On Dr. Clifford Trafzer’s A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe by Ruth Nolan

The story of Willie Boy, a love struck young Southern Paiute-Chemehuevi man who murdered for love and eluded the San Bernardino sheriff’s posse for days, is a true and timeless and living story, one that’s colored the storied inland southern California landscape where it occurred in late Sept.- early Oct, 1909.

It’s a tragic story of young, forbidden love that reaches “Romeo and Juliet” proportions and whose tellings and re-tellings in the decades since—through books, articles, theater productions, and film, told largely by Anglos—have continued to evolve across the cultural and geographic divides that comprise the Inland Empire and Mojave Desert as well as the Anglo-European worlds of the early 20th century and the ancient culture of our region’s Native Americans.

Now, a compelling and exciting new book about the Willie Boy incident, “A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe,” published this year by Indigenous Confluences Press, has risen on the horizon, written collaboratively by Dr. Clifford Trafzer, distinguished history professor at UCR who was appointed Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian History in 2007, along with members of the 29 Palms Band of Mission Indians in eastern Riverside county, who are descendants of the family members involved in the Willie Boy incident.

“The Willie Boy incident in 1909, which played out across the national media, was a watershed event in the history of the members of the Southern Paiute-Chemehuevi tribe who lived at Oasis of Mara (now 29 Palms Oasis) at the time,” says Trafzer, who presented a lecture at the UCR-Palm Desert campus this past October 5, to discuss his new book. “A Chemehuevi Song” is, he says, a song in itself, a song which began for him when he came to participate in tribal activities with members from the 29 Palms Band of Mission Indians in 1997, and has continued to emerge as he’s worked with tribal members to this day.

The book, while giving Native accounts of the heretofore highly disputed story of Willie Boy—especially the claim made by the San Bernardino sheriff’s posse in 1909 about Willie—also sheds light on how the incident forever and radically changed the lives of the extended family members and other Chemehuevi living at 29 Palms in 1909, as well as shaping the lives of their descendants to this day. In fact, the Oct 5 lecture was attended by many members of the 29 Palms Band of Mission Indians who worked with Trafzer to complete their book and who also spoke at the lecture, including elder Joe Mike Benitez, Dean Mike, and Jennifer Mike.

More than anything, according to Trafzer and Chemehuevi contributors, “A Chemehuevi Song” stands as a testament to the power of perseverance of this small, nomadic band of Native people, who have been largely marginalized by European settlers, other Native groups, and until now, their stories have been largely overlooked. The book reveals how members of this Southern Paiute band have survived the past two centuries without rights to their Mojave Desert homeland, or any self-governing rights, and in fact were largely “forgotten” until the creation of the 29 Palms Reservation in 1974. Since then, the tribe has formed its own tribal government and now a thriving gaming industry.

Trafzer worked with the Chemehuevi for more than 10 years, gathering stories from the tribe and other Chemehuevi across the Mojave that demonstrate how they’ve survived using sacred songs and other cultural practices to persevere with strength and independence, in spite of great odds, including the tragic and family-shattering Willie Boy incident.

By focusing on individual and family stories, “Chemehuevi Song” offers a new structure for how tribal histories can be presented and shared, and also, critically, offers firsthand indigenous accounts of the events surrounding the Willie Boy tragedy as well as how this crucial event has impacted tribal lives, even to this day, and strong evidence presented by the tribe as well as by other historians and other Native leaders in recent years has presented strong evidence that Willie Boy got away, escaping the posse not through suicide but on foot, and lived for many years afterwards in remote parts of the desert.

“A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe,” is a compelling and necessary read for all who are interested in Inland Empire/desert regional literature, as well as those with an interest in our region’s American Indian history and cultures and their emerging, strong voice in shaping the literature here. For this powerful new publication brings together a chorus of voices, present and past, to tell the story of the tribe’s persistent efforts to gain recognition, independence, and also to tell their own stories of their history and landmark cultural events.

This is more than a book. This is a song, comprised of many voices, a song that rings out powerfully as it’s sung across the land.

Home of the Scorpions – Notes from the Gateway to Death Valley by Ruth Nolan

The first thing I notice when I arrive at the two-room Mojave Cabin on a cold, sunny early January afternoon in tiny, remote Shoshone—a Mojave Desert town 3 hours north of the Inland Empire—is the huge scorpion mounted on the wall next to the front door…..

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It’s a wire scorpion, crafted simply, and in a flash quick as a scorpion’s sting, I know I’m where I need to be. I’m now officially the Writer in Residence for the month of January, 2015 this one café, one gas station town which proudly calls itself the Gateway to Death Valley. And, of course, the mascot of the small, K-12 Death Valley Public School, is the scorpion!

