In a shallow valley in the southern East Bay, surrounded by oak-dotted hills, sits a concrete monument modeled after an ancient Greco-Roman temple. Built in 1910, the Sunol Water Temple marks the confluence of three underground water sources. The area, called Síi Túupentak or “Place of the Water Round House Site” in the Chochenyo language, is also an important heritage site for the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe.
By spring 2022, Síi Túupentak will also host the new Alameda Creek Watershed Center, offering educational exhibits, an 8,000-gallon aquarium representing local stream ecology, a watershed discovery lab, an outdoor discovery trail, and a garden. A coalition of groups including the Muwekma Ohlone tribe has commissioned artist and MacArthur Fellowship recipient Walter Kitundu to create an immersive sculpture and sound art piece for the site, seeking to acknowledge the historical and contemporary presence of Muwekma Ohlone communities.
Alameda County boasts one of the densest golden eagle nesting areas in North America, so it makes sense that the centerpiece of Kitundu’s poetic and multidimensional installation will be a large steel statue of a golden eagle in flight. He has dubbed the piece Ruupaywa, the Chochenyo word for “the eagle,” as well as the name of a protector in the Muwekma Ohlone creation story. With wings arched in what Kitundu calls a “protective posture,” the ten-foot-tall, 18-foot-wide bird will face Mount Diablo (Tuyshtak in Chochenyo), shading three benches. Renderings of the sculpture-to-be show a structure that resembles a line drawing, with steel outlines of individual feathers in the wings and tail. The empty spaces within these outlines will be filled with glass panels featuring photos sourced from watershed walks Kitundu is planning with tribe members.
The sound art component of Kitundu’s piece will be inspired by birdsong and the calls of other local animals. Weatherproof speakers placed throughout the garden area will broadcast sounds that serve as translations of these nonhuman songs. Kitundu plans to use editing software to slow down recordings of area wildlife until their pitches are within the standard human vocal range. Then members of the Muwekma Ohlone community will sing phrases in Chochenyo to melodies matching the altered animal songs. Finally, Kitundu will speed the recordings back up so they match the pitches of the original wildlife songs.
Want even more stories about Bay Area nature? Sign up for our weekly newsletter!
Although the results may be difficult to distinguish from the originals, they will have a unique character, and Kitundu believes when Muwekma Ohlone participants visit the garden, they will be able to distinguish their own calls from those of resident creatures. He hopes this work can serve as a kind of interspecies archive of Chochenyo phrases to be shared with both the human and nonhuman inhabitants of the watershed. “It’s a symbolic offering,” he explains, “a way of reconnecting the language to the land, and specifically to this place.”
Kitundu is acutely aware of the responsibility he has as an artist to properly represent the Indigenous communities of this area and to treat the sacred material they have entrusted him with carefully. He is eager to convey what he’s learned from the Muwekma Ohlone community to the public. But although no restrictions were imposed on his presentation of those stories and songs, it is important to him that his piece doesn’t make decisions for the tribe about what cultural knowledge is shared, or how or with whom. That meant, for example, designing the installation so that it resonates regardless of a visitor’s cultural background or familiarity with the watershed.
“The keys to accessing the meaning might not be on the surface,” he says. That sensitive and mindful approach “represents the best qualities of an artist tasked with creating a public art piece that honors the history, heritage, culture, and language of our Muwekma Ohlone People and our traditions,” said Muwekma Ohlone Vice Chairwoman Monica V. Arellano in a statement announcing the project in August.
Kitundu’s planned artwork may yield different meanings for different visitors. But this nuance and subjectivity are central to his hopes for the installation, which seems at its core to call for attentiveness and presence. “If you want the piece to resonate for some time, I think it’s helpful if it reveals itself slowly,” he says.