Instead, I looked in another direction and discovered that the Yakama people once occupied 17,000 square miles and had three distinct language stocks. So, even back then one tongue was insufficient to articulate the vibrations of this place, even as an open desert. To try relating the qualities of a simple thing, a pane of hundred-year-old glass, perhaps; the interaction of clouds and sun, alkali and volcanic ash is far more complex. You start by learning the names of flora and fauna. Watch, listen, wait. I open a window and consider the current research, which places the first people here about 14,000 years before my arrival. These nomads made tools from bone and mineral. Hunted large and small game. Fished salmon. Collected river mussels. Gathered wild food plants. Given a guide and sufficient time, maybe I could learn to do these things. (Don’t look at me, Kokopelli shrugs. I’m not from around here.) Maybe I shouldn’t feel so strange about being here, either, even though such long perspective makes me feel incredibly insignificant. The Anglo civilization embodied here is only veneer concealing much deeper systems. The ancient climate was cooler and moister. The land was dotted by many lakes and small streams. Grasslands scattered with pine stands and willow flourished where there’s only sagebrush now. Food sources included bison, antelope, deer, foxes, muskrats, rabbits, ducks and geese (their eggs, too), and turtles.
I want to leap through time to join them, dressing the hides of their game, or making rattles and tools. These people used red and yellow pigments, and valued birds for their feathers as well as their flesh — cormorants, geese, condors, turkey vultures, and eagles all had clothing functions. Maybe I need some ceremonial garb. (Come, now! Kokopelli is hooting with laughter. He loves to taunt and mock me.) Tiny bone needles were used as far back as 10,000 years. I have enough trouble with steel needles today. So what do I make of their earliest burials, cremations that send the body back into spirit?
It’s obvious my own difficulties won’t end overnight.
This is a time of sparrows.
For more insights from the American Far West and Kokopelli, click here.