A Secret History of American River People

Wes Modes, UC Santa Cruz

A Secret History of American River People (https://peoplesriverhistory.us) is a Santa Cruz-based project with national impact that builds a collection of personal stories of people who live and work on rivers from the deck of a recreated mid-century shantyboat over a series of epic river voyages. The project examines the ways that river communities respond to threats to river culture such as economic displacement, gentrification, environmental damage caused by generations of river modification, and the effects of global climate change.

In 2019 and 2020, we will focus on stories from the San Lorenzo River and the historic Ohio River. We make our way downriver in a rustic houseboat, built by the artist, loosely based on designs from shantyboats in the 1940s, from largely recycled and reclaimed materials. Traveling on the river in an authentic shantyboat and taking the time to listen to people’s stories makes this project unique, inspires deep wonder and connects meaningfully with people’s personal histories. The Open Classroom Mini Grant will support the creation of a 5-6 minute short documentary film that explores the work of the Secret History project. The documentary will cover the research, the voyages, the forgotten history of people living on or adjacent to the river, and the invisible history of those not included in the dominant historical narrative, prominently centering the voices of interviewees. The grant will facilitate the creation of UCSC student-based research groups over two quarters, editing, and release.

We work to help build stronger, more connected, and more diverse river culture and river communities. Our primary activities, conducting fieldwork, collecting stories, and sharing those stories, directly support this mission. The project recalls Suzanne Lacy’s dialogical works, the community-based work of Helen and Newton Harrison, and the contemporary water-based practice of Mary Mattingly, Eve Mosher, and others. One of the critical questions we ask, is “How do rivers connect us?” Most communities are sited at the riverside and their residents are river people who have important stories about their lives, their communities, and the river. These stories connect us as individuals and as communities facing the emerging crises of economic displacement, gentrification, environmental degradation, and the effects of global climate change on inland waterways.

This work emerges out of research for my UCSC Digital Art and New Media MFA for which I won a UCIRA grant and student-based project groups I lead. I continue to be a California-based artist and UC faculty. In 2017 my fieldwork focused on the Sacramento River. This year, the Santa Cruz Arts Council asked me and the Secret History project to take a central role in Ebb & Flow, the annual celebration of the San Lorenzo River. I collaborated with the Ebb & Flow team to stage a series of 20 short video interviews highlighting the personal stories, ecology, and history of local people connected with the San Lorenzo River. This work allowed me to bring my experience working on rivers nationwide to our local San Lorenzo River.