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Newcomb: In honor of a spiritual man: Corbin Harney.

Steven Newcomb -- Columnist

Western Shoshone spiritual leader Corbin Harney, at the age of 87, quietly passed over to the spirit world July 10 in Santa Rosa, Calif. Having suffered from multiple illnesses, including cancer, for quite some time, his body finally succumbed to the ravages of disease. However, his spirit was strong right up to the time of his passing, the exact day and time he had good-naturedly predicted a few days in advance.

Corbin was raised by his grandparents, who were traditional Shoshone people born in the 19th century. He was a fluent speaker of the Shoshone language and a dedicated culture carrier. At any traditional Western Shoshone gathering, it was Corbin who was up at first light to begin the day with the drum and a prayer.

It is always a loss for family and loved ones when someone passes. But when an elder of Corbin's spiritual strength and wisdom leaves this physical plane, it is a tremendous loss, not just for his Western Shoshone people, but for all of us. For an indigenous culture sustained by oral tradition, losing a person such as Corbin is like losing a library. However, as much as I love to read, I would much rather be able to listen to the words and feel the warm energy of an elder such as Corbin.

A quiet and unassuming man, Corbin lived up to his spiritual responsibility to Mother Earth. He was a spiritual activist for all the elements of life. Corbin may not have been as well known as the Dalai Lama, but Corbin was certainly just as deserving of the kind of respect that the Dalai Lama is accorded as a man of peace.

Knowing that the U.S. nuclear test site on Western Shoshone lands made the Western Shoshone Nation the most bombed nation on Earth, Corbin traveled to many parts of the world and fought hard to raise awareness of the threat posed to all life by nuclear weapons and by the huge amount of radioactive waste from nuclear power. He opposed the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository.

Last May, the Western Shoshone Defense Project (an arm of the Western Shoshone National Council) invited me to attend a public gathering of Western Shoshone people. Corbin had insisted that the gathering take place in an effort to make more information available to the Western Shoshone people regarding their lands rights. That morning Corbin gave a powerful and impassioned talk on behalf of Shoshone tradition and the need for Western Shoshone women to take on positions of leadership.

We need to get back to nature, he said repeatedly during his talk. That is where our roots are, he reminded everyone present. Challenging the audience to not take life on this beautiful planet for granted, Corbin asked, ''What would we all do without Mother Earth?''

''You were taught by your forefathers to make sure to take care of what has been put on this Earth, for hundreds of years, not just for 50 or a hundred years.'' Referring to plants and animals, Corbin remarked, ''All these things rely on us. Keep them growing. Keep them alive. Keep them healthy.''

Corbin was in true form at that May gathering. His strength was evident when he said, ''We were told as Native people, 'Take care of what Nature has put here.' Who put the sage hens here? Who put the roots here? Who put the medicine here? We didn't. They [the white people] didn't either. Those are the things we've got to think about real strong. Those messages should continue from one generation to the next.''

Corbin's message is powerful indeed in light of the way the United States has brought a toxic way of life to North America, and in light of the way Western Shoshone lands are being ravaged by multi-national gold mining corporations that are pumping tens of thousands of gallons of water a minute out of a desert Western Shoshone aquifer, 365 days a year, with no regard for what that is doing to Mother Earth. Corbin, like all traditional Western Shoshones, was appalled by insatiable corporate greed that is resulting in long-term ecological devastation to Western Shoshone lands from cyanide leach mining.

Corbin was one of many traditional Western Shoshones who have explained the sacred cultural value of Mount Tenabo, near the Dann family ranch. In 2002 and 2003, the U.S. Department of Land Management stole cattle and horses in the Mount Tenabo area that belonged to the Dann family, and to other Western Shoshones such as Raymond Yowell (formerly chief of the Western Shoshone National Council). The animals were then sold off, causing tremendous financial hardship to those Western Shoshone families.

It has since been determined that the U.S. government stole the Western Shoshone animals because of the discovery of a massive gold deposit located in Mount Tenabo. Cortez Mining Co. is planning to take down the sacred mountain and pulverize it in order to extract billions of dollars worth of microscopic gold through a process of cyanide leach mining. Corbin's was one of many Western Shoshone voices that have attempted to stop this travesty.

Life is energy, and Corbin Harney had plenty and used it wisely. His life is a model of how to walk on the Sacred Path with an abiding regard and love for Mother Earth and all living things. Corbin is no longer physically present, but his energy and our memory of him lives on.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is indigenous law research coordinator for the education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.