Tag: Native Americans

Interviews

A Boom Conversation at the Edge of the World

image1

Denise Sullivan

Editorial Introduction: Something I heard in Kim Shuck’s poems and read in Lynell George’s writings indicated both California women not only understood and shared a passion for our place, but could also deliver a deeper understanding for the rest of us through discussion of what it means to be a committed Californian. While their modes of expression are different—Shuck a poet and beadworker, George an essayist and photographer, and their roots are in different parts of the state, with ancestral ties from outside of it—their experiences as women of color and their unique expressions are similarly compelling. I became convinced they had to meet.

Shuck, San Francisco’s seventh poet laureate, is also an educator, mentored by some of the great women artists and activists of the twentieth century, from sculptor, educator, and Japanese internment survivor Ruth Asawa, to poet and Native American cultural affairs educator, Carol Lee Sanchez. With a heritage that is part Oklahoma Cherokee and part Polish, Shuck has followed in the footsteps of artist/activists, while tutoring children in the arts and math, teaching poetry and Native studies at the collegiate level, and generally pitching in where needed in her community, whether supporting independent bookstores and public libraries or eradicating everyday racism in our town square. A many times published and awarded poet, her most recent project to create fifty-five poems in fifty-five days was inspired by the reactivated thirty-year effort to remove the colonialist/settler statue, Early Days, from San Francisco’s Civic Center. The takedown of the bronze occurred in September and the poems and dialogue surrounding it caught the attention of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture continues concerted efforts to remove racist statues and logos from the public sphere. Shuck’s new poetry book, Exile Hearts, publishes in December with the American Indian/Indigenous press, That Painted Horse, while her reading series and appearances as poet laureate continue unabated, within and outside the Bay Area.

George is beloved in the Southland from her years as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly. Her family came West from New Orleans, a journey she chronicled in her first book, No Crystal Stair: African Americans in the City of Angels (Verso), and she has spent her share of time reporting from there as well in San Francisco’s North Beach, her homes away from home. George’s latest, After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame, for LA-based Angel City Press, combines her photography with her writings about the changing cityscape and the people who contribute to making LA the de facto capital of the West Coast. The stories combine the best of what people bring with them, the already considerable gifts of our native, majestic desert-mountain-seascape, and George’s own experiences as a close observer. Earlier this year, she won a Grammy Award for her liner notes about Otis Redding’s historic performances, Live At The Whisky A Go Go: The Complete Recordings; she also spent a chunk of time with the Huntington Library-housed archives of original Afro-Futurist, science fiction writer Octavia Butler. George can be found giving talks at cultural institutions from Loyola Marymount and the University of California to Union Station, or about town, writing and photographing her LA, the place she knows and loves best.

While their modes of expression are different—Shuck a poet and beadworker, George an essayist and photographer, and their roots are in different parts of the state, with ancestral ties from outside of it—their experiences as women of color and their unique expressions are similarly compelling.

And so they met, at the fifty-year-old literary landmark, Beyond Baroque, in Venice, where I organized a reading with the expressed purpose of joining the pair to read from Your Golden Sun Still Shines, the San Francisco story anthology I edited, and to discuss matters of north versus south, and specifically the changes we’ve lived through as women still committed to California dreaming and doing. While that conversation between California cultural herstorians, poets and artists, journalists and photographers (accompanied by songwriter Peter Case) was indeed lively, it was our talk prior to the public one, where Boom editor Jason Sexton and Shuck’s partner Doug Salin were also present, where we got down to parsing the rougher business of our state, from its wild nature and riotous flora to the problems of racial and economic inequality that have been with us since the origins of statehood. We join that conservation as Shuck and George recollect their experiences growing up as students in California classrooms.


group

Photo of Shuck, George, Sullivan, and Sexton by Doug Salin.

Lynell George: When we moved from our home in the Crenshaw District to Culver City, immediately I was put in a low reading group without testing. I confronted the teacher and said, “You know I actually already read these books.” and I could see that she was not paying attention to me and it wasn’t just that it wasn’t sinking in. Not that she wasn’t absorbing it; she just didn’t believe it.

I went home to talk to my mother about it and she had just come home she was taking her shoes and her hose off and was listening to me talk and all of a sudden, she’s getting dressed again, and we were heading down to the school to talk to the principal and the teacher. Because my mother was an English teacher, she was able to tell them, “You give her this test, this test, and this test.” But what if she wasn’t able to do that? What if she didn’t know? And so the teacher had to correct it and then, of course, was angry with me for the rest of the year because she was embarrassed in such a public way. That was early on. I was eleven, ten, something like that.

Kim Shuck: I went to public school and then to high school at a private school because dad was working in Silicon Valley at that time and suddenly he was making money. Both my parents had been working class and they went, “Oh it’s gonna be good for her if we put her in this private school….” And essentially, I had a lot of trouble, but after the one time my father got called in from work—you did not call Indian men in from work—it was not well received and dad was so angry. He drives up from Mountain View back to San Francisco and he doesn’t understand how frightening people find him—a six foot plus, dark-skinned man with jet black hair—looks like if a darker-skinned Elvis had never gotten fat and had been career military, and  he walks like that. His lips are disappeared and he is talking to the guy in the office about this thing. And after that I really had no problem with anyone because nobody wanted my father coming back to school.

They almost expelled me for doing a creative writing project that they didn’t like. They threatened me with expulsion and then I said, “Well let’s just call my parents.” I didn’t want to be yelled at by these people anymore. And everybody in the office kind of went hmm… and did the math and thought, “That means that big man will come back: Let’s not have him back.”  When I got named laureate of San Francisco, they called up and asked, “What do you remember about going to our school?” I remember the poetry teacher telling me my work would never go anywhere because it was too self-referential.

They almost expelled me for doing a creative writing project that they didn’t like.

George: What lit the fire in me as a reporter was, I wanted to tell the stories of the neighborhoods that I knew really well, but didn’t see their stories told with richness and in their voices. There was a negative feeling about the Los Angeles Times when I started there in the ’90s: People felt it didn’t tell the story of their community. So, here I was an African American reporter, and do you trust what I can do with your story? Then over time, people got to know my byline and my reputation, but I had to earn it and I knew I had to earn it. I didn’t walk in expecting, like, some of the other reporters often said, “Your quotes are going to be in the L.A. Times.” I was like, “Please, contribute to the story. I want to hear your side.” That was the important part and I was able to create lifelong relationships with people all over the city because of that. It didn’t so much happen with The Weekly, like if I was going to do interviews in South L.A. or East L.A. Back then, they didn’t distribute the papers in those communities, so a lot of people didn’t know what that was: “And what is that paper?” “Who are you with?” But, by talking to them, connecting with them, finding whatever the common ground was, they trusted me to take back that story.

Shuck: You get them to tell you stories. You have to earn their trust. The poem about the mother and child or the parent and child cycle poem that I do, there is a line in there:

The boy showed me the mark of the scorpion on his leg
and I showed him the mark of the spider on mine

That happened. I work with brand new immigrant kids from Mexico and this student had walked across the border by himself…. It’s a long story. It’s not mine to tell, but boy, is it a good story and as he was telling me that story, he pulls his pant leg up and he goes, “That’s a scar from the scorpion sting.” So I showed him where on my leg, there is a spot where there is just skin over a hole because I got bit by a fiddleback spider. I said, “That’s a spider bite.” He went, “Wow. That’s cool.” And suddenly I had all of this street cred. You find the common ground, you know? Tell me where it hurts. Maybe I can help, maybe I can’t, but I will witness for you.

DSC03938 (1) ed

George: Once I sat in a classroom at San Francisco State, and had to turn in a story for the class. I was writing about L.A. When the discussion opened up, the first question was “Can she do this?” And I’m like… “Can she do this? Why are they asking about me? I’m sitting right here.” And instead of the professor trying to shift the conversation, she starts saying, “Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure. If she sent this story into XYZ magazine….” And finally I said, “I’m not sure what you are talking about.” And it was clear that they didn’t understand what race the characters were in my piece. The characters were multiracial because it was a story about Los Angeles in a multiracial environment, but they were looking for something that identified the character as African American. Nobody would really come out and say that right away.

This is a different conversation than one that happened in the memoir class; this was a fiction class. Either way, I was screwed. I’m writing true life and I’m writing fiction and whatever I do or say, as in, “I’m reflecting the environment around me,” would prompt, “Can she do that?” I said, “Men write women. White men write all kinds of….”

Shuck: Anybody they feel like.

George: Anybody. So why can’t I? And then the instructor said, “Well, I’m sure, if they saw….” I think she said something about a picture, a photograph of you. “What difference does it make?” And she couldn’t answer. But, it stopped everything cold and at that point, yeah, I kind of shut down. Why would I share my work with this group?

Shuck: Right. Well the thing is you grow out of them and that’s kind of the fun part. You keep going. So when we went into the hearings for the removal of the Early Days statue, I started in the mode, “Okay. I’m listening. What do you have to say?” And it was so unreasonable. They kept speaking as if we weren’t there. It’s complicated for me. I can fact-find in plain sight, if I don’t have a relative with me. The first guess people make isn’t, “That’s a Native woman.” But finally, that behavior is like an icepick over and over at very shallow depths increasing over time. People call this microaggression, but it’s not. One of my good friends broke a tooth clenching her jaw over something like that. I mean, these are not micro at all. Finally I just went “Ahhhh”  and I went off. And the stuff came out and I feel like if you read all fifty-five of the poems back-to-back, you’d see me de-comp-ing over time. The things I don’t deal with right away get really complicated on the page, so it makes for crap poetry—passionate—and I call them rants when I write like that. I mean, at my best, I’m not calling people idiots and racists.

George: Right. Sometimes it’s necessary.

Shuck: Sometimes it’s just so true that you have to. Somebody’s got to say it. In the hearings this guy was saying, “I know art because my family has funded a lot of art museums.” I got up and said, “I know art because I am an artist and I have two degrees in art and I teach it, and on the days when I am not teaching it, I am making it.” My family built the buildings, those museums…. We didn’t own them, but I do feel a certain ownership of them. And if this was just a conversation about art, we could sit down over a coffee or a brandy and have it as a really polite conversation, but that’s not what we’re talking about. We are talking about privilege and that’s going be more painful. People get their scabs torn off in this conversation: “There will be blood.” I kind of ranted at them for a few minutes and then I did that sort of Columbo thing and went, “You do know that you’re on the wrong side of this argument, right? You do know that eventually this statue is coming down and that history will look ill upon the fact that you have made it take longer? You get that right?”

George: It’s funny, when I moved to San Francisco and I would meet people and they would ask me where I was from and very often someone would say some version of, “Oh. How lucky for you to have left L.A. You made a good choice being up here. Because L.A. is such a pit.” And I’m like, “No. It really isn’t. And you should come and spend time down here and I would take you on a tour. I really would.” I would take you on a tour that would blow your mind because it would burst through every misconception and preconceived notion you have. And I actually did do that with a couple of friends and they’ve gone back and told people, “It’s not what you think.”

The idea that all of the sudden sitting in traffic or I’m at the market, trying to get to my car, I look up and I see the mountains and there’s snow on them: And you can actually see them, which in the seventies, you could not always see the mountains. In the eighties, you could not always see the mountains. You can see them now. And there is something for me still, about sitting in my house with all of the windows open and hearing all my neighbors playing their music….

image2

Shuck: And the slight breeze changes, and it’s a whole different setting.

George: Exactly.

Shuck: I feel like what I see that still happens here that sort of has stopped happening in San Francisco is that you can see people kind of hanging out with one another outside.  When I was a kid in San Francisco on our block we had installed these sorts of bulkhead things that acted as benches and at night, on warm nights, we’d go hang out and like there’d be fifty adults and a whole bunch of kids riding bikes and skating up and down the sidewalk and we occupied that space and occupied it as our own. And as time has gone on, there is less and less and less of that. I love it when I come down here and I see, it’s after dark and we’re driving through wherever, and there’s this group of folks outside, sitting there talking and that is a useful thing to remember and something to try to resurrect a bit.

When I was a kid in San Francisco on our block we had installed these sorts of bulkhead things that acted as benches and at night, on warm nights, we’d go hang out and like there’d be fifty adults and a whole bunch of kids riding bikes and skating up and down the sidewalk and we occupied that space and occupied it as our own.

George: That’s a good point. I moved up there without a car because I didn’t need a car. It was exciting to learn a city on foot, learn a bus system and be in the BART system or on MUNI and learn how to read a map and get myself around places. That stayed with me as I traveled other places, but when we finally were able to get a rail here, and I’m on it a lot—I know it’s because of San Francisco.

I’m watching this younger generation of Angelenos: It used to be this rite of passage for us to get a set of keys so we could drive everywhere and be independent. I’m noticing there are kids so much younger who know the city in ways that my generation will never know because they went out and they pushed into different neighborhoods. They have friends, they have places they meet, and they’re independent at a younger age and they think about the city’s grid in a different way than we did. It’s very exciting to watch that, and I see it through my San Francisco eyes.

Shuck: Yeah. I don’t know about here, but in San Francisco, everything’s gentrification grey.

George: Yes. Here it’s starting to be that way.

Shuck: With entitlement orange trim.

George: Yes! Yes! Yes!  You get the chartreuse doors too.

Shuck: Yes! I just saw my first one of those on Valencia. And Guerrero had one, as well. I just want to say, there are all these eviction arsons in San Francisco. Houses with small apartments that have a lot of long-term residents. So this one place down in the Mission actually bolted charred boards, which I know is a traditional Japanese aesthetic thing, but it’s so tone deaf: It was built on the site of a house that had burnt down.

George: Oh my god. Oh no.

Shuck: I loved that the first graffiti that went up was “Are you fucking kidding me?” It wasn’t even a tag. It was just exasperated.

George: Do better. Just do better. It pains me to look and see it because part of the richness for me of being here has always felt like the world comes here. And if we are open enough to have conversations, we get closer and closer and closer. And that was the thing, like I could dip into a Haitian community here, a Brazilian community, Salvadorean community. I had friends from so many places—Cuba, Costa Rica—and that also is, I think, one of the things that turned me into a journalist. The big ache in my heart is from that flattening of place and things looking the same, getting the same kind of food, the same buildings and missing the colors people use to paint them, and the flowers that they plant in their yard. I like that riot of color and the difference.

It depends on where you are in the city, but there are certain things that are going away.

The big ache in my heart is from that flattening of place and things looking the same, getting the same kind of food, the same buildings and missing the colors people use to paint them, and the flowers that they plant in their yard.

Shuck: I have a lot of lines about this because it really irritates me and, as I said, [snaps fingers] “Fast switch sarcasm.” Understand this: If we have a good earthquake, half of those guys are going back where they came from. Wherever that is.

George: Oh yeah. That’s very true. That happened here too.

Shuck:  The people who have moved here by volition. Because the acquisitional people who moved in for a paycheck are not committed. There are other kinds of neighbors who move in and make themselves part of a neighborhood and participate in things, and that’s a big difference. It’s a cycle. It was kind of getting better through our generation and it’s getting worse now, but nature will resolve this.

When the building at 22nd and Mission burned down, one of my students lost his father.

