By Tracy Brynne Voyles, University of Nebraska Press, 2022

Review by Ruth Nolan Feb 14, 2023

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Salton Sea Rally banner, Oct 12, 2022. Photo: Ruth Nolan

In an important and aesthetically intoxicating book, The Settler Sea: California’s Salton Sea and the Consequences of Colonialism, author Tracy Brynne Voyles wastes no time digging into the major problems facing southern California’s Salton Sea. She also makes it clear that this book is a celebration of the ongoing beauty and resilience of life – and a dedication to environmental problem solving for the Salton Sea and for the Cahuilla and other Native people who have lived here for at least 10,000 years.

The opening chapter, “A World on the Brink,” is a wake-up call announcing the environmental and social justice crises afflicting the human-ecologic fabric of the 15-mile wide, 45-mile-wide inland body of water situated in a rural, extremely hot landscape below sea level not far from the U.S.-Mexico border.

The book title derives its name from the fact that the history and original character of the Salton Sink have been largely commandeered by Anglo-European settlers who, upon arrival beginning in the 17th century, imposed their patterns of large-scale resource extraction with little if any understanding or concern for the possible consequences inflicted on the environment and the Native American people. In addition, the settlers grossly marginalized, both physically and in decision-making, these indigenous people with their deep historical and cultural knowledge of the Salton Sea and the surrounding landscapes. The resource extraction – lithium production, large-scale renewable energy development, and rapid urbanization – comes with debilitating environmental and cultural consequences that we are witnessing today, here and across the neighboring Mojave Desert.

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Dried canals and exposed shoreline along Salton Sea in Desert Shores, looking towards Santa Rosa Mountains. Photo: Ruth Nolan

Throughout the book, Voyles powerfully suggests that finding solutions to the glaring problems call for a decolonization and restructuring in the environmental movement. She makes it clear that there is far more about the Indigenous diaspora as related to the life and legacy of the region than has previously been presented in much of the literature and public image-making about the Salton Sea. This book does much to establish the depth and complexity of these deep eco-cultural relationships that have shimmered across the desert as beautifully and invitingly as the sparkly sea itself under a hot desert sun, a true mirage come to life.

Voyles outlines how the ongoing environmental and social justice crisis at the Salton Sea has arisen from a colonial mentality which assumes that everything, absolutely everything in the desert, was placed there for short-term economic gain of the new arrivals at the expense of both the environment itself and the cultures and involvement of the Native people. This marginalization has not only displaced Native communities, but has also failed to include Native people in the conversation at all.

As Voyles says, “The questions of whose environmentalism we follow when it comes to the Salton Sea – as well as when it comes to myriad other environmental challenges – matters.” This urgent call for a re-structuring, even decolonization of how we approach environmental problems, may be the most important message in the book (p. 264)

Such “decolonized” approaches to solving the Salton Sea crisis and creating an ongoing existence in more sustainable ways – ways that directly involve the voices and the lives of the Native and other non-Anglo communities (particularly those of Latinx people) who live here – can also be implemented in addressing the severe environmental and social justice disasters playing out across adjacent parts of eastern Riverside and Imperial counties as well as huge swaths of the Mojave deserts subject to the construction of massive large-scale renewable energy projects on once-pristine wildlands.

The voices and amplified presence of Native people – including Shoshone, Serrano, Mojave, Cahuilla and others whose homelands these have been for at least 10,000 years – are essential in a landscape of decolonized environmental activism.

In eloquent detail and with an inviting narrative style, Voyles shares stories of the region’s Cahuilla and other Native people. Once a vast inland sea much larger than today’s present-day incarnation, Ancient Lake Cahuilla was a temporal body of water shaped and formed by changes in weather, rain and flood, as well as by periods of extended drought.

In her book, Voyles also goes far beyond presenting another chronology of the Salton Sea and its presence, formed by mishaps in irrigation efforts by Anglo settlers and coupled with epic Colorado River flooding. She extensively examines the heavy impacts of settler colonialism on the formation and the shrinking of the Salton Sea that have steadily been creating a massive environmental disaster and furthered “Indigenous dispossession and racial capitalism” in this region.

