I think we were talking, at first, about the water. It might just as well been about gold, or uranium, or ‘the land.’
The Yavapai-Apache Nation joined other tribes from the Colorado Plateau in a suit against the city of Flagstaff and the National Park Service for allowing contaminated water to be pumped up into the San Francisco Mountains to be used for snow making at the Arizona Snow Bowl ski resort.
The tribes were concerned that for a short term economic benefit, the city was risking the long-term contamination of ground water, and disrespecting lands sacred to them for a thousand years.
Water rights were at the heart of the US governments earliest betrayals of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, nearly 175 years ago.
Settler’s, many of the first arriving in the rush following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Creek, California in 1849, wanted land along the Verde River to grow crops or for their livestock.
Then when gold was discovered closer by in Arizona about a decade later, the US government intervened directly, creating a ‘reserve’ of approximately 900 square miles and squeezing these nomadic people into that narrow rectangle.
Less than five years later the US reneged on that agreement and force marched both the Yavapai and the Apache to what was no more than a concentration camp in San Carlos nearly 200 miles away.
We were talking about water, and the Emory Oak – with its edible acorns – and how the water was like the culture and history of the tribe: without it they disappeared.
What is my tribe, I wondered? Is it the tribe of America, nomads too in a way, who have been forced into corporate reservations and have forgotten the roots of democracy, the language of our forebears?
Today only 35 Apache of the Nation have, what Apache Cultural Director Vincent Randall described as a “college-level” fluency in their own language. Far fewer on the Yavapai side.
With the loss of their land and water, and their exile in 1875 they soon began to lose their tribal names, their way of life and then, their language.
When I first arrived at the cultural center in Camp Verde I overheard conversations between my host, Don Decker, and his colleagues that often switched seamlessly from English to Apache and back again.
I mentioned that to Randall and he said that, likely, it was because Apache, as an unwritten language had to be much more specific, so especially when discussing their families, traditions and beliefs it was nearly impossible to translate thise concepts into English.
He used the example of the word or phrase for “fall.” The Apache language has variations for the fall over something, the slip, the collapse, the faint: all variations of “to fall.”
The fall of a people?
In discussing the now rare Emory Oak – which is scattered about the High Desert – and its edible acorn that was used in many traditional recipes, Randall said that you never asked, in Apache, where it was located: it was always where it “lived.”
Everything was alive, everything had a spirit that needed to be respected. It is difficult to translate spiritual beliefs.
To lose the Apache language was then to lose communal Apache customs and practices, to give in to other imported individualistic traditions and customs.
Without those traditions the Nation would likely never have survived the last 175 years. Yet despite that heroic and ultimately successful struggle the Nation’s survival, Randall says bluntly, is still in doubt.
“If you do not learn and continue to write. your own history,” a letter to the Nation’s youth that is at the front of short history of the Nation that I was given, states, “somebody else will write it for you.”
What language do the leaders, appointed, assumed and elected officials speak, I wondered, thinking back just a few days to the jargon-filled meeting of the Flagstaff City Council?
It may seem inconsequential, I thought, but when the residents of a community don’t speak ‘the same language’ as community leaders, how can they trust each other?
Do we as ‘Americans’ have a shared language?
I set out to understand as best I could the unique challenges of a Native American community in maintaining a sense of belonging to that community so I am surprised to see now, as I write, that I am perceiving the lessons that this tiny Nation may be able to teach the broader American community.
I don’t believe that Native Americans are an intrinsically more ethical people, but I sense that the challenges that they have overcome, the lessons they have learned, have provided a template that we may all find useful.
Perhaps we are already learning that lesson and the anger and fear that so many are expressing reflects the pain associated with the recognition of its loss or the rebirth of pride in their own tribe?
I don’t know the answers but I feel that in Camp Verde, speaking with the leaders and members of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, I came closer to the right questions.
As Vincent Randall might say, I can’t tell you where to find the Emory Oak, but I know where it lives.