It’s been so interesting to watch the pushback. The city got involved, so they haven’t yet rebuilt the forty-story, you know, ice cube tray for techy rats.

George: The ice cube tray. That’s so excellent. I had not heard that before, but that’s so right.

Shuck: But if you notice, the buckeye butterflies are back. There was a night cloak there the other night, as well. We have very few night cloak butterflies in San Francisco and they used to be all over the place. And the buckeyes we haven’t really seen in any numbers for a long time, but the minute you bring their food back, shockingly they come back and start eating it.

George: Oh, that’s beautiful

Shuck: In San Francisco, Native San Franciscans keep being called unicorns, as though we’re mythological and rare. I’ve been trying to make the point lately at readings to ask, “Who was born and raised here?” And there’s always a lot of us. I’m not going anywhere.

We’re still here and I’m not going, you know? And Doug’s not going. And my kids are there. And their father was also born in San Francisco, by the way, so they’re native San Francisco on both sides. We’re here. We’re around, you know?

I want you to think about what oxalis does. if you put a pot with just dirt in it out on your porch in San Francisco within six months, it will have an oxalis plant or a nasturtium in it. One or the other. Seriously. And oxalis reseeds itself like four different ways. It’s got roots under the ground, it’s got seeds, if you chop it up, the little bits of it will grow a new one. They’re pretty resilient and I feel we’re that way too. So, I just don’t think it can keep happening. This direction is not endless. It’ll pop back, you know? It will, but I think we need to stop talking about ourselves as though we’re all going away.

image3

George: You hear that about L.A. too, that it’s rare. I remember being at some event with a bunch of Brazilians and they were going around the table asking the question and I said, “No I’m a native of Los Angeles,” and a woman kept asking me.

Shuck: No, but where?

George: Yeah, “No, but where?” I said, “No. Los Angeles.” She said, “That’s very rare.” No, it’s not. If you took a poll, there would be more people in this room who are native than you think, and I think there’s this perception because of the way people are grouped.

Shuck: We are five native Californians in one room.

George: In one room. Owning that nativeness and talking about it is so important. That’s why when I did this book, After/Image, I wanted to focus on what was still here and who was still here, and what unifies us. When I’ve been doing the readings, I ask people, “What’s your L.A. story?”  Because I want us to share in a group like what matters still about L.A.

Shuck: Otherwise it’s just like being talked around  in those classes—the way that they make us disappear in San Francisco or in L.A.

George: Yes. Absolutely.

Shuck: It’s exactly the same thing. We’re right here.



Shifting the World one Opinion at a Time
(Kim Shuck)[1]

I have come awake
Homesick in my hometown
Tapped sacred songs onto porch wood
Onto pavement squares
Like a child game
Thrown a place holder
To the next foothold
Jumped
Tapped sacred songs onto library walls
Museum walls
City hall walls
The thing we bring here today is not predicted by your security
Coal hot memories
Generational
And a terrifying patience

revisit2

Kim Shuck, adapted from photo by Doug Salin.



Flavor
(Lynell George)[2]

If Los Angeles is ever evolving, being an Angeleno must be something that by consequence is too not-fixed, that it is an identity in flux.

What far more interests me is how Los Angeles exists in our own imagination—influenced by that perception—how a sense of place affects and shapes us: TV beams in weekly, scripted scenarios, movies seduce, but so many of us who grew up around narrow narratives of place work against or away from that; we’re not all chasing the round-the-next-bend dream (film industry, real estate, peace of mind), but often we are the fruit of those who came in search of it.

For us, then, the kids who lived in those off-the-radar places on the map—a dead-end street, “below-the-10,” or over the bridge—finding your path, your way, meant finding your terrain, your tribe, and your heart.

We move through a collection of roads that spin us toward some next chapter of understanding. In certain ways, it’s ongoing coalition building: Whom we connect with gifts us another small brick of clarity and compassion—a sense of deeper self-making. And with all this connecting, mixing, and borrowing, if we are lucky, it can produce something as uncanny as indelible.

revisit1

Lynell George, adapted from photo by Al Quattrochi.



Notes

[1] Reprinted by permission of Kim Shuck.

[2] Excerpt from After/Image: Los Angeles Outside the Frame (Los Angeles: Angel City Press, 2018), 144.


Denise Sullivan
is a fourth generation San Franciscan who’s lived in Los Angeles and Atlanta. Author of several books of music biography, she’s editor of Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions for independent press Manic D, and co-editor of the 2018 chapbook, The City Is Already Speaking: The Sound of Calle 24. She writes the SF Lives column for The San Francisco Examiner.

Copyright: © 2018 Denise Sullivan. 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/.

Articles

Last Stands

Tony Platt

1 CUSTERS LAST STAND

Remembering to Forget

One day in 2017, a woman taking a yoga class at a senior center in Oakland noticed a large painting on the wall that depicted “Custer’s Last Stand.” She found it offensive and racist, and fired off emails to city officials asking for it to be removed.

In response to this complaint, Jennifer King, director of the Downtown Oakland Senior Center, convened a public forum on 17 January 2018 to discuss the issue. A panel, of which I was a member, presented a variety of viewpoints. Ms. King saw Custer getting his comeuppance, and Toby McLeod of Sacred Land Film Project thought the artist had demonstrated some sympathy to the Native point of view. Roberto Bedoya, Oakland’s manager of Cultural Affairs, noted that local government has a commitment to make sure that public buildings represent the city’s cultural diversity and legacy of struggles for social justice. Tony Gonzales from the American Indian Movement and Corrina Gould (Chochenyo Ohlone) made the case that the painting glorifies Custer and should be removed, a position with which most people in the audience concurred.

I argued that people who work at and use the Senior Center should determine what to do about the painting, but the information I presented made clear that I personally would not want to look up from a downward-facing dog to see a glorified image of Custer standing on higher ground in a dazzling light beneath the U.S. flag, his receding hair miraculously luxuriant.

There has been much debate in recent years about what to do with memorials to the Confederacy in the South, with the legacies of slaveholders whose fortunes launched Ivy League universities in the East, and with the statues of great men who did great harm. Efforts are also under way to do something about the gender imbalance in the sparse public representation of women. Of some 5,200 statues in the United States depicting historical figures, fewer than 400 are women. Only five public statues in New York honor women.[1]

There is no need to travel very far to engage these issues. We have plenty of cultural skeletons in our own backyard, as California’s official narratives typically represent the state as superior to the South with its history of slavery, conveniently sanitizing the state’s own blood-drenched origins in conquest and war. Academic historians have documented in relentless and scrupulous detail that what was done to Native peoples in California constitute genocide. Yet the guardians of our public history prefer upbeat stories that emphasize a narrative of progress and civilization.[2] How else to explain the glaring absence of memorials, plaques, ceremonies, rituals, days of mourning, elementary and high school textbooks, and sites of memory to remind us how the past bleeds into the present?

Unlike universities such as Princeton, Yale, and Georgetown that are trying to come to terms with the paradox of enlightened knowledge coexisting with the trade in enslaved Africans, the University of California has not yet examined its own complicity in institutionalized racism, such as how Berkeley’s Anthropology department rose to international prominence by promoting the enthusiastic grab of thousands of Native graves in order to accumulate artifacts and human remains for display and science.[3]

The Custer painting is one of several current controversies about historical amnesia taking place in California. In San Francisco, organizations led by Native American groups lobbied the Arts and Historical Preservation Commissions to remove a section of the “Early Days” memorial in Civic Center that depicts a vaquero and missionary standing over an almost naked Indian, presumably offering to uplift him into a civilization that almost liquidated his people.

For years, activists at Stanford have been urging the university to erase the name of Father Junipero Serra from buildings, given his role as a key architect of a Mission system that laid the foundations of California’s genocide. Down south at Long Beach State University, the descendants of the Tongva people who lived here from time immemorial are deeply offended by the campus’ mythic statue of Prospector Pete, a celebration of manly conquest.[4]

Up the coast in the town of Arcata, activists petitioned the city council to remove a statue of President McKinley from the public square, and a marker outside the historic Jacoby building constructed in 1857. They object to McKinley as a civic icon, given his racial politics and war against the Philippines that marked the rise of American imperialism.

A similar monument to Admiral Dewey in San Francisco’s Union Square glorifies war and expansionism in a city with a reputation for antiwar activism.

 

The Jacoby plaque in Arcata commemorated a building that “served periodically as a refuge in time of Indian troubles,” a refuge for Gold Rush settlers and speculators. This seemingly neutral statement makes a mockery of genocide by turning victims into perpetrators. It perpetuates the fable that the good citizens of the region did not participate in, support, or fund military campaigns that reduced once thriving tribal communities to one thirtieth of their population by the end of the nineteenth century; or that well into the twentieth century they had nothing to do with the commerce in Native women, children, artifacts, and human bones that played a significant role in the economic development of northwest California.

In Berkeley, a campaign is under way to change the name of a building in which the law school is housed. In May 2017, Charles Reichmann, a university lecturer, published an opinion in the San Francisco Chronicle that exposed John Henry Boalt, after whom Boalt Hall is named, as a “virulently racist” proponent of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, who was “instrumental in catalyzing California opinion in support of this law.”[5] Berkeley’s new law school dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, appointed a committee to explore how the name might be changed, and how to juggle the competing demands of Chinese-American law students, academics from China, anti-racism activists, conservative alumni who identify themselves as “Boalties,” and university lawyers worried about the fine print of a bequest.

What these examples have in common, aside from a shared racial narrative about civilization and savagery, is that many memorials were created around the same time: “Custer’s Last Stand” was painted in 1883, “Early Days” erected in 1894, the Dewey monument in 1903, the McKinley statue in 1906, and Boalt Hall named in 1911. There are exceptions to this timeline: Long Beach State branded Prospector Pete in 1949, and the Arcata plaque was installed in 1963, testimony to the staying power of imagery that was popularized in nineteenth century tropes about hardy settlers and “Indian troubles.”

The destruction of Native communities was well known and publicized in the second half of the nineteenth century. Reformers spoke out against the “sin” of the “brutal treatment of the California tribes,” and lamented the uncivilized behavior of the civilizers. “Never before in history,” wrote a popular journalist in the early 1870s, “has a people been swept away with such terrible swiftness, or appalled into utter and whispering silence forever and forever.”[6] But by the early twentieth century, as direct experience of the horrors of genocide faded from public memory and as the state looked for an origins story more suitably heroic, agents of genocide were remade into founding fathers.

The production of the state’s revisionist history was a popular enterprise, incorporated into grandly produced “theatres of memory,” such as world fairs and local spectacles, into travel books, memoirs, adventure stories, textbooks, and magazines that exported the California Story around the country, long before Hollywood entered the picture.[7]

The creation of a public narrative of the past both excused and legitimated racist images of Native peoples, making it easier for future generations to sleep untroubled and evade a reckoning with the region’s “Early Days.” The logic of late nineteenth and early twentieth century scientific racism was central to framing the attempted extermination of hundreds of thousands of people as a natural rather than social history, and as a process of inevitable erosion and decline rather than the result of human intervention and aggression.

By the early twentieth century, as direct experience of the horrors of genocide faded from public memory and as the state looked for an origins story more suitably heroic, agents of genocide were remade into founding fathers.

The California Story imagined Native peoples as a “disappearing race,” predestined to extinction as a result of their own biological inferiority, the survivors characterized as child-like and in need of the firm hand of civilizing institutions, such as the vaquero and priest in the San Francisco tableau. Literary images of California Indians generally emphasized the passivity of victims, thus implying complicity in their own demise (reminiscent of 1950s depictions of Jews as sheep being too easily led to their slaughter during the Holocaust), despite a long history of resistance, from guerilla warfare during the Gold Rush, to young men and women in boarding schools plotting revolts, to political organizing against the looting of graves.

The effectiveness of this remaking of history meant that by the 1930s a popular book could relegate the ruin of California’s Native peoples to a footnote. As late as 1984, an elementary school text transformed the bloody horrors of the 1850s into a mild case of culture conflict: “The people who came to look for gold and to settle in California did not understand the Indians. They made fun of the way the Indians dressed and acted.”[8]

The upbeat version of the California Story that turned profound injustices into a narrative of Progress served to erect a cultural firewall between the bloody past and present, thus numbing many generations of schoolchildren to our sorrowful history.


Civilization and Barbarism

“Custer’s Last Stand” was a national story that resonated in California as both a vindication of expansionism and a warning against the dangers of barbarism. The painting that hangs in Oakland’s senior center evokes a battle scene in 1876 in which General George Armstrong Custer died along with some 263 soldiers of the 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn, Montana. You might reasonably think that the term “Last Stand” refers to the resistance of Plains Indians to the U.S. Army’s onslaught before, as Philip Deloria observes: “a mechanized, train-riding, machine-gunning military rapidly subdued native people, forcing them to reservations.”[9]

Perversely, the “Last Stand” refers to Custer’s role in his final battle. Custer was a military man all his short life (1839-1876). He graduated from West Point and fought in the Civil War. After that war was over, he fought Indians. He died at war. Given how well his name is known (though inevitably paired with “Last Stand”), you might also think that he was an unblemished military leader who had a bit of bad luck at Little Big Horn, or that he was a warrior of extraordinary courage—the last one standing in the battle. Historical evidence suggests neither is true.

Today, Custer’s reputation is mixed, with one military historian characterizing him as a “gallant idiot.” In the 1860s, in large part due to his knack for self-promotion through published articles and a book (My Life on the Plains), and for attracting a favorable press, the youngest divisional commander in the Cavalry Corps became known as “The Boy General with the Golden Locks.” As historian Richard Slotkin observes, Custer “took direct charge of the making of his own public persona.”[10]

After the Civil War, Custer’s career was up and down.

In 1867, during the Kansas-Colorado campaign, he ordered deserters shot without trial and left his post without permission, for which he was sentenced to a one-year suspension from the military without pay. In 1868 he returned from exile to defeat the Southern Cheyenne at the Washita, and was rumored to have encouraged his soldiers to rape women captives.[11]

The upbeat version of the California Story that turned profound injustices into a narrative of Progress served to erect a cultural firewall between the bloody past and present, thus numbing many generations of schoolchildren to our sorrowful history.

