Believing In The Rainmakers

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The Tonto-Apache tribe is so young, says member Jeri Johnson-DeCola, that they do not have any traditional rain dances or rain-inducing ceremonies.

But that's not to say they have no method of beckoning precipitation during record-breaking seasons of draught, such as the one that now has the American southwest in its grip.

"We look skyward," Johnson-DeCola explains with a smile, "and we pray to the man upstairs and ask for rain."

Despite that conventional approach, the history of the Rim country is not without at least one deluge attributed to a Native American rain dance at least, the way Johnson-DeCola's uncle, Paul Burdette, told the tale.

"There was a fire on the Mogollon Rim years ago, back in the 1950s," she says. "My uncle used to tell the story of how the fire was raging, and they pulled the men who worked at the sawmill to fight the fire. But it was so rugged up there, they didn't have the tools and the modern equipment we have now to fight the fire.

"The fire raged for days. Finally, they brought in some Indian dancers I don't recall the tribe to sing for rain and to do a rain dance. Well, they started doing the rain dance, and my uncle said that by that afternoon, thunderclouds gathered, it poured, and it put the fire out."

Stormy weather

Such rain dances aren't the only solution Native Americans have used to deal with the stress and anxiety caused by intense heat and draught. Centuries ago, for example, Timucuan tribes in Northeast Florida had their own unique approach: they threw up.

When the going or the environment got tough, the Timucuans would drink cassina, a strong tea made from the parched leaves of yaupon holly. The drink, with five times the caffeine of coffee, made them regurgitate thereby purifying their bodies.

There are no recorded incidents, however, where throwing up ended a drought beyond the immediate area, at least. But when the rains did come, the Timucuans believed they shouldn't seek cover too quickly or the wet would wane.

To one degree or another, America's Indians have always been able to predict and, some claim, control the weather. As Hartley Burr Alexander writes in "The World's Rim: Great Mysteries of the North American Indians," "The entire culture of Indians seems built up out of prayer for rain."

That was especially true in this arid corner of the country. Rainfall was the difference between life and death for the Hopi Indians, whose extraordinary rain dance began with male members of the tribe gathering as many snakes because they resembled lightning bolts as they could find. The snakes were placed into a small shelter made of cottonwood limbs in the center of the village.

The Indian priests picked up the snakes one by one, put them in their mouths, and danced around with all of them as many as 80 before the ceremony was completed.

The Hopis believed the dance transformed the snakes into messengers to the gods of the underworld. And maybe they were right. Storm clouds often formed following the dance.

Some claim Indian rain dances are successful because the Indians plan the ceremony when they know it's going to rain. Others say the dances only appear to work because the Indians don't stop dancing until it rains. Still others say the Indians are good weather forecasters because they are attuned with nature.

That was certainly the case in the summer of 1926, when Chief Billy Bowlegs moved his entire Seminole tribe deep into the Everglades just days before a huge hurricane hit Miami.

The chief said he knew the storm was coming because he saw the signs: the migration of rats and rabbits to the North, the barking of alligators and the blooming of saw grass.

A few weeks after the hurricane hit, a Miami meteorologist was asked about the chief's forecast.

"We make mistakes," he said, "but, those Indians never miss."

We make mistakes

In the last hundred years, the White man has come up with some pretty wacky attempts to convince rain or snow to fall.

In 1915, the city of San Diego offered proclaimed-cloud-attractor Charles Hatfield $10,000 to end the local drought. By setting up a series of towers topped with boiling vats of chemicals, he claimed that he could bring enough rain to fill the reservoirs.

Not only did the reservoirs fill, but the rivers flooded, the dams burst and dozens of people died. The city blamed this coincidental tragedy on Hatfield, who of course had nothing to do with it, and ran him out of town without his money.

A similar incident occurred Aug. 15, 1952, when one of the worst flash floods ever to have occurred in Britain swept through the village of Lynmouth. Thirty-five people died as a torrent of water and thousands of tons of rock poured off local hillsides and into the village destroying homes, bridges, shops and hotels.

The disaster was officially termed "the hand of God" but evidence has since suggested that a team of international scientists working with the Royal Air Force was experimenting with artificial rainmaking in southern Britain in the same week and could possibly be implicated.

Nowadays, rainmaking or cloud seeding as it's called is successfully used to increase rain and snowfall, and to clear fog, mostly in western U.S.

The pioneer in this field was 1940's scientist Vincent Schaefer, who found that tiny particles of dry ice dispersed in a cloud would act like snowflake seeds or nuclei. Meanwhile, Dr. Bernard Vonnegut brother of novelist Kurt was discovering that a chemical nucleus produced the same results as dry ice particles.

To this day, critics scoff and skeptics laugh, but rainmakers are finally emerging from the backwaters of science.

In Texas, cloud seeding is now done over about a third of the state a region of some 45 million acres. And the seeders claim to produce more rain, over a wider area, and for a longer duration because of it.

A team of scientists recently spent three years seeding clouds in drought-stricken Coahuila, Mexico, to determine whether the idea actually works. Rainfall from seeded clouds lasted longer than rain from unseeded clouds; the rainfall covered a larger area; total precipitation was higher, sometimes even doubled; and results often began just 20 minutes after the seeding.

So it would appear that cloud seeding works. But there's a catch. First you've got to have clouds. Sometimes, during the worst droughts, there aren't any clouds at all.

Since no one is claiming to have figured out how to make a cloud, that's probably the best time to look skyward, pray to the man upstairs, and ask for rain.

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