Tuhaymani’chi Pal Waniqa’
The Water Flows Always
October 25, 2023
Tuhaymani’chi Pal Waniqa’ (The Water Flows Always)
For this episode of Seedcast, let’s meet in the Mojave Desert in a spot where we can gaze upon Mamápukaiv, also known as the Old Woman Mountains. We’re surrounded by boulders, mesquite, deer, bighorn sheep, and even eagles. The air smells of creosote, and when it rains, you can smell tar. Water is an extremely precious resource here, and the survival of every living thing – humans, animals, and plants – depends on it.
Almost thirty years ago, a group of Native Peoples came together to form the Native American Land Conservancy to protect not only the land their peoples are from but to revitalize their cultural wellbeing.
“With the land comes a lot of knowledge. And this knowledge is inside the rocks, it’s inside the water, it’s inside the plants,” explains Sean Milanovich, a member of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Southern California, a PhD, and the Vice President of Native American Land Conservancy.
Right now, Native American Land Conservancy is fighting a big corporation threatening their lands, their water, and their traditional ways of life. In this episode, Sean shares about Native American Land Conservancy’s work to buy back land, to protect the water, and to engage people like you to help them in their work to heal our shared planet through interviews with Sean and audio from the Wayfinders Circle film about Native American Land Conservancy, “Tuhaymani’chi Pal Waniqa (The Water Flows Always)”, directed by Nils Cowan and Gina Milanovich (Cahuilla, Cupeño.)
We’re grateful for the collaboration on this story with Sean Milanovich and Native American Land Conservancy, which is part of the Wayfinders Circle. Wayfinders Circle is a global network of Indigenous Peoples from around the world who work to strengthen self-determination in managing their lands and territories and maintain the cultural and spiritual continuity through intergenerational transmissions. It is a joint effort convened by the Pawanka Fund, World Union of Indigenous Spiritual Practitioners, and Nia Tero.
Special thanks also to Nia Tero Wayfinders Circle collaborators Mariana López, Marianna Olinger, Michael Painter, and David Rothschild.
Host: and Producer: Jessica Ramirez. Story Editor: Nils Cowan. Audio Mix: Jenny Asarnow.
[We hear the rhythmic sound of a shaker rattling, and then Sean Milanovich and Michael Madrigal begin singing a Cahuilla song together]
[00:00:18] Jessica Ramirez: Today we are bringing you a story about water in the most unlikely place, the Mojave Desert.
[the sound of the shaker intensifies, and fades in the background]
[Seedcast theme music begins, and plays softly in the background]
It’s located in the southwestern region of the United States, and spans four states: California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. As one could imagine, water is a precious resource in the desert and the survival of humans, animals, and plants depends on it. And as we’ve heard the rallying cries of “water is life” on so many Indigenous lands, Indigenous and Native Peoples continue to fight for the preservation of resources that are vital to a healthy planet.
[Seedcast theme music, “Rooted” by Mia Kami] Like the wind we still move. Like the waves we rise high. Like the sun we never die. We will stay standing. Hear our calling. We are rooted to the ground, we’re here to stay. No staying quiet. We stand united. We are rooted to the ground, can’t tear us down. We’re here to stay.…
[we hear Sean speaking in Cahuilla, and sounds of water]
[00:01:57] Sean Milanovich: We need to take care of the water and sing to the water, feed the water, clean the water and use it sparingly and remember, we’re not the only ones that need the water. We have all of our relatives out there—the plants and the animals that need that water too, and those agreements have been set in place since the sun first rose that very first morning, long, long time ago; and so there’s a relationship. And we have to find that balance.
[00:02:30] Jessica: This is Sean Milanovich. He holds a PhD, and is an author of a book that tells the story of peoples from this area. He lives in the Mojave Desert, where he took this call with me, and he knows this land and has traversed hundreds of miles of its ancient water trails. Sean works for an organization created to conserve Native lands in these parts, and its resources.