If, as the Sioux chief Sitting Bull put it, “the love of possessions is a disease among them,” Custer was somebody who enthusiastically spread the virus. In violation of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, signed by the Sioux and U.S. government, Custer led an expedition looking for gold into the Black Hills of Dakota in 1874. He regarded Indians as a once “noble race” who had degenerated and were doomed to extinction: “The Indian cannot be himself and be civilized: he fades away and dies.”[12]

In 1876, as a sort of poetic justice, Custer blundered into the largest gathering of Plains Indians fighters ever assembled in central Montana. With the story of the “Last Stand,” he became the celebrity in death that he never fully achieved while he was alive.[13]

We know from military and Native histories that the term is not an accurate description of what took place at Little Big Horn. The battle was chaotic and overwhelming, with Custer and his men swept away quickly in a rout. The actual fighting took about “as long as it takes a hungry man to eat a meal,” according to one account. There was no heroic Last Stand at the Battle of the Greasy Grass, the much less romantic name that Native fighters used. Like war in general, it was nasty and brutal, with the defeated fleeing in panic. According to an oral history with Wooden Leg, a Northern Cheyenne fighter, the battle “looked like thousands of dogs might look if all of them were mixed together in a fight.” A day or so later, Custer and his men were found strewn about in the stifling heat, naked and torn apart, their bodies covered in flies and swollen with gas.[14]

So how did a leader associated with one of the nation’s worst military defeats become a national hero? According to Slotkin, the celebration of the United States centennial in Philadelphia on 4 July 1876, nine days after the battle of Little Big Horn, provided an opportunity to remake Custer’s humiliating death into a “redemptive sacrifice” on behalf of the nation’s quest to “bring light, law, liberty, Christianity, and commerce to the savage places of the earth.” The myth of “Custer’s Last Stand” became a cultural icon, popularized in the media as a stand-in for the need to overcome anxieties about rebellions from below, whether Indian tribes fighting back, or a labor movement demanding workers’ rights, or a capitalist civilization threatened by barbarian immigrants.[15]

Some credit for the popularity of the Custer myth can also be given to his wife’s relentless publicity campaign that persisted for fifty-seven years after his death, similar to the role played by Beatrice Patton who appointed herself the guardian of the official memory of another self-promoting general, George Patton, after his death at the end of World War II.[16] Until 1991, when Native activists forced Congress to make changes, the National Park Service glorified a fictional Custer by turning the Custer Battlefield National Monument into a shrine that elevated him above the tribes that defeated him.[17]

Custer, 1876

Custer, 1876

The making of the myth of the Last Stand was, like the making of the California Story, a massive literary and artistic production. In “Death-Sonnet for Custer,” written a couple of weeks after the general’s death, Walt Whitman represented him as a Christ-like figure who gave his life in the “fatal environment” of the “Indian ambuscade,” and left an example of “fighting to the last in sternest heroism,” at his “most glorious in defeat.”[18]

It is this image of Custer in the mold of Daniel Boone that stars in the painting in Oakland. The building in which it hangs was constructed in 1927 for the Veterans’ Administration, and the painting was donated in the 1930s as a gift in honor of veterans of the Spanish-American War. For years the city has owned the Veterans’ Memorial Building that is now primarily used as a center for seniors, though four veterans’ organizations still retain a small presence.[19]

The painting is dated 1883 and signed “A.D. Cooper.” Astley David Middleton Cooper was born in St. Louis in 1856 and came of age during the Civil War. He moved to the Bay Area in 1870 when the military phase of the genocide against California tribes was taking place, where he made a living as an artist churning out as many as one thousand paintings until his death in 1924. He specialized in romantic images of an imagined Native past, as well as cheesy nudes. His “Last Stand” was part of a booming cottage industry that made the myth seem like real history to millions of people and helped to frame the West as the land of last stands. Even as killing expeditions, enslavement of women, cultural annihilation, and looting of thousands of graves took place around him in California, he chose to conjure up exotic, faraway savages as subjects for his paintings.

San Jose likes to claim Cooper as one of their preeminent celebrities and “a legendary local figure,” but in reality he was, according to art historian Annie Ronan, a relatively minor figure in American art. Today, in comparison with peers such as Frederic Remington and C.R. Russell, Cooper’s work has little commercial value.[20]

Cooper was also a flimflam artist and, like Custer, embellished his public reputation. He said that at the age of twelve he had learned his trade in Paris, “where he studied under the best masters,” that he had taken medical courses in anatomy, that he had lived with the Lakota, that he traveled with Custer, and so on. [21] In fact, there is no evidence for any of these claims or that he had any direct experiences living or working with Native peoples.

Moreover, the painting of “Custer’s Last Stand” has little resemblance to the real Custer, and there is a good possibility that Cooper was not even its artist. Custer liked to model his appearance—buckskins included—on William Cody. Popularly known as Buffalo Bill, Cody was a former military scout who made his name in Wild West performances. After Custer’s death, Cody returned the compliment and performed as a Custer lookalike.[22] The Custer in “Custer’s Last Stand” looks less like the real Custer, with his thinning and graying hair, and more like Buffalo Bill performing “The Boy General with the Golden Locks.”

Cooper usually signed his work as “A.D.M. Cooper.” He also encouraged his apprentices to copy his paintings and sign his name. Given that “Custer’s Last Stand” is signed “A.D. Cooper” and, according to Ronan, is “more cartoonish and compositionally different” than Cooper’s other pieces, the work that hangs in the Oakland senior center is likely a copy, and should be more accurately titled, Buffalo Bill Performing Custer’s Last Stand, attributed to A.D.M. Cooper.[23]


To Be Determined

The celebration of efforts to pacify and assimilate Native tribes—as evoked in the art of “Custer’s Last Stand” and the memorial to “Early Days”—set a standard for other chapters in the California Story’s racial narrative: making an advocate of the ethnic cleansing of Chinese immigrants into a founding father of a law school; and honoring the men who subjugated the Philippines with statues in city centers. As Carey McWilliams observed, to understand “race attitudes” in the United States, “one must begin at the beginning,” starting with racism against Native peoples as the “point of departure.”[24]

Recent campaigns to remove or replace images, memorials, and statues that glorify conquest or erase struggles for social justice have had mixed results. Arcata’s city council quickly moved to remove the plaque that identified a building as a refuge from “Indian troubles.” Its effort to take down the McKinley statue from the town’s plaza, however, met national opposition and a vigorous local campaign to preserve the landmark. A ballot initiative in November may decide this issue, but the town’s deep political divide will endure. Meanwhile, Admiral Dewey still towers over San Francisco’s Union Square.[25]

Despite legal efforts by a group opposed to “destroying a part of history,” as dawn broke on 14 September, city workers hauled away the 2,000-pound “Early Days” statue from San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza. Ohlone tribal leaders witnessed this victory. Similarly, Stanford University will soon expunge Junipero Serra’s name from its buildings, and Prospector Pete will no longer “strike the gold of education” at Long Beach State University.[26]

At Berkeley, a committee appointed by the dean of the law school called for dishonoring the nineteenth century lawyer who once made the case that “the Chinaman… excites in us, or at least in most of us, an unconquerable repulsion.” If the committee’s recommendations prevail, the law school building will no longer be named Boalt Hall, after a man whose “principal public legacy is one of racism and bigotry.”[27]

These struggles over history and memory are not easily resolved. The Boalt committee at Berkeley, a university known globally as a bastion of liberal thought and activism, surveyed some 2,000 members of the “law school community” about how the law school building should be named. As many as one-third of respondents wanted no change in the status quo, while another eleven percent argued that the Boalt name should remain in honor of John Boalt’s wife who made the bequest after her husband’s death. Less than fifty percent of respondents agreed with the committee’s findings. Some eighteen months after Charles Reichmann published his essay exposing John Boalt’s unvarnished racism, we have not yet reached the more difficult second stage of the struggle: How and what to rename the building?

Meanwhile, as of October 2018, Custer still makes his Last Stand in Oakland’s senior center.

I welcome the current debates about how we name the places in which we live, work, and go to school, a process that until now has never been subject to democratic governance. It takes concerted and sometimes lengthy efforts to remove symbols of racism and superiority from public squares and buildings. Still ahead is the more difficult and messy challenge of how to publicly do justice to the tragic past, represent today’s profound inequalities and injustices, and recognize the social movements and activists who have tried and continue to try to make the United States, in the words of Langston Hughes, into “the land that has never been yet.” These challenges remain to be determined, as we must too.

 0218_Docket_Name TBD.jpg

Notes

[1] Maya Salam, “America’s Public-Statue Gender Gap,” The New York Times, international edition, 15 August 2018.

[2] Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).

[3] “Princeton History Project: History and Slavery,” https://slavery.princeton.edu/stories/princeton-and-slavery-holding-the-center; “Yale, Slavery and Abolition,” http://www.yaleslavery.org/YSA.pdf; “Georgetown University: Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation,” http://slavery.georgetown.edu/; Tony Platt, Grave Matters: Excavating California’s Buried Past (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2011).

[4] Nanette Asimov, “Stanford Renaming Serra Sites Over Treatment of Tribes,” San Francisco Chronicle (16 September 2018); Tony Platt, “Sainthood and Serra: It’s An Insult to Native Americans,” Los Angeles Times, 24 January 2015; Jose A. Del Real, “Divisive College Figure, Prospector Pete Statue Is Set to Be Removed,” The New York Times, 4 October 2018.

[5] Charles Reichmann, “The Case for Renaming Boalt Hall,” San Francisco Chronicle, 18 May 2017.

[6] Barbara A. Davis, Edward S. Curtis: The Life and Times of a Shadow Catcher (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1985), 70; Stephen Powers, Tribes of California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), 404.

[7] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (London: Verso, 1994).

[8] A.A. Gray, History of California From 1542 (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1934), 338; Durlynn C. Anema et al., California Yesterday and Today (Morristown, New Jersey: Silver Burdett, 1984), 167.

[9] Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (Yale University Press, 1998), 104.

[10] Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (Wesleyan University Press, 1986), 7, 385, 409.

[11] Ibid., 402-403.

[12] George Armstrong Custer, “The Red Man” (1858), cited in Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 410.

[13] Deloria, Playing Indian, 104.

[14] Peter Nabokov, ed., Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present 1492-2000 (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 110; Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 431.

[15] Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 8, 531; William H. Truettner, ed., The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920 (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art, 1991), 297.

[16] Tony Platt, Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, From Patton’s Trophy to Public Memorial (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2006), 140-141.

[17] James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (New York: The New Press, 2006), 172; Kenneth E. Foote, Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003).

[18] Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 10-11.

[19] Personal communication from Jennifer King, Director, Downtown Oakland Senior Center.

[20] Gary Singh, “San Jose’s Most Notorious Painter Exhibits at Cantor Arts Center,” Metro News, 12 August 2015. Evaluation of Cooper’s artistic merit relies on interviews with art historian Annie Ronan, Earlham College, and Emily Godby, “Trilby Goes Naked and Native on the Midway,” in The Trans-Mississippi and International Expositions of 1898-1899: Art, Anthropology, and Popular Culture at the Fin de Siècle, ed. Wendy Jean Katz (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), 161-194.

[21] “Trilby’s Artist,” Omaha Daily Bee (16 September 1898).

[22] Slotkin, The Fatal Environment, 408.

[23] Personal communication with Annie Ronan.

[24] Carey McWilliams, Brothers Under the Skin (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1944), 50, 67.

[25] Kimberly Wear, “McKinley Statue Debate Making the Media Rounds,” North Coast Journal (3 April 2018) Thaddeus Greenson, “Arcata Council Sends McKinley Initiative to Voters,” North Coast Journal (2 July 2018).

[26] Dominic Fracassa, “Disputed Statue Taken Down Before Sunrise,” San Francisco Chronicle (15 September 2018); Nanette Asimov, “Stanford Renaming Sierra Sites Over Treatment of Tribes,” San Francisco Chronicle (16 September 2018); Jose A. Del Real, “Divisive College Figure, Prospector Pete Statue is Set to be Removed.”

[27] Charles Cannon et al., “Report of the Committee on the Use of the Boalt Name,” U.C. Berkeley Law (25 June 2018); Nanette Asimov, “Cal Law School Reconsiders Boalt Name,” San Francisco Chronicle, 12 September 2008.

 

Tony Platt is Distinguished Affiliated Scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society, UC Berkeley, and the author of twelve books, including Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019). Thanks to Kathryn Heard for research assistance; to anonymous reviewer and Cecilia O’Leary for critical feedback, and to Sara Wadford for permission to use her image “To Be Determined,” Photo illustration by ABA Journal/Shutterstock.

Copyright: © 2018 Tony Platt. 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/.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

The Smell of Gold: On the Yuba River

Caitlin Mohan

My son and I sit on a boulder in the Yuba River when he asks if the river looked this way a hundred years ago. Since I have been visiting this same place for the last forty-five summers and with the exception of a new wash of gravel or a fallen tree that changes the depth of a hole, I tell him that the river will remain the same. Probably.

The river’s granite boulders and jade waters teach firsthand how water takes the path of least resistance. In fact, this small radius of my childhood, Highway 49 running past Nevada City over the south fork and up a dirt road, looks from a dusty car window as it always has—a red earth, scrub brush landscape that curves away from pressures of modern life even as it pulls the imagination back to gold miners and a hundred years later to the rednecks, retirees, and back-to-the-land types.

What’s different today is that when I roll down the window a sirocco of marijuana saturates the car—the new smell just beyond the road that will become the scratch-and-sniff memory for my children’s recollection of this place.

When I was a kid, summer’s first swim began with my nose skimming the water’s surface in an effort to rediscover that familiar scent of river, rock, dragonfly—whatever it was that brewed Gold Country smell. My father, for whom “odors” were of paramount importance, a gateway to memory and feelings, taught me to register the smells of Highway 49. He would hang his head out the car window, shouting into hot wind, “Can you smell it?” For a New Jersey transplant by way of Greenwich Village and Berkeley, California was a land of Lotus Eaters. He never could get over the place and the smell of (what was it?) witch hazel, cedar, manzanita—it drove him wild.

Yes, I could smell it, though we could never name the intoxicating elixir of plants, animals, and dirt, for we were East Coast in origin, summer visitors and hedonists, not scientists. We would leave the diagnostics to people like Gary Snyder who lived year round on the ridge and actually studied the super biodiversity of California in general and this watershed in particular. My father was a romantic and so to smell and to feel, void of precise nomenclature, were enough—were everything.

boom-2016-6-4-62-f01

Late afternoon glisten, Yuba River.

Perhaps it was his sense of romance that brought my father to purchase eight and a half acres and a cabin on the Middle Fork. Its scrap-wood walls and buddy-taped electrical wires called to his inner yearning for Walden. He was an English teacher, so this wasn’t just a cabin; it was a sanctuary in the way of Robinson Jeffers’s Tor House or Jack London’s Wolf House—a place to slow if not stop time, a place to shelter his kids from the crap of the world. There was no TV, no phone, and for the first two decades, no toilet or hot water. It was a place to play ping pong, eat fudgesicles. It was a place to swim in the clear, moving water that taught me most of what I know about force and abeyance, and set my life’s course so that it feels sacrilegious to mention it in passing. It was a place to preserve what was best in ourselves through reading, watching, and talking under the stars.

In 1972, people were doing this sort of thing. We weren’t the only people who had copies of Whole Earth Catalogue and Shelter magazine, which reprinted today can be found on any earthy boutique shelf in Nevada City. Perhaps sparked by his particular desires to escape the harangue of Berkeley politics and soothe his marriage, he was fueled too by the larger Californian and American consciousness to get back to the land—or get back to something. As a kid, I saw this idea on the cover of The Band album, in a group of musicians who looked as if they had crawled out of a mine shaft in patina leather. What were they digging for? I saw it in the films like Easy Rider and Sam Peckinpah’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue—individuals leaving home, setting up watering holes in the middle of the desert, always with dirt-encrusted beards. I heard it in Joni Mitchell’s directive to “get back to the Garden.” And so the Gold Country, like places of the imagination across time, became an El Dorado for those traveling from something to something, and ultimately looking for a return to Eden, even as they looked forward to the precipice of enterprise and fortune.

