By Robert Lundahl

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, 2002

The matter of the construction of large scale industrial solar and wind renewables has been of concern to me since 2010. At that time I embarked on what would become a filmmaker’s life-journey, documenting a massive scale industrial development agenda, justified by “The War on Climate Change,” that played out across the deserts of Southern California.

The justification for siting over 200 industrial facilities across this remote region, characterized by pristine ecosystems and thousands of years of American Indian culture and antiquities seemed specious, as Germany added 500 MW a month of renewable energy on rooftops and parking lots, close to where it would be used.

Spirit Runners2
Spirit Runners, Mojave National Preserve. Photo: Lundahl, “Who Are My People?” ©2014

Through following a series of proposed industrial solar projects, and documenting opposition to them — I came to learn new lessons in the importance of simple things.

It was humbling to film and describe the federal government’s approach to this mega-scale solar industry land development. Public land was leased at bargain rates to project developers from a variety of countries. Project budgets would run up to 2 billion dollars and developers stood in line to receive 30% “up-front” cash grants. The level of complexity was staggering, as was the potential financial reward for industry. The opportunity to stimulate the economic resources of communities through support of local rooftop solar was avoided, while American Indian antiquities were bulldozed.

The pro-large solar argument had been made by the California Energy Commission, as early as Summer, 2010. The California Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) is one of the most ambitious renewable energy standards in the country. The RPS program requires investor-owned utilities, electric service providers, and community choice aggregators to increase procurement from eligible renewable energy resources to 33% of total procurement by 2020. In response, decisions would be guided by “Overriding Considerations” the perceived necessities involved in meeting the RPS standard. Local economy, conservation and culture would take a back seat.

Crucifixion Thorn, Canotia holacantha.

As individuals we may express a preference that the last stands of rare plants like the Crucifixion Thorn not be removed from the planet, or that large solar “Power Towers” like those at Ivanpah, the first utility scale mega-solar installation not incinerate birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway, or that thousands of protected Desert Tortoise not have their burrows graded, their young (and eggs) obliterated, and adults’ habitat removed forever.

We may prefer, politically, that the American “boom and bust” cycles of Western development, be avoided in favor of the slow and steady persistence of communities, hanging on to life in a parched landscape of mysteries and spiritual connection to the land itself.

But the CEC had their marching orders in light of the RPS. Most Americans, rightly and wrongly, assume that amid calls for sacrifice, whether in actual war, or in the so-called “Great War on Climate Change,” things get a little off-track. But as Rumsfeld states in the famous quotation above, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Sand transport paths. “Aeolian Sand Transport Pathways in the Mojave Desert” USGS.

Seen from above, the topography of Southern California is a “Basin and Range” landscape of mostly north-south parallel mountain ranges. Major ranges to the west like the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains are upthrust from the San Andreas Fault. The Garlock Fault forms the Tehachipis, to the northwest. These mountains are the divide between the semi-arid coastal plain and the Mojave Desert. These ranges block incoming storms from the Pacific, forming “rain shadows,” where descending warm air creates desert conditions.

Pat Flanagan, desert conservationist and board member of the local Morongo Basin Conservation Association, was the field biologist monitoring birds at the prototype Solar One facility at Daggett, in 1983. Today, still surveying the ground, she sees sand–wind blown (aeolian) sand, remnant from a vast array of interior lakes, whose drying began in the late Pleistocene Epoch with the end of the last Ice Age.


A side-by-side visual comparison of Southern California solar zones and the location of Pleistocene lakes indicate a similarity in geo-location, which confuses avain species instinctually navigating the Pacific Flyway. This helps account for avain mortality at solar facilities like Ivanpah where birds mistake mirrors for water and attempt to land and rest. Ironically, solar fields built where Pleistocene lakes once filled basins create both a dangerously faux landscape and a new demand for water where none exists today.

In fact, the sand dunes, and sand sheets, unique features in the Mojave Desert ensure the 22 million acres described by the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan for the siting of large solar projects, is on the world’s research map, along with the Sahara, as a world class sand transport laboratory.

