OCOTILLO — Jenica Szirmay attended the all-night wake held here by Native Americans this weekend with an open mind.
“I’m here to learn,” said Szirmay, an archaeological conservator at the Imperial Valley Desert Museum who is hoping to build a relationship with the tribes.
“We want to work with Native Americans,” she said while noting that some tension exists since the museum’s lab received money from Pattern Energy, the company building 112 wind turbines on what Native Americans deem sacred ground.
Szirmay was one of dozens of non-natives present at the all night mourning ceremony hosted by the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians.
The wake went from dusk Saturday until dawn Sunday just a few miles away from Pattern Energy’s construction sites.
Native American tribes say they oppose the project because archaeological and cultural resources like cremation sites and praying circles found in the area. Tribes also sustain that mitigation efforts are insufficient, and as Viejas Chairman Anthony Pico said Saturday, the tribes are pushing the government and Pattern Energy to give the construction site “significant consideration.”
Kumeyaay tribes like the Manzanita, Campo and Sycuan attended the wake, “and we got the Quechan and some of the Cocopah,” said Charlie Brown, Viejas community relations director who estimated there were about 250 people including natives and non-natives.
“It’s very rare to have non-natives” witness a wake ceremony, said Brown. “It (ceremony) means a lot to us,” he said, so these events are usually not publicized though they have been happening here for millennia.
When asked about why non-natives were allowed to attend this time, Brown responded that tribes wanted to “let people see a ceremony and share that we do care.”
“Our people are still here,” he said.
And it is the spirituality of the event, that although the ceremony was open to the public, all visual and audio recording were banned, Brown explained.
“It’s tough to let people copy our music or take pictures,” Brown said and added “the spirits are here and it means a lot to us to be here with them.”
Meanwhile, bird songs were being sung inside a makeshift structure made of wood and branches in the middle of the desert.
Some 26 males, many dressed in Native American attires, were lined up on one side playing rattle instruments and singing across a line of women who danced by gently marching on the spot.
The songs talk about the mountains and the animals and how Native Americans lived in this area, Brown said. And with these songs, he said, Native Americans are mourning the desecration of the sites.
El Centro resident Jorge Zambada was one of the many attendees watching the ceremony.
“These events are excellent,” Zambada said. “This is sacred land that should be respected.”
Many like Zambada spent the night in the desert just like the tribes did; but others, like Ocotillo resident Ima Jean Walker gave their support and left later in the night.
The project is built on sacred land, there are no energy benefits for the locals and the visual aesthetics are permanently affected, she said.
Walker, whose house is located within a mile of the project, said she “is absolutely against” the project and is convinced the town will be negatively affected.
However, she acknowledges the town “is pretty much divided” on the issue.
The divide comes from the millions in revenue and the jobs expected to come with this project.
These two factors are also why the county, the federal government and particularly urban residents back the project.
Still, for residents like Walker, the value of the land goes beyond revenue.
“I wouldn’t want anyone digging my cemetery to put turbines,” she said.