June 27, 2009

The June Rise

Suburbitat: A Suburban Naturalist’s Journal – The June Rise.

Rain and hail continue to fall here in Northern Colorado and rivers like the Cache La Poudre (reportedly named by French trappers who hid a cache of gunpowder there and never found it again) are brimming full. The early settlers and trappers in this area, referred to the swollen state of rivers in the spring as “The June Rise.”

Because of the June rise cottonwood trees which are now abundant along Colorado rivers were once much less common. The water from snow melting in the high country tearing down through the river valleys used to be powerful enough to rip out young trees along the way. Now that water has been restrained by the damming of Colorado’s rivers. 

Subsequently, a forest now marches along rivers from the Colorado foothills down to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. Species previously unknown in Colorado, like the Eastern Bluejay, have moved up this woodland corridor into Colorado, literally leaping from tree to tree.     

Walking along the river today, I am thinking about Antoine Janis, the son of a French Trapper and one of the first settlers in this valley. Janis married  First Elk Woman of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and together they raised a family in the valley that is now LaPorte, Colorado. 

Some of the earliest settlers in this area, particularly those who married into Indian tribes, envisioned a new society that blended the best of European and Native American cultures. Perhaps such a society would have had the best of the White Man’s technology, like steel axes instead of stone but also the best of indigenous values,  freedom for all, environmental stewardship and the needs of future generations prevailing over power and profit for small a ruling class.      

In 1876 another June rise brought about an end to Janis’s peace and prosperity in this beautiful and fertile valley. In the spring of 1876 many Sioux and Cheyenne people broke away from reservations. Driven by hunger, boredom and a longing for the old ways, they joined Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and headed north to camp on the Little Bighorn River. 

On June 25th, 1876 the day began with trumpets blaring and gunfire tearing through the Sioux and Cheyenne villages. Unbeknownst to General Custer and his 7th Cavalry, this composite village spanned over two and a half miles and contained a population of several thousands of Indians and not the 600-800 that Custer anticipated.     

The enormity of Custer’s blunder is legendary and the unexpected military engagement was both the greatest and last victory for the Sioux. A young and arrogant United States, preparing to celebrate it’s Centennial, reeled from the loss of Custer’s regiment of 700 hundred soldiers, although many Easterners believed the U.S. Army had no business being there in first place.

Subsequently, the U.S. Congress passed a law that forced all Indians to be permanently confined to reservations, even those who were married to Whites. This put men like Janis, who often had the earliest and best land claims, in a difficult position, “leave your land or leave your family.”   

I can picture Janis gazing into the dark eyes of his children and stroking his wife’s long black hair, as they loaded up their buckboard wagon and headed for the “Great Sioux Reservation” in Dakota Territory, where they lived out the remainder of their lives.

On the reservation Janis contributed to making peace between the army and the Sioux by serving as a fair and accurate interpreter. Some historians believe that the killing of Crazy Horse might have been prevented if the Chief’s wishes to have Janis for his interpreter had been honored. Instead, Frank Grouard, a man who had a personal grievance against the Chief, acted as interpreter and Crazy Horse’s words were misinterpreted with disastrous results.   

The original Antoine Janis cabin at the Fort Collins Museum

After the bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, a small American flag appeared in the hand of a statue of Antoine Janis on Shields Street in Fort Collins. I found it ironic, as Janis choose to live as an exile from American Society in order to remain with his mixed-race family.

Currently there is a plan to dam the last free flowing waters of the Cache La Poudre. There are dams on the river already but the last free overflows of the river would be controlled by this project. When water surges through a river in spring it cleans the river out in much the same way that sweating when you have a fever carries toxins out of your body. Damming the river prevents this self cleaning and undermines the overall health of the river system.  There is also a a matter of the water temperature. Damming the river allows the sun to warm the still water and raising the temperature even a few degrees, as in the case of the planet’s temperature, makes a huge difference.

Before we go to such extreme lengths, it seems that we should at least consider conservation options; yet we continue to install Bluegrass lawns up and down the Front Range. These lawns require 20 gallons of water per square foot per year. If oil shale is developed on Colorado’s Western Slopes it will consume and contaminate billion of gallons of water and will destroy some of the rarest plant populations in the world.    

What is the value of a river? Is it a resource that can be transformed into profit? Could we expand that view to include recreation, fishing, boating and scenic beauty as also marketable? Going beyond that, what is the aesthetic value of a river for the poet and the artist? Can we quantify the spiritual value of a river, for traditions whose Psalms and Sutras were composed beside such rivers as the Jordan, the Ganges, the Tigris and Euphrates? Lastly, can we see a river as an elemental power from which life itself arises?  

Perhaps Old Janis made the right choice in choosing not to take part in the “civilizing” of Colorado. His line has continued and to this day there are many of Janis’s decendents on reservations in South Dakota. Perhaps there is still a chance to bring Native American and Euro-American values together but until such time our attitude towards the land will continue to be one of subjugation.

On February 13, 2008,  Kevin Rudd, a new Australian Prime Minister, made good on a campaign promise, by apologizing to Australian Aboriginal People of “the stolen generation.” The stolen generation are Aboriginal Australian’s who were taken away from their families by force and sent to government and religious institutions to be “assimilated.” Many were physically, emotionally and sexually abused. All of this happened to Native American’s too, until very recent times.   

My Cousin Sandy lives in Australia and she said that when Kevin Rudd apologized to the Aboriginal People the country changed over night, as if a great weight had been lifted from the nation’s psyche. People gathered by the hundreds of thousand in big cities to watch the speech on huge screens, in much the same way that people gather in Time Square on New Year’s Eve. Many aboriginal people listened with tears streaming down their faces, washing away the pain and shame of a generation.   

Non-indigenous Australians, many of whom are descendants of indentured servants who were brought there as forced laborers and prisoners, listened spell-bound. When the political opposition came on after Rudd’s speech and made negative comments about Rudd’s statements, televisions all across the country switched off and aboriginal people turned their backs to the speaker on the TV screen, the ultimate insult in aboriginal culture.  

Perhaps Barrack Obama will be the one who will be able to do this for the United States. Obama’s mixed race heritage, as well as his composite family background, make him a more realistic representative of the true American society than any leader we have ever had.  

Until we heal our relationship with America’s indigenous people we will remain unable to heal our relationship to the land. Until then our minds will be clouded by fear and greed and we will have no peace with the land.  

Jim Tolstrup is the Executive Director of the High Plains Environmental Center in Loveland, Colorado. HPEC works with developers, businesses and homeowners, to promote the restoration and conservation of Colorado’s unique native biodiversity in the suburban environments where we live, work and play. www.suburbitat.org

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