Some large scale solar projects are to be put in the Silurian Valley, a magnificently beautiful landscape of purple mountains and unspoiled vistas, and others are to be located in and around Tecopa, a resort and spa area. While this may seem inconsistent from the standpoint of conservation values, it is desirable for companies to locate solar fields on slopes of less than 5%, to have maximum control over the positioning of arrays. This most often means locating them at low or negative altitudes on sand deposits and transport areas. The criteria by which projects are to be sited thus follow construction prerogatives.

The USGS, United States Geological Survey, writes:

About 48% of the entire area is less than 5% slope, and 8.3% is less than 1% slope, the favored slope category, deposits underlying the entire area are either mixed eolian-alluvial
origin, or are fine grained alluvial deposits, and thus are susceptible to eolian dust and sand transport, especially after disturbance. In addition, in this slope category, 89% of the area is susceptible to flooding based on the age and geomorphology of alluvial deposits. These maps are examples of several we present for decision-making with respect to hazards and ecological attributes in the face of climate change.

The Silurian Valley, in particular, demonstrates the myriad problems created from a focus on slope as a single determining factor for project siting. 17,000 acres in the Silurian have been proposed for the eventual development of solar and wind. The Silurian Valley is the end drainage for the Mojave River, which sources in the San Bernardino Mountains, and snakes east and north toward Death Valley. The valley is one of the most dramatic examples of a “sand transport area.” Enormous sand sheets bury mountains to the east, driven by westerly winds. The area is a wildlife corridor between two National Parks, Death Valley and the Mojave National Preserve. It is also an avian migration corridor. And, the area is along the auto route from Palm Springs to Death Valley, one of the top destinations for Canadian, French and German tourists, who come for unspoiled vistas.

A study of 77 soil types in the Mojave River Area, San Bernardino County, by the USDA Soil Conservation Service finds that as the as the river descends into basins, taking into account degree of slope, water erosion, and root depth, 31 have a “high hazard” of soil blowing, and 13 demonstrate a “moderate hazard”. These soil types include Bryman loamy fine sand, Cajon sand, Cajon-Wasco, cool, complex, and Lovelace loamy sand.

Photo Caption: Airborne dust from grading private land outside Blythe, California, rises from the desert floor. On desert pavement, a monolayer of pebbles overlies a stone-poor to stone-free matrix of silt, clay and fine sand, derived principally from wind-blown dust. When grading takes place, the desert pavement is scraped away leaving powdery soils, which become airborne, creating Dust-Bowl like conditions. Photo: Lundahl.

It is sand, that very simple and obvious fact of the desert, that the federal government has seemed to ignore in the DRECP. Although large scale projects have been proposed at sand transport locations such as Ford Dry Lake (Genesis) exposing them to disastrous flooding in 2013, even claiming the lives of two company representatives downed in an observation plane surveying the damage, this kind of impact was perceived as disconnected from the whole.

The realization that there is sand in the desert, continually moving, blowing, flowing, relocating in a vast transport system dating back thousands of years and inhibiting construction activities seems to have escaped policy makers and applicants alike. Plants hold sand in place, along with mycorrhizal fungi associated with those desert plants. When plants are removed, ancient sands begin to travel.

Pat Flanagan points out, it is not only about sand, but water.

California has experienced an epic drought of four years duration. The drought has been caused by a resilient high pressure system pushing Pacific Storms far to the North. While researchers indicate there appears to be no direct link to climate change, Marty Hoerling, co-editor of a climate report published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, and a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, noted that high-pressure systems have increased everywhere. While climate change makes extreme weather events like the California drought ten times more likely, natural variability plays a much larger role.

Comparing the periods of 1871-1970 with 1980-2013, the authors wrote that there was “no appreciable long-term change in the risk for dry climate extremes over California since the late 19th century.” California has always been prone to drought, as long term residents like Flanagan appreciate. It is especially a fact of life amid the Mojave’s varied “Basin and Range” topography, a fact of life that state and federal entities overlook.