For a while, the cabin became a halfway station for such dreamers. One Thanksgiving, a family friend, Bob O’Garbage, as we lovingly called him, rolled up from Virginia in a 1954 pearl-gray Mercedes with his family; he left two years later wearing nothing but a pair of lederhosen and his long beard, and carrying a staff. Bob worked sporadically at the mill; his wife, Blanch, would bathe the kids in a horse trough; and we all had great times together on the weekend. During this time, two parcels of land on either side of the cabin were purchased—one by a Southern California contractor who was rumored to be a Republican and the other by his handsome Paul Bunyan nephew who built a Shwartzwaldian zendo in homage to Yogananda. Both of these men loved the land, raised their families, and earned legal livings. Their eventual schism has always stood vaguely iconic of the larger cultural splits that infuse menacing energy into the region: rednecks vs. hippies, meth heads vs. pot heads, retirees vs. entrepreneurs, and perhaps now a subdivision: certain types of growers vs. other types of growers.

In the eighties, we rented out the cabin to a parade of seekers: a roadie for Supertramp and a less savory family who made a lab of the kitchen with dusty jars of thick mystery and pot galore. We knew they were not part of the Edenic dream when their youngest, a forest troll of about four years old, came running out of the cabin as we rolled up, and yelled, “Dad, fucking Mohan’s here!” This in contrast to our gentlest renter, Carl, with spritely laugh and guitar, who loved the land, planted a vegetable garden, and wrote a song called Hot Shit in Mexico (a local favorite at the time), and whose refrain “Hot shit in Mexico, paraquot shit in Mexico” reminds us where California’s dope used to come from and why there is a market for organic product.

All of the cabin dwellers smoked their share of marijuana. With the exception of Carl, who later set up a teepee on our land and may have had a single plant for his own personal use, none of them were growers. Now, however, everybody’s growing it. Goat people with dreads coiled around their heads, wearing loin cloths, smoking joints the size of corn cobs with names like Star Compost are doing it, and people like our neighbors, who tired of the excess and pace of the Bay Area are doing it. We couldn’t ask for better weed-growing neighbors: educated, ethical, and organic. They are kind people with refined interests who do not smoke their product.

Perhaps some who come to the Gold Country today to live share that dream of living off the land, escaping the rat race, and absorbing the wisdom of the river like Siddhartha. But people have always come here to make money mining gold, logging trees, and now growing pot. And so the question arises: What is California dreaming? Are these pursuits a means to an end? Is gold still and always the dream? Or, is the work itself the dream: the mining, the logging, the growing? Just months ago, the parcel belonging to the Republican uncle was sold to an investor who employs a property manager and farmer. The wooden fence that once corralled a horse is now six feet tall and possibly electrical. We met the hired farmer—a county native—yesterday, the nicest guy who’s traveled the world only to come home. I wonder if his California dream is growing marijuana for somebody else or if he is still searching.

boom-2016-6-4-62-f02

Joy in granite, Yuba River.

With both properties on each side of our cabin owned by growers, my summer cabin is the cream filling in a cannabis Oreo. I am caught between accepting this latest gold rush economy as the antidote for a historically poor area and feeling protective of the land. Not all growers are as ideal as my neighbors; many use harmful fertilizers, leave the land worse for wear, and lure cartel types to the area. All growers siphon from the watershed, and most don’t pay taxes on their crops. But I am also protective of a time when people came here to get back to the land and not for the sake of profit, when people believed we had strayed from Eden but ultimately belonged to it. Of course, these are sentimental notions from a summer visitor who has never had to earn a living in an area that offers few options. And, California dreams are so close to California schemes it is often difficult to tell which is which.

Today on the rock, my son asks if the river looked the same a thousand years ago, and this is where I am stumped. That’s a long time for anything to endure, let alone remain unaltered; but if anything around here will remain, I hope it will be the river and that its water will not become the next form of gold, though of course it already is. I think of how just yesterday at the Nevada City library we learned who might have been the first people here. When we touched the computer display, a song of the Nisenan tribe came out of the kiosk, causing me to wonder why it took me forty-five years to learn this name. Most of the history of this tribe is unknown and misunderstood by those who live near and on their tribal land. The stories of recent, successful financial enterprise have masked their past, just as the odor of weed now covers what I recently learned is a major herbal ingredient in the air of my childhood: mountain misery.

Though my own fourth-grade education favored constructing sugar-cube missions over studying California Indians, I learned a potent lesson in California history by visiting Malakoff Diggins, now a state historic park in Nevada City that preserves California’s largest hydraulic mining site. The eerie lunar landscape—hills blasted bare as skin by massive water hoses between 1853 and 1884—told me of a one-sided relationship between the miner and his environment. The nearby settlement, more of a ghost town than an historical site, appeared to have been left in a hurry or simply wandered off from. In the 1970s, you could simply press your nose against the window and peek over the pharmacy bottles to spy a woman’s shoe in the middle of the silty floor, sitting there as if she couldn’t find it but walked out the door just the same. You could wander into a leaning barn and see, or perhaps imagine, a noose swinging from the rafter, not unlike the make-shift gallows some miles up the North Fork, which hosted the only female hanging in California—Juanita—in 1851. At least the gallows had a crude plaque bearing meager details that belie a story of racism and sexism made obvious with hindsight.

But Malakoff Diggins was just another place, leaving me to wonder what we Californians make of our own history. Perhaps our history is too recent, too dredged in profit rather than ideals to have warranted in the 1970s, a mere 125 years from the Gold Rush, a cordon rope, a plaque, or tour guide with a badge. Perhaps California, like a child, did not have the perspective that comes with a more critical contextual awareness to take itself seriously enough to see itself as a historical subject.

So too, it has taken me a good chunk of my life to inaccurately, incompletely define the smell of this country, partly because of my own ignorance but also because the smell of the Gold Country isn’t only about plants and animals; it’s about the residue of the human endeavor that is palpable in the great piles of mossy boulders that Chinese miners pulled from the Yuba River that now sit on the roadside without ceremony or documentation. The smell is edible apple trees in the orchard, planted an unknowable number of years before my family bought the land, and which survive without irrigation or pruning. The smell is audible in the hush of rapids, momentarily drowned out by the motorcycle shifting into high gear on Highway 49. I suspect every California region from the county of Jefferson to the Imperial Valley provides a synesthesia of evidence to classify particular landscapes, histories, and endeavors, but I wonder if this Gold Country smell isn’t somehow more potent than it is in other areas. I wonder if the heart-cleaving beauty of the area coupled with a desperate drive to unearth a living hasn’t made love of this place more hard won. If California is, in the words of Wallace Stegner, “like the rest of America, only more so,” then perhaps the Gold Country is like the rest of California only more so—the unofficial capital of what the state is about—the always changing dreams, which following complicated labor, birth the next reality.

But odor is not a competition. California doesn’t need to compete with itself to define its character. The state is too diverse to characteristically identify with science or fiction; likewise, it remains impossible to name the smell of the Gold Country. So, I am not surprised when I ask my son as we sit on the rock what he thinks he smells and he says he doesn’t know. I instantly flash on a Gary Snyder poem that intimidated me with his authoritative chronology of the Malakoff Diggins area, citing millions and millions of years of evolution. That poem, “What Happened Here Before,” is one that still appeals to me for its allegiance to defining place using the names of plants and animals while imagining the erstwhile lives of miners, Indians, tax assessors, and a prophetic blue jay who screeches in response to the question of who we are: “We shall see / Who knows / How to be.”

The computerized kiosk at the Nevada City library emitted a Nisenan song, but it cannot produce the smell of the Gold Country, although I recently came across liquid soap in that aforementioned earthy boutique bearing the name Yuba. Its admirable but inadequate attempt to capture the river’s essence displays that no amount of technology will allow one to push a button and smell from the car window those first hits of red earth, stonefly, and mountain misery—odors that are now absorbed into the marijuana growing just feet from Highway 49.

I wonder what the Highway 49 smell will be when my children are grown, if they will bring their own kids here in the summer. I wonder if they will keep the TV, phone, computer, and other technology out of the cabin as we have done in hopes that without these distractions we can read, play ping pong, and eat fudgesicles. What will be the new industry of their time? The one that takes the path of least resistance. What will be the latest technological distraction? Will they have the inclination or grit to tell their kids to turn it off, crawl into bed, and inhale that Gold Country scent that travels through the screen window, the one we can never name that leads them to dreams of the river?

boom-2016-6-4-62-f03

Leaning toward the past.

boom-2016-6-4-62-f04

Yuba Green.

Note
All photographs by Conny Heinrich.

Caitlin Mohan is an educator and writer living in West Marin. She is currently working on a collection of essays and can be found every summer swimming in the rapids of the Yuba River.

Articles

The Spirit of the Dream Dance

by Greg Sarris

Watching my traditions change

from Boom Winter 2015, Vol 5, No 4

Mabel McKay was Pomo, from eastern Lake County. The Pomo are known as the world’s finest basket makers, and Mabel was among the best of them. All of her baskets were derived from her dreams—she was a Dreamer. She was also a “sucking doctor,” traditionally considered by California Indians the most powerful and, hence, most valued of medicine people. When she passed away in 1993, she was the last of these doctors.

Ten years earlier, I accompanied her to a celebration of California Indian culture sponsored by a local community college. It was a spring day, and everywhere booths displayed books and crafts, advertising and selling just about anything to do with Indians. People milled about, but I noticed that most of the crowd had gathered around a group of dancers. I could hear the clapper sticks and singing. Mabel and I edged our way forward so that we could see. But just then, everything stopped. The dancers in their turkey-feather skirts and imitation flicker-feather headbands had grown still, the singers with their clappers silent. In a split second, they turned in the opposite direction and disappeared behind the onlookers. I’m sure the crowd was confused—but not Mabel. Chuckling, she said to me, “They think I’m going to hoodoo them.”

Later, on the way home, or at her kitchen table—we often talked at her kitchen table—she said, “They’re doing it wrong. They’re singing Essie’s songs and they’re not supposed to. They ain’t following the rules. They don’t know the rules.” Mabel was referring to her longtime friend, Essie Parrish, a renowned Dreamer and prophet of the Kashaya Pomo, who had left Mabel detailed instructions before her death on what to do with her Dream songs and dances—what was to be discontinued, what could live on, and, accordingly, the rules for whatever action was taken. Mabel, staring into the distance as if she were seeing Essie, said, “Essie told me—she told me, ‘the false people will come out after I die.'”

“She wanted to make sure you knew what to do,” I said, attempting to appear smart. Certainly, I’d heard as much before.

“Them people,” Mabel said, “they know I know the rules. They know what Essie said.”

“But you wouldn’t poison them.”

I used the word “poison,” the term often used for casting of spells—harmful spells.

Once more came Mabel’s inimitable chuckle. “No,” she said. “But I don’t know what the Spirit will do.”

I feel old, or like I’m getting old. I find myself saying, “They’re doing it wrong.” Mostly to myself, luckily. Growing up in and around Indian homes, I heard about cures and spells—poisoning—even before I met Mabel. It was something I didn’t talk about, particularly among non-Indians, probably because I didn’t understand it, but also because I didn’t want people to think I was strange, believing in as much. Mabel warned against touching things, for instance, picking up a stone that might catch my attention, because “You don’t know what spirit it is, or who put it there.” But then what do you think after you’ve seen her suck a tadpole-like creature out of a woman’s eye? Or when she sucks from each of your temples a pint of fluid that cures your allergies?

Spells and curses as I’ve described them—even cures—might upset the general, and often stereotyped, picture of the California Indian as peaceful, nature-loving. Any attempt on my part to discuss California Indian religion, much less criticize those who might practice it, without thinking about the larger history out of which it comes, would not only put me at odds with that history, but in all likelihood with the religions themselves.

It is impossible to generalize: there are over one hundred tribes in California today, each with its own language and particular history. All of the language families found in the New World are represented in one or more languages in California. The California landscape out of which these languages and respective cultures emerged is itself equally diverse. Ethnographers often divide the Native population into three cultural groups or categories: the northwestern tribes, including the Hupa and Yurok, who had stratified societies; the central tribes, including the Maidu and Wintun of the central valley, as well as my tribes, the Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok in the coastal region north of present day San Francisco, who were egalitarian, and organized around a number of secret societies; and finally the southwestern tribes, such as the Chumash of the Santa Barbara coast and the inland-desert Cahuilla, who, similar to the central tribes, belonged to secret societies, but in some cases planted and harvested crops. Still, these divisions are arbitrary, limiting in significant ways what we might understand about a particular people.

What all tribes share is a tie to a specific landscape and a brutal European colonization that worked to break that tie. What can be pieced together from early Franciscan journals, ethnographic descriptions, and indigenous lore that has been handed down by the likes of Mabel herself, is that the religion—and in turn culture—created and maintained for its practitioners a sustainable relationship with not just the landscape, but also with neighboring peoples for eons.

Ethnographers have long asked how so many different people speaking so many different languages and having different customs lived together peacefully for thousands of years. Indeed, at the time of contact, California was more densely populated than anywhere else in the New World, except for the Aztec capital in what is now Mexico City. Some Franciscan padres wondered if the California Indians, seeming to them so simple-minded, were human enough to baptize. Early Americans considered them the most primitive of Indians, because the California Indians, unlike those of the Plains, did not display organized warfare—not at first anyway.

In my region, just north of San Francisco, approximately 20,000 Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok lived in nation villages of 150 to 500 individuals. The Penutian languages of the Coast Miwok in the southern part of the region were as different from the Hokan spoken by the Pomo in the north as English is to Cantonese. Tribal territories were small, often no more than twenty square miles, and while people might speak several languages and trade often with neighbors, it wasn’t uncommon to spend one’s life never having traveled more than thirty miles from the home village.

There were chiefs or headmen, sometimes headwomen, but of equal importance and influence were the spiritual advisors who would inform the chief from their dreams or visions, of the approach of salmon, say, so that he or she might order the people to ready their nets. There were organized ceremonies, dances called by the headman, marking the seasons, for example. Ever present in the minds of villagers were the secret societies.

There were many secret societies or cults, often associated with animals—grizzly bears, birds, snakes—and sometimes with certain places, a cave, maybe a spring, or some other body of water. Societies were often gender-based. Women’s bear cults were considered among the most powerful. Sometimes the societies were inter-tribal, members from one village recruiting potential initiates from neighbors. Always the societies were private, and membership a secret. Who knew that your sister donned a bear skin at night and traveled for distances to locate food, or perhaps to avenge an enemy? Further, it was assumed that regardless of one’s cult status, everyone possessed some protection in the form of a special spirit or song, maybe a secret amulet. People were reminded in this way that they didn’t know everything about others; they were reminded, in fact, of what they didn’t know. Ethnographers have said the cultures were predicated on black magic and fear. But might we not see it differently, predicated not so much on fear, but on respect, even reverence? Regardless of your unique powers, you were reminded of others, that you were never alone, and certainly that you weren’t in any way all powerful. Physical warfare would be considered the lowest form of warfare. If you had to strike or stab someone, you would only be demonstrating your lack of spiritual power. Anyone could poison you without retribution.

