Luisa told me that our precious Sacred Spring on Mt. Shasta is beginning to dry up again this year as it did last year. Last year when we got the news, we were devastated, and we all drove up to meet at the Mountain. As prepared as we were, it was still shocking to view the devastation. The meadow was dead, everything brown, and the small hollow where the spring has always bubbled up from the earth was cracked and dry. The sacred spring of Mt. Shasta has been here from the very beginning of time. That is where the Winnemem came from, and when they die, that is the way they pass through. Joining us was filmmaker Toby McLeod and his guests from Alti by Mongolia. The Altians included a holy man, a throat singer, also said prayers and sang for the spring. Each of us prayed tearfully, and tried not to grieve, tried to have faith our precious spring would come back.
When Luisa told me that it was happening again, I am just as devastated but I admit feeling numb when she told me. We were at a funeral of a precious tribal elder. Our leaders had stayed up days and nights ministering to her through her last illness and then during the wake. Everyone was very worn out. Mark Miyoshi and Luisa intimately know the spring. They live near the Mountain, and tirelessly keep watch over the mountain and the sacred spring. It’s interesting that years before when I first met Grandma and she doctored me, I had that brief glimpse of Mark’s face smiling over Mt. Shasta. It is interesting because he and his wife Luisa’s responsibility today is to “watch over” the Sacred Mountain. Luisa felt sorry for me that I was not able to visit the spring one more time when I had driven up and back the week before to take my shift with our elder. And now, it was too late.
On our long trip back to Oregon, I began to think about the spring again.
I remembered that when I first started going to Grandma’s ceremonies at Mt. Shasta, we would always visit the sacred spring and pray there. The spring bubbled up out of the ground in a quiet meadow on Mt. Shasta. The meadow was filled with bright wild flowers, and from there we could see the purple mountain range on one side, and on the other, the peak of our sacred mountain with its snow packs jutting up into the sky.
On one of our visits, Grandma Florence looked up and down the line of us standing along the spring, her eyes sharp. “Someone here has seen something.” she said. Grandma said they were to tell her what they saw. A young Potowatami woman who had traveled from Kansas to the ceremony started crying and saying that she saw something. She saw the spring as it was once. The meadow was full of flowers, flowers she hadn’t seen before. There were so many spirits of the spring and the spring was happy. The animals would come to the spring. The deer would dip their noses into the spring to take a drink, just barely touching it. The spring said that is how it is supposed to be treated. Everyone is supposed to be like the deer and not interfere with the sand, just dip into the water if they need the water.
Then the woman said she saw other things. She saw people coming to the spring, putting their dogs in the spring right where the water was coming up, damming it up and putting their children in it to splash around, digging into the sand. People were putting all kinds of things into the spring. People dying with diseases were put in the spring to soak. As all of this was happening the spirits were going back farther and farther into the rocks. And when the spirits finally all left, the meadow turned brown and everything died, and the earth died too. That story stayed with me. That far off day described by the woman is here now. What have we done to this precious Mother.
As my husband and I drove farther north past Weed, with one more look at our Mountain, I felt anger at those who had physical authority over our sacred spring. This civilization still acted like brutish encroachers, detached from the earth. They have never found their "way home" on this land, forever rootless. I was reminded of Columbus with his sword and banner stuck into the Arawak shores laying claim before the destruction. The visitors to the Winnemem’s sacred spring on Mt. Shasta, the ones who leave their debris in the spring, their crystals, their plastic tiki gods, even those who dump the cremated remains of their own into the spring are just as arrogant and confused.
Again, it had been Luisa a couple of years ago who scooped a handful of sand from the spring a little below the headwaters to examine something unusual which had caught her eye. Could it be possible? She asked me what I saw and I looked closely. Among the gravel were white chips that looked like small pieces of bone. Both of us could hardly utter what we suspected. Such desecration seemed so unlikely. It was reported to the Forest Service and on their examination, our fears were verified. These encroachers so separated from the earth and tradition, create their own sad rituals using their own dead, throwing them into a fresh water source. Some sprinkled a pattern of a peace symbol with their loved ones ashes and the forest ranger’s uneducated guess is that it’s a Shinto shrine. Ridiculous. Chaotic rituals like that do not come through the ages. It seems that these with authority are no less confused than the encroachers. How simple it would be to levy a hefty fine for desecration. How simple would it be, under the circumstances, to make the spring inaccessible. How simple would it have been not to advertise the sacredness of the little spring like carnival hawkers exhibiting exotica.