And why does this all matter? It matters greatly to me, because I’m about to write, and hopefully finish, the first draft of a book which takes place largely in the Mojave Desert. I’m here to dig in and find the quiet, space, and scenic inspiration to make major headway writing my memoir about my years fighting wildland fires for the Bureau of Land Management’s California Desert District during the late 1980’s, when I was an undergraduate at California State University, San Bernardino.

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I’ve left the comforts of life in urbanized Palm Desert far behind; land of a new Whole Foods gourmet grocery store and a huge Apple store where I can go for all of my iPhone and MacBook Air needs.

After I quickly settled in, I stepped outside to inhale the crisp air and austere sunset. The scorpion seemed to humor me, as I’ve quickly discovered that there’s neither cell phone nor internet service here. There’s no landline phone in my room, either.

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I’m on my own, with a palette of January days stretching ahead of me, waiting for a flash flood of words to spill onto the page, and hopefully while I’m here, page after page will capture the magic and hardships and transformational journeys I took across the storied Mojave landscape in my younger years, working on fire after fire in some of the remotest geographies in the world, which happen to be in the backyard of the sedate Inland Empire and Coachella Valley.

In the year 2015, it’s easy to be seduced by the easy and ubiquitous conveniences and reliance on internet technology, and it seems a little harder each year for me to climb my way back out into the remote Mojave Desert wildlands I grew up in, lived in for most of my adult life, and know so well, like the inside of my soul.

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In fact, I’d argue that the Mojave Desert is part of my soul, a part that never lets me rest, and compels me to a place like this, to slip like a Mojave Green rattlesnake out of the creatively restrictive skin that living in urban environments encases me in, so that I can write the way I really need to write. Here, I can’t spend hours watching Netflix, or checking Facebook, or scrolling through my twitter feed for the latest, repetitive headlines, or playing around on my new iPhone 6. Nope. Here, the rattlesnakes and scorpions and raw cut desert views of mountain and alluvial fan will dominate my view, and demand the attention they deserve.

In fact, I’m writing this in the old west Crowbar Café, the only place open tonight, and I’ve just helped a young, frightened tourist from Brazil, who drove from Las Vegas and got lost in Death Valley after dark on a night where temperatures are forecast to dip far below freezing, and somehow found his way here, guided by the Crowbar’s lights.

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He said he lost his way because there was no cell phone service out here, and therefore didn’t have his map app to use. But I think there’s more to it than that. I think the Mojave Desert took over his journey, and forced him to stop, and wander, and, in the end, to really learn to see, before he finds I-15 and returns to the world of built-in answers and predictabilities. He was overjoyed when I told him that as he heads to LA tonight, following the directions I drew on a napkin while sipping turkey soup, that he’ll be able to use his mobile device sometime after he passes through Baker.

As for me, I’ll  head back into the dark desert night soon, and try to find my way back to Mojave Cabin, where I’ll sit with no phone or internet, and undoubtedly stumble and struggle to evoke, with mere words, a world I once traversed so easily, the world of the burning Mojave, where I never relied on an app to save my life, and never thought I’d be mocked by a wire scorpion daring me to write about it all.

In the dark Mojave Desert night, pen and paper in hand, and I’ll wait for the magic and mystery to settle in. I’ll wait for the smoky memories to clear, and I’ll look up to the stars, and I’ll try to find my way to write.

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Story and photos by Ruth Nolan. Copyright (c) 2015 by Ruth Nolan.

Other Desert Mothers: Ruth Nolan at Riverside Art Museum by Lisa Henry

Tonight, Friday November 7, Salt+Spice will present author, educator, and environmental activist Ruth Nolan, who will launch her latest collection of poetry, Other Desert Mothers, at the Riverside Art Museum. A wine and cheese reception will begin at 6:30pm with the reading set to begin at 7:00pm.

Ruth Nolan knows more than a few things about the desert, and about motherhood. A native of the Inland Empire and a current resident of Palm Desert, Nolan has spent countless hours hiking, camping, writing, parenting, grandparenting and firefighting in the vast, dry landscapes of California’s deserts. Her new collection of poetry, Other Desert Mothers (Old Woman Mountains Press, 2014), is a meditation on her unique desert journey. The book will be released in November and Nolan will celebrate the publication with a reading and reception at Riverside Art Museum Friday November 7 at 6:30pm.

A long-time desert dweller, Nolan has experienced adolescence, motherhood, and now grandmotherhood in and around the Mojave Desert.

