Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Newe / Shoshone Elder Corbin Harney

A great teacher


THIS TIME OF YEAR OUT IN TECOPA, just over the state line from Pahrump in California, it can be subfreezing in the early hour before dawn. But over the past decade, even the most frost-bit mornings haven't stopped Corbin Harney, a traditional Newe (Western Shoshone) spiritual leader, from rising in the dark and making his way across the starlit salty mudflats to the little rise above Poo Ha Ba -- his traditional healing center at one of the natural hot springs in the valley -- to prepare the sunrise ceremony.

Even on the days before he moved to Tecopa, or when he has been away -- say, at the Nevada Test Site to lead a nonviolent protest, or in Geneva with a message for the United Nations, or at the Soviet Union's nuclear test site in Kazakhstan -- he has risen in blackness to sing up the sun and welcome the spinning new day. Each time, the people with him -- often activists -- link hands and, facing in, shuffle around a little fire while Harney beats a drum and sings in Newe, his first language. He sings a song for the water, asking it for help; for the rock, the mountain, the bear, the eagle and everyone else.

And so would begin a new day to save the world. In Nevada, this means trying to shut down the Nevada Test Site and prevent a nuclear waste dump from invading Yucca Mountain. Or, lately, to stop that Divine Strake business which, while non-nuclear in origin, critics say could kick up a mushroom cloud of radioactive dirt from past nuclear bomb tests.

But these days, it's a little uncertain as to how long the earth will keep spinning awake the Corbin Harney way. He's sick -- diagnosed this past summer with prostate cancer, which has metastasized into his bones. Some people think the 87-year-old healer might not make it through this year. To add to the misery, Poo Ha Bah was recently dropped by the belt-tightening foundation that has funded it for years. So friends are trying to drum up cash to keep the lights and heat on in Harney's rustic home and help pay for his medical care. In e-mail pleas that have shot around the globe since late last year, Harney's friends write: "Immediate needs also include the installation of a hot shower in Corbin's trailer and an emergency generator so that he will not be in the freezing cold and dark when the electricity fails."

This isn't just any old man suffering in the cold and dark. To many activists, Corbin Harney is the guy who, as friend Reinard Knutsen says, "was really the person who pulled together the indigenous rights activists and the anti-nuclear activists." Knutsen was volunteer coordinator of the Shundahai Network, Harney's nonprofit anti-nuclear organization, for nearly a decade, and now runs its website and newsletter.

Adds another long-time friend and personal assistant, Julia Moon Sparrow, "Corbin inspired thousands of people, native and non-native, to take action in a peaceful and nonviolent way. He would tell people at gatherings, 'Each one of you has power. Each one of you is like a drop of water. If we unite ourselves together we can become a mighty wave.'"

Moon Sparrow met Harney in 1992 at the Nevada Test Site. He immediately enlisted Moon Sparrow and her boyfriend at the time to help him. He asked them to go to Washington, D.C., to be watchdogs and advocates for the Newe, on whose traditional land the test site sits. They did, and spent four years there. In 1994, they helped found Shundahai, which in Newe means "peace and harmony with all creation."

"We dedicated years of our lives volunteering for Corbin," says Moon Sparrow. "I spent my family inheritance, my own money, working for him. There's a spiritual power around Corbin that makes things fall into place magically." Knutsen calls it a "personal charisma." Friends note that even now, sick, Harney is still happy to meet people and make them laugh with his jokes. (CityLife could not, however, reach him by press time for this story - too many visitors this weekend out at Poo Ha Bah vied for his attention.)

Corbin is a rarity. As a child he was forced to go to the Stewart Indian School in Carson City. He ran away several times and ended up living alone in the hills with his horses when he was just 9. Somewhere along the way he dug back into his roots. He's been an anti-nuclear activist for decades. He's comforted Downwinders -- people sickened by fallout from above-ground nuclear tests. He's been on PBS' Circle of Stories. He's been in independent films. He's written two books -- they are meditations on birds, bears, rocks, water and protecting nature to sustain all life; to read them is to circle around his morning fire. Now, people are writing messages -- from Finland, Iceland, Germany and closer to home -- to a website Shundahai set up for him:

"I can picture the first time you led us all through the fence at dawn to set up the tipi and occupy the NTS," writes Ellen Murphy; "You ... helped me to see that beyond the politics and power that rules and runs roughshod over the land and water of our beloved Great Basin, there is a loving and even more powerful spirit connecting all of us to each other, and to the land," writes Bob Fulkerson, director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada; and, a bracing report from Craig Stehr: "Hey Corbin, Just lettin' ya know that we had a well attended Green Scare Awareness and Political Prisoners Fundraiser ... last night in San Francisco ... five hardcore bands, plus speakers. The Native American band 'Chest Full of Arrows' did a drum and chant punk-blessing to begin the evening! Love from the 'no compromise' crowd in the SF bay area. We are ALWAYS with you."

But when he isn't with us, what then? His friends say the work will go on. One said Harney has even acknowledged another spiritual person in the Western Shoshone tribe, Chet Stevens, as "a gifted person who needs to be respected and listened to." But that is all they'll say about it, for now.

So, yes, the sun will rise. In the meantime, Harney's still with us. Another activist, "Bear" -- member of the band Clan Dyken, which raises money to deliver food and assistance to indigenous elders on Black Mesa in Arizona -- visited Harney at Poo Ha Bah in August. In a report to his online "Beauty Way" community, he wrote: "At about four thirty a.m. I was sitting on a rock by the parking lot putting on my boots when I heard the door to the little trailer open. [Harney] didn't seem to know I was watching from the darkness as he muttered something to himself, making his way down the steps. Pushing his walker, he clump clumped his way to the Subaru, got in and drove up to the area where he performs Sunrise Ceremony. Soon there was a small but cheerful fire burning and the steady heartbeat of his drum announced that he had once again made ready to greet the sun."

For more info, check out And, in case you're wondering, the public comment period on the federal Defense Threat Reduction Agency's draft Revised Environmental Assessment on Divine Strake ends Feb. 7.

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