Month: May 2021

Postcards Series

To eat a fig is to swallow ghosts: A postcard for Little Tokyo

With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.


Courtesy of Fernando Mendez Corona

Kenji C. Liu

zuihitsu*

*

A fig fruit is composed of hundreds, sometimes thousands of tiny flowers, florets, hidden inside a fleshy covering.

This inside-out world is why we never see fig flowers.

*

Some might think of oranges when quizzed about Southern California fruit, but oranges originate in China.

*

In science fiction, a Dyson sphere is a massive shell built to completely enclose a star in order to capture its total energy output. By containing the star, the sphere completely blocks all outgoing visible light, altering the way it appears to outside observers.

This hidden, inside-out world is why we might never be able to see advanced extraterrestrial civilizations.

*

Without the knowledge and experience of immigrant Chinese agricultural workers, California’s orange industry would have died quickly.

*

Los Ángeles has been the site of many science fiction stories, most notably Blade Runner. It is notable for how thoroughly it enacts an orientalist fantasy of a 2019 where “Asian-ness” has saturated society, but without any actual Asian people. We are an implied threat, but without us there is no future.

*

There’s an orchid (ophrys apifera) that looks like a certain female bee in order to attract certain male bees. But the bee is extinct. The orchid continues to testify to a bee that no longer exists. The bee is implied.

*

Some fig trees require a special female wasp to pollinate its flowers and grow fruit. In return, the fig offers the wasp a place to lay its eggs and reproduce.

*

Spanish missionaries introduced figs to California. But the fig wasp hadn’t been brought to the colonization, and the fig kept waiting for her. The Mission fig (ficus caricia) was bred to produce fruit without the wasp. The wasp is missing in our Blade Runner future.

*

The fig is the third tree to be mentioned in the Bible. Adam and Eve used its leaves to cover their nakedness after Eve supposedly messed things up for them.

*

It’s just like a colonizer to think he should cut female fig wasps out of the picture.

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The self-pollinating fig is the ghost of conquest. It’s a memory of colonization. Does it remember the wasp? It might not, colonization is like that.

But when we eat a Mission fig, we eat the fruit of conquest.

*

In the fig community, there are different family arrangements. Some types of fig trees are monoecious which means they grow both “male” and “female” flowers. Others are dioecious in which some trees offer “male” and “female” flowers and other trees only have “female” flowers. All need special “female” wasps to facilitate pollination. Nature is naturally queer.

*

There’s a giant Moreton Bay fig tree (ficus macrophylla) in the heart of Little Tokyo, planted around 1920 by Reverend Shutai Aoyama of the Koyasan Buddhist congregation in front of its temple many years ago. The temple has moved, but the tree remains, watching over the block.

*

In some Buddhist traditions, contemplating the impermanence of the body is a way to develop equanimity and compassion for self and others. A person is basically a fig, thousands of flowers inside a fleshy covering, growing, opening, closing, passing away.

*

Close the eyes, turn inward. Notice the weight of our bodies on the earth. Watch the breath enter and leave the body. Watch feelings, thoughts, and sensations flower and pass.

*

It is hard to see what’s happening inside a person, just as it is with a fig or a Dyson sphere.

*

The Japanese word for fig tree, 無花果, is composed of the kanji for “no” (無)―a particle of negation—“flower” (花), and “fruit” (果). This refers to a tree that bears fruit without flowering. The ancient pictogram for 無 was a person holding something in both hands, but since then it has come to denote not having.

*

無 can be read as “mu,” which means nothingness, or a response to a Zen koan that has neither a yes or no answer. Rather than divide into a binary, “mu” refutes the question.

*

The problem with a Dyson sphere is it has a huge surface area, which makes it vulnerable to comets and meteorites. A meteor impact could throw the whole thing off-center, or burst through to the interior. An alternate vision is a tight network of stations weaving around the sun.

*

The ancient root of the word “wasp” is possibly related to “weave.” Weave can refer to interlacing a material together, but also to devising.

*

A strangler fig grows and envelops a host tree. Once the host tree dies and decomposes, it leaves a long hollow inside the fig tree.