Dust Storm, Texas, 1935

Large solar projects spread across multiple square miles, whose permitting requires water for construction, mirror washing and other activities, may have significantly underrepresented required water usage. Joshua Tree’s Cascade Solar project, at Coyote Dry Lake, requires ten times the water estimated to tamp down and manage sand and silt at the project, particularly during construction, but also during times when the wind is up. Original estimates of .07 acre/feet usage per acre expanded to actual usages of .7 acre/feet per acre.

Sparrow_Cascade lake copy
Sparrow. Lake effect, Cascade Solar, Coyote Dry Lake. Photo: Deborah Bollinger.

Where will the water come from in an arid region that is potentially growing even more arid?

The larger question looms: In light of required grading and soils disturbance on such a massive scale, blowing silt threatens to turn a land of ancient soils and delicate ecosystems into an unmanageable “dust-bowl,” an unusable and unstable sacrifice zone of previously unseen proportions.

Whereas the dustbowl areas of the Great Depression throughout the Midwest were able to remediate themselves by virtue of access to water from many rivers and streams, the same may not be said for the Mojave Desert.

The importance of simple things, and their ignorance, may unleash unintended and cascading consequences.

Overburdened state and federal agencies, under pressure to lease land and permit hundreds of large solar projects across an area the size of Delaware, have overlooked the obvious “beneath their feet.”

Perhaps that is because their feet are not in the Mojave, nor are they in Southern California, but in Washington DC, and Sacramento, and other densely inhabited cities where the Earth beneath their feet is covered with concrete and asphalt.

As Donald Rumsfeld so stated, the unknown unknowns are the difficult ones.

*Over 200 are proposed and with many approaching 8000 acres, that equals 2500 square miles, a potential land area larger than the state of Delaware.


©2014, Robert Lundahl, All rights reserved. Reprint by permission only.


Originally Published in The ECOreport. By Robert Lundahl.

As a filmmaker I spent four years, beginning in July, 2010, investigating the impacts of large solar development on the deserts of my home state of California.

Solar development in the deserts of the Southwest was initiated as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which included $6 billion for loan guarantees, an amount that was far exceeded in actuality, over subsequent years.

In addition to loan guarantees, the ARRA created a grant program for business. A facility owner could choose to receive a one-time grant equal to 30 percent of the construction and installation costs for the facility. Eligible projects included anaerobic digesters, landfill gas, solar, and wind.

With 30% up-front in cash, the business risks of project development were substantially reduced and a “feeding frenzy” ensued. Speculative investors like Goldman Sachs applied for low cost leases on public lands and the queue, to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management, was long, with over 200 projects in Southern California alone.

“Who Are My People?” ©2014 Robert Lundahl

I had thought of the deserts of Southern California as a grand “backyard” to the polluted environs where I was raised, in Pasadena, Los Angeles County. The deserts provided “breathing room” for an emerging connected metropolis of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego Counties, where population had grown exponentially.

With industrial development now threatening the more remote desert regions, I questioned whether and how such large scale development might be managed, and whether there would be anything left of the deserts which had stimulated my curiosity as an adult. The impacts included those to plants and animals, waters, soils and air quality, and to the American Indian cultures I had come to know, making two previous films.

The academic distance I had tried to maintain dissipated when I witnessed the destruction of ancient geoglyphs, giant earth works, made by earlier civilizations, which American Indians attribute to a connection with the Cosmos. These geoglyphs express an intricate set of inter-relationships between places, ancient art, and people, incorporating what scientists refer to as archeo-astronomy. We were destroying the work of their Gallileos in a mad rush to receive the cash grants. Billions were at stake and the world’s energy companies were at the door.

Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. “Who Are My People?” ©2014 Robert Lundahl

The first major project was built, at Ivanpah, and brought on line in 2014. It is a name meaning White Clay Waters, in the Chemehuevi language, in a region known as the best habitat available for the Desert Tortoise, a “Protected Species.” 5 square miles were graded. Down the road at another site, the Genesis project had been started. There, Kit Fox were decimated by distemper, a scourge some say was attributed to the urine of construction workers’ dogs.