“My parents moved us to a very remote area of the Mojave Desert when I was 13, from Rialto, CA.” It was a difficult transition for Nolan. She readily admits, “I was in shock at the vast contrast between the Inland Empire and desert, but instantly smitten and blown away by the beauty and power of the desert. I’ve been pinned down by the desert, both literally and metaphorically, since then.”

As single mother and a professor of English and Creative Writing at College of the Desert, both Nolan’s personal identity and professional career have been forged in the vast and surreal landscape, which she describes as “my #1 geography.” This place is “a sort of complete dreamscape, an altered state that both inspires, elates, and intimidates me. I have only to step into the desert on a hike or start a road trip across its vast, empty roads, and I feel that sense of unbroken dreamscape again.”

Nolan has fully embraced her hometown as rich and fertile ground where she can write, study and teach. An avid desert advocate and conservationist, she lectures widely on literature of the desert, and has taught desert-based writing workshops for the Desert Institute at Joshua Tree National Park. Among her many notable publications are No Place for a Puritan (Heyday Books/Inlandia, 2009), an impressive anthology highlighting the diverse literature of California’s deserts, Orangelandia: The Literature of Inland Citrus (Inlandia, 2014) and New California Writing, 2011 (Heyday).

“For me, the Mojave hasn’t been a wasteland; nor, even as it’s been discovered by artists more recently as a highly desirable location for a more refined, esoteric aesthetic. The Mojave Desert is a free-flowing experience of consciousness and geography. It’s a place of life, a place of people—however far apart, a place of sustenance and nurturing and enlightenment.”


Lisa Henry teaches at San Bernardino Valley College and is founder of Salt+Spice, a community-based arts organization.

Contributor Biographies

Cynthia Anderson is a writer and editor living in Yucca Valley, CA. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals, and she has received poetry awards from the Santa Barbara Arts Council and the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. Her collaborations with photographer Bill Dahl are published in the book, Shared Visions.

Lee Balan was the first editor and art director for Beyond Baroque Magazine in Venice, CA.  His poems and stories have been featured in several magazines including Phantom Seed, Sun-Runner, and Storylandia. He was the facilitator for the Tenderloin Writer’s Workshop in San Francisco. His background in mental health has been a major influence on his work. Lee has been the featured poet at several events and venues including the Palm Springs Art Museum.  Recently, Lee self published his first novel Alien Journal.

Nancy Scott Campbell has been a desert hiker and resident for more than twenty years.  She has been a mediator, has taught English as a second Language, is a physical therapist,  and is delighted with the workshops of the Inlandia Institute.

With their girls grown and independent, Marcyn Del Clements and her husband, Richard, have more time to pursue their favorite activities: birding, butterfly and dragonfly watching, and fly-fishing. Marcy is published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Appalachia, Eureka Literary Magazine, Flyway, frogpond, Hollins Critic, Literary Review, Lyric, Sijo West, Snowy Egret, Wind, and others.

Mike Cluff is a fulltime English and Creative Writing instructor at Norco College. He has lived steadily in the Highland and Redlands area since 1998. His eighth book of poetry “Casino Evil was published in June 2009 by Petroglyph Books.

Rachelle Cruz is from the Bay Area but currently lives and writes in Riverside, CA.  She has taught creative writing, poetry, and performance to young people in New York City, the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Riverside. She hosts “The Blood-Jet Writing Hour” Radio Show on Blog Talk Radio. She is an Emerging Voices Fellow and a Kundiman Fellow, she is working towards her first collection of poems.

Sheela Sitaram Free (“Doc Free”) was born in Mumbai, India and has spent equal halves of her life in India and in the United States. Her BA in English Literature and Language, MA in English and American Literature and Language, MA in Hindi, PhD in the Contemporary American Novel-novels of John Updike-and her twenty four years of teaching all across the United States in Universities, colleges, and community colleges reveal her lifelong passion for the power of words, especially in the context of world literature and writing. Her collection of poetry entitled “Of Fractured Clocks, Bones and Windshields was published in February 2009 and nominated for the Association of Asian American Studies as well as the Asian American Workshop awards in 2010. She has been writing for over 20 years, but it was the Inland Empire that inspired and motivated her to publish; she has simply loved being a part of it for 9 years now. It is home to her and she draws a great deal of material from it in her poetry.

