The Flight of Bearfoot Manuella Cibimoat

If we cannot live here, we want to go into those mountains and die. We do not want any other home.

~ Cupeño Captain Cecilio Blacktooth
(as translated by Celsa Apapas)

The original name is Cupa. With the arrival of Spanish explorers in 1795 it became Agua Caliente. The first American to claim it in 1844 called it Warner Springs. Bearfoot Manuella Cibimoat called the village home until May 12, 1903, when her people were evicted after a lengthy legal battle. To her credit, the ninety-one-year-old Cupeño woman did not go peacefully.

The night before the removal, women in long dresses chanted dirges around the fires. Nobody slept. In the morning, wagons showed up to haul the Cupeño and their belongings to the reservation at Pala. Bearfoot was having no part of it. When the teamsters threw her household goods into a wagon she shouted at them, “Here I will stay, even if I die, even if the coyotes eat me.”

She yelled defiantly at journalist Grant Wallace, shaking a package of hardtack at his camera. Her long hair flew in a rage. She turned and walked away, past the hot springs and the granite boulders pockmarked with her people’s grinding holes. She climbed toward the sacred peaks that guarded the village — and disappeared.

When a reporter asked why the old woman would flee, Isabella Owlinguish said that when she and Bearfoot were young they were held prisoners at the Pala Mission. Isabella “threw off her shawl and shouted ‘see!’ and showed great calloused marks on her thin shoulders. ‘These we had to keep fresh our memories of Pala mission! What we suffered there … Bearfoot could not forget. She would not look again upon that place … Does the white man think it strange that we did not want to come?’”

A few weeks after the Cupeño reached the reservation at Pala, two of the leaders went into the mountains to talk to Bearfoot. They convinced her to join her exiled people at Pala where she eventually died and was buried. So ends her recorded story.

But I can’t get her picture (from Out West magazine, July, 1903), out of my mind. It’s the only historic photograph I’ve seen where a native woman is visibly angry about what is happening to her people. She’s fighting back. She’s pissed off and not afraid to show it. She’s resisting! Bearfoot may have come to the reservation in body — but not in spirit.

Grant Wallace concluded his article in Out West magazine with the observation, “There would seem to be no reason why these Indians should not soon be happier and more self-reliant at Pala that (sic) at Warner’s Ranch.”

One look at Bearfoot’s face makes it plain he hadn’t heard a word the Cupeño people said.

Reverence

One day, when I was a little girl, my family traveled backwards. We piled into our car with my grandparents and drove into the mountains northeast of San Diego. We were going to visit old friends of my grandmother’s who lived on a ranch in the backcountry. Eventually, my dad turned off the narrow highway onto a dusty drive. It lead to an old building that looked more like a Western movie set than a real house.

A gray-haired couple came out onto the covered porch and welcomed us. We were herded into their generous kitchen where we ate sandwiches around a big table. As the grown-ups settled in for a long visit, they encouraged my brother and me to go outside and poke around.

Wagon wheels and rusting pieces of equipment lay about the farm yard. Battered corrals and fencing stitched together a ragged chain of barns and outbuildings. Down a faint dirt track, we discovered dozens of stone pestles and mortars covering the ground — manos y metates. Some of the manos were so long and heavy we couldn’t lift them. We looked up into the scrubby trees. Were they for grinding acorns?

When the adults met up with us, our hosts explained that generations of Indian* families had lived and worked at the ranch until recently. After they were gone, the couple collected all the manos y metates they came across and brought them back to the house.

It looked as if an entire village had vanished and these tools were all that remained. As the other folks wandered off, my mother stayed with us. She knelt down and began to touch the stones one by one. The way she did it — quietly and reverently — nestled deep inside me.

Whenever I think of that place, all I remember clearly are the manos y metates. I’ve tried several times to find the ranch, but my memory lacks details and the adults are long gone. Was it south of Agua Caliente, or north? Was it near the highway or set back a ways? The specifics elude me. I’m beginning to wonder if that ranch still exists as a physical place. Maybe it only survives in my mind’s eye.