They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and while mitigating climate change, or doing our part as a nation is a good intention, it remains an unconvincing argument that remotely sited industrial solar and wind is the answer, given that Germany has added 500 MW of renewable energy a month to their energy “portfolio” using rooftops.

There were victories of a sort. A lawsuit had stopped a large facility in Imperial County. And the so called “Largest Solar Project in the World,” Blythe Solar, was abandoned in 2011 when opposition exposed poor construction practices and violations as the applicant, Solar Millennium, raced to build infrastructure that would have allowed cash grants to become available. A similar project was mothballed at Rio Mesa in 2013, near beds of Mammoth fossils — and at Hidden Hills in Nevada, where California state anthropologists validated that Paiute cultural lands (The Paiute are a historically nomadic people) extended over the project. In a world where we as “civilized peoples” lament the destruction of the “Taliban Buddhas” and ancient Babylon destroyed by war, it is somewhat heartening to know our own American antiquities carry some weight for preservation, though not much. The California Energy Commission indicated 17,000 Indigenous “Sacred Sites” would be destroyed by energy development in the deserts.

This Place Matters. “Who Are My People?” ©2014 Robert Lundahl

After coming to grips with new levels of thoughtlessness and destruction, it was of no particular surprise that the Ivanpah project was revealed in the press in 2014 as “incinerating” the birds of the Pacific Flyway, the migratory pathway followed by hundreds of bird species that converge to the Salton Sea portal south into Mexico, Central and South America, From all over North America. Dead birds included endangered species like the resident Yuma Clapper Rail and iconic ones like Golden Eagles. Projects like Ivanpah have been labelled “Death Traps” because they look like lakes from above. Tired birds navigate down toward rest and water and become “streamers”, smoking projectiles hurtling to Earth.

The Palen project would be the worst. With two enormous towers capped by solar receivers projecting their “brilliance” over the Southeast corner of Joshua Tree National Park, the project had everything going for it. Not only would it destroy Native sacred sites and cultural resources, fry bird species, eliminate many square miles of habitat for plants and animals, it would negatively impact tourism to the National Park and the economic heath of communities like Joshua Tree, at the Park’s entrance. The project was so bad it became one of the few that had been denied a permit by the CEC, California Energy Commission. But then, inexplicably, the applicant, BrightSource, was allowed to amend the application. A renewed project with one tower only and the possible inclusion of a second at a later date, plus an energy storage component to smooth out its power delivery to the grid, was offered conditional approval despite the unmitigable impacts. The project had been denied, then Dracula–like, it had surfaced from the grave and won half-hearted approval.

Prayer. “Who Are My People?” ©2014 Robert Lundahl

Numerous Indian tribes had delivered impassioned testimony against the project. Neither was the public happy, according to on-the-record comments. At the darkest hour, it seemed certain a slew of 16 penny framing nails would be hammered into a tiny coffin containing the carcasses of little burned Wrens and Warblers, Tortoise and Kit Fox, and the dreams of Native Americans, long the victims of genocide, physical and cultural, following California’s Gold Rush, and the forced removal of their children to Indian Schools as late as the 1950’s.

California’s DRECP, or Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, was instituted following the approval of BLM’s national plan for the Southwest. The DRECP, a joint effort of federal and state agencies, would allocate 22 million acres to “development ” and determine lands also to be “conserved.” The DRECP process had been the official channel for receiving the input of “stakeholder groups” including large environmental organizations like the Sierra Club. It was released publicly in draft form, at a photo op beneath the enormous rotating blades of a giant field of Wind Turbines outside Palm Springs last week. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell stood positioned heroically against a dust-blown desert sky. Secretary Jewell joyfully extolled the virtues of renewable energy development in the desert on a scale the world had never known.