Karen Greenbaum-Maya is a clinical psychologist in Claremont, California. She has been writing since she was nine. In another life, she was a German Literature major and read poetry for credit. She has placed poems and photographs in many publications, including Off the Coast, Umbrella, Abyss & Apex, qarrtsiluni, Poemeleon, Lilliput Review, In Posse Review, and Sow’s Ear Poetry Review. She was nominated for the 2010 Pushcart Prize. Her first chapbook, Eggs Satori, received an Honorable Mention in Pudding House Publications’ 2010 competition, and will be published in 2011.

Valerie Henderson is an MFA Fiction student at CSUSB. More of her work can be found in The Sand Canyon Review.

Edward Jones is a graduate of UC Riverside’s MFA program and has been published in Faultline, Crate, Mosaic, and Inlandia: A Literary Journey.

Judy Kronenfeld is the author of four poetry collections including “Ghost Nurseries,” a Finishing Line chapbook (2005) and “Light Lowering in Diminished Sevenths”, winner of the Litchfield Review Poetry Book Prize (2008). Her poems, as well as the occasional short story and personal essay have appeared in many print and online journals including Calyx, Cimarron Review, The American Poetry Journal, Fox Chase Review, The Innisfree Poetry Journal, Natural Bridge, The Hiram Poetry Review, Passager, Poetry International, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Stirring, The Women’s Review of Books, and The Pedestal, as well as in a dozen and a half anthologies or text books, including Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poems and Poetics from California (Greenhouse Review Press/Alcatraz Editions, 2008), Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease (Kent State University Press, 2009), and Love over 60: An Anthology of Women’s Poems (Mayapple Press, 2010). She is a lecturer Emerita—after twenty-five years of teaching in the Creative Writing Department at UC Riverside. Her new poetry collection, “Shimmer,” has just been accepted by WordTech Editions.

Associate Fiction Editor Ruth Nolan, a former wildland firefighter and native of San Bernardino and the Mojave Desert, teaches Creative Writing and Literature at College of the Desert in Palm Desert. She is a poet and prose writer with works forthcoming in New California Writing, 2011 (Heyday, 2011) and in Sierra Club Magazine. She is editor of No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday, 2009) and a contributor to Inlandia: A Literary Journey (Heyday, 2006) She has collaborated on two film projects, “Escape to Reality: 24 hrs @ 24 fps” with the UCR-California Museum of Photography (2008), is a writer for a film in progress, Solar Gold: the Killing of Kokopelli (2011), and represents our region’s deserts in the “Nature Dreaming: Rediscovering California’s Landscapes” public radio series sponsored by Santa Clara University and the California Council for the Humanities (2011) She lives in Palm Desert.

Cindy Rinne has lived in the Inland Empire for 29 years. She is an artist and poet. Her poetry includes nature inspiration, parts of overheard conversations, observations on walks, life events, and her response to her own artwork and the works of others.

Except for a short-lived adventure to Long Beach, CA, Heather Rinne has lived in the Inland Empire her entire life. She grew up in San Bernardino and attended college at Cal Poly Pomona where she received a BFA in 2008. She  loved and still loves exploring the art community in the downtown Arts Colony. A fire took her parents’ home, the home where her childhood memories lived, in the fall of 2003. Even with the unexpected chance to move, her parents decided to rebuild on the same lot. Back in the place where she grew up, she makes new memories. She currently works as a Graphic Designer and Photographer out of her home office and dances at a studio in Redlands. She enjoys Redlands because it has a lot of history and is only a short trip to the desert, the city, the mountains, and the ocean.

Ash Russell is an MFA candidate at CSUSB. She has been telling stories since she learned how to speak and writing since she learned to string the alphabet together. She relearns regularly that the magnitude of space is emotionally devastating.

Mae Wagner is firmly rooted in the Inland Empire area and sees Inlandia stories everywhere just waiting to be told. She says, “writing has always been a passion, but was largely relegated to the back burner while she focused on raising a family, earning a living, and going to school.” Over the years, as a longtime Inland Empire resident, she has written for a public relations firm, the Riverside Chamber of Commerce, The Chino Champion newspaper, and had several columns published in the Op-Ed page of the Press-Enterprise when it was locally owned, including a noted investigate journalism series focused on a landmark environmental case involving the Stringfellow Acid Pits in Glen Avon, just west of Riverside. She currently writes a column for her home town paper in Hettinger, North Dakota and is enjoying being a member of the Inlandia Creative Writing Workshops, which she has attended since its opening session in the summer of 2008.

As a child, Rayme Waters spent some time each year at her grandmother’s house in Rancho Mirage and watched the desert cities grow up around it. Rayme’s stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Dzanc Best of the Web and have been published most recently in The Meadowland Review and The Summerset Review.