There is nothing in the Imperial Valley Press that this county doesn’t see. This week the museum was featured on the press website in a video and article about our watercolor class. We are testing various programs to see what type of programming the community is interested in, while at the same time “being seen to be hard working” as Ben Franklin would advise. We are building an audience.
“To grieve and pay homage for the disruption of our Ancestral Burial Sites”.
The Kumeyaay tribes hosted an all night wake in the shadow of the rock formation I’ve alternately heard called the spoke wheel or the medicine wheel.
I cannot adequately put the event into words. My group took the evening hours to absorb the cultural event around us as best we could. We asked people to describe the dancing and the peon games and the spiritual meaning of the event – do we meditate, pray, ponder the life of the deceased? This was a rare opportunity for us and I wanted to make sure the staff was present in truest sense of the word, and able to really appreciate what was happening around us.
In the twilight hours things grew quiet so we took the opportunity to do some star gazing. The Milky Way ran brillant and nebulous across the sky and before we knew it, the dark faded to early morning.
As the attendees started to wake from their nighttime revere, I asked an elder the meaning of the spoke wheel. This adequately passed the time until sunrise when the dancing would resume. He recounted a long story for us which I have not yet asked permission to pass on so I cannot recount it here, but it stole our hearts.
As the first rays of sun kissed the mountain ranges surrounding us and turned everything into pale pinks and soft yellows, the attendees who had made it through the night were invited to participate in the last dance. I do not know the words that were spoken, but the dancing when on long enough that even the beginners had time to acclimate to the movements, and by the end we moved as one.
“This night has bonded us”, the elder had finished his story. “We are all in this together.”
Our Mexico-based partners for the American Association of Museum’s Museums and Communities without Borders grant pulled out at the last minute citing a conflict with their mission. I put a considerable amount of time into building this program at the request of the Community and I really took the project and its goals to heart.
It is very difficult to accept that our brilliant $105,000 project, which was accepted into the second round and had a really good shot at winning, was crushed at the last minute by environmental politics. I understand the other institution’s position in theory, but this project is about living people. I’ve never encountered someone willing to trade plants for people. In fact, I don’t believe the board member who lead the opposition knew what the project was about. I believe they objected on principle. I don’t mind the objection, but I wish they would have let us submit the project so we would have had the opportunity to find a new partner. In fact, this weekend at the Anza-Borrego Archeology Weekend we connected with a great contact from the El Museo Comunitario de Tecate who would have been a much better match for this grant.
I wrote a letter, a long email, to Radio Lab, hoping to at least accomplish one goal of the project, even if it can’t be funded this year. The point of Yumans Without Borders was to engage communities in meaningful dialogue of border issues beyond the well-recognized issues of drug trafficking and immigration. Even if nothing comes of the email, I feel like I’ve made an effort to accomplish that goal. At the very least (though it is little consolation) we can honestly say we did our best to fulfill the Community’s request and it didn’t fail on our end.
Yumans Without Borders
The project Yumans Without Borders: Stabilizing indigenous culture along a de-stable US-Mexico border stimulates dialogue between border communities besieged by escalating violence and depreciating cultural identity. Indigenous youth, aged 14-18, will spend an intensive six-month period studying Yuman culture and language with the intention they will pass on that information and eventually become tribal leaders with a deep understanding of tribal culture.
The Yuman people of the southwest US and Baja California, Mexico, are a single Native American community divided by an artificial border. The traditional Yuman cultures that stride the border between California and Mexico are deteriorating under the violence associated with the drug trade, issues associated with illegal immigration, destruction of cultural lands for renewable energy, and the strengthening of border enforcement. Connections across the US-Mexican border were fluid until the last generation when the living situation for Mexican Yumans became dangerously caught up in local drug politics. The US State Department issued a travel warning on April 22, 2011 that included the text, “Much of the country’s narcotics-related violence has occurred in the border region.” Under these circumstances, developing a strong cultural identity with Yumans across the border provides a source of strength; a reminder that they are part of a larger community with shared similarities.
This project centers upon two cultural exchange points: the physical exchange of living traditions across the US-Mexican border and the long-distance cultural exchange of youth interacting over digital media and social networks. Youth on both sides of the border will receive iPads to interact in a cultural exchange surrounding the theme Living Kumeyaay. There is a perception that Native American culture only exists in the past. Youth will address this perception by discussing their views and experiences. Do they partake in cultural traditions? Are they proud of their heritage? Do they promote it to others? Over weekly Skype conferences and shared videos, pictures, stories, and artwork, the youth will comment on each other’s posts. Developing lifelong relationships with their counterparts across the border will build common ground and stimulate their interest in a shared language. Meanwhile, project instructors will alternate travel to the youths’ locations. Instructors may include elders, artisans, or one of the 36 remaining native speakers of Kumeyaay, the Yuman language. Youth will beinstructed in traditional craft production and taught the language associated with the processes. Through this situational fluency method, the youths’ oral language skills will develop as they physically interact with the Yuman vocabulary. The public will be invited to share in this exchange through social media, public receptions, and public hands-on craft sessions.
