This piece was written for Joan Haran’s “Imaginactivism” event at the Science and Justice Research Center in 2017. See below for author’s notes.
“Come along, everyone!”
The teacher’s voice startled my eyes open. Now I heard the sounds of the children, pouring into the visitor center. I sighed. I’d been hoping for some peace while I waited for Ellen, but there was no use in getting irritated. It was too windy outside, this high on the mountain, to wait out there. And I agreed that it was important to bring the kids to this place and teach them about it. They were just so… loud.
I listened idly as a ranger tried to get the kids’ attention. “Now, everyone! Can you tell me the name of this mountain?”
A chorus of young voices (fifth grade, I guessed?) shouted out cacophanously, “Tuyshtak!”
“Very good! Now… raise your hand if you know another name for it.” A few obedient hands shot up. I raised my eyebrows. The name change had happened decades before I’d been born. I was surprised that any kids this young would know it.
The ranger called on one little girl near the front, her dark eyes very serious. “Mount Diablo,” she said quietly.
He smiled at her. “That’s right. Back when the mountain was called Diablo, this building was at the very top! That’s 1,173 meters above sea level! Here, we’re at 914 meters above sea level.” He crouched down and said conspiratorially to the kids, “Do you know that they moved this whole building, rock by rock?”
“Whoa,” some of the kids breathed. One hand shot up. It was the serious little girl again.
“Yes?” asked the ranger. She pushed her kinky black hair back. “Well…” she said, “Why did they move a whole building?”
The ranger smiled at her and said, “That’s a very good question. Who knows who was here on the mountain before us?” More hands. I smiled. I remembered when a ranger asked my fifth grade class questions just like this. Of course, I’d been there with Ellen. I knew she was the answer to the question, and that had made me feel very special, to be her friend. I still felt special to be her friend, though the reasons ran deeper now than they had when we were eleven.
I watched as answers emerged like “Ohlone,” “Explorers,” “Muwekma,” “Miwok,” and so on. There were a few more creative answers, like “Aliens!” and the serious little girl said, “Bears.”
The ranger laughed and said, “That’s right. This place has a long history. The native people here viewed the summit, the very top of the mountain, as a very special place. Then when the explorers came, they put a marker at the top so they could measure things from that point.”
He’d conflated explorers and surveyors, but it was fine for little kids. And that survey marker was still there. The coalition had determined to leave it when they were moving the building, so that there was some memory of what had been done to the mountain.
The ranger went on: “And then they built this building on the summit, so that people could go up to the top of the mountain to learn all about it. But then it was decided that the summit should be returned to the native people to take care of, and that’s how we came up with the idea to move the whole building down here.”
The kids were getting a little antsy, but fortunately that was when Ellen came in the door. I straightened unconsciously, feeling the usual flood of warmth I got whenever I saw her. I watched as she reached up and tapped behind her ear to switch off her e-link. One downside to Ellen was that she was always preoccupied with her technology. But today she would have to stay unplugged all day; I wondered how she’d do.
She came over and hugged me. I pointed and said, “The cultural officer is in there. I’ll wait outside?” Because she was Muwekma, she only had to show her tribal identification to verify her access. It would be faster than it had been for me; I’d had to sign a number of different forms and hand-write a statement about my reasons for wanting access.
She nodded. “Sure. See you out there!” I watched her go to the back office, and then walked around the boisterous fifth graders. They were just starting to do coyote imitations as I shoved on the front door to go outside.
As I emerged, I felt a huge gust of wind. I looked up at the ridge above me. We were about to go up there, to the summit. We’d been given permission to seek wisdom from the mountain. Waiting, I felt a strange sense that something was watching me. Or… not watching. More like something could see my soul. A comforting-strange supernatural feeling settled over me.
Ellen walked out of the visitor’s center. I noticed her surreptitiously tap her e-link, get distracted for a moment, and then tap it again to turn it off. Constantly-connected Ellen… would she be able to let go into this experience? Would she miss the opportunity to connect with this place, with her heritage? Who was I, though, to judge — I wasn’t even native, myself. But as she walked up to me, I was reminded of how much I loved her, how long we’d known each other. Maybe I could help her in some way.
We set off.
Author’s note: I grew up in Walnut Creek, with Mount Diablo as a central point in my life. When we were given the prompt to re-imagine the past, present, or future of a place that is particularly meaningful to us, I thought immediately of the peak I’ve looked at my whole life and visited at important times. I wanted to imagine a future for it in which equity and reverence are better integrated in how we as a collective culture relate to it. I struggled with how exactly I wanted to voice this short piece, and settled on a first-person strategy to allow at least some readers to directly inhabit the narrator’s point of view. I also tried to capture my own feelings of conflict regarding how to be an ally to native peoples when I am not myself native, and the tension between technology and authenticity in the contemporary world and in my work — where I strive to support Indigenous and local peoples’ knowledge but also make use of technological tools to do so.
Also note that at the time I wrote this, the Muwekma Ohlone tribe was still seeking Federal recognition after having effectively lost it through a negligent clerical error in 1906.