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Early Spanish missionary colonization established itself near Native American towns and villages, tried to envelop and strangle them.

*

The Aoyama fig tree is located in a parking lot, it grows straight up from asphalt and concrete. It is one of the only direct connections to the actual dirt below. It is also a strangler fig. What lives in its center? An entrance and exit for ghosts.

*

The fig’s response: 無 (mu).

*

If the star inside a Dyson sphere was to die and vanish, what would be left?

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The Buddha was enlightened after sitting in meditation under a fig tree (ficus religiosa) for many days in Bodh Gaya, India. Though the original tree was destroyed and replaced, a branch from the original was rooted elsewhere, in Sri Lanka.

*

The problem with people is that we are vulnerable to everything. Almost anything can throw us off center.

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The Buddhist insight of anatta or no-self reminds us that although we may have an experience of the self as continuous, when you get down to it, we are constantly changing, without a solid center. Empty of a true self.

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The adjective “empty” evolved from the Old English word for “leisure.” The modern Greek word for “empty” evolved from a word meaning “freedom from fear.”

*

In Shinto, giant trees are often sites for local gods. Properly embued with sacred ropes and paper streamers, they become indistinguishable from gods.

*

There is an infamous black and white photo of the corner of First and Central, a block south of the Aoyama fig tree. It shows MPs forcing Japanese Americans onto buses headed to horse stalls at Santa Anita racetrack, then concentration camps.

*

Only a few more blocks away, next to the historic founding site of Los Ángeles, is where an 1871 race riot took place in which dozens of Chinese people were shot and hanged by a mob of hundreds.

*

Los Ángeles without Asians seems speculative, but they already tried to make it happen.

*

Gods, too, are implied by the empty spaces present in the everyday, leaving us wondering what or who could possibly have created this world.

*

The adjective “hollow” is said to originate in an ancient Proto-Indo-European root word meaning, “to cover, conceal, save.”

*

A Dyson sphere would only be possible because of extremely advanced technologies, which for us would probably be indistinguishable from magic or deities.

*

Next to the site of the 1871 massacre of dozens of Chinese is a park dedicated to Father Junipero Serra, who oversaw the system of California missions. Under the missions, Native Americans were decimated by disease, torture, forced labor, and starvation.

*

In the Bible, Jesus curses a fig tree for having no fruit for him. He goes on to Jerusalem where he drives out capitalists from the temple. The next day, they pass the same fig tree, which has withered. Some scholars say this symbolizes his fight against a lack of righteousness. Others say this is an example of a miracle wasted in service to a bad temper.

*

The fig’s response: 無 (mu).

*

Freeman Dyson, who came up with what’s now called a Dyson sphere, was a climate change skeptic who served on an advisory board for a conservative climate change think tank.

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Figs and wasps have been helping each other out for about 65 million years, since dinosaurs were thumping around Los Angeles.

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In Los Ángeles 2020, indigenous activists toppled the statue of Junipero Serra. In the social media video, someone can be heard yelling, “this is for our ancestors!”

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Some fig wasps live up to two months, others only live one to two days. Research indicates that an increase of 3 degrees in global temperatures would dramatically decrease the lifespan of fig wasps.

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Climate change skepticism rings hollow in the face of actual weather.

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Things a female fig wasp probably hates:

  • Burrowing into a fig and finding another wasp already there.
  • Male wasps not acknowledging the immense amount of labor involved in pollinating and laying eggs.
  • When another wasp comes calling in the middle of the night and overstays their welcome in the morning.
  • Figs who act superior because they don’t need a pollinator.
  • Dying inside the wrong fig.

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Some female figs can pretend to be male figs in order to seduce the female wasp. The wasp enters and pollinates, but cannot lay her eggs. She dies, and the fig digests her. Her ghost gives life to the fig.

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Wasps and trees don’t actually give a fig about gender.

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In Los Ángeles, there are a lot of fig trees, though you have to know what they look like. Usually, they aren’t just out in the open, waving their figs around. But they haunt the city’s corners, occasionally you meet one.