The escalation of tension along the US-Mexican border has restricted cultural diffusion. Yumans Without Borders will engage indigenous border communities in meaningful dialogue through youth-based cultural exchanges aimed at creating cultural fluency. The project will bring celebration, stabilization, and preservation to local communities besieged by complex border issues, strengthening the understanding and appreciation of traditional cultural crafts and language, and will result in the strengthening of shared cultural values and shared identity.
I was invited to a community Seder, recognized by the Community by virtue of my last name. And here I thought my background was anonymous and nondescript!
The synagogue is modest, built by the first farmers who pooled funds years and years ago, and a rabbi comes in from San Diego once a month to lead a service. It’s a community held together by a dedicated couple who have vowed that there will be a Jewish community as long as they are around.
It was a lovely service, pieced together by several individuals who contributed food and desserts and charosets. It was slightly comical – everyone singing different melodies to the same song, but it was true to it’s purpose: telling the story for another year.
This is my first Seder for several years. This year I heard the story differently. I heard it through the context of my work at the museum. The Easter sermon service was the same. I’ve been mentally going back and forth between these two ancient celebrations, their stories, their message, and their meaning. There is enough to ponder for a life time.
Easter service this year was at the First United Methodists Church. I was dared to sing in the choir when the congregation was invited up. “Well,” I thought “if you are going to have a new experience, might as well do it with gusto.” I’ve never been very good at reading choir music, but the holidays for me are centered around re-creating familiar traditions. My grandparents used to love singing in the choir and we do it for Christmas when called on, so I did it in the spirit of those memories. Anyway, I’m usually good at following the director, but I had the gents singing in my ear and so I accidentally switched back and forth between soprano and baratone. Oh well, it was fun to try.
It was a busy weekend with 3 easter egg hunts – one in Ocotillo amongst the cactus, one on the grassy church lawn in El Centro, and one glow-in-the-dark hunt for the big kids. Busy, but very fun, and very rejuvenating – which is good, because April is just getting warmed up… and I don’t just mean the temperature.
The County Library has been hosting it’s Access Program in the Museum. Once an month books and internet are publicly available for a town that has no library. We continue a public exchange library the rest of the time. Though without a copy of the Hunger Games, how can we call ourselves a proper library? I think the most recent title is from Thomas Thompson (who past away in 1982). I donated some Margret Atwood and a new copy of Jobs Interview Skills 101. I encourage everyone that I meet to donate whatever current titles they can bear to part with. We can do better for the residence of Ocotillo.
As a new unofficial branch of the library, we are encouraged to take part in Cal Hum’s California Reads! It’s a state wide reading program that includes public interviews with the authors. Last month we read Lost City Radio by 35 year old Peruvian-American Daniel Alarcon. He was on the New Yorker’s 20 Promising Writers Under 40 list in 2010. This week he was in El Centro (just down the road, 26 miles). Daniel was articulate, intelligent, and interesting – all at once!
Lost City Radio was more an intellectual exercise on developing humanistic themes and experimenting with time in written literature rather than a romping good read. I confess I thought the interview would be dry and serious, but this is a young man just developing his voice. He thinks very seriously about his work, but is still a young kid at heart. I look forward to seeing more from this author, and for the next book in the Reads! program. If there is more of this ahead then I’m happy to participate. I should have trusted the system and stifled my skepticism. The County Librarian here is phenomenal.
While the CalHum team was in town, they hosted a meeting for their California Story Fund. They haven’t had applications from Imperial County for a several years. I’d just explained that I’m a curator at the museum and am supposed to focus on that task – I’m not supposed to be committing to write another grant – but the museum is happy to be a partner on any projects. How can we be sitting at the table with people saying “please please apply” and not respond? I looked at the other 3 people in the meeting and challenged them to commit to applying next year. The County Librarian looked back at me and said “I’m swamped, but I have a couple of ideas for you”.
The next day the President & CEO of Cal Humanities, who had introduced the interview, wandered into the museum on his way back to San Diego. I told him he’d be hearing from us soon. Looks like it’s going to be us applying next year.
Dr. Hitch explaining the Museum's mission to Alberto Caliban an exhibitor for Kitchen Kraft Cookware.
The number one question we get at the museum is “What’s going on out there?” To address this question we are at the Imperial Valley County Fair in the Plaza De Las Culturas.
The fair lasts 10 days. You can only put 2 staff members names on the entrance list. Since we are trying to open a museum here we are tag teaming it with one person at the table at a time – me, mostly. It’s easy to share the excitement of the latest developments with people who stop by the table. Yesterday I met people who went to the museum ground breaking. They were little then and are now grown into full adults. People have been waiting a long time to hear the message we are giving: “We are open.”
For the last two years we have been working on curation of the College’s archeology collections. It’s the number one step to getting the museum up and running then we can start developing exhibits and fully open the doors. At the Star Party in January? We expected maybe 30 people to trickle in, but one hundred and thirty people came out. We took that as a sign that people want to know what we are doing so we made a big push to open the doors last week. We don’t have full exhibits up, but if you are at all interested in what we are doing you can come by Thursday, Friday, Saturday 10-3 and see what’s happening at the museum.