All of the natural world was likewise imbued with special power and, thus, demanded the same reverence. A small stone, no different from the mighty grizzly, might share a song with you. Disrespected, misused, the stone could cause harm, bad luck. When I asked a Kashaya Pomo elder why the Europeans were referred to as pala-cha, miracles, she told me: Instead of being punished for killing people and animals, chopping down trees, damming and dredging the waterways, more of them kept coming. If that elder were alive and could see the state of the Earth today, might she not rethink the moniker?

As with many California Indian tribes, the Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok saw Coyote as the creator of the universe. Coyote was a magical figure from a time before the present when all animals were human, and he possessed characteristics, both good and bad, associated with human beings. He was smart, creative, and a good storyteller, but he was prone to pride and avarice, which usually got him into trouble. In fact, much of creation resulted from his foolhardy behavior. His greed caused the yellow jacket to grow a stinger. His vanity gave rise to death. The California Indian world then, unlike the traditions of Judaism and Christianity with their benevolent almighty creator and Great Chain of Being, is one made by the most human of individuals, where all life is on equal footing in terms of power and importance, requiring constant attention, an engagement with it that is dynamic and dialogical. Features of the landscape—an outcropping of rocks, the shape and size of a pond—become mnemonic pegs on which hang the stories of creation, as well as other stories, that ask us to remember and reflect. The landscape, thus, is the Native’s text. Congruous with what secret societies remind us, the world is complex and nothing in it can be taken at face value.

Again Mabel’s admonition: “You don’t know what spirit it is or who put it there.” If an ancient sensibility informed Mabel’s words—indeed, her religion—so too must have the history she shared with all California Indians, which began 250 years ago with the arrival of the first Europeans. The Spanish, in a movement spearheaded by Father Junipero Serra, began marching north in the middle part of the eighteenth century, going from San Diego to the far reaches of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties on the coast and as far inland as the Sierra Foothills, claiming land for Spain and souls for a Christian God. They established a string of missions, which simultaneously served as military outposts, where Natives, often having been forcibly removed from their native villages, were made to labor and to adopt a lifestyle and religion that was completely bewildering and, in the end, devastating. Tens of thousands died from European diseases. A rich and varied native diet was replaced by a bowl of wheat or corn. After the Mexican Revolution in 1823, the Mexican government secularized the missions. Large tracts of land, referred to as ranchos, were given to Mexican generals along with their friends and relatives. The Natives who survived the missions fared no better on the ranchos, again being forced to labor, and subject to rape and other abuses from which they had no recourse. The first piece of legislation that California enacted as a state in 1850 was the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which gave landowners jurisdiction over Indians residing on their property, essentially rendering the Indians slaves. The law was not repealed until 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War.

By this time, barely 10 percent of the indigenous population in many regions had survived. They were literally decimated. They worked more or less as indentured servants for landowners who would give them a home and a modicum of protection—they were not US citizens and, like all other American Indians, would not be until 1924.

After several years of working in the central valley, sometime in late 1868, perhaps early 1869, an Eastern Pomo, referred to in ethnographies only as Lame Bill, returned to Lake County with a Dream. He was told in his Dream that a great flood would clean the land of white people, and if the faithful Indians gathered in seven roundhouses on the eastern shores of Clear Lake, they would be saved, alive to witness the return of the ancestors and all of the animals, in essence the world as it had been. Mabel told me that Lame Bill was otherwise known as Richard Taylor, and that he was her great-uncle, her grandmother’s brother. While in the Central Valley, he’d met a disciple—perhaps the son—of Wovoka, the Paiute visionary who in the following years preached the revivalistic Ghost Dance religion to Plains tribes.

One cannot say conclusively if Richard Taylor was influenced by the man he met. Without a doubt, his Dream was one of hope. In the winter of 1870–1871, nearly two thousand survivors from the coast region and the Central Valley met and gathered in the roundhouses. It rained for four days and nights. The lake rose. On the fifth morning, the believers discovered not a renewed world, but instead two hundred US Cavalry with guns drawn. The Natives, suspected of an uprising, were quickly dispersed. Though disheartened, they took with them the spirit of revitalization, which in local roundhouses morphed into an impassioned nationalism led by a single Dreamer, often a woman, who organized her entire tribe, sometimes now only a mere handful of survivors, around her Dreams. Co-opting tenets of Victorian ideology, the Dreamer forbade drinking, gambling, and extramarital sex. Long dresses—with long sleeves—had to be worn at all times by women in the roundhouses.

The religion became known among the Pomo as Bole Maru, or Dream Dance; in the central valley, tribes such as the Wintun, called it Bole Hesi, or Spirit Dance. The religion contained elements of older beliefs and ceremonies, but increasingly put more stress on the afterlife. Interaction with white people, outside of necessary work-related situations, was forbidden, and might cost you reunification with ancestors after death. Ethnographers argue that the religion paved the way for Christianity and further cultural demise. Others, myself included, point out that it helped fortify family structure. Individuals with knowledge of secret societies renewed their practices; there would now be a younger generation of potential initiates. What seems most significant here, though, is the transition from a “we” worldview to an “us-them” worldview. You now have an enemy, a devil, pure and simple.

The wide interest today in Indian religion can be traced to the 1960s. Non-Indians disenchanted with established religions sought alternatives. Indians sought a reconnection with their traditions. Many were the children of a generation that attempted with varying degrees of success to assimilate, abandoning Indian lifeways—a generation often referred to as “the lost generation.” In large urban settings, most notably Los Angeles and the Bay Area, Indians from out of state renewed and practiced their religions; the American Indian Movement (AIM) offered Plains-style dancing, seen today at pow wows and elsewhere as part of a larger pan-Indian movement seeking to unify American Indians as a political entity. California Indians, at first in the margins of the larger social movement, particularly in terms of any public display of their singing and dancing, now regularly perform their dances at pow wows and local functions, such as the one Mabel and I attended at the community college. A mandate of the Bole Maru religion is that while a Dreamer might be given certain songs and dances from her predecessor, her tradition—ceremonies, songs, dances—must be derived from her particular Dream, able to address challenges and preserve Indian identity in an ever-changing world. Mabel’s point of view regarding the dancers at the college must have had something to do with this mandate. The dancers were not using the songs of a living Dreamer; nor did Mabel believe Essie had given them permission to use hers.

In 1942, when Essie Parrish first took sway of the roundhouse on the Kashaya Reservation, American Indian men were for the first time drafted into the armed services. She gave each man a handkerchief designed from her Dream to wear in battle. His wife or mother was to dance with a matching handkerchief in the roundhouse. Forty men went to war; thirty-nine returned. They say the war victim’s mother was a “nonbeliever.” By this time, the Bole Maru religion was in great decline, having died out in most other Indian communities during the 1920s and 1930s. Many Indian people had converted or more fully accepted other religions, such as Catholicism. Essie dropped the strict isolationist policies of her predecessors, perhaps out of practical need. Already so many tribal citizens had attended boarding schools and lived in large cities to support the war effort. A majority of the young men had been to Europe or the South Pacific. She saw the advantages of public education both as a means to lift her people out of poverty and to protect their rights. Sadly, by the time of her death in 1979, the influence of Mormons and various Evangelicals, combined with existing tribal political tensions, resulted not just in a splintering of the tribe into factions, but even family member from family member.

Mabel was a Dreamer, but she did not have a roundhouse. Even when she met Essie in the early 1950s, she had few immediate relatives, hardly a tribe, and long before her death she was the last to speak her language. Essie took Mabel into the Kashaya roundhouse. She told Mabel, “my people will call you aunt.” Some of the dancers Mabel and I watched at the community college had turned away from Essie in the past. Watching them, did Mabel feel any animosity?

Most, if not all, of the major world religions today emerged in contexts of colonization, social strife, diaspora, often after people had been displaced from a native home. Think of the Israelites in the desert. The religions sought to provide answers, solace in a troubled world, not unlike the Bole Maru. Like the Bole Maru, they worked to forge unity and revitalize an older culture, often creating, even unwittingly, a nationalism not unlike the one to which they were reacting. Religious texts, in the most narrow of their readings, work to dissolve ambiguity. Here again, we might see a major difference between the Bole Maru and more ancient Indian religions. California Indian creation tales and secret societies worked to maintain ambiguity. Of course, people were safer then. They were already home.

More than in any recent past, California Indians today want to reclaim ancestral lands. We want to be home, but not just in terms of a particular landscape. We want to reconnect with traditions that locate us culturally with the landscape. More than ever, Indians want to dance. It’s not uncommon for multiple dance groups—all using the same songs—to perform at a single event. Dancers claim that what they are doing is pleasing to the Spirit. They say more songs and dances will come, or return. Who am I to say they are wrong? Just when I think their dancing is foolish, nothing more than an instance of final assimilation in the guise of feathers and songs rather than a reawakening to a radiant, awe-inspiring Earth, I spot a face I recognize and stop. Wasn’t it that dancer’s great-grandfather who poisoned my great-aunt? Was it Mabel McKay who told me? Never mind. Be respectful, I think. You don’t know the whole story.

Note

All photographs by Christine Cobaugh.

Articles

The Santa Ana

by Susan Straight with photographs by Douglas McCulloh

From Boom Summer 2015, Vol 5, No 2

River valleys throughout America are known for commerce, as in barges and industrial traffic on the powerful currents of the Mississippi or Hudson; for wilderness tourism and fishing, as on the winding Snake or rushing Columbia; for cheerful touristic sidewalks hugging tamed waterways, as on San Antonio’s Riverwalk; and recently for cement channels with fake boulders planted on the banks, as in countless new housing tracts all over the nation, with names like River Oaks and Creek Canyon.

But California rivers are charismatic in a different way, unknowable to many people I meet from other parts of the world, and when visitors or newcomers ask me with some disdain the location of the invisible river that gives my city its name, mentioning the width and speed and historical importance of their rivers, I sometimes just laugh.

The Santa Ana River that winds through three counties, from San Bernardino County through Riverside County and then Orange County, on its way from mountain headwaters through the wilds of urban San Bernardino and Colton and Riverside, and then channeled through Orange County to the Pacific Ocean, is a serpentine body of water holding pre-Revolutionary history and post-recession history, mixed in ways hauntingly beautiful and haunted; a river wild, which looks unloved but is beloved; overlooked until you spend years alongside it, obsessed with the sandy plains and riparian lands stretching for a hundred miles.

When I was ten, the oldest of five kids, my mother would drop us off at the edge of the river to play—inconceivable now, but the beginning of my lifelong devotion. I forced everyone to find acorns, to pack them for drying and later grinding and leeching into a bitter mush; to poke into fox dens; to look for wild grapevines and yellow monkeyflower. There were remnants of Cahuilla camps on the high banks near Mt. Rubidoux above us, and we came out of the river into Fairmount Park, designed by the Olmsted brothers on land bisected by Indian Creek.

Forty-four years later, I still go to the river nearly every day. I walk the trails with my dog, through the same earth, under the same cottonwoods, watching for descendants of the same coyotes and foxes. From the end of my block, I can see the half-loaf of mountain—toast-brown surface and white sheared-off granite face—where my grandfather worked for Riverside Cement when he came from Switzerland to Fontana. Every day I’m reminded of the successive waves of humans who decided to stay along this water: people who built shelters of branches and ramadas made of palm fronds; people who mixed mud with straw and formed adobe bricks; people who dropped packs from horseback or whose Fords broke down in the sandy crossings during the Dust Bowl; people who built wooden bungalows and lined garden paths with white river rock; and people who build shelters every night near the end of my block, erect tents and EZ-ups in the arundo cane and wild grapevines, sitting on overturned orange crates to eat pizza before a campfire.

I bicycle all the way up to the border of Colton, where the old Trujillo Adobe still stands, and drive often along Agua Mansa Road, where the first Trujillos are buried. Passing me are hundreds of trucks leaving hundreds of warehouses, for the new economy of goods, which cannot be much removed from the old economy of goods. Americans want things. They will get them.

Agua Mansa is a good place to remember this California’s history. More than two thousand people are buried on this bluff above the river. Lorenzo Trujillo, his sons Doroteo and Esquipula, and many more Spanish surnames inscribed on cement or stone or wooden crosses.

Lorenzo Trujillo was born to Native American parents—possibly Comanche, Apache, or Pueblo—in Abiquiu, New Mexico, and probably ransomed by Spaniards, who baptized him in 1794 (though his birthdate is unknown). Who knows what name Lorenzo Trujillo might have already been given and what he had to forget? His adoptive parents taught him the Spanish language, culture, and religion—Catholicism. He married in 1816 and had seven children, and in 1838, he was recruited by letter to come to the Santa Ana River valley. Trujillo and his four sons were already known as veteran “Indian fighters.” Back when this land along the river was Rancho San Bernardino, Don Antonio Lugo kept losing horses to Native Americans out of Nevada and the Mohave River area, and Chief Walkara of the Utes. Trujillo was given land in exchange for “protection against thieves and marauders of every hue.” After working for years for Don Lugo, Trujillo received land from Don Juan Bandini at his Rancho Jurupa, a few miles away. Trujillo founded La Placita, on the east side of the Santa Ana River, and other settlers stayed in Agua Mansa, on the west side. By the mid 1840s, this was the largest community between New Mexico and Los Angeles.

The settlers dug irrigation ditches and canals, planted grain, grapes, and raised livestock. They sent their goods to market on horse-drawn wagons down this winding road between sere hills and river. Many days, I see descendants of Lorenzo Trujillo—Darlene Trujillo Elliot works for the city of Riverside, and countless other relatives live nearby. She began the Riverside Tamale Festival to raise funds for restoration of the Trujillo Adobe where her ancestors lived, across the river from the Agua Mansa Cemetery.

I stand at the cemetery and look down at American commerce. Isaac Slover, born in 1786 in Kentucky, was one of the first American fur trappers in Taos. He married a New Mexican woman, moved to Agua Mansa, and loved to hunt bear, which he did until one fateful 1854 encounter with a grizzly. His grave marker reads “Pioneer Hunter Trapper Killed By a Bear Near Cajon Pass.”

I meet people who tell me the road is still haunted, by a woman, by a man and his dog. I meet a small, wiry man who tells me he’s a Mexican-Jewish former jockey born in Texas whose son began a dog rescue facility on acreage here near the river. He tells me his son committed suicide in this lonely place, and he now feeds the dogs. At night, he watches bands of coyotes rip apart Chihuahuas abandoned at the river.

On the rise of a hill above Agua Mansa Road, the white stone burial vault of Lorenzo Trujillo floats above the earth with others that look like skiffs scattered in a golden sea of drying wild oats. This is a pioneer cemetery without manicured grass and lush landscaping and fountains. The grave markers are decorated with wrought iron crosses, a fading poncho, artificial flowers, and sometimes food offered up to the spirits. Trujillo claimed this place—the name means gentle water in Spanish—and it’s strange to imagine what he would think to look down on the narrow asphalt road below as thousands of trucks speed past, their own long white vaults holding everything America wants right now.