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I hadn’t tasted a fresh fig before moving to California. I did really like Fig Newtons.

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When eating a fig, we are also eating the ghost of a female wasp.

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If fig wasps went extinct, could the remaining fig trees testify to the memory of its insect partner?

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The old saying, I don’t give a fig, implies that figs are of low value.

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The fig’s response: 無 (mu).


*A zuihitsu is a Japanese contemplative literary form characterized by loosely associated fragments of text.

Kenji C. Liu is author of Monsters I Have Been (Alice James Books, 2019), finalist for the California and Maine book awards, and Map of an Onion, national winner of the 2015 Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize (Inlandia Institute). His poetry is in numerous journals, anthologies, magazines, and two chapbooks, Craters: A Field Guide (2017) and You Left Without Your Shoes (2009). An alumnus of Kundiman, the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and the Community of Writers, he lives in Los Ángeles.

Postcard Series

  1. Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
  2. Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
  3. Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
  4. Jennifer Carr, “The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront”
  5. Melissa Hidalgo, “A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots” 
  6. Brynn Saito with Photographs by Dave Lehl, “Acts of Grace: Memory Journeys Through the San Joaquin Valley”
  7. Nicolas Belardes, “South Bakersfield’s Confederate Remains”
  8. Ruth Nolan, “Cima Dome, East Mojave National Preserve”
  9. Marco Vera, “My Tata’s Frutería”
  10. George B. Sánchez-Tello, Oh Salinas! Song, Story and Punk Rock Behind the Lettuce Curtain
  11. Kenji C. Liu, To eat a fig is to swallow ghosts
Excerpts

We Are the Land: A History of Native California

Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr.

In May of 1928, Congress passed an enabling act to allow the “Indians of California” to sue the federal government for the land lost because of the eighteen unratified treaties signed in 1851 and 1852. To limit the scope of the action and consolidate lawsuits, the act provided the first legal definition of the Indians of California: “all Indians who were residing in the State of California on June 1, 1852, and their descendants now living in said state.” Lawmakers hoped this would prevent a flood of lawsuits parcel by parcel, rancheria by rancheria, village by village, tribe by tribe. The act authorized the lawsuit, which became known as the California Indian Claims Case, often referred to by its docket number: K-344. The case wound its way through the courts until a 1944 decision.

There have always been Indians in California, and despite their distinctiveness, the conditions they faced often shared important characteristics. But the idea of a category, much less a legal category encompassing all of the state’s far-flung and various Indigenous Peoples, was a new and contested notion. The “Indians of California” resulted from decades of activism and various networks of education and mutual support in response to attacks on their existence and livelihood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Indians of California increasingly pressed their collective issues through the courts, laws, at state fairs, and the state capital, and in defense of the land itself. The category did not subsume individual, village, rancheria, reservation, or tribal identities. Instead, the name provided yet another aggregate conceptual category to organize and strengthen local activism.

Mrs. Ruby Snyder, Chemehuevi Indian, Poston, Arizona. Created by Clem Albers. Photo courtesy Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

In the middle of the twentieth century, the various people that the federal government subsumed under the moniker “Indians of California” responded to and shaped the ebbs and flows of federal Indian policy. Across the state, officials clamored to dam rivers and flood reservation lands in the name of urban development. During the Great Depression, the federal government initiated what it considered a new phase of federal Indian policy—the Indian Reorganization Act. The government promised the new act ensured the independence of California Indians and other Indigenous People in North America. In Southern California, Indigenous People questioned those beliefs. Finally, in the 1950s, policies swung back toward those of the 1920s, attempting to absorb Indigenous lands and sovereignty through the ominously titled “termination” policies. Throughout the era, California Indians charted their own path to secure land and sovereignty.