[00:02:54] Sean: [Introduction in Cahuilla] So my name is Sean Milanovich, and I’m a member of the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in Southern California, and… [sighs] I feel real connected with the landscape, with the water, with all the cultural resources that Creator gave us. I’m also Vice President for the Native American Land Conservancy.
[melodic jazz music begins and plays in the background]
[00:03:38] Jessica: The Native American Land Conservancy is an Indigenous-led nonprofit created as a resource for a group of Native tribes in the Mojave Desert who were invested in working together to manage land acquisitions. That means they were buying land together. It all started in 1997, when a parcel of land came up for sale and was sacred to the Chemehuevi people, and the tribe Sean belongs to.
[jazz music continues]
The Chemehuevi called this land the Old Woman Mountains, and even though they are among the original inhabitants and owners, they were approached to buy it. You may have heard the saying, “Land Back”, where Indigenous Peoples are demanding for the land that was stolen from them to be returned. In the case of the Chemehuevi, they had to buy back their land. So they did, but it wasn’t easy, and found being in coalition with other regional tribes like the Cahuilla people helpful in showing up as a united front.
[00:04:39] Sean: Our first parcel of land was acquired in the Old Woman Mountains, and there’s 2,600 acres of land. And when you go out there, you can see all the way into Mexico.
[we hear the sound of the roaring desert wind]
You can see for well over a hundred miles. And you have the mountains right behind you, but like, when you’re looking north, northeast, and south, that’s where you just have the panoramic view.
[the sound of the wind continues in the background]
We have these rocks that dot the landscape. And these boulders, some of them are the size of a house. And these were boulders that were created by magma underneath the ground, and they’re now exposed and on the surface. But in and around these boulders, there’s places where Indigenous families from in the past kept their knowledge on the rocks. They wrote down the stories. They wrote down songs, and the things that were important to them.
[we hear the sounds of different birds calling, playing in the background]
And there’s mesquite, the plant that has these yellow pods on it that come out in June and August, and it’s the main staple for the Chemehuevi and for the Cahuilla people. There’s deer out there. There’s bighorn sheep. We have owls, out there. This is all desert tortoise habitat. We have lots of quail that go out there, and the eagles come by, they make their nest in the area.
[we hear the sound of rain falling, and the rain and bird song continues playing in the background]
And this area—you can smell it—the creosote kind of smells like a tar, so when the rain comes, you have this aroma of tar in the air, and it’s the desert smell that you just learn to appreciate and to love. The air is really warm out there, and still. But sometimes during the summer, we can get some monsoons out there and it’ll rain really, really hard and all that rain just goes down the canyon.
[we hear soft rolling thunder and rain with the sound of birds chirping continue, fading out slowly in the background]
[00:07:15] Jessica: The Native American Land Conservancy is doing some vital work—healing work—for the native plants and animals and its original caretakers. The Native American Land Conservancy was created so that no one tribe would be pit against the other to acquire land, and they work with other Native land conservancies and public and government agencies; all in the hopes of not only continuing to acquire land, but protecting it too.
[00:07:43] Sean: The Native American Land Conservancy was started in hopes of managing not only that parcel of land, but other future parcels of land that are considered sacred or delicate. Maybe they need restoration, or maybe they’re going to come up for development, and we can stop the development on it by acquiring it. But the idea was to protect the land in perpetuity. And we want to save it for all the future generations.
With the land comes a lot of knowledge. And this knowledge is inside the rocks, it’s inside the water, it’s inside the plants. There’s also the traditional language of the Cahuilla, Chemehuevi people that’s embedded on the landscape, that’s embedded in those plants, in those prayer sites. But just getting the people out on the land – for so many, they haven’t been able to do that. And so by making that connection, it starts that healing process of their spirit. And that spirit continually grows each time the people come out.
You know, one piece of property involves many different tribal people. All the tribal people can come together as one family and share that piece where it’s not giving one family a greater responsibility of managing it, but they all have a shared responsibility to take care of it, and it helps to promote wellness, and good health, and collaboration.