Today this asphalt ribbon is the “Agua Mansa Industrial Corridor.” The steel structures and towers come right up to the cemetery to the north. To the west are concrete batch plants—E-Z Mix concrete and Angelus Block—the largest makers of block, pavers, and retaining wall components in California. Farther down the narrow winding road is Tombstone Paintball, with a fake plywood town and other obstacles where people can shoot at each other, just as they did in the old days.

Driving to the west, I circle the granite hill chiseled and blown up for decades by my grandfather and the many other immigrants who worked at Riverside Cement. Skanska is still there, with other construction material companies.

Closer to the river, there are more industrial complexes: huge expanses of cold storage for Target, Walmart, and others on the bluff. They look down on an encampment of homeless people next to the sandy expanse of the Santa Ana River. Agua Mansa, dammed up and diverted for irrigation and sewage treatment, winds along the miles and miles of land that used to be citrus groves, vineyards, and wheat fields where furrows between the crops shone silver with water from the zanjas, the irrigation ditches dug by Cahuilla and Luiseño fathers and sons. The ancient remnants of one zanja lead underneath Agua Mansa Road as the trucks thunder from the warehouses whose walls are the brightest white, where Italian cypress like black knives and jasmine like white stars are planted alongside, where hundred-year-old windbreaks of eucalyptus brought from Australia make pungent fences in the next vacant lot, where the wild tobacco trees and jimsonweed are the natives that will still colonize the Earth here if left to do so.

About twelve miles as the crow flies down the river—and flocks of crows do live here in abandoned pecan orchards once irrigated by more zanjas—my brother-in-law worked for a year of dark nights on the bluff overlooking the place where, in 1774, Juan Bautista de Anza and his party of soldiers, women, babies, and animals crossed the Santa Ana on the first overland route to California.

My brother-in-law is a huge man—six-feet-six-inches tall, 380 pounds, with light red-brown skin and freckles. He is African, Irish, Cherokee, and American. He sat each night in a small white truck with a heavy-duty flashlight and a pad of paper, waiting to see who would come to steal construction equipment at the site where workers were boring a tunnel along the river to replace an eighty-year-old sewer pipe.

The left front tire of his truck was five feet from the bronze historical marker telling the world about the Anza Crossing, and he kept an eye on that, too, because now thieves prize bronze, copper, and aluminum as well, roaming parks and construction sites like Paleolithic hunters out for metal.

I hadn’t thought about Anza for years, until I went to keep my brother-in-law company and bring him food to help the hours pass. This is another good place to think about often-forgotten California history.

Father Francisco Garces, a Franciscan priest, had tried the journey before, in 1771. He left San Xavier del Bac, a frontier mission in what is now southern Arizona, and reached the Colorado River, which he followed down to its mouth in the Gulf of California, but the way was lost in the desert after that, and he returned. In 1774, he joined the party formed by Juan Bautista de Anza, a Spanish military captain at Tubac, Arizona. Anza wanted Spain to open a trading route with Nueva California, a land route from Tubac to San Gabriel Mission and then on to Monterey. Previous failed attempts had led the Spanish to call the desert journey El Camino del Diablo—”The Road of the Devil.”

The Anza party must have looked like a strange parade to the tribes and villages of Native Americans who saw them approaching: Anza, Father Garces and another priest, Father Diaz, twenty-one volunteer soldiers from Spain, an interpreter, a carpenter, five mule drivers, two of Anza’s servants, sixty-five head of cattle, and 140 horses—and as guide, a California Indian who’d made the trek from Arizona to San Gabriel, whose Christian name was Sebastian Tarabal.

A few days before they left, colonists in Boston disguised themselves as Indians and threw tea into the harbor.

Days into the Anza expedition, trying to reach the Colorado River, Anza came to know from Garces and Tarabal that the lives of human and animal would depend on Native Americans in Arizona, the Papago and Pima peoples, leading them to rainwater caches they had known for generations, and offering them food, such as rabbits they killed with throwing sticks.

Life is always about water. I stood on the bluff with my brother-in-law, thinking about the 1862 flood that took away most of Agua Mansa; the 1938 flood remembered by my mother-in-law with vivid horror, as she was only four and knew people who drowned; and the 1969 floods, when we children watched the Santa Ana raging brown and churning high enough to take out bridges and steal trucks and cars. Here, under the railroad bridge, is where the river is narrowest, forced between stone bluffs, and the best place to cross for the Anza party.

Still dangerous, though. I imagine watching them from the air today, crossing each river as a mass that would appear little different from ancient migrations of hoofed and toed mammals. In March of 1774, Father Garces’s diary records that the water was flowing so fast and heavy that the men had to build a bridge of logs, which took time, and then cross over that. Every other river they’d been able to ford on foot and horseback, but not here.

In 1775, Anza, Garces, and the Spanish organized a second crossing—this time partly to populate New California. They brought 240 people, including twenty-nine wives of the soldiers.

They crossed deserts, lava flows like “a sea of broken glass,” traveled down the Gila River. and crossed the Colorado River to enter California again, the river running two hundred yards wide and shallow enough that the cattle and horses walked across, while the Yumas carried the cargo, and Anza and the others rode horseback. Garces, though, had a terrible fear of falling from a horse and drowning—he could not swim. So the Yumas carried the priest across the water, too.

On 24 December 1775, at Coyote Canyon, the Anza party passed out of what is now San Diego County and into what is now Riverside County. They had left behind days of snow and entered rain and fog, and one of the women “was taken with childbirth pains,” Anza’s diary reads. “At a quarter to eleven in the night our patient was successfully delivered of a boy, which makes three who had been delivered between the presidio of Tubac and this place.”

Father Pedro Font baptized the boy Salvador Ygnacio the next day. On 1 January 1776, they came again to this place. Anza wrote, “this river of Santa Anna. . .almost unfordable for the people, not so much because of its depth as of the rapidity of its current, which upsets most of the saddle animals. For this reason it was necessary to reinforce the bridge which I made during the last journey. . .these tasks could not be completed until after twelve o’clock, at which time the women were taken over first, next all the perishable things, and then the rest of our cargo and our stock, of which a horse and a cow were drowned because they did not have strength enough to withstand the force of the current.”

The next time I visited my brother-in-law, I brought cake. Before he was hired, thieves had broken into the site, loaded an entire flatbed truck with expensive equipment, using the crane, and then stole the truck and crane as well.

“The foggy nights are the worst,” he said. “The train looks like a ghost coming out of it. And this whole place looks haunted.”

Under the bridge, on the rocks where Anza’s men assessed the crossing, graffiti covers many of the stones and the bridge abutments. One large homeless encampment is near here, and we watched two young men ride up the trail and then walk their bikes past us. He greeted them, as he does everyone. During his weekend day shifts, retirees driving recreational vehicles come to the bluff. One couple told him they were following the entire Anza Expedition, stopping at each monument. They told him about the history of the place where he spends most of his waking hours now, and then they motored away to the next marker.

Between Agua Mansa and Anza Crossing, there is an arroyo called Tequesquite, named by the Cahuilla people who once lived here. There is a tiny street called Wong Way, named for the last resident of the historic Chinatown that, like so many others in California, flourished for decades before white Americans turned on the residents in anti-immigrant anger. My dog and I walk down to the end of our dead-end street, through a field, and down the arroyo, past Wong Way, and head for the river.

I look downstream, where Mexican-born and Riverside-born people swim under that railroad bridge under the Anza Crossing bluff on hot summer days, though they are warned not to. Vietnamese-born people harvest watercress and bamboo shoots, and Central American men wash clothes in secluded places and hang them to dry on cottonwood branches near the trail where we walk.

The Santa Ana is the largest river in southern California, ninety-six miles long, draining 2,650 square miles of watershed, passing through four counties and flowing by more than five million people. It begins in the San Bernardino Mountains, in wild canyons where massive boulders crash during flash floods and their smaller round offspring wash up in drifts of white rock, which have been made into fireplaces and porches and houses for generations. The Army Corps of Engineers called it the most dangerous river west of the Mississippi before it was controlled. After those historic floods killed hundreds and washed away houses and ranches and citrus groves in Orange County as well as here, two dams were built, water was diverted for irrigation and water treatment plants, and most of the river past the Orange County line was channelized in concrete and riprap, like the Los Angeles River and so many others. It ends in a lagoon and then mingles with salt in the Pacific Ocean between Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach.

We walk most days along the Santa Ana River Trail, an asphalt bike path that begins in San Bernardino and eventually ends at the ocean, and on every single day or evening, I come back with a story. People in full racing gear on expensive bikes race past us, calling out for us to move. People on old bicycles with trailers attached bearing their belongings, chained or leashed dogs also attached and trotting alongside, bags of recyclables or food dangling from the handlebars, move alongside us, too. Mothers and fathers pushing strollers and helping small children on small bikes catch up to us. They speak Spanish, and we greet each other, as all three groups of people are familiar to the dog and me.

“You can’t walk down there by the river bottom alone!” people often admonish me. “It’s dangerous!”

It is. One night last week, a mother and two kids, about four and six, came rushing up onto the trail through the brittlebush, gasping and covered with sweat, terror in their eyes. They had tried to find the river itself, which flows all the way across the sandy landscape covered with trees and arundo cane and vines and hundreds of secret paths worn by animals and humans, and they’d gotten lost for an hour, and now, at dusk, an ambulance had gone over the bridge above them, and the siren had roused a pack of coyotes whose answered howls were so close that the mother grabbed her children and ran.

I told them we’d done that before, too, my dog and me, and we were just as scared. I showed her the best path across the river bottom to the water, for another day. I’ve crossed that same path since I was ten and still I get lost, because water changes landscape in constant and implacable fashion. I have sunk to my hips in quicksand after a winter storm, when the black silt and mica glitter atop the white powdery drifts.

The next night we stopped to talk to a homeless man heading down another trail to his camp, near the Mission Avenue Bridge, where this was once the main entrance to Riverside from Rubidoux and points west, and where a shrine to St. Francis de Assisi built of boulders and another bronze marker remains. This man had just adopted his new dog—Pretty Girl—from the animal shelter, and he, with his chrome shopping cart and his companion, wished us well as he does most nights. But I was nervous about the early appearance of the coyotes, who are bolder than ever because of the drought. On the way back west toward home, the cottonwoods released their drifting white, and the rabbits were too new to be afraid of my dog, so they lay in the heat with their haunches spread casually as if on lawn chairs. The coyotes would love that, I thought. When I saw a couple walking with their dog off-leash down the sandy trail, which we love but are hesitant to take alone, the dog and I caught up with them.

Their pit bull was also from the shelter, as is my flat-coated retriever named Angel, so we traded dog stories and coyote sightings, as we walked deeper into the brush, where ancient river oaks lean over a sandy trail that might be hundreds of years old—a savanna, a riparian place where humans and animals always gather. The remains of yellow mustard turned skeletal gold stems, and new wild oats turning pale and shimmering in the breeze, were beside us. Yes, I had realized that the couple were heading home, as I was, and that their home was here in the brush. There are hundreds of people living along the Santa Ana, in encampments up near Agua Mansa, down by Anza Crossing, and in too many to count close to where we were. Two large settlements are nearby. Each night I see a man a few years older than me, with one bad leg, crutches, and a gray beard, walking from the city down the arroyo sidewalks and down another trail through massive tumbleweeds to his own camp, where he has lived for many years.

Tonight one man heard us coming and stood beside his camp, nodding his head in acknowledgement. The couple split momentarily so we two women could walk together down an ancillary path back toward the main trail. Her companion called back, “Hurry up so the pizza don’t get cold!”

“I saw a bobcat up there two weeks ago,” she told me. Her face was round, the deep brown of living outside, and she was missing many teeth. We were near the same age. “I was riding my bike on the trail, ’cause you know that’s the easiest way for me to get to work, and I saw two eyes, right there between those two rocks.” She pointed to two huge boulders set in the flank of Mt. Rubidoux, which borders the other side of the trail. “I went up close in case it was someone needed help, and I saw his face. A bobcat! He looked at me like, yeah, come right on up here, and I got on my bike and rode like hell!” She laughed. “I’m Annie. You need anything, you come down here and call for me.”

We parted there, amid the huge peeling eucalyptus marking another familiar trail where my dog always sees rabbits and sometimes a roadrunner. Annie turned right and shouted to her companion, “I’m coming! Keep that pizza hot.” I turned left, and we both headed home.

Photography/ArtReviews

Native Eye

by Dugan Aguilar

From Boom Winter 2014, Vol 4, No 4

Editor’s note: Dugan Aguilar has made a life’s work of photographing California Indians. Malcolm Margolin, publisher of Heyday and a Boom editorial board member, writes of Aguilar, in his preface to the photographer’s new book She Sang Me a Good Luck Song:

“He’s generous in his judgment of people. He approaches his subject not as a conqueror, not as a hunter out to capture an image, but as a shy, diffident admirer. He treats everyone and everything with deep and genuine respect. He seems more than willing to step out of the way. Watching him work, one has the feeling that he is not ‘taking’ pictures—‘taking’ is such an aggressive word. He seems to set things up in such a way as to allow a picture to happen.

“Yet make no mistake. In his quiet and persistent way, Dugan is a fighter, for some forty years now battling an enemy that has done everything it can to destroy Indian people: silence. Silence has erased Indian names from the landscape, has all but written Indians out of the history of California, has expunged Indian presence from the our daily consciousness. In the face of this pervasive silence, the tendency is to turn the dial up and make loud noises—photos that scream at you, overloaded with drama and intensity. Dugan has chosen another way. Rather than overdramatize, his photos whisper. They whisper to us with quiet intimacy, revealing not only people’s physical presence but hinting at their daydreams, suggesting something of the richness of their inner lives.”

She Sang Me a Good Luck Song, edited by Theresa Harlan, will be published by Heyday in June 2015.

Cousin Fred, Truckee, 1982.

Franklin Mullens, veterans’ gathering, Susanville, 2000.

Mimi Mullen (Maidu), grand marshal, 1997 Greenville Gold Digger Days parade.

Feathers with Flair, Susanville Parade, ca. 1987.

Jennifer Bates, Oakland Big Time, 1996.

Isabella, Spring Flower Dance, ca. 2004.

Articles

Lighting Cultural Fires

by Mary Ellen Hannibal

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

On a spring day earlier this year, I stepped in quick single file with a group of students behind Don Hankins, professor of geography and planning at Chico State University, through a waist-high tangle of fresh greenery in the Castello Forest near the Cosumnes River. Our goal was to collect 100 mousetraps that had been set on land Hankins had burned with Plains Miwok fire practitioners, local Cosumnes firefighters and others the previous fall. Moving quickly from trap to trap, we didn’t find many mice, but Hankins handled those we did mostly by pinching fur at the back of their necks, determining their sex, weighing, measuring, and inspecting them for parasites. To make a species-level identification, some of the mice required a closer look. “I have to check the teeth on this one,” he muttered. “By having it bite somebody?” a student suggested. Hankins pulled back tiny gums and measured tiny choppers. Satisfied that this mouse at least was now adequately known to science, he returned it to civilian scurrying.