Indigenous People were bound up in California’s image of itself, which was one of the state’s most valuable export commodities in the 1920s and 1930s. The region’s Mediterranean climate, landscape, and architecture, as well as its increasing prominence in the global economy, contributed to the production of the “Spanish fantasy past.” Business, culture, and political leaders highlighted California’s imaginary Spanish past to promote their vision of nostalgia for a vaguely European heritage and the tourism it supported. That story also helped to erase the diverse present by relocating people of color to the past. The gauzy stories of happy and orderly early California featured prominently at inter- national expositions held around the region. These expositions announced California’s promising future, yoked to an imaginary past. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco and the Panama-California Exposition of 1915–16 in San Diego celebrated California’s growth, especially because of the increased maritime trade brought about by the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914. Both expositions presented to the world a highly idealized version of California as paradise, with its Indians an important part of that past, not the present. Later expositions and fairs, such as the Long Beach Pacific Southwest Exposition of 1928 and San Diego’s California-Pacific International Exposition of 1935–36, continued this theme.

Indians from around the state and region found work at the fairs and expositions, building the Painted Desert exhibit in San Diego in 1914–15 and performing as “show Indians” in the pageants recounting California’s history. They also produced items for display and sale. In the 1910s and 1920s, the market for California Indian baskets changed. As the collector’s craze for baskets declined, Wiyot-Hupa Louise Hickox and Washoe Lena Dick led the way to finding retail outlets to sell their baskets and to promote their work at fairs and expositions. Hickox learned weaving from her mother, Elizabeth, and her grandmother, Polly Conrad Steve, who survived the notorious Indian Island massacre in 1860, when she was twelve years old.

Pomo-Patwin Mabel McKay appeared at the California State Fair and at various times at the California State Indian Museum, where she displayed her exquisite work. At the state fair in 1929, fair officials forced her to wear a skimpy beaded and fringed buckskin dress. After McKay reluctantly put it on, she asked wryly, “Do I look like an Indian yet?” In 1934, she appeared in the Sacramento Union, again dressed in a stereotypical Indian costume that bore no resemblance to Pomo culture. McKay displayed some of her well-known laconic wit when asked, what, besides basket weaving, the Pomos do. “Just live,” she answered.

In McKay’s case, tensions between “traditional” and “market” considerations revealed themselves. McKay was a Dreamer and a sucking doctor in the Bole Maru religion. Her great uncle, Richard Taylor, led the revivalist religious movement that became Bole Maru in the nineteenth century. While McKay grew up around very accomplished basket makers, including her aunt Laura Somersal, she learned weaving in her dreams. Baskets served a critical function in her healing practice, and McKay steadfastly refused to sell those baskets. At the same time, she often took commissions at demonstrations such as the 1929 State Fair.

Indians saw attending the fair as work—perhaps unsavory at times but work that had value. Margaret Harrie, a Karuk basket maker, single mother, and pikváhaan (storyteller), wrote to Grace Nicholson:

I send you this little red basket just for [a] present. . . . My little girl made it. . . . I sell my baskets to you very cheap. [T]hat black basket cost very high [b]ut I send it to you very cheap [b]ecause I think you are my friend. . . . We do not get our straw to fix the basket with up here. We get our straw down the Klamath River they do not grow up here so we have a hard work in get- ting them I have a hard living Because I have childrens to take care of all by myself. P.S. I forgot to tell you that my baskets were all $28.75 worth.

Harrie established a trade relationship with Nicholson for very practical economic reasons and pointed out the importance of site-specific har- vesting. She pursued a similar strategy later when the anthropologists began to show interest. Around 1930, Harrie worked with Hans Uldall, a Danish linguist, reciting the story of “Coyote and Old Woman Bull- head.” Whether it was baskets or stories, Harrie recognized the value of her culture, to herself and to others.

California Indian baskets are ecologically sensitive and site specific. While weavers have adapted new plants and forbs into their baskets, the sedge, redbud, willow, and other materials that formed the core of the craft were susceptible to environmental change. Urbanization pushed increasingly complex water projects farther into the state’s interior. California’s map is dotted with sites where urban, industrial, or agricultural demand for water came at the expense of Indian communities: Hetch Hetchy Valley was flooded to provide water to the city of San Francisco; Owens Lake was drained to provide water to the city of Los Angeles; Capitan Grande was flooded to enable the city of San Diego to grow.

