A little girl laughs as she splashes in the Diebold Creek that runs once more through the Kumeyaay Nation, in southern California. This creek in years past had nurtured their wetlands. In the shade of the oak, willow, and pine trees that again grow here, her mother picks the grasses that she will weave into baskets using the simple and elegant patterns her great grandmother wove.
As she picks, she remembers when she was a little girl how barren and dry this creek bed was. The area was so desolate. The creek bed had become a 12 ft. deep ravine, where water flowed for only a couple of weeks after a heavy rain. The native grasses of the wetlands had been over-grazed and reseeded with European grasses. The mighty oaks that provided the shade for the more fragile willows and pine trees had almost disappeared having been over-cut and not replaced.
She thinks about when the Spanish settlers first saw the lush wetland grasses. They assumed it was natural pasture land, instead of carefully cared for ancient grain fields. The ranchers, continually wanting more grazing land did not listen to how her wise ancestors had understood and cared for these wetlands. How they had broadcast seed, transplanted seedlings, enhanced the ground water, and controlled erosion. By using controlled burns, they cleared underbrush and opened seeds to grow. Instead, the ranchers drained the swamps, not realizing they were part of the delicate ecological balance. Then, believing the oaks were just in the way, they cut them down or sold the logging rights which were not theirs to sell.
But fortunately the story doesn’t end there. Just twenty-seven years ago Mike Connolly gave up a well paying job as an aerospace engineer, to come to the Campo Reservation, homeland of his mother. In 1990, the General Council of his band created the Campo Environmental Protection Agency (CEPA). He and six other staff members have honoured the traditional knowledge of their original environmental specialists called Kwasiiay. They followed the wisdom of the elders about placing large boulders in the stream bed to slow the water and catch the silt. Since 1992, they have combined this knowledge with modern methodologies including the use of heavy equipment to re-grade the creek bed and banks, to add 200 tons of rock, and to use geotextile materials as foundation for the rock.
And that wasn’t all. They built a nursery so they could plant and nurture native oaks, willows, cottonwoods, cypress and pines. They used these saplings in the reforestation program, not just along the creek, but throughout the community. Now people can landscape their yards with beautiful trees and plants that are hardy, and require less water.
The native trees provide much more than just beauty and shade. Acorns and pine nuts were once part of a healthy diet. It is hoped that re-introducing these nuts into their diets will help prevent diabetes and other diseases.
It’s incredible how this community has turned around since 1992. What was becoming desert is now lush and the native animals are returning. Traditional medicine, food, and construction material grow and are used once more. The water table rose 20 feet, again providing adequate water for the residents. There were so few living here, as there was no way to make a living. With new jobs, and the possibilities of starting more, people from the reserve are returning home. CEPA is planning to expand the restoration to other streams on the reservation. And there’s a new initiative shared with the Western Regional Air Partnership to help regulate air quality as industrialization increases. As well there’s a wind power plant being built. The last cattle are gone, and with them the nitrates from their waste, the overgrazing, and the destruction of the baby plants so necessary for replenishing the different species.
People now dare to hope. There is a growing pride in their culture, and respect for the wisdom of the elders. The children are learning in school about the care of their sacred resources, and that the stories of the elders are not just stories but science that still works!
The Kumeyaay are learning again that water is sacred and want to keep it alive spiritually. Their Creator came from a place of water, and built the land up from water. People are made from dirt and water and as part of creation are caretakers of the earth. Their tradition teaches how to live in harmony and at peace with each other, all other creatures, and creation. They leave enough nuts and grain for the other animals, manage the land, keep it healthy and productive, store water, and respect all life. Living intentionally, and with respect in creation, the Kumeyaay are showing that people can affect the environment in a positive way.
For further information:
Talking Water Project|Bev Ward (2013)