[00:09:27] Jessica: Because of the work of the Native American Land Conservancy, the Old Woman Mountains is a thriving environment where for generations, the Natives who didn’t have access to it or even know about it, now do. For the Chemehuevi and the Cahuilla people, having access to their land has been a spiritual and cultural awakening. And as Sean describes, there is so much the eyes can see, and so much more that is felt—the presence of ancestors in the environment, and the stories it carries.
[we hear the lush sounds of a full canopy of different kinds of birds calling together at once continuing in the background]
I don’t know about you, but when I think of deserts, I don’t first think of plants, animals, or even water—but what Sean is describing is an entire ecosystem that is thriving because of a vast water resource that can’t be seen, because out in the Mojave Desert is an aquifer. It’s essentially water that lies underneath the ground, but this aquifer located in the Mojave Desert is ancient, and it’s deep. Way deep. It provides year-round water to all the animals and plants, like those bighorn sheep and mesquite. NALC has been working to protect this ancient aquifer from a corporation called Cadiz, Inc.
[Roaring desert wind fades in and plays in the background]
Resource extraction on lands where Indigenous Peoples live, and used to live, is a tool government institutions and corporations use to profit on what is not theirs. And the way it happens is bolder and more public than ever.
I’m wondering if you’ve seen those really powerful pictures of illegal mining in the Amazon forest. In these images, the forests are decimated. There are almost no trees left, and the land is covered in thick, rust-colored mud. Yeah, that’s what it looks like. And even if the extraction is not on Indigenous land, the adjacent resource extraction can dramatically hurt the biodiversity, creating lasting damage on the cultural, environmental, and spiritual well-being of the peoples whose rights are just not being respected.
[introspective melodic piano music begins and plays in the background]
The Native American Land Conservancy knows this story all too well. Back in the 1980s, Cadiz, Inc. bought the land where that ancient aquifer lies. According to their website, they have drilled to the depths of that aquifer. Their business plan? To sell the water for a profit to large California cities like Los Angeles, and transport it through an existing gas and oil pipeline. Their claim is this aquifer is a new groundwater resource that is creating an innovative and sustainable future. But the Native American Land Conservancy recently joined a lawsuit which succeeded in pausing Cadiz Inc.’s plan, because for the Native American Land Conservancy, this plan doesn’t take care of the land, its biodiversity, nor the spiritual well being of its original caretakers.
[00:13:20] Sean: In the Western point of view, water is a commodity. We need to respect the water. We need to learn to live sustainably with the resources that we have. That water that’s inside the aquifer is extremely ancient and old—thousands and thousands of years old—and the water is so ancient, we look at that water as one of our elders, and we need to take care of that elder. We don’t want to beat the elder up and just keep taking from the elder. But we want to nurture it, take care of it. And so when it is ready to share with us, then we can use whatever knowledge is shared, but to just extract that to send off to other areas that are wanting water is the wrong way. We need to teach the people about the land, about the water, how to live sustainably using the Indigenous perspective.
[00:14:32] Jessica: The Indigenous perspective—it’s respect for the land that takes care of us as we take care of it.
[the sounds of birds fades in and plays in the background]
For many Indigenous Peoples, this is called reciprocity. And it wouldn’t be within the values of so many Indigenous Peoples to take all of a resource for us humans and leave nothing for the plants, for the animals, nor for the people who come after.
So I asked Sean, what can people do to support Native communities here in the Mojave Desert, where this ancient aquifer lies?
[00:15:08] Sean: That’s a really good question… [long, thoughtful pause]
We need support. We need to create allies. We need to work with one another.
One thing that the Native American Land Conservancy has done just recently, we’ve produced a short documentary. It’s called, “Tuhaymani’chi Pal Waniqa (The Water Flows Always)”, and if we take care of the water, the water’s gonna take care of us.
[we hear the sound of rain falling softly, and birds chirping]
So, yes, there is that reciprocal relationship. We’re all stewards of the land. We all need to protect all of our resources, and find that balance. But I would suggest that the people reach out to the Native American Land Conservancy. We want to form relationships. We’d like to talk to communities, scholars, to government agencies, to schools, and start teaching this knowledge on how to care for the land that feeds us, that nurtures us, that gives us water so the land can take care of us. We need to work collaboratively together.