74 year old grandmother, Pat Flanagan, is a Board Member of the Morongo Basin Conservation Association. In 1983, she was the field biologist that monitored the prototype Solar One facility at Daggett. Pat had spent the previous weeks rising at dawn, correlating data from thousands of pages of CEC, California Energy Commission and BLM, Bureau of Land Management documents. She had used a simple search tool across myriads of .pdfs, to track the usage of terminology like “solar receiver” as it applied to the Palen project and its permitting. Oddities emerged. The Palen Project was described by the CEC as being a 750′ Tower with a 130 ft. receiver “atop,” yet the BLM docs described a 68 foot “solar receiver.” Did “atop” mean “contained within the height of” or “in addition to”? The CEC and the BLM were not in sync and the language was not clear. As both state and federal agencies were involved, this would seem to invalidate the Palen Project permit. To properly communicate, the BLM draft and the CEC documents would need to be rewritten (reanalyzed) and submitted again to the public for review. If challenged in court, this would become a time consuming process, and time was running out for applicant BrightSource.

Battling Goliath was a disappointment. Goliath was not a very good writer, nor a thorough editor. Goliath couldn’t get his facts straight.

Pat completed her report. She uploaded it to the CEC website at 9:01 am on Friday the 26th. Then at 3:05 pm, out of the blue, in an action that without doubt shocked the world’s energy industries and financial institutions, BrightSource withdrew the project. It was over. Goliath threw in the towel.

The article in the Palm Springs Desert Sun reads: “BrightSource senior vice president Joe Desmond said the developers chose to withdraw their application in part because the project was unlikely to be completed by December 2016, meaning it wouldn’t qualify for a 30 percent investment tax credit that expires at the end of that year.”

I suppose that is the logical conclusion of a value set that places money above people. I expected a better fight. Goliath had wanted it too easy.


©2014, All Rights Reserved. Reprint By Permission Only.

By Robert Lundahl

I met President José Maria Figueres at a conference in San Francisco in 2002. At that time, Figueres was the youngest elected President of Costa Rica. Faced with the destruction of the country’s bounteous natural resources contained in the unspoiled and undeveloped rain forests, though illegal logging, clearing for cattle ranching and other activities, President Figueres recalculated their value along the lines of Amory Lovins’ book, “Natural Capitalism.”

Zipline over Rainforest Canopy, Costa Rica. Photo: Ken Haufle. Creative Commons (cc).

Lovins had argued that in our economic calculations, the value of inputs (and damages, or “unintended consequences”) is not fully understood or respected. I saw in the Pacific Northwest, how the preferences of timber companies to cut trees with minimal buffer strips along streams, reduced shade and habitat quality for spawning salmon, mainstay of another industry — commercial fishing. In another example, if the cost of oil exploration and production is subsidized through various means, it skews the energy markets away from the development of renewables, which arguably have greater societal benefits. Germany demonstrated this in calculating their “Feed-in-Tariff,” the amount paid for energy produced by distributed sources. Higher Feed-in-Tariffs were responsible for a boom in solar implementation on the rooftop. Rates were guaranteed over time, which made them more bankable.

President Figueres defined the future value of the rainforest in terms of bio-research, “The World’s Largest Pharmacological Repository,” he said, eco-tourism, and carbon offset agreements. He felt the higher valuation is on the preservation of resources for the uses which will be defined by the needs of the future. This is important, he told me, for the future of the country itself, both economically and in defining a nation that lives with nature rather than against it. Similarly with the Mojave, with 5 – 10% of botanical resources as yet undescribed, according to Ph.D. Botanist James Andre (UCR), the potential pharmacological benefits offer a unique research laboratory and a sustainable development pathway. Therefore the maintenance of biodiversity is of the highest priority.

While solar companies tout utility scale developments as “combating climate change,” the production and release of carbon from industrial scale construction by globally based industries, requiring shipping, trucking and construction is not fully quantified. Studies are beginning to indicate are that such development may be, in fact, net carbon positive over the life of the installations. Also, with the efficiencies of rooftop solar higher across the board than with solar thermal, a result of a more complex system (Solar Thermal) requiring energy transfer among different component subsystems, and over distance, it would be wise therefore to begin the line of questioning proposed by President Figueras in Costa Rica, “What is sustainable development and what does it look like in the Mojave?