*They were probably Kumeyaay or Cupeño people whose descendants are among the Pala Band of Mission Indians.

In Her Own Name

Casa de Juana Briones, Los Altos, California, 1962.

When I bought my first house, it never occurred to me that just a few generations earlier I might have lost all claim to it when I got married. Women’s property rights in America went through a lot of changes between my great-grandmothers’ time and mine. The new United States of America largely adopted British common law. That system defined a married woman as chattel of her husband. He controlled her property, her earnings, and even her children. Once an American woman married, she ceased to be a separate legal entity. For instance, the Tennessee legislature in 1848 declared that married women lacked “independent souls” and thus should not be allowed to own property.

Out West, it was a different story. Under Spanish and later Mexican law, married women could own property. When Mexico surrendered California to the United States in 1848, the United States guaranteed the property rights of former Mexican citizens, including women. The California state constitution even went so far as to specifically protect a married woman’s right to own property. It would take the rest of the states more than fifty years to catch up.

Juana Briones de Miranda, a woman of Spanish and African descent, was one of many who benefited from Mexican, and later, California property law. In 1844, after separating from her abusive husband, she bought the 4,400 acre Rancho La Purísima Concepción near what would become Los Altos, California. Even though the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago technically guaranteed Mexican people their property rights, in practice the American government made it extremely difficult to claim those rights. Against these odds, Juana Briones succeeded in retaining her title. She litigated her case for two decades, eventually taking it to the U.S. Supreme Court where she received an American patent in 1871. She was one of twenty-four Mexican women “rancheras” who proved their land claims under United States law by 1886.

Plat Map for Juana Briones’s Rancho La Purisima Concepcion, 1863.

Juana Briones built a large adobe house on her rancho, planted apricot orchards and raised thousands of cattle. She passed enough of her land to her daughters to ensure their financial independence. Her house in Los Altos Hills survived more than 150 years before it was demolished in 2011.

Juana’s fight to retain title to Rancho La Purísima Concepción in her own name paved the way for future generations of women like me to own property and pass it on to our daughters. Juana’s original adobe may no longer be standing, but every married woman who owns a house is part of Juana’s house. Let us remember our intrepid foremother: pioneer, rancher, farmer, businesswoman, curandera, and general bad ass. Thanks, Juana Briones, for having our backs.

The second woman from the left in this photograph may be Juana Briones.


Barnyard Ikebana

Ikebana is a form of sculpture that exists only within a limited time span, transforms from moment to moment, then perishes. 

 ~ Akane Teshigahara

When I was a teenager, my grandaddy took me to an exhibit of Ikebana, Japanese flower arranging. We walked into a long room glowing with diffuse sunlight and spectacular flowers. At least a hundred vases graced the tables lining the walls. We slowly walked past each one, admiring not only the blossoms themselves but the sculptural quality of every element within the arrangement. My grandaddy, a painter and gardener himself, used his hands to explain to me what he liked about certain arrangements. He talked about movement, balance, suggestion, grace — intangible qualities the flower arrangers conveyed with understated perfection. He’d taken a risk that I was ripe to appreciate the artistic spirit of Ikebana — and he’d guessed right. I ate it up.

After that day, I saw the world differently. I began to notice the underlying beauty surrounding my everyday life. The simplicity, spontaneity, and seasonal reverence behind Ikebana became my aesthetic practice. Or maybe I should say it became my aesthetic play, because that’s really what its’ about — fooling around. Seeing how things go together. Or don’t. Experimenting with what’s lying about. Arranging a small corner of the world.

For instance, there’s a retired farm nearby where hundred-year-old orchard trees drop fruit for squirrels and deer to glean. The other day, I picked up an apple as I wandered through the old barnyard. I sensed that apple had artistic aspirations before it became wildlife fodder, so we tried out a few ideas before I tossed it back in the deep grass. Is this Ikebana? I’m not sure, but it felt like it for a playful autumn hour.