The Native American Land Conservancy feels that this perspective on how we care for the land using the traditional ecological knowledge will help us protect and preserve the land for future generations. But you have all those stories inside those places. All those stories about how the people came to the land, the medicine that came up through the springs, all the people that have been there.
[the sound of rain and birds continues, and we hear the sound of soft, rolling thunder]
[00:17:23] Sean: Someone much more powerful than us created the land and put it here. We learned that some of those waterways that we see out there, some of those springs are portals to the spirit world, the underground spiritual highway, and this is where all the ancestors from the physical world and the spirit world travel through that portal right there, and you just can’t just go and enter it. I mean, you could, but you might not go anywhere. But that’s what these places are, those portals are all over the desert. So that’s why it’s important to spend time out there and learn from the land, and it’ll talk to you and teach you. But just go out there to the land and sit there, and breathe.
[the rhythmic sound of a shaker and Sean and Michael singing the Cahuilla song begins to fade in and play in the background]
Breathe in the smell of those spring flowers, breathe in the smell of that flowing water, put your feet in the water, touch it. Put that water on your back, on your eyes, and slow your breathing down. Our heartbeat, our breath, it just breathes so fast, but when we touch that water, that water helps us realign, and it slows down our heartbeat so we can access that spiritual door.
[Sean and Michael continue singing together along with the rhythm of the shaker until they reach the end of the song]
[Seedcast theme music begins in the background]
[00:19:46] Jessica: Thank you to Sean Milanovich for sharing this story. And to learn more about the Native American Land Conservancy work to protect the ancient aquifer in the Mojave Desert, visit www.saveoursprings.org.
The song featured at the beginning and end of this episode is an ancient Cahuilla Bird Song describing the movement of the people on their migration across the land, valleys, mountains, coasts, deserts, and forests. It was sung by Sean Milanovich and Michael Madrigal, recorded in August 2022 at Morongo Springs, located in the Mojave Desert.
The Native American Land Conservancy is part of the Wayfinder Circle. It’s a joint effort convened by the Pawanka Fund, World Union of Indigenous Spiritual Practitioners, and Nia Tero. It brings together Indigenous communities from around the world with the goal of inspiring all people to reimagine development, conservation, and the way we relate to each other and Mother Earth. Learn more by visiting www.wayfindercircle.org. The film Sean talks about, “The Water Flows Always”, premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival earlier this year.
This episode was produced by me, Jessica Ramirez, with story editing by Nils Cowan. The audio mix is by Jenny Asarnow, featuring additional recordings by Emily Tong and Felix Blume. Thanks to our colleagues, David Rothschild, Michael Painter, and Marianna Olinger at Nia Tero for their support on this episode.
Nia Tero is a Seattle-based foundation. We are both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples with the mission to secure Indigenous guardianship for all vital ecosystems. That means we provide support to Indigenous Peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. Their practices are one of our best guides for making earth livable for generations to come. Here at Seedcast, our guests represent themselves. They don’t necessarily reflect the views of Nia Tero. We honor their lived experiences and honest perspectives. You can learn more about Seedcast, and about our work, at www.niatero.org. And don’t forget, Seedcast is now on Instagram! Visit us at @niatero_seedcast and please, please share with your friends!
The executive producer of Seedcast is Tracy Rector. The senior producer is Jenny Asarnow. Seedcast producers are Julie Keck, Stina Hamlin, and me, Jessica Ramirez. Associate producer, Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker. Fact checking by Romin Lee Johnson. Nia Tero social media by Nancy Kelsey. Transcripts by Sharon Arnold. Seedcast graphics by Cindy Chischilly. Theme song is “Rooted” by Mia Kami. I’m your host, Jessica Ramirez, and we look forward to sharing more stories with you all very soon.
Theme song “Rooted” by Mia Kami: Like the wind we still move, like the waves we rise high, like the sun we never die. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can’t tear us down. We’re here to stay…