In order to facilitate this conversation, a step by step, component-tized discussion of energy production and transmission of energy to the home should take place in the schools. It is required for understanding and should be basic curriculum under STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs. This is the beginning of “Systems Thinking.”

There is more to the picture than science and math. Those values which offer benefits for eco or adventure tourism often depend on softer calculations such as aesthetics and art. Just as President Figueres placed a priority on eco and adventure tourism, we can value the complete human experience of the desert and all that it offers.

Robert Lundahl

Nothing is perfect in this world, says Alfredo Figueroa, Chemehuevi Cultural Monitor and Founder of La Cuna De Aztlán Sacred Sites Protection Circle. There are many beginnings and many endings. As a filmmaker and professional storyteller, I can tell you it is the beginning which sets the story in motion; and therefore determines what we see and how we see it. The desert and the West is a place of many such beginnings and endings.

When I was a student at the University of Oregon, one of my professors was a television Art Director and painter named Bob (Robert) Kostka, now deceased. Bob had studied at the New Bauhaus in Chicago, founded by a generation of emigré artists and architects from Europe after World War II, who had fled the Nazis. As a young student, my early readings about the Bauhaus had focused on architects such as Mies van de Rohe, and Walter Gropius, famed for “modernist” buildings without ornamentation. The great French/Swiss architect Le Corbusier had been an influence. Le Corbusier had called buildings “Machines for Living.”

My beginnings therefore in a professional education that would lead me eventually to corporate communications and filmmaking, was ‘Cartesian,” seeing the human-built world as a kind of “clockworks.”

Kostka, however, perplexed me. He had seen in me at that time a kind of intellectual rigidity and sought to dilute it, actually he wanted to annihilate it. You’re a good talker, he would say.

First, Bob introduced me to the great English filmmaker, Nicolas Roeg. Nick had started his career as second-unit director on David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. A desert film with few parallels. Wikipedia states, “A characteristic of Roeg’s films is that they are edited in disjunctive and semi-coherent ways that make full sense only in the film’s final moments.” It was another desert film, “Walkabout (1971), which completed the destruction of my Post War American “Rationalism.”


Nick Roeg’s distrust of civilization mirrored Bob’s. Not content with the ordinary perspective (and life) of a Chicago Art Director for PBS station, WTTW, Bob spent a great deal of time in Taos, NM, where he befriended the great Western writer, Frank Waters. Bob Kostka had photographed Waters on several occasions, and some of these pictures appear on the dust jackets of his books.

XF R Kostka 1969 350

One of Frank Waters’ seminal books was Book of the Hopi, which he wrote with Oswald White Bear Fredericks . Book of the Hopi correlated the stories and prophesies of the Hopi clans and made them available in written form for the first time.

The Hopi and the Chemehuevi of the Colorado River Basin share elements of a worldview that matter today. Both speak of great migrations of peoples following the end of the Fourth World, a world ended by flood, caused by, what we can surmise today, a warming of the Earth. “Everybody has a flood story,” says Figueroa.

Chemehuevi Cultural Monitor Alfredo Figueroa, who is one of the subjects of my latest film documentary, Who Are My People?”, discusses this ancient narrative of beginnings and endings, and how it is visible on the ground today in geoglyphs and petroglyphs, many of which are, unfortunately, in the path of “civilization”, as the world’s energy firms seek to build in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. Waters’ work similarly touches on the tragedy of lost moments (even lost histories) in times of tumultuous change in his great Western novel, “The Woman at Otowi Crossing, which describes the advent of the era of nuclear testing in the West.

