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Tachi Yokut Tribe reconnects with Tulare Lake, restored after a wet winter

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Earlier this year, record snowpack and rains refreshed a long-dry lake in the Central Valley of California. The return of the vast Tulare Lake caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to farms and communities in the region. But for one Native American tribe, the return of the lake provides an opportunity to reconnect with the land and their ancestors. From member station KVPR, Soreath Hok has this report.

SOREATH HOK, BYLINE: On a recent afternoon, about two dozen members of the Tachi Yokut tribe gather at the shore of Tulare Lake. Water stretches as far as the eye can see.

ROBERT JEFF: And what you see behind us now is Pa'ashi has reawakened.

HOK: Robert Jeff is the vice chairman of the tribe. Pa'ashi means big water, the Tachi Yokut name for the lake.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLES SHAKING)

HOK: Tribal members play rattles, clapsticks and sing as part of a ceremony to welcome it back.

KENNY BARRIOS: (Singing in Tachi).

HOK: Kenny Barrios is the tribe's cultural liaison. He wrote the song.

BARRIOS: That song said, we need our water. Thank you for bringing our water back.

HOK: The Tachi Yokut tribe once lived on these shores. The lake provided food, plants to build shelter and was the center of a trade route for tribes in the region. But today, the 1,200 members of the Tachi Yokut live a few miles away on a reservation called the Santa Rosa Rancheria. Now the community relies on a resort and casino as their main source of revenue. One paved road leads into the reservation, surrounded by flat, dry land. At the reservation's cultural center...

SHANA POWERS: These are baskets that have been repatriated to the tribe.

HOK: Cultural director Shana Powers shows off handmade baskets the tribe used to cook and fish when they still lived by the lake. They're made out of native plants and woven with intricate designs.

POWERS: This design right here - that is the goose design.

HOK: The geese that used to flock to the lake have special significance.

POWERS: They would come down in the winter. And that was, you know, the Yokut way of looking at prosperity. You know it's going to be a fat winter - you know, everybody's going to be doing good - based upon how the geese look.

HOK: By the mid-1800s, the Tachi Yokut tribe had been severely impacted by settlers. They killed many tribe members and introduced diseases that decimated the Tachi Yokut. Eventually, they were forced from their land, and the lake ultimately disappeared after water was diverted to clear space for crops and irrigate them.

BARRIOS: (Speaking Tachi).

HOK: Back at the lake, members of the tribe scatter seeds of native river sage. Some wade in knee-deep to replant tule reeds like those that used to grow here.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

HOK: Cultural liaison Kenny Barrios looks out at the water. He believes the spirits of their ancestors have come back to the lake.

BARRIOS: They're flying around out there. They're flying over it. They're flying through it. They're coming back to it.

HOK: Returning to this shore also allows people to reconnect to a lost part of themselves, says vice chairman Robert Jeff.

JEFF: This lake - this is who we are. This is where we belong - is right here. We're lake people. Everything that we lived off of was offered to us by this lake.

HOK: Those who lost homes and crops in this most recent flood are in the thoughts of people at this ceremony, like Pearl Hutchins, who belongs to another band of Yokut.

PEARL HUTCHINS: Now they don't have a home. So I feel sorry for a lot of people that can't live where they lived before.

HOK: Forecasters expect the lake will remain for at least another year. While it's here, Tachi Yokut leaders plan to hold more ceremonies to honor the waters and their connection to it.

For NPR News, I'm Soreath Hok in Kings County.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Soreath Hok
Soreath Hok is a reporter with Valley Public Radio