Today, the Sea exists in a precarious conundrum between degradation, dispossession, beauty, life and abundance – a shadow but also a mirror of its former come-and-go, ancient lake-self in one of its many historically changing incarnations. This is a book that savors the richness of the magical and miraculous world of the Salton Sea and Ancient Lake Cahuilla, as it has existed and been a deep and critical part of the fabric of a relational and adaptive way of life for the Cahuilla and other Indigenous people. This book also starkly outlines the influences that western settlement and colonial-capital influences have had in radically altering this harmonious eco-human balance in the past several hundred years.

For example, in the section titled “In the Lowlands of Southern California,” Voyles writes that “the state’s inland body of water teeters between worlds…Every year less water flows in to replenish that which the sun dries up. The shoreline recedes….mudflats dry and crack.... (but) it would be a mistake to see only the dead fish, dusty shoreline, and a flat slate of water stretched toward a hazy horizon. Turn around. Creosote bush and salt brush thrive in thin, alkaline soil…An impressive range of legume trees furnish valuable protein for human and nonhuman dwellers: blue palo verde, ironwood, honey and screwbean mesquite, and catclaw, among others….Notice the birds. They are everywhere. Eared grebes, white and brown pelicans, terns, cormorants, herons and egrets all congregate here, splashing in the shallows and hunting for food.” (p. 1-2).

The table of contents clearly outlines the over-arching scope of this book and its purpose in serving as an anthem call for a revision of decolonization and re-structuring of the contemporary environmental movement and also as a beautiful evocation of the stories and cultures of the Cahuilla and other people living near the Salton Sea and Ancient Lake Cahuilla.

In part 1 has two sections: Desert and Flood. Part 2 contains the sections Birds, Concrete, and Bodies. Finally, Part 3 - Bombs, Chains, and Toxins - bringing us into the mid 20th and early 21st centuries. Voyles’s conclusion packs a compelling and urgent punch: “A How-to Guide to Saving the Salton Sea.”

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Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Tribal Secretary Altrena Santillanes at the Salton Sea Vigil and Rally held last October 12, 2022 on Indigenous Peoples' Day.

Photo: Ruth Nolan

In a section towards the end of the book, titled “Lake Cahuilla: An Unsettled Sea,” Voyles points to a 2020 poster project, “The Past, Present and Future of the Salton Sea,” sponsored by the Torres Martinez Cahuilla tribal council to honor the sea and its role in Cahuilla life. Art was created and submitted by children and adults depicting a diversity of images of life along the Sea, including “blue water coursing under rich brown mountains that glowed in pink and purple sunsets.” In another poster, “…mesquite trees dotted the foreground, their leaves rendered as fish along a cracked shoreline, suggesting both a fish die-off and a resurgence of bountiful mesquites with full overstories” (p. 261.) The book concludes with a discussion of how, with Native input and action, the brightest hope for problem solving is perhaps evident.

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Attendees at the Salton Sea Vigil and Rally held October 12, 2022 on Indigenous Peoples' Day. Photo: Ruth Nolan

Living and celebrating the beauty and richness of life along the Sea, whose remaining blue waters shimmer and invite and foster life, may help us find a more balanced narrative. It is a vision that includes a diversity of voices and possible solutions to problems along with ongoing celebrations of life and what it means to live in a unique desert place where neither disaster or perfection dominate the view but make their presence always known.

Previous, shorter versions of this book review have been written by Ruth Nolan and published in 2022 in News from Native California and Inlandia Literary Journeys.

Ruth Nolan is Professor of English, Creative Writing and Native American literature at College of the Desert. She is author of After the Dome Fire (Bamboo Dart Press) and editor of No Place for a Puritan: the Literature of California’s Deserts (Heyday.) She is currently serving as Mojave Desert Literary Laureate.