As Sigmund Freud points out in “Civilization and it’s Discontents”, Civilization requires conformity for some very good reasons. However, our notion of what civilization is at any given moment may be based on a version of reality that has outlived its usefulness. Kostka, Roeg and Waters in no way were conformists. What each sought through the connection with ancient peoples was a grounding lesson in Earth-based cultures that allows us both a psychological and physical perspective to be more realistic and sustainable in our thinking.


Robert Lundahl

In 1999, subject of the film, “Who Are My People?”, Don Alfredo Figueroa, directed a project to accumulate and distribute music of Early California, which has meaning to his family’s heritage. Begun under the auspices of Escuela de la Raza Unida, a Chicano/Indigenous alternative school, which the Figueroa family started in 1972, the dual CD set, Nuestro Gran Principio en Esta Tierra, or Our Great Beginning on this Earth, contains ancient Chemehuevi songs, performed by tribal elder Larry Eddy (Which may be heard as part of the soundtrack of “Who Are My People?”).

For an understanding of the origins of the school itself, founded to address educational disparities and a lack of indigenous-relevant curriculum for Native American and farm worker youth, see the short film, “The Battle of Blythe”, created for the 40th anniversary of the school’s founding in 2012. It is narrated by Demesia Figueroa.

Here, music would be part of the educational experience, including historic work songs, ballads to historic figures such as Cesar Chavez, rap, cumbia interpretations, and tribal chants.

Born under a hot tin roof in the blazing desert sun, August 14, 1934, Figueroa is of Chemehuevi Indian heritage on his mother’s side and Yaqui heritage from father Danuario. His mother’s family had come to California from Northern Sonora, Mexico in the 1800’s, before California had become a state. Family relation, Joaquin Murrieta, was a miner, working the goldfields near Sonora, California (the name reflecting the miners’ origins), at Murphy’s Diggings, before John Sutter “discovered” the precious metal and the Gold Rush began. “They overran us” Figueroa explains.

Photo Caption: Alfredo Figueroa with Joaquin Murrieta. From Who Are My People. © 2014 Robert Lundahl

Murrieta remains a controversial figure. Alternately portrayed as a thief, horse rustler, Robin Hood, and Freedom Fighter, Murrieta was part of the California history I learned as a child.

Raised in Pasadena, with visions of Murrieta and his “posse” evading capture on the other side of Mt. Wilson, (which I could see from my home), I had even attended summer camp at a place called Hidden Valley, known as a Murrieta “hide out,” along Angeles Crest Highway.

The Figueroa family story holds that when US miners overran the gold fields in 1848, Murrieta was beaten, his mine was stolen, and wife raped and killed. Murrieta sought to avenge the death of his wife by relentlessly pursuing the attackers. Some say he was trying to raise an army and return California back to Mexico. That’s why he was stealing horses and bringing them to Mexico. In turn, he was pursued as a “bandit.”

The corrido (Spanish pronunciation: [koˈriðo]) is a popular narrative song and poetry form, a ballad. The songs are often about oppression, history, daily life, and other socially relevant topics. It is still a popular form today. The corrido derives largely from historic literature of the time, the “romance”, and in its most known form consists of a salutation from the singer and prologue to the story, the story itself, and a moral and farewell from the singer. Until the arrival of electronic mass-media, the corrido served as a main informational, educational and historical outlet, a vehicle for storytelling, like a film.

Of all the corridos sung in California. The Corrido de Joaquin Murrieta stands out. Californio and Mexican-American families often would refrain from singing it in public for fear of reprisal. Figueroa’s grandfather was jailed in Arizona after singing the Corrido. Yet the Corrido de Joaquin Murrieta is a “master narrative” of the history of California, and the struggle of the Californios to maintain lands and influence following the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo — which ceded California from Mexico to the US.

By 1975, times had changed, and when an official of the Smithsonian Institution heard Figueroa sing the corrido in Calexico at a farmworkers rally (UFW), he and his family were invited to sing the Corrido de Joaquin Murrieta in Washington D.C.

The film, “Who Are My People?” which begins with my family’s story, coming to Pasadena, is underscored by a beautiful Figueroa family rendition, sung in operatic style by Placido Garcia. It was the “background music,” if you will, of my youth in Southern California, as I imagined Murrieta, or “Zorro” in the popular interpretation, galloping through the desert, in an earlier, wilder era.