While Hankins hasn’t yet formally analyzed the impacts of this set of burns in a projected series over the next few years, he informally observed a flush of native species, including grape, tobacco, and coyote brush, none of which are currently well-represented elsewhere in the forest. The return of these historically cultivated plants has been stimulated through burning by Native Americans in an area overcome by invasive species in the absence of regular fire.

Hankins lit the Costello Forest fire in the context of a National Science Foundation grant to investigate the effects of returning Native American burning practices to California landscapes where fire has been suppressed since the late 1800s. The US Forest Service and various local, regional, and state fire agencies today are mostly in agreement that a century of official fire suppression has put the landscape in a perilous situation. Without low-burning prescribed fires that clear out duff and debris and keep the fuel load minimized, the stuff accumulating on forest floors becomes tinder, ready to send any small, perhaps accidentally started fire into a major conflagration. Droughts like the one we have been enduring recently make things worse: everything’s drier. Climate change projections predict that California will get hotter still and periods of extreme dryness will increase.

Hankins believes that setting small, prescribed fires is good for restoring the land, but he’s also after something more: bringing back cultural burning. Before European contact, California supported a dispersed and diverse panoply of polities, many of which used fire as a tool for co-creating ecosystems. California beguiled so many newcomers but was completely misinterpreted by most of them; what the Russians, the Spanish, the Mexicans, and eventually Americans found here was not an untouched Eden but a practically human-made landscape, a series of habitat patches that were deliberately ecologically managed. From this cultivated landscape issued not just a year-round supply of food, but the basis upon which Native Americans constructed their material culture. For example, they burned to promote uniform, straight, and flexible deer grass, willow, and other plant stalks with which they made their basketry (and still do).

What the Russians, the Spanish, the Mexicans, and Americans found here was not an untouched Eden but a practically human-made landscape.

The research that Hankins and his colleagues are undertaking is providing a window into how historic burning practices affected tribal livelihoods in the past. It also suggests how returning fire to the land could affect California Indian communities and cultures in the present and into the future. The long and consistent interaction between indigenous people and their environments, moderated by fire, Hankins believes, is at the heart of a cultural covenant with nature, the nexus of a worldview with historic precedence going back thousands of years. Given the complexities of the Anthropocene—our present age, in which human beings influence and often dominate every ecosystem on Earth—we desperately need to understand different ways that culture and nature can work together in our world.

As our day collecting mousetraps progressed, Hankins pointed out groups of plants that tend to live together, and he told us how these assemblages shift as slope and aspect do, and how what grows where also has to do with geology and soil. Where he hadn’t burned, invasive plants were ubiquitous—mustard, radish, star thistle—outcompeting native plants and often degrading the health of the ecosystem. Journals kept by explorer John Charles Frémont in the mid-1800s indicate this area was a riparian thicket. Hankins thus inferred that by the time Frémont got here it was no longer burned regularly by Native Americans—their populations had already been decimated by disease and other mission-period impacts.

Hankins has Plains Miwok ancestry on his mother’s side of the family, from the Central Valley, and Osage from Missouri on his father’s. Hankins grew up in the Bay Area, but his parents lived at something of a cultural remove from their indigenous inheritance. What he learned young about Native American traditions came mostly through his grandfather, who taught him by way of the outdoors. Hankins eventually got a Ph.D. in geography, but as an undergraduate he also dug deep into Native American studies at the University of California, Davis. Using a dictionary written by Catherine Callaghan, he began to learn Miwko?—the language of the Plains Miwok (the question mark represents a glottal stop)—and sought out people who still spoke it. Through Callaghan he learned about an elder living in a local convalescent home. “It’s taken me twenty years to find others,” he told me. “There aren’t very many.” Hankins is now the only speaker of Miwko?, although he is teaching his kids. The language provides useful insight into the physical world of this region.

Today, Hankins is an associate professor and also field director of the California State University Ecological Reserves. His formal academic training is firmly rooted in European traditions. But his knowledge about fire on the landscape comes at least as much, if not more, from stories told by tribal members conveying what he calls “traditional law.”

“In all my land management classes,” he told me, “I teach pyro, water, and restoration. I begin talking about traditional law as story. Traditional law tells us about the world and how we are supposed to behave in it. So I think about that wherever I go. In 2002, when I lit my first fire, I was validating what elders told me.”

In the words of Frank Lake, a Forest Service ecologist with the Yurok tribe who is working with Hankins on this research: “Agencies can say, ‘we’re stewards,’ and talk about using fire in those terms, but tribal people have a much deeper philosophical connection with fire. The premise of our creation accounts is that people came to this world, and learned the first teaching, the first law, which is that people have a reciprocal obligation to conduct themselves in a particular way with fire, water, and other resources. And a way to relate to everything out there: rocks, trees, insects, plants, and animals. Our first responsibility is stewardship of the environment, and only after that to our people and our culture.”

The story of fire on the land in California has been something of a slow reveal. Alfred Kroeber, director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Museum of Anthropology from 1909 to 1947, and author of the still-influential 1925 Handbook of the Indians of California, noticed that Californians were among the most “omnivorous group of tribes on the continent.” Unlike other native people in North America, Californians didn’t specialize in a few crops or foods. “Further, the food resources of California were bountiful in their variety rather in their overwhelming abundance along special lines. If one supply failed, there were a hundred others to fall back on.” Kroeber was quiet on the role played by fire in California’s unique landscape or the active part in this myriad abundance played by the Indians themselves.

Native Americans didn’t just exploit California’s cornucopia—they enhanced its productivity.

As those of us who live here are periodically reminded, ours is a volatile geography. The constant yet irregular impacts of our famous tectonic plates striking and slipping have created a diverse topography. Most significant is the double-header of mountain ranges lining our coast and the interior of the state. All those hills, all those dales, the precipitous rocks, and the big flood plains filled with rich soil, create the literal groundwork upon which further diversity here flourishes. The Pacific Ocean does its part, driving our climate with the clockwise circulation pattern of the California Current. This dynamic cycle brought marine abundance to people here and still does, but also helps create the weather that interacts with geology to create our terrestrial habitats. California is a mosaic in every way, and its multiple and diverse ecosystems supported diverse communities of Native Americans. It was a land of relative plenty to begin with, but what Kroeber and many others didn’t quite see is that the Native Americans didn’t just exploit the cornucopia—they sustained and enhanced its productivity.

The first systematic anthropological treatment of Native American burning practices in California was made by a student of Kroeber’s, Omer Stewart, in the 1930s and 1940s. Stewart’s research was not taken up by his colleagues until 1973, when Henry Lewis published Patterns of Indian Burning in California: Ecology and Ethnohistory. In Lewis’s opinion, Stewart’s work was discounted and ignored when he wrote it because at the time, no one could conceive of fire as anything but destructive. M. Kat Anderson helped bring Stewart’s work to light and made her own enormous contribution to the understanding of Native Californians past and present, in her book Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources in 2005.

A short history of fire in California goes something like this: Approaching the coast of California in 1769, Padre Juan Crespí noticed upward of twelve fires on shore as his expedition made its way from Santa Cruz to San Francisco. The first prohibition of indigenous fires came by the pen of Governor Pedro Fages of the Royal Presidio of Monterey soon after. As Mexican and European incursions onto the land continued, disruption of Native American culture turned into full-on genocide, and in many places what has been called “ecocide” as well. The vast transformations wrought on the landscape by the Gold Rush, the railroads, ranching, and logging helped keep the true nature of fire on the land obscure.

Logging was particularly ruinous. It metastasized into wholesale destruction of what once seemed endless miles of forest, and not just through the removal of trees. Logging left flammable slash behind, and the railroads, throwing off sparks and cinders, contributed to large destructive fires the public eagerly sought to eliminate. By the late 1800s, the government started to get alarmed. Federal forest reserves were established in California in 1891. In 1905 the US Forest Service was created and Gifford Pinchot was named its first chief. In 1910 he declared, “Today we understand that forest fires are wholly within the control of men.”

Voices in opposition to fire suppression made an ecological case, even back then. “Practical foresters can demonstrate that from time immemorial fire has been the salvation of our California sugar and white pine forests,” argued G.L. Hoxie in Sunset Magazine in 1910. “The practical invites the aid of fire as a servant, not as a master. It will surely be master in a very short time unless the federal government changes its ways.” But the argument against fire was suffused with a fevered focus on protecting a means to a golden end: an empire needed to be built. San Francisco’s city engineer, Marsden Manson, declared in 1906 that the “light burning” system of Indian forestry was based on an erroneous understanding of “what forestry really is.” The “Indian system of forestry will not give timber as a crop!” he thundered. By the 1920s, fire exclusion was completely institutionalized.

But a lot has changed. This spring California Governor Jerry Brown declared: “Humanity is on a collision course with nature.” He deliberately connected the state’s severe drought with climate change. “As we send billions and billions of heat-trapping gases” into the air, he said, “we get heat and we get fires and we get what we’re seeing.” Firefighters already had responded to twice as many fires as during the same season the previous year. Brown counseled the usual: reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt, whatever that might mean. One thing is for sure: climate change has intensified the need to figure out how to deal with fire in California.

For more than thirty years, Ron Goode has been chairman of the North Fork Mono Tribe and a longtime starter of fires. Like Don Hankins, Goode is also perpetually bridging worlds, particularly those of the tribe and the Forest Service. Fire exclusion is no longer national policy in the Forest Service, and in the mid-1970s the term fire “control” was changed to “management.” Subsequent revisions of policy have affirmed fire is “an integral part of wildland ecosystems.” But that doesn’t mean agencies and officials have been able to wholeheartedly embrace fire or get it back on the landscape at adequate levels. “In North Fork we have a good relationship with the Forest Service,” Goode told me. “The administrators, for the most part, have always been very open to the tribe.” North Fork Mono people have worked as firefighters, some as part of the Forest Service’s top-rated hotshot crew. Goode himself has worked for the agency as an archaeologist. But while praising the district rangers and the people he works with regularly, Goode says some basic ideas have yet to percolate through the Forest Service as a whole. “None of us knows how to manage the land,” Goode told me, “not even me.”

Goode told me about attending a forest restoration conference a few years ago. “I sat there with twenty of these guys and there were some elders in the back of the room. And all these guys in suits and ties were talking about how the forest was supposed to be managed. Up on the wall someone had posted an adage: ‘If no one is in the forest, and no one is using the forest, what value does the forest have?’ I read that for about an hour and forty-five minutes and when I got up to speak I said, ‘I’m going to talk for fifteen minutes and you’d better listen.’ I pointed to the sign and I said, ‘This is where our problem starts.'”

Someone got up to tear the paper off the wall but Goode stopped him. “Even if there are no people in the forest, which is never true, there are animals, plants, and water in the forest, and all these things have spirit. And when you get to the point where you don’t see that spirit, you don’t understand that spirit. That’s what makes the difference between native living on the land and the commodity living,” he said. The restoration meeting was “all about what needs to be done and what needs to be fixed,” he said. “You are never going to get to the sacredness or spirit of water, for example, or the necessity of water to life, talking this way. You know when a doctor says they’ll keep someone alive when there’s a chance for ‘quality of life’?” Goode asked me. “Well you don’t have a chance at any ‘quality of life’ if you are valuing it only by money and not by philosophy or culture.”

Don Hankins, Frank Lake, and Ron Goode are all part of a broad, interdisciplinary team assembled by Stanford University anthropologists Doug Bird and Rebecca Bliege Bird to examine common histories and contemporary experiences with fire among California Indians and Aboriginal Australians, such as the Martu people with whom the Birds have lived and worked over the past twenty years.

“You don’t have a chance at any ‘quality of life’ if you are valuing it only by money and not by philosophy or culture.”

Species are going extinct all over the globe at a rate and magnitude not seen since the extinction of the dinosaurs. Australia has experienced the same loss of top predators as North America. As big-toothed mammals such as dingos in Australia have been taken out of the picture, it has a “forcing effect” on the rest of the food web. Herbivores become over-entitled to greenery and decimate it. Hosts of smaller species that depend on healthy vegetation start to blink out. Invasive species get a green light to come on into the ecosystem and start accomplishing their own outcompeting of natives. But there are some interesting twists in the Australian situation. The areas of the country with the least amount of ranching and agriculture—the least human impact—are experiencing the highest rates of extinction. In the central and western Australian deserts, moreover, endemic mammal losses are highest, but the dingo population hasn’t changed. Where the Martu live and still regularly burn their country, species extinctions are fewer and population declines are slower than elsewhere.

The colonial onslaught in North America and Australia, it seems, wore the same blinders on both sides of the Pacific, conveniently erasing the presence and impact of indigenous people the better to steal their homelands. Terra Nullius—the notion that Australia belonged to no one and was there for the taking—reigned until the late twentieth century. In California, John Muir sought to remove the sight of Native Americans like a mote from his cosmic eyeball. As Kat Anderson puts it, Muir was “unable to fit them into his worldview.” Muir observed Miwok people in the Sierra Nevada in 1869, noting an old Indian woman dressed in calico rags. “Had she been clad in fur, or cloth woven of grass or shreddy bark. . . she might have seemed a rightful part of wilderness; like a good wolf at least, or bear.” With that attitude he helped to construct a philosophy of human-free wilderness—the enforcement of which was already degrading the ecosystems he loved to serenade. He wrote: “from no point of view that I have found are such debased fellow beings a whit more natural” than tacky tourists who scare the wildlife.

“Today we know people are part of nature, not separate from it,” Brian Codding, an anthropologist working with the Birds, told me. Furthermore, “land managers are realizing their time frame is a subset of the historic range of variation.” Restoring ecosystem functioning in California, especially as the hot breath of climate change bears down on us, involves looking backward and forward. It means putting fire back on the land not only to moderate diversity and to create resilience, but for cultural purposes as well. The obligations Don Hankins, Ron Goode, and Frank Lake honor have a corollary among the Martu. As Doug Bird has described it, the Martu heritage emerges from consumption of resources, the whole system of which is sacramental, imbued with transcendent meaning. Resources are the stuff of life, fire is the divine spark, and humans light it.

The View from Quiroste

“Many Native people would say this needs to be burned.” Rob Cuthrell, having just the weekend before become a newly minted doctor of archaeology, looked down from the edge of the 225-acre Quiroste Valley Cultural Preserve in Año Nuevo State Park north of Santa Cruz. We stood on the site of the ancient village Mitinne, once populated by the strong Quiroste polity who fatefully intersected here with the Spanish nearly 245 years ago. Down below was a familiar expanse of dried grasses interspersed with coyote brush and rimmed by Douglas fir trees. It looked a lot like many other wide-open expanses of California coast protected from development and home to many native species. Untouched land looks natural. But it’s not, really. Nor, perhaps, has it ever been, at least on the terms that we usually define the word “natural.”

Around the hilltop on which we stood, Cuthrell pointed out purple needlegrass, the official California state grass. “This is a main constituent of coastal prairies,” he said. “I was up here recently harvesting seeds with young tribal members.” Cuthrell told me about a native stewardship program instigated by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, a local tribe descended from people at Mission Santa Cruz and San Juan Bautista, who are involved in restoring this landscape to a condition close to what it was when the Quiroste lived here. Cuthrell is part of an extensive interdisciplinary collaboration between tribal members, academics (some of whom are also tribal members), and land management agency personnel investigating the deep history of the landscape, how the Quiroste lived on it, and how to best restore and maintain it going forward.

