the river. This was the homeland of The River People. Green lawns in front of the Cultural Center and Tribal Headquarters were planted with rose bushes now in full bloom in shades of red, peach, and yellow. A ramada made of mesquite wood and woven with willow and arrowweed for shade stood outside the museum’s main doors. I noted the beauty and heard the quiet statement it made. There was a feeling of honor about it, like rising from the dust, a sturdy tree will flower there one day.
I parked outside the headquarters next to David. My first meeting would be with the environmental engineer, a non-native employee from the state, who advised the nation about the condition of its natural resources. David left me with Bill Sherwood and told me that it might be possible to get me on the Tribal Council’s agenda later that week. I thanked him and he left. I watched as he walked across the road to his office, his dark hair shining in the sunlight.
See Video “I AM RED” on this blog site for a short history of the Colorado River from the river’s point of view.