 

Chasing Dragonflies 

Last week, I sat by an irrigation ditch watching dragonflies. The water slipped by, smooth and silent. Small copper-orange meadowhawk dragonflies prowled along the lush green ribbon, the clapping of their wings the only sound. They hovered over the water in pairs, the male in front with its tail connected to the back of the female’s head. They flew as one creature up and down the ditch, dipping occasionally so the female could touch the tip of her tail in the water — part of an elaborate dragonfly egg-laying process. There must have a been a dozen such pairs, weaving intricate patterns between banks of rushes, wild mint, and the autumn-tinged leaves of curly dock.

Into this tranquil scene shot an electric-blue male darner dragonfly three times the size of the dainty meadowhawks. The thrumming of its wings sounded like a tiny motor propelling a three-inch-long iridescent body with luminous eyes the size of peas. It darted after the mating meadowhawks, scattering them in all directions. It prowled between the grassy banks hunting for prey, snatching gnats with sudden swoops. It flashed sunlight off its translucent wings as if it commanded the light — then sped away down the ditch, disappearing into the deep tree shadows.

This is the point in a nature essay where the writer should surprise the reader with some poignant insight and gracefully glide to a precious conclusion. But when I reflect upon these bombastic dragonflies all I come up with is Robert Plant — Led Zeppelin’s lion-haired lead singer. Plant’s vocal agility (among other things) first captivated me in high school and he’s zoomed in and out of my life ever since. Some creatures just seem larger than life and flashier than basic biology would require. Check out any vintage Led Zeppelin concert footage and you’ll see what I mean about Robert Plant.

As for the virile dragonflies prowling the sinuous curves of our local irrigation system, I went hunting for them, camera in hand. This is no easy endeavor. They’re fast, aggressive, and preoccupied with their own agendas before the hard freezes of fall. But on a warm Indian Summer morning, at the edge of a small reservoir where our ditch ends, I got lucky. A spotted skimmer rested on a willow stem long enough for me to creep in close and press the shutter. Lordy, look at those wings! See why dragonflies are the rockstars of my insect world?

Male Eight-spotted Skimmer who was very patient with my picture-taking at McKenzie Reservoir, Deschutes Co., Oregon.

Burning Through 


There’s a repurposed school bus that’s often parked in the vacant lot next to The Mine Shaft bar in Winnemucca, Nevada. This small painting adorns its side. I’ve often pondered what it means. My best guess is that it illustrates the evolution of Homo Erectus, subspecies Incendo — collectively known throughout the West as “Burners.” Every year, in late summer, they congregate on the Black Rock Desert for Burning Man — an event that features, among other things, the torching of a huge man-shaped sculpture on the playa.

Sounds simple enough, but over the decades the gathering has accumulated a complexity that’s staggering. Burning Man encompasses everything from inspired public art to hedonistic debauchery and back again. Every human fantasy that can be dragged out to the vast playa behind a vehicle makes an appearance.

If you live in a rural community along any of the migration routes to the Black Rock Desert, you’ll witness a plethora of urban-looking people driving strangely equipped RV’s or towing makeshift trailers piled with bicycles, 55 gallon water drums, building materials and the random odds and ends of civilization.

On the way to Burning Man, everything and everybody is clean. A week later, the same parade passes by in reverse — thoroughly coated with dust. If you live downwind of the Black Rock Desert, it can be hard to imagine what would compel a Burner to pay more than $400 for the privilege of wallowing in all that dust. Any windy day the same dust arrives in Winnemucca for free! But most anyone who’s been to Burning Man will assure you the expense is worth the opportunity to live out your wildest dreams — or watch someone else live out theirs.

I try to imagine what the early pioneers along the Overland Trail would have thought if they came across the modern migration to Black Rock City. Those bedraggled settlers might have rubbed their eyes in disbelief, concluding the desert light was playing tricks on them. That’s how it seems. Burning Man exists as its own mirage. By the end of the week, only the camaraderie, and the dust, are real.