By Robert Lundahl

As I worked to define and write the narrative of film, “Who Are My People?”, which had originated as “Solar Gold”, I came across relevant and interesting facts that helped to put the Gold Rush, and indeed the “Gold Rush Era” into perspective from a Californio/Indigenous perspective.

In December, 1777 Viceroy Antonio María de Bucareli y Ursúa and Commandant General Teodoro de Croix approved for the founding of a municipality at Los Angeles. The town was established by eleven “Blacks, Mulottos, Indians, and two Spaniards.”


All the original settlers, including black “pobladores” (“townspeople”) Luis Quintero and Antonio Mesa, married racially mixed women and built their makeshift houses of willow branches, tule reeds and mud. Pobladores de Los Angeles.

The term “Californio” is commonly used to identify a Spanish-speaking, mostly Roman Catholic people, or of Latin American descent, born in Alta California from the first Spanish colonies established by the Portolá expedition in 1769, up until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 — in which Mexico ceded Alta California to the United States.

The area had been long occupied by the Hokan-speaking people who fished, hunted sea mammals, and gathered wild seeds. They were later replaced by migrants, possibly fleeing drought in the Great Basin, who spoke a Uto-Aztecan language and were called Tongva (Wikipedia).

By the time of the arrival of the Spanish in the 18th century, there were 250,000 to 300,000 native people in California and 5,000 in the Los Angeles basin. The land occupied and used by the Tongva covered about four thousand square miles. Their trade extended to the Colorado River and beyond.

In the Winter of 1845–46, the federally commissioned explorer John C. Frémont and a group of armed men appeared in California. After telling the Mexican governor he was merely buying supplies on the way to Oregon, he instead entered the populated area of California and visited Santa Cruz and the Salinas Valley, explaining he had been looking for a seaside home for his mother. Thus, the Mexican-American War was extended to California.


The Siege of Los Angeles was a military response by armed Californios to the occupation, which John C. Frémont began.

The Americans held northern California but General Jose Maria Castro and Governor Pio Pico planned resistance in the south around the Los Angeles area.

On Oct. 8, 1846, American troops marched from San Pedro harbor up Alameda Street to the Dominguez Ranch, where they spent the night.

But the Californios had a surprise for them. Although there were only a few dozen locals against hundreds of soldiers, the Californios were able to trick the soldiers into thinking that they had more arms than they did by rolling their only cannon around the field between shots. The battle was won, but over time, the war was lost.

Kumeyaay historian Gary Ballard writes: The California Gold Rush 1848-1855, in particular, was catastrophic to the indigenous population and their tribal lands. It was estimated that some 300,000 foreigners poured into California during this seven-year period. By 1900 it was estimated that less than 16,000 California Indians had survived the invasion of their homelands (some 134,000 California Indians were lost during this 52-year period while the United States Government was in control of California).

Of the principals in my film, “Who Are My People?” all four, Alfredo Figueroa, Reverend Ron Van Fleet, Phil Smith, and Preston Arrow-weed, trace their lineage to Early California and before. Chairman Anthony Pico of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, also in the film, is a relative of Governor of Mexican California, Pio Pico. Figueroa is a relative of General José Figueroa, Mexican territorial Governor of Alta California from 1833 to 1835. Figueroa oversaw the initial secularization of the missions of upper California, which included the expulsion of the Spanish Franciscan mission officials, liberating Indians, who were by then under Mission System control.

Ballard reports, “It is believed the Kumeyaay — one of the largest and strongest pre-contact tribal groups in California — had only 1,000 surviving tribal members at the turn of the 20th century (1900).

Some $5 million of gold was taken out of the Julian Eagle and High Peak Mines alone, during the 1870s, from deep in the heart of pre-contact Kumeyaay tribal mountains of San Diego County.


By Robert Lundahl


By Robert Lundahl