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Endangered Colorado: Is it Too Late to Save One of Our Greatest Rivers?

What once was a majestic river is today a saline slurry, with a salt content so high it cannot be used to water even the most hardy of garden plants. What have we done?

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It was an exquisite landscape, rich in fauna and flora, with hundreds of species of birds and rare fish, and along the mudflats, melons and wild grasses that yielded great handfuls of edible fruits and seeds. But the brothers’ sojourn in the delta was not without its challenges. The river was too muddy to drink, the lagoons too brackish, and every night they had to dig to find potable water. The dense and impenetrable thickets of cachinilla made movement on land almost impossible, leaving Leopold doubtful that people had ever lived in the wetlands. “The Delta having no place names,” he wrote, “we had to devise our own as we went.”

In this Leopold was quite wrong, for the marshes and lagoons of the Colorado delta had for a thousand years been home to the Cocopah Indians, who viewed themselves as the offspring of mythical gods, twins who had emerged from beneath the primordial water to create the firmament, the earth, and every living creature. In 1540 Hernando de Alarcón encountered at the mouth of the river not hundreds but thousands of men and women, who, in their rituals, he reported, revealed a deep reverence for the sun. He described the Cocopah as tall and strong, with bodies and faces adorned in paint. The men wore loincloths, the women coverings of feathers that fell back and front from the waist. Every adult man had shell ornaments hanging from the nose and ears, and deer bones suspended from bands of cordage wrapped around the arms. They gathered in great numbers, small bands of a hundred, larger assemblies of a thousand, and in one instance, as Alarcón reported, no fewer than six thousand.

To support such populations, the Cocopah grew watermelons and pumpkins, corn, beans, and squash. From the wild they feasted on fish, wood rats, beavers, raccoons, feral dogs, and cattail pollen and tule roots. In the first months of the year, with their stores of harvested food exhausted, they travelled to the high desert to gather cactus and agave. Mesquite pods, ground with a metate, yielded flour that was made into cakes or mixed with water and consumed as a drink. Their dwellings were simple structures—round domes of reeds and brush. They slept beneath blankets of rabbit skins. They moved through the marshes in dugout canoes, carved from cottonwood, or on rafts of logs bound together by ropes made from willow bark or wild grasses.

Their most elaborate rituals occurred at death. The body of the deceased was fully adorned and then cremated, along with all possessions and memories. Shelters were burned and even footprints eradicated to ensure that the spirits of the dead abandoned all attachments and were never tempted to return to the realm of the living. The destiny of the dead was a land of plenty, not far from home—salt flats near the mouth of the river. At the funeral ceremony, the orator shaman recalled all the events in the life of the departed, as the relatives danced, moving four times around the burning pyre, wailing, sobbing, and singing the songs of death. With the body nearly consumed, the women of the family turned their backs to the flames and solemnly cut off their hair as a sign of mourning. Then, with the healing smoke of tobacco and the relief of a ritual bath, each severed all connection to the deceased, even as wood in massive amounts was added to the fire to create a light that would shine through the night and illuminate in every corner of the delta the pathways of the living.

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