California Indians sat at the center of some of the most well-known histories of water disputes in the state, but they are commonly sidelined in the narratives constructed about them. For example, long a staple case study in environmental history, the story of the flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley is often depicted as a victory of conservationists over preservationists and an important step in the beginning of the modern environmental movement. The valley, however, was also Miwok land. Both the Ahwahnechee and the Tuolumne Bands of Sierra Miwok claimed the valley in summer and fall. John Muir praised the valley’s “natural” beauty, calling it an “acorn orchard.” Orchards are not natural, and neither was the valley’s landscape, which Ahwahnechee and Tuolumne managed through controlled burns to increase seed output and fern growth. In addition to increasing the deer population, regular burning also reduced underbrush and contributed to the growth of the black oak trees, whose acorns formed a critical component of the Miwok diet.

The actors in the story, as it is normally told, are San Francisco city officials, the secretary of the interior, President Theodore Roosevelt, and John Muir. They all wrestled for control of the valley throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century. Some saw in it a solution to the city’s growing water problem, while others saw it as a place of great natural beauty deserving protection. That distinction pitted a reflective, aesthetic use of the valley for leisure against the “daily comfort and welfare of 99 percent.” The Miwok absence in the story highlights a central tenet of the environmental movement in California—namely, that preservation often, if not always, involved removing Indians from their land or severely reducing their ability to use it. In 1919, construction of the dam began, and within a few years, waters submerged the vast “acorn orchard.”

One of the most dramatic examples of urban infrastructure intervening in the Indigenous landscapes occurred in the Owens Valley in the eastern part of the state. Owens Lake lives on as a vestigial legacy on digital street maps, but it has long since disappeared. The lake dried up in 1926 (see fig. 24). The Owens River flows south through the slender valley, fed from the Sierra Nevada on its west and the White Mountains and Inyo Mountains on the east. Owens Valley Paiutes built a comprehensive irrigation system with lateral aqueducts running off of the east- west flowing creeks to grow seed grasses and edible tubers. As a result, before American settlement, the valley supported a Paiute population of between one thousand and two thousand people.


View of the dry lake bed of Owens Lake, looking north, with cracked pink clay due to high amounts of halophilic archaebacteria. Photo by Vahe Martirosyan, April 2019. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, American settlers, attracted by the valley’s suitability for ranching, encroached on Paiute settlements. In a familiar pattern, settler cattle destroyed grasses and tubers, and ranchers increasingly appropriated the water, without which the valley floor would become a semiarid dustscape. In 1862, tensions exploded into violence when settlers pushed Paiutes to the north end of the valley. Owens Valley Paiutes and Shoshone Bands from the east united under the leadership of Joaquin Jim and pushed the settlers back, reclaiming the valley for a brief time in the spring. By summer, the US Army moved in to starve the Paiutes out. They destroyed grain stores and ditches and forced the Paiutes into the mountains. Fighting continued through a peace treaty, eventually leading to the forced removal of almost one thousand Paiutes from the valley to the Sebastian Indian Reserve near Fort Tejon.

Ultimately, the war cost the lives of more than two hundred Paiutes and around thirty American settlers. The army remained in the valley for more than a decade to defend settler possession. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Paiutes made up around 20 percent of the local population but a majority of the labor force in the valley’s ranching economy. Ranchers depended on Paiute labor and mountain water and therefore resisted efforts to remove Paiutes to reservations farther south or to give them a solid legal claim to control their own resources.

All of this changed when the city of Los Angeles came to the valley. Beginning in 1905, the city, desperate for additional sources of water to accommodate its rapidly growing needs, began to surreptitiously purchase land in the valley to get control of the water rights attached to it. Within a few years, the LA Department of Water and Power (LADWP) began to construct an aqueduct to carry the river water more than two hundred miles south to the growing city. By 1913, the city had fully diverted the river into the aqueduct. As much as settler society dispossessed the Paiute residents of the valley, the LADWP effectively dispossessed the dispossessors, who themselves depended on Paiute labor. By the mid-1920s, resistance by valley residents again turned violent, and they dynamited the aqueduct on several occasions. Nonetheless, by 1926, the lake dried up, leaving a toxic salt flat and layers of animosity and anger. The story, often told as a fight between small farmers and ranchers and the city of Los Angeles, took place on Paiute land and reinscribed the colonial process as it erased the wage labor that enabled Owens Valley Paiutes to retain a tenuous grip on their homeland.

