In time of drought, turning to Native traditions to plead for rain

SAN JUAN BAUTISTA, Calif. — The woman in line at the bank said she had already sold all her cattle and was now selling her land.

It was one too many tales of drought hardship for Laynee Reyna, also known as She Who Makes Things Happen — a name given to her by a shaman decades ago.

She felt a great spirit seize her. In the crowded bank lobby, the 79-year-old raised her arms.

"Everyone in this town has got to come together and pray and dance for rain, and we've got to do it now," she said.

Teresa Lavagnino, depositing checks at a teller's window, rushed over.

"Can you do it? Can you make that happen?" she asked. "I can spread the word."

The first San Juan Intertribal rain dance was held the next Sunday, two days after Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state drought emergency.

About 75 people, including the mayor and the local priest, formed a circle on the lawn of Old Mission San Bautista — quite a crowd in a city of 1,900.

"In a small town, when you call a rain dance, word gets around," said Ray Sanchez, a barbecue chef and construction worker of Apache heritage.

Reyna, silver-haired and yoga-slender, burned sage in an abalone shell. Sanchez and others beat drums. The circle danced clockwise, which Reyna said attracts low-pressure systems.

"We know it is our disrespect for Mother Earth that brings this drought. We humble ourselves. We call out for rain," she prayed.

It didn't rain that week. Reyna had never expected the heavens to open up immediately. But she wondered if the skies were clear because she hadn't led a true rain dance. She didn't know one. But she knew who did.

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Kanyon Sayers-Roods, 25, grew up in lush Indian Canyon about 25 miles from San Juan Bautista.

During the Mission era, California Indians hid in this remote area when they escaped the priests and soldiers. Even now it's a hard place to find. Car navigation systems and cellphones don't work here, at the end of a long dirt road where the Ohlone/Costanoan people settled 4,200 years ago.

As a child, Sayers-Roods followed every deer trail, chased tree frogs and drank out of a year-round waterfall that never ran dry until this year.

Officially, the drought is in its third year. But she said she's been watching signs that something was wrong for more than a decade.

"The tree frogs disappeared, then the monarch butterflies," she said, pausing to pick a sprig of wild miner's lettuce (named for the men it saved from scurvy during the Gold Rush). She pointed to its pink stripes of dehydration.

Her mother, Ann-Marie Sayers, battled the federal government to claim her great-grandfather's land. Ten years ago, she led a yearlong project to record the stories of female Ohlone elders, many of whom had been taught to never publicly admit they were Indian. The older women said they remembered little of the culture, but sometimes they could recall parts of songs their grandmothers sang.

Sayers decided they should sew traditional regalia and dance and chant for the elders. Sayers-Roods put together steps and looked through a collection of words in the tribe's Mutson language.