The heavy responsibility to clean the trash from the spring, to remove the cremated remains was given to the Winnemem, as the traditional caretakers of the sacred spring. There is no ritual from the ancestors to take care of this kind of "over the line" desecration. Caleen had to spend a lot of time in contemplation at the Sacred Fire for spiritual direction how to take care of what had been done to the spring, and how to protect her people designated to do the defiling work of cleaning out remains for these times.
The Winnemem worked for weeks unearthing layers and layers of trash. They worked hard to gather the layers of cremation ashes and dispose of respectfully. How easy it would have been just to get rid of all of it quickly. I felt awe for the tribe’s heartfelt pity for the confused and chaotic encroachers and their dead. The Winnemem formed a new wider bowl for the spring to discourage damming. The Forest Service built a path that would detour around the desecrated spring and we had to obliterate the first path.
Still, people continue to come to the spring with more of their pathetic offerings and cremation ashes. These encroachers, having no memory of their own ancestral sacred sites, no historical memory of what to do at a sacred site, no common sense of how to take care of sacred sites in general, like Columbus before them, leave a huge imprint of their chaos and confusion everywhere they step, particularly if the place should inspire reverence and gratefulness.
Then there are the corporations. In the past, the Mountain has shaken off the attempts to develop the sacred meadow into a ski resort. Today, Nestle seeks a bigger foothold on our Sacred Mountain for their water bottling company. At first, they attempted to forego any environmental impact study. I had heard of Nestle’s mistakes in other areas, drilling into the volcanic shelf that held the water, an error that caused the water to disappear forever. The townspeople are left with the damage while the company simply moves to another spring.
We are boycotting Arrowhead bottled water and any other Nestle brand. Beyond that, we don’t buy bottled water. We carry our own water in stainless steel containers. If in an emergency I need to buy water, I buy purified water. Spring water, pure water is endangered. The bottles themselves are not safe. The concept is wasteful. And the industry encourages greed. Someplace, someone can’t wait for the day there is only one drop of water left so they could sell it for big money.
We don’t know why our spring is drying up. Is it over use of the mountain’s water by Nestles and the Forest Service for their campgrounds? Are there secret geo thermal drilling operations going on on the Mountain? Is it the desecration? Is it because fewer and fewer people pray for the water, sing for the spring?
The people officially “in charge” of the spring come from a society which has become used to a disposable environment. Nothing in policy honors historical traditional stewardship of the land, a relationship with the land. Because policy does not look to those who have historical relationship and traditional ways that have been successful for eons, we are losing our most treasured parts of nature.
For the Winnemem tribe, we are not in the first days of environmental crisis. We are looking, within our own short lifetime, at the last days, and in these times we must stand and act with our lives to protect what remains.
Postscript: Today, venting my anger has left me with a question. Part of me wonders, what would I have done at the spring if I had not learned from the Winnemem? I would hope that I would not have left things or taken things from the place as my issei grandfather always taught us. I know that we have strict taboos that our loved one's remains are to be interred in a gravesite; grandpa was Shinto. I hope I wouldn't have gone in out of curiosity. But I wonder. Would I have? and would I have known that the spring wants us to treat them as the deer do? Those questions left in my mind made me ashamed of my anger and I will try to put my anger aside, my judgementalism. Would I have known what to do? Or would I have bumbled and been another encroacher?
I have learned in the past twenty years by attending the ceremonies and being part of the village things I did not know before. I have learned that there are special songs the Winnemem have sung from the beginning of time, a song which the spring understands. It makes the spring so happy when the Winnemem gather and sing because it knows that the people are still following the old way. I have been blessed to have witnessed the spring happy.
I have learned that nothing is to be left with the spring except for heartfelt prayer for the sacred spring, it's people and the way of life which takes care of it. That is the greatest gift anyone can leave. I have learned to go downstream for water so I do not interfere with the spring as it bubbles out and to walk carefully not to disturb the plants which grow there. I will try to balance my harsh anger with the knowledge that without being taught I cannot be absolutely sure what I would have done, and it was my luck to follow Winnemem which made all the difference.
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