Beginning in 1925, Paiutes who received individual allotments, and were able to sell their land, recognized the value of their water rights as Los Angeles attempted to increase the volume of water it took from the valley. But rather than selling their land and water rights individually, Paiutes banded together and proposed a land exchange. They proposed giving up allotted individual plots of land in return for community tracts. At first, the city of Los Angeles resisted the proposal and attempted to pressure individual owners into selling. Paiutes persisted, and as a result, Los Angeles officials abandoned the plan.

By 1932, the city agreed to the land exchange, and in 1937, Owens Valley Paiutes traded Los Angeles previously allotted land for the land that became the Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine Reservations, allowing Paiutes to retain tribal land in the valley. The land exchange did not include water rights, which Paiutes retained to be negotiated later when the city of Los Angeles secured necessary approval. In the interim, Los Angeles promised to deliver water to the Paiutes. That has yet to hap- pen. As of August of 2020, the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission is still fighting for the rights guaranteed by the 1937 legislation.

A map of reservoirs in California follows the contours of Indigenous land. Nowhere is this clearer than in San Diego County. In 1919, Congress authorized the construction of a dam on the San Diego River through an agreement with the city of San Diego and the BIA. The dam was designed to create a reservoir to store water for the city’s growing needs. The Capitan Grande Indian community opposed the dam. Their resistance prolonged but did not prevent the construction, which began in 1931. Members of the Capitan Grande community split into three groups over their forced removal: approximately 35 percent of the 153 members of the community moved in early 1932 to newly constructed, architect-designed “model” cement block houses with indoor plumbing at Barona. Approximately 15 percent of the community, the shaahook (or “ten”), took their per capita shares in cash and left the reservation. The remaining 50 percent held out, refusing to move or allow officials to relocate their graveyard unless the BIA purchased a nearby ranch for their relocation. With the dam completed in October of 1934, the BIA relented and purchased the land that became the Viejas Reservation. Bureaucratic delays hampered their move. Ventura Paipa complained, “Here it is 1936, winter is upon us, and through unnecessary delay and lack of attention to our planning by the Bureau, we are facing a chance for a POOR CROP next year [with families] still living in barns with little or no protection from the winter snows sure to come.” By 1938, water filled the El Capitan Reservoir, and the former residents of the lake bed relocated to new reservations. Residents at Barona and Viejas successfully pushed to retain control over the portion of their former reservation that remains above water as a nature preserve.

This pattern of flooding Indian lands for the “greater good” of non-Indian peoples repeated itself across California time and time again. Between 1923 and 1961, major dams built on the Colorado, Feather, Merced, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Trinity, and Tuolumne Rivers flooded lands of the Chemehuevi, Hupa, Maidu, Miwok, Paiute, Wintun, Yokuts, and Yuroks, among others. The state left few rivers untouched. Forty of the fifty largest lakes in the state are man-made reservoirs, and every one of them flooded Indigenous land. A hydro- logical map of the state is a map of Indian dispossession. In the 1950s, the Bradbury Dam on the Santa Ynez River created Lake Cachuma. In her poem “Indian Cartography,” Ohlone-Costanoan-Esselen poet Deborah Miranda describes the dam’s effects:

Lake Cachuma, created when they
dammed the Santa Ynez, flooded
a valley, divided
my father’s boyhood: days
he learned to swim the hard way,
and days he walked across the silver scales,
swollen bellies of salmon coming back
to a river that wasn’t there.
The government paid those Indians to move away,
he says; I don’t know where they went.

Most poignantly, Miranda points to the land under the surface of the water, “not drawn on any map.” A map of California highlighting reservoirs is a map outlining theft and erasure of Indian land.

