‘It would come back one day.’ The Yokuts and Tulare Lake meet again
KINGS COUNTY, Calif – Robert Jeff had only heard of Tulare Lake in stories. But on a recent hot and windy afternoon, he looked out across soft ripples of water that seemed to go on forever.
He was standing on the edge of a flooded farm near Stratford, a town at the northern end of the newly-returned Tulare Lake.
Jeff is vice chairman of the Tachi Yokut Tribe – one of about 50 bands of the Yokuts people that once built their lives around Tulare Lake. The lake was known to them as “Pa’ashi” – which means "big water."
Pa’ashi was an anchor of tribal life and spiritual beliefs.
The Tachis were the largest of the tribes, and lived closest to the lake. They relied on the water as a main source for food and built shelters nearby, and traded with other Yokut tribes up and down the rivers that ran into the lake.
But that body of water dried up when it was diverted to make way for farming in the early 1900’s. After this year’s heavy rain and snow that sent water into the San Joaquin Valley, it has replenished the lake and, with it, long-lost sacred connections.
As they stood looking out to the large body of water earlier this spring, Yokuts and Pa’ashi were united again as they had for thousands of years.
“This lake is talking to us right now,” Jeff tells a crowd of about two dozen gathered near the water. “It’s up to each and every one of us to listen to what's being said.”
Some of those gathered for a ceremony came from about five miles away – from the Tachi’s home at the Santa Rosa Rancheria outside Lemoore. Other Yokuts came from farther away, like the Western Mono Indians from Fresno County.
Offering gifts to reawakened spirits
Those attending the ceremony brought native plants and seeds to spur new growth in the water. Jeff led the offering ceremony.
“We all know that [the] creator came and blessed us again with the water,” Jeff tells the crowd. “What you see behind us now is, Pa’ashi has reawakened.”
Tribe members like Kenny Barrios believe the lake’s return has invited the spirits of ancestors back to the lake.
“They're flying around out there. They're flying over it. They're flying through it. They're coming back to it,” he said.
Barrios is the tribe’s cultural liaison. He teaches the tribe’s youth about the native language and culture. He says with the lake gone for so long, Yokuts felt a deep need to honor its return.
Barrios even wrote a new water song for the ceremony. He sings acapella in his native language while playing clapstick – a traditional wooden split-stick rattle. The song gives thanks for “bringing our water back.”
The belief among Yokuts was that when the lake ever came back, it could cleanse the land.
Now that it has, tribe members and other guests walked up to the water’s edge with offerings for the lake, meant as a gift to bless its water. Some scattered seeds of native river sage.
Diamond Garcia waded knee-deep to plant tule. The reeds grew abundantly around the lake and gave Tulare Lake its name.
“We can make a whole bunch of things with these,” Garcia says, showing off the bright green reeds. “We can make a boat, we can make a tule skirt and headbands, bracelets.”
Growing up in the tribe, Daniel Ramos said he, too, always heard stories about the lake. “Our medicine man always talked about it all the time, that it would come back one day,” he said.
Ramos’ nine year old son, Hunter, played clapstick alongside the singers during the recent ceremony. The boy said seeing the lake made him proud.
“It feels good to be from the Yokut tribe. It feels good to be native,” he said.
Early disruption to way of life
The pride for Yokuts comes from their history with the lake. Barrios, the tribe’s cultural liaison, said the lakebed is at the center of the tribe’s creation stories. He said the lake gave life to everything around it, including the people. Yokuts also means “people.”
By the mid-1800’s, the Yokuts and other native tribe populations suffered from a series of California laws that crippled their way of life, including the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. It allowed for removing California Indians from their native lands and subjecting them to indentured servitude.
But Shana Powers, director at the tribe’s cultural center, said the arrival of Spanish settlers was the beginning of the end for the way of life of the native population. She said it brought forced labor and disease.
“When they brought in all their livestock, they decimated their food – not only did [the Spanish] eat their food, but they also ate the food of the animals that were here,” she said.
According to a Spanish and Mexican Land Grant report prepared by the State Lands Commission, “the Spanish plan for the colonization comprised a religious, military, and civil format.”
It began with the Spanish establishing Catholic missions to “civilize the native Indians,” according to the commission’s report. The discovery of gold in California accelerated the demise of the Yokuts. When the rush to find gold didn’t yield a return, Powers said the settlers looked to other resources from the land and the people.
“They saw this land as something to be managed, something to be conquered. And something to take, something to profit from. And that's what they did,” she said.
The 19th century brought widespread death, violence and enslavement to California's Native American population, in what’s referred to as the California Native American Genocide.
By the early 1900’s, settlers had reclaimed the land around Tulare Lake for farming. The tributaries that used to feed Tulare Lake were diverted for agriculture and the lakebed went dry.
Lake’s historic place looms over communities
After historic rains, miles and miles of now waterlogged agricultural fields sit at the bottom of the lakebed. Only telephone poles rise in the distance.
The latest forecasts show flooding expected from the record-breaking Sierra Nevada snowpack will have reached its peak by early June. It’s good news for communities like Corcoran, which were threatened by the growing flooding.
But the news has brought little relief at the same time to farmers in the region. Kings County and Tulare County are at the center of the lakebed and both counties have experienced nearly $300 million in flood damages to crops and dairies.
On top of that, the lake water is contaminated with waste from farms. That includes animal waste, fertilizers and pathogens from the soil.
Pearl Hutchins attended the ceremony from the Big Sandy Rancheria of the Western Mono Indians. She said she feels bad for the farmers and other people who’ve had to move.
We know that this lake is alive. We know that this lake needs movement. We know that this lake needs to clean the land.Robert Jeff, Tachi Yokut Tribe vice chairman
“That was their home and now they don't have a home. And so I feel sorry for a lot of people that can’t live where they lived before,” she said.
Tachi Yokuts moved to the Santa Rosa Rancheria, about five miles away near Lemoore, after they, too, lost their historical home along the lake.
Today, the Tachi Yokut is a federally-recognized tribe. The sovereign nation has about 1,200 members who live on the reservation.
The tribe benefits financially from the Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino, which brings in revenue and employs hundreds of people.
But the lake is still a source of the tribe’s cultural riches and many tribe members said they hope it will stay. Ramos said that’s largely up to the water’s – or Pa’ashi’s – movement.
Ramos said how long the lake wants to stay depends on the water itself -- the state has faced drought and farmers may soon want their farms back. But Pa'ashi, Ramos said, will run its course as it continues to loom over this part of California.
“You know, if it wants to be here, it's up to the lake to see how long it wants to be here for the people,” he said.
The lake water is expected to remain in place for at least another year. While it’s around, tribe leaders plan to hold larger events near the lake, such as a traditional sweat lodge ceremony.
Jeff, the tribal vice chairman, said no matter how long the lake stays, the tribe will have an ongoing celebration of its life while it’s here.
“A lot of people don't think that this water is a living being. But us as native people, we know,” Jeff said. “We know that this lake is alive. We know that this lake needs movement. We know that this lake needs to clean the land.”