This week I experienced Rotary. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I felt a little guilty even having that thought until someone seated at my lunch table confessed she thought it was the most boring thing when she started coming as a guest years ago. Then she got involved in the Stars program, which mentors youth into becoming leaders from a young age. Lesson: a thing is what you make it.
Personally, I enjoyed the meeting’s speaker. She works for the city council and explained how the Imperial Valley is trying to persuade the Navy to house their new F35C planes at the local NAF. The F35C’s will replace the F18 hornets, a program is set to retire in 2025. It was interesting to hear about the county statistics. The Navy puts about 1 million dollars into the community and bringing the new planes here will open thousands of jobs. I found this to be an amazingly small number. The museum has an agenda to work job creation into every project, and it’s a concept that’s easy to get behind, but it’s a whole other story finding out why it’s such a strongly held goal.
Koorie and Department of Justice colors flown together.
Every year a group of kayaking and canoeing enthusiasts brave the 100°F (38°C) summer heat to navigate the 5-day 404km (251 miles) Murray River Marathon. For the ninth year in a row the Blues and Brothers program entered the competition, but this year they had an international participant.
The history between the Aboriginal Community and police officers is long and ugly. Judging by some of the attitudes I witnessed over the last week, it’s safe to say that as collective groups there is little love lost between them. Fortunately, there are people on both sides willing and interested in improving the relationship. The Blues and Brothers Murray River Marathon program is one of the resulting efforts to engage Aboriginal youth and police officers together in a positive activity. We spent five days camping together, eating together, waking up at 5am together, and of course, rowing together.
Assisting with a change-over on the banks of the Cumeragunja mission.
This was not an easy week. The swollen river conditions forced the organizers to add longer-than-normal legs to the race. Our team was changing rowers at the check points, but longer distances meant many of the younger kids didn’t get a chance to row and the same people rowed day after day through the sore muscles and blisters. It also meant waiting hours in the hot sun for the paddlers to complete their leg. Much of the time on the river felt like work instead of holiday. And the days we had to move locations were a real struggle – there was no relaxing until the tents were set up. And then after tea (“dinner”) the next day’s sandwiches and esky’s (I got laughed at when I called them “coolers”) had to be made up.
But still, there were smiles.
I was glad to see how the kids attacked all this hard work with a sense of humor and play. There was the famous day of butter sandwiches were we were all so tired we just slabbed butter on both sides of the bread and dealt with the consequences the next day (which was not very pleasant, but made tea very popular that night). There was the day everyone got dunked in the pool at the caravan park. I took my attacker down with me to the delight of the youth – he was high up in the police ranks. “Yanks don’t go down easy,” I said when I came up for air.
This group was rarely serious (see video for proof),
but there was an objective to fulfill. We passed through Yorta Yorta, Wemba Wemba, Waywurru, and Barababaraba country, talking all the way about culture and differences and similarities.
Cumeragunja mission just visible through the trees.
We visited the Cumeragunja mission in New South Wales, which is recognized as still part of the Victorian Community since so many different groups were forced to locate there. The people who live there have a history of great strength and we used its bank as a change-over stop instead of the designated spot on the Victorian side of the river. Our van drove through the mission to see what life is like there so the kids could understand how some of their cousins live. Looking at the old school house gave me chills. I know we were supposed to be focused on present day issues and life styles, but I can’t help remembering the history. It’s not even really history yet – everything is very much in living memory.
This scar tree was moved from the deep bush to the Yorta Yorta Cultural Heritage Center across the river from the mission. We took a group photo in front of it. The scar here marks the removal of a 10-man canoe without killing the tree. This isn’t New England, I remembered, trees are precious commodity here.
On the last night we had an extra special treat. We went out for tea (that was also a treat) and Johnny Huckle noticed our uniform shirts. He asked if he could join us and do some songs to contribute to our trip. He was wonderful.
Not only did we learn the famous Wombat Wobble (just like the lucky folks above, posted by 77advet), but he also talked to the kids about his life’s story and shared his passion with them. Kids that were quiet and unresponsive for most of the trip were taping their toes and singing along to “Koorie Love”.
Johnny’s generosity and energy was very well timed. Just as he was deciding to visit with us, we had the bad news that the last day of the race was canceled due to high temperatures (43°C/109°F) and extreme risk of fire. The kids were disappointed, but Johnny’s mini-concert took away the sting.
All-in-all this was a great experience for everyone involved. We shared stories (did you know you used to be able to see straight to the bottom of the river and count catfish?), we discovered cousins we didn’t know we had, we adopted each other as family, we listened, we learned, we played. It was a great week.
Four years ago I took an opportunity to work at a national museum in the paradise islands of the British West Indies. After a year working in archives across southern Australia, I'm in the desert of southern California working to develop a desert museum in the middle of the desert - the only educational institution within a 25 mile radius.