Notes: Excerpt taken from We Are the Land: A History of Native California (UC Press, 2021)

© 2021 by Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr.; used with permission by University of California Press. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

Reviews

Plantation Empire: A Review of Waite’s West of Slavery

Brian McGinty

Historical studies of American slavery have focused most intensely on events that took place in the southeastern part of the United States, and on the social, economic, and political developments that surrounded it there. In West of Slavery, Kevin Waite demonstrates that slavery was in the process of expanding in the southwestern part of the country before the Civil War began, and that efforts to establish what he calls the “Continental South” grew in strength and intensity as the conflict continued. If those efforts had been successful, he argues, slavery would have extended across the southern part of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and even into foreign lands. Waite’s statement that “slaveholders lusted after a transpacific dominion” is vividly supported by this book.

Waite’s definition of the “Continental South” includes California, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Utah. Although plantation slavery never took root there, he demonstrates that other forms of coercive labor received strong legal protection there and, for a time, flourished. During the Civil War, supporters of this labor threatened to bring the region into the conflict, encouraging the Confederate rebellion and promising the creation of a continent–wide nation devoted to the perpetuation of slavery and other forms of oppressive labor. West of Slavery’s purpose is to show how this proslavery influence began, continued, and was ultimately crushed.

White southerners transported an estimated 500-1,500 enslaved African Americans into gold rush California. Here, an interracial party mines for gold in Spanish Flat, El Dorado County, in 1852. Although the status of these black men is unknown, they were likely enslaved, as El Dorado County had one of the highest concentrations of slaveholders in the state at this time. Joseph Blaney Starkweather, Spanish Flat, 1852, California History room, California State Library, Sacramento.

Much of Waite’s book is devoted to the rise of pro–Southern and pro–slavery influence in Southern California, where Democrats under the leadership of California’s U.S. Senator William M. Gwin held sway during the 1850s. (Gwin actually owned about two-hundred slaves in Mississippi, although he did not bring them to California.) Southerners from the southeastern United States, motivated first by John C. Calhoun, who died in March 1850, later by a prominent plantation owner and railroad promoter named James Gadsden, and then by Jefferson Davis, who served as secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, supported Gwin and his efforts to bring a southern railroad from the west banks of the Mississippi to San Diego and to permit plantation owners to establish slave colonies in Southern California. These efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, but not for want of trying.

The story of the slaveholders’ efforts to bring a southern railroad to California is compelling. All westerners hoped for a railway that would cross the plains, valleys, deserts, and mountains that separated the Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean. But there were different hopes for where it should be built. Some wanted it in the north, some argued that it should be built across the center of the country, and yet others in the extreme south. The southerners supported the southern route, of course, but acquiesced in a survey that would determine where the best route would be. While waiting for decisions to be made, and facing the critical question of whether the federal government should lend its financial support to the construction of the railroad, southerners supported a wagon road, first called the Overland Mail Road, later the Butterfield Overland Mail Road (John Butterfield was the man who actually ran the company that operated the road), and, after Butterfield fell into financial distress, the Wells Fargo Overland Mail. Although many Southern political leaders asserted constitutional arguments against any federal financial assistance to the proposed railroad, they were happy to support the Overland Mail road, which at considerable federal expense carried mail as well as west–bound travelers, some of whom were looking for places where they could establish colonies replete with slave laborers. When Davis learned that the southern railroad route was faced with looming mountain obstacles, he urged Pierce to send Gadsden to Mexico to purchase additional land through which the railroad could pass south of the mountains. This effort resulted in what is now known as the Gadsden Purchase. The Overland Mail was rendered unprofitable by the short–lived Pony Express, which in 1860 crossed the middle of the country, and by the development of rail routes across Panama and Nicaragua, before the last link in the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Waite’s account of how all of this happened, and how Southern efforts to build what they affectionately called the “great slavery road,” ultimately failed, is long and detailed. His scholarship raises the story to a new level.

A crowd gathers as a Butterfield stagecoach prepares to depart from San Francisco. The San Francisco Bulletin called the Overland Mail “the most popular institution of the Far West.” Harper’s Weekly, December 11, 1858.

West of Slavery plunges deep into the Civil War history of New Mexico and Arizona and the efforts of slavery supporters to extend their empires into those territories. Political struggles were matched by military conflicts that for a time gave hope to the Southerners that they would prevail. Jefferson Davis authorized two military officers, Colonel John R. Baylor and Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, to invade New Mexico from Texas and, after they did so, they achieved some notable victories, capturing Mesilla, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe, then going on to Tucson. Ultimately, however, they did not prevail, due in large part to anti–slavery forces that moved eastward from California to meet them. U.S. Army Colonel James Henry Carleton’s 2,000–man “California Column” left Camp Drum on the Southern California coast in the spring of 1862, passed through Yuma, went on to capture Tucson, then proceeded along the Rio Grande to Santa Fe, ultimately forcing the Confederates to retreat back into Texas. Waite’s description of these events is detailed and compelling.

The US military installation at Drum Barracks, Wilmington, California, circa 1865. Note the camel in the foreground, a Unionist repurposing of Jefferson Davis’s antebellum pet project. USC Digital Library, California Historical Society Collection, Los Angeles.

Waite includes informative descriptions and analyses of events that took place in his “Continental South” as the war drew to a close, then proceeded into the post–war era of Reconstruction. African Americans did not fare well in these events, nor did the Asian Americans and the Native Americans who were faced with an almost unending chain of bitter opposition. This part of West of Slavery effectively extends the bigger story of the efforts of the slave powers to extend their empire across North America and, after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, to perpetuate all that they could of that empire.

The book includes a study of efforts to remember the pro–slavery “Continental South” through the formation of organizations that celebrated slavery, that built monuments to Confederate heroes, and that sought to honor those heroes by applying their names to mountains, valleys, roads, and soaring trees––all in the land that the Confederates had hoped to build a great slavery empire in. Through these efforts, they sought to perpetuate the memory of what Waite calls “the presence of the Old South in the Far West.”

A granite pillar in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, honoring some thirty Confederate veterans buried in the surrounding plot. Erected in 1925, this was the first major Confederate memorial in the Far West. It was removed in August 2017, following the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photograph by the author.

Kevin Waite is not only a determined scholar. He is also a wonderful writer. Those who are impatient to quickly arrive at the conclusion of his story must be patient, however. The book is filled with detailed discoveries. Sometimes it can be tiring to reach the end of a story, but the end rewards the reader’s patience.

One slight objection is the title of Waite’s book. When first read, West of Slavery suggests that the book is about a part of the West that is beyond slavery. It is not, of course. It is a land in which forced labor was strong and rampant, in which the hopes of spreading slavery and the efforts to do so were vigorous and determined, and in which the failure of those efforts was far from inevitable. If the title had been The West of Slavery, it might have been clearer. Waite himself hints at this, writing that the “preposition in this book’s title is possessive. In other words, the Far Southwest was a land of slavery and slaveholding influence; it was not free from it.” This objection is, however, not only slight––it is very slight.

West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire by Kevin Waite. Copyright © 2021 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. http://www.uncpress.org

Brian McGinty (BA, American History, JD, School of Law, University of California, Berkeley) is the author of twelve books and 200 articles that have appeared in popular magazines and scholarly journals. His Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America (Liveright/W.W. Norton 2015) and Lincoln and the Court (Harvard University Press 2008) discuss important chapters in the life of Abraham Lincoln. His Archy Lee’s Struggle for Freedom: The True Story of California Gold, the Nation’s Tragic March toward Civil War, and a Young Black Man’s Fight for Liberty (Lyons Press/Rowman & Littlefield 2019) and The Rest I will Kill: William Tillman and the Unforgettable Story of How a Free Black Man Refused to Become a Slave (Liveright/W.W. Norton 2016) describe important chapters in the struggle of African Americans to escape slavery and win freedom both before and after the Civil War. His John Brown’s Trial (Harvard University Press 2009) describes the sensational judicial proceeding that made the abolitionist John Brown one of the most famous (and controversial) martyrs in American history. See more of Brian’s work at http://brianmcgintyauthor.com/