On the hillside, piles of hewn Douglas fir branches turned rust-colored and perfumed the air. “We’ve cut these down because Doug fir grows really fast, and soon these would shade out the native perennial grasses,” Cuthrell said. “These piles will decompose relatively quickly.” In contrast to the native grasses where we stood, the land down below was choked with invasive plants, some of which are native, but still considered invasive. The coyote brush is native, but the Quiroste would have kept it at bay, sustaining this place as wide-open grasslands by periodically burning it. “But there’s too much woody shrub to burn it now,” he said. “It would burn too hot. We have to prepare this land for burning, and it’s going to take time.” It will take more than thinning out the fuels. Invasive plants actually change the microbial structure of the soil and affect the entire suite of ecological interactions on a landscape. Putting fire on the land prematurely could perversely promote invasives rather than quell them.

This landscape was initially recognized for its historical significance by California State Parks archaeologist Mark Hylkema. Logged, ranched, and farmed for decades, the property was donated to the state parks system in the early 1980s. Hylkema had a bee in his bonnet from reading historic documents of Spanish encounters along the coast here. In 1769, Don Gaspar de Portola led an expedition in search of Monterey Bay. “By the time they got up here,” Hylkema told me, “they were in dire straits. Several crew members were dying. The land was all burned, so they couldn’t feed their horses and mules.” Thinking Año Nuevo Point was the northernmost part of Monterey Bay, they camped at what is now called Whitehouse Creek in late October. Troops marched along the beaches and descended down into what they called a “well-sheltered valley” of rolling hills and nut bearing pines. The Spanish came upon what they called Casa Grande, a large settlement dominated by a big structure. Quiroste tribal members met them, hosted them, and restored them. “This is where prehistory becomes history,” Hylkema told me. “Because the Quiroste could have told them to go back.”

With students from Cabrillo College, Hylkema radiocarbon dated remains of shells, plants, and animal bones on the site to determine whether Casa Grande could have originally stood here. Hylkema looked around for researchers to help him dig deeper into the history and implications of Quiroste—and thus turned to Chuck Striplen, an Amah Mutsun tribal member then looking for a site on which to focus his dissertation in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC Berkeley. Eventually, a team of more than fifteen researchers, including Striplen, Hylkema, Cuthrell, Kent Lightfoot, and Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribe, cohered around the work at Quiroste. The site was classified as a cultural preserve, and recently, the Amah Mutsun Land Trust added nearly 100 acres to the site in the form of a conservation easement.

“When the idea of our Tribe participating in this study first came to us,” Lopez has written, “we were dubious. . . why would we ever agree to participate in a project that could potentially disturb our ancestors?” Cuthrell proposed using magnetometry, ground penetrating radar, and electrical resistivity—none of which would disturb the ground—to help construct a three-dimensional model of what is underground. These techniques direct the researchers not only where to look further, but where to stop looking if it appears they are coming upon a grave site. The Amah Mutsun “wanted to support member Striplen’s academic goals,” Lopez said. They also “realized that science and archaeology play an important role in helping us restore our indigenous knowledge.”

In a recent special issue of California Archeology, Kent Lightfoot, an archaeologist, and Valentin Lopez, the tribal chairman, were measured in their conclusions: “We do not yet know when people first initiated sustained anthropogenic burning in California or how they may have developed and modified these practices over time. Nor do we know much about the kinds of impacts these landscape management practices had on the scores of biotic communities distributed across the. . . regions of California. Lastly, there has not yet been much research on the social organizational systems, numbers of people, and degree of community coordination involved in various kinds of eco-engineering activities.”

But out in the field, Chuck Striplen is willing to go a little further: “There’s no escaping history. These methods were how these ecosystems were maintained for more than 10,000 years. They didn’t always do it right, but on average, when the Spanish showed up it was to non-endangered condors, non-endangered red-legged frogs, and non-endangered salmon.”

Looking over Quiroste, the takeaway seems clear: It is not that we are here; it is how we are here.

Note

In the preceding photographs, members of the North Fork Mono Tribe and volunteers conduct a cultural burn in the Sierra Nevada foothills in February 2013. COURTESY OF JARED DAHL ALDERN.

Articles

Stop Hunting Ishi

by William Bauer

From Boom Fall 2014, Vol 4, No 3

Ishi must be tired. For 160 years, people have hunted him and other California Indians. In the mid-nineteenth century, settlers, miners, and ranchers tracked Ishi and his family in revenge for the killing of livestock. In the early twentieth century, anthropologists trailed after Ishi, searching for North America’s “last wild Indian.” In 2000, Maidu and Pit River tribal members tracked down his brain, which Dr. Saxton Pope had removed at Ishi’s autopsy and Professor Alfred Kroeber had sent to the Smithsonian. In 2012, photographers Byron Wolfe and Troy Jollimore continued the quest to capture Ishi, visiting Deer Creek in search of his wilderness. Settlers, anthropologists, and indigenous people have hounded Ishi for different purposes. Understanding why people hunt Ishi tells us much about how Californians envision Indians and their past, present, and future.

The hunting of Ishi dates to the mid-nineteenth century. After the California Gold Rush, miners, ranchers, and farmers invaded California and occupied or expelled Indians from seemingly unused areas. Domesticated livestock trampled the food sources that indigenous people harvested and chased away deer. In response, California Indians killed livestock, both as a source of food and as a symbolic attack on the animals that troubled their economic systems. In April 1871, four cowboys hunted a small band of Yahis, which included Ishi. While working in the Sacramento Valley, the four men came across a trail of blood, presumably from one of the cows the men herded. Following the track, the cowboys flushed some Yahis cutting chunks of flesh from a dead steer. The Yahis fled the scene. Rather than pursue them, the cowboys returned to their camp, found a hunting dog, and stalked the Indians to a cave. The hunters opened fire, killing about thirty Yahis in what one historian has called “the last known large massacre of California Indians.”¹ Ishi was one of the few survivors of this band.

Portrait of Ishi by E.H. Kemp, July 1912. Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of California.

 

The so-called Kingsley Cave Massacre culminated more than one hundred years of hunting California Indians. In the eighteenth century, Spanish Franciscan priests and soldiers tracked down native people who fled the missions. After independence, Mexican officials trailed California Indians who stole horses from ranchos and sold them to fur traders. Beginning in the 1850s, miners and ranchers hunted California Indians accused of killing livestock or ambushing settlers.

What prompted Euro-Americans and Americans to hunt California Indians? In part, they considered Indians socially and biologically inferior. Franciscans believed California Indians were children who, without the Franciscans, would quickly satiate their “brutal appetites.” Franciscans pursued California Indians, especially those who ran away from the missions, to protect them from themselves. Americans, on the other hand, argued California Indians were a racially degraded people. Americans called California Indians “diggers,” a word that rhymes with the racial epithet attached to African Americans. The racial pseudoscience favored by many white Americans at the time argued that California Indians had dark skins and were, therefore, closer to animals than white men—and so, Americans hunted California Indians because they considered them little better than wild animals.²

Racial ideology only partially justified the hunting of California Indians. Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans also pursued California Indians they considered criminals. Franciscans believed California Indians owed a spiritual debt to the priests once they entered the missions and accepted baptism. Leaving the mission was tantamount to breaking an indentured servant contract, and Indians needed to return to the mission.³

Both Mexicans and Americans tracked down Indians for the theft of property, such as horses and cattle. In nineteenth-century California, men like those depicted “protecting the settlers” in J. Ross Browne’s The Coast Rangers hunted Indians to protect American lives and property from Indians. Americans, like the four cowboys, linked the acquisition of property to their social identities. An attack on one was an attack on all and deserved retribution.4

Ishi’s death mask, 1920. Courtesy of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and the Regents of the University of California.

Hunting Indians had disastrous consequences for California’s indigenous people. In the late eighteenth century, more than 300,000 Indians lived in California. By the time of the Gold Rush, 150,000 Indians lived within the state’s boundaries. The worst, of course, was yet to come. By 1900, the hunting of California Indians, in conjunction with disease and starvation, reduced the population to little more than 25,000. The near eradication of California Indians was the ultimate desire of a settler society that needed indigenous people to disappear, so that their land in particular, and California as a state, could be a country for white men and white families. Ishi’s story is the most famous of these narratives of hunting California Indians and the dramatic population decline among Native Californians. By 1911, the hunting of Yahi had apparently reduced their population to this one man.

The hunting of Ishi was not always physically violent. Beginning in 1909, anthropologists from the University of California tracked Ishi. Two years earlier, surveyors had been looking for a suitable site for a dam on Mill Creek in rural northeastern California when they came upon Ishi’s camp. A concealed Ishi welcomed the surveyors into camp with two warning arrows shot from a bow. After disturbing an elderly woman, likely Ishi’s mother, and ransacking the camp, the men informed Chico and Oroville newspapers of the “wild Indians” in the mountains. Although there were some skeptics, many believed the story. Ishi and other Yahis had spent the years between the Kingsley Creek massacre and the invasion of their camp pilfering food, glass, and metal from cabins. Word of the discovery of Ishi’s camp reached anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who dispatched one of his protégés, T.T. Waterman, to hunt for these elusive Indians. Unlike the cowboys who perpetrated the Kingsley Cave Massacre, Kroeber and Waterman did not want to kill Indians. They wanted to study them before they disappeared.

Kroeber pursued “wild Indians” because he believed California Indian cultures were vanishing. In 1900, Kroeber arrived in California and soon assumed the reins of the Hearst Museum and the University of California’s anthropology department. Kroeber embarked on a long career studying California Indian languages and cultures. Following the guidance of his mentor and academic adviser Franz Boas, Kroeber endeavored to salvage what was remaining of California Indian cultures and languages before they disappeared in the face of modernity. Kroeber tracked reliable informants among the Mojaves, Yuroks, and Yukis. The possibility of finding “wild Indians,” supposedly uncontaminated by modernity, was too much for Kroeber to pass up, so he dispatched Waterman to the rugged northeastern mountains of California to track down Ishi and bring him in.

Waterman’s two trips to Deer Creek were fruitless, but Kroeber’s pursuit would not be in vain. In 1911, Ishi turned up at a slaughterhouse in Oroville and was subsequently captured by workers, who turned him over to the local sheriff. Word of the captured “wild man” again reached Kroeber, who obtained permission from the Office of Indian Affairs to bring Ishi from Oroville, where he stayed in the town jail, to San Francisco. For the next five years, until his death, Ishi lived in San Francisco, working as a janitor at Kroeber’s museum, sharing the Yahi language with anthropologists and demonstrating Yahi craft making (especially arrowhead making) for museum patrons. In 1914, Kroeber insisted that Ishi return to Deer Creek, where he hoped that Ishi would show him what life was like in the wild. For Kroeber, the wilderness was a haven from modernity and urbanization. Kroeber took pictures of Ishi hunting, calling rabbits, and butchering a deer. He and Ishi also mapped the Yahi homeland. For Ishi, though, Deer Creek was not some pristine, premodern landscape. Instead, it was a landscape haunted by those killed by modern Indian hunters, such as the four cowboys at Kingsley Cave. Ishi wept when he came upon the location of his mother’s burial. Another day, Ishi came to camp and told the others that he thought he had heard his deceased mother and sister’s voices on one of the trails.5

That Kroeber’s hunting of Ishi was not physically violent does not mean it was benign. Kroeber’s anthropology depicted California Indians as primitive, echoing the racialist ideas of the nineteenth century. California Indians lived in “tribelets” not “tribes.” They did not practice warfare, but participated in small-scale battles where no one was really hurt. Kroeber created essentialist categories about California Indian identity that denied Ishi and other native people’s modernity.

In 1914, when Ishi returned to Oroville on the way to Deer Creek, town residents did not believe it was the same man who had been captured near the slaughterhouse. Homer Speegle, who saw Ishi in the Oroville jail in 1911, noted that Ishi was considerably heavier than before and wore American-style clothing, hardly the trappings of an Indian, let alone the last wild Yahi. Because American Indians could never be modern, according to Kroeber’s standard, they had to be vanishing. Kroeber’s version of Ishi has since stood for the fate of all California Indians, who ostensibly disappeared in the early twentieth century only to be, in some people’s view, shockingly resurrected in the late twentieth century with the advent of Indian gaming.

In the mid-1990s, another group took up the pursuit of Ishi: California Indians themselves. Art Angle, a Maidu from Oroville, founded the Butte County Native American Cultural Committee, with the goal of repatriating Maidu remains from museums. Angle knew Ishi’s story and wanted to return his ashes to the Oroville area. He had also heard rumors of Ishi’s autopsy and the removal of his brain, and he did not want to bring Ishi’s remains home incomplete. Anthropologist Orin Starn met with Angle and tracked Ishi’s brain to a vat in a Smithsonian storage facility in College Park, Maryland. The Butte County committee and Starn met with Smithsonian officials and initiated the process of repatriating Ishi’s brain to California. The Smithsonian, however, returned Ishi’s brain to the Redding Rancheria, home of the Yahi’s linguistic relatives, the Pit River people, rather than to Angle’s Butte County committee. In 2000, Mickey Gimmell and other Pit River people buried Ishi’s brain and ashes at an undisclosed location along Deer Creek.6

Angle, Starn, and, eventually, Gimmell’s pursuit of Ishi were part of a cultural and political renewal among twentieth-century California Indians. The origins of this revival are rooted in post–World War II California. Marie Potts, a Maidu activist, worked with other California Indians to agitate for land claims in the 1940s and 1950s and was a member of the National Congress on American Indians. In 1969, American Indians in San Francisco occupied Alcatraz Island. Two years later, Mickey Gimmell, members of the American Indian Movement, and other Pit River people took over Pit River land that was owned by Pacific Gas and Electric. In 1979, Tillie Hardwick, a Pomo woman, led a Supreme Court case that eventually overturned the dreadful termination of California Indian tribes earlier in the twentieth century. In 1988, the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians won a court case that paved the way for the expansion of Indian gaming in California and the rest of the United States.

Early on, Ishi was not a symbol for this tribal sovereignty movement. He lacked the charisma of leaders such as Geronimo, Sitting Bull, or Crazy Horse, none of whom were Californians. But the efforts of the Butte County committee and Redding Rancheria to track down Ishi’s remains and properly bury them in northern California were assertions of sovereignty, and so Ishi became a symbol of reclaiming what has been lost to the ravages of California colonialism.

Since the 1760s, in one way or another, Ishi has been vital to stories Californians tell about themselves and their state. At first, Ishi and his kin represented the savage Indian on the frontier, indiscriminately killing livestock as well as white men, women, and children, and deserving a violent end himself. Ishi has symbolized the anthropological Indian, practicing precontact ways supposedly uncontaminated by modernity. Ishi has signified tribal sovereignty and self-determination, the renaissance of indigenous politics and culture made possible by the survival of indigenous people and nations, and the economic opportunities of Indian gaming.

Yet, Ishi has also been elusive. He survived genocide. Ishi was never the “wild man” or “stone age man” that Kroeber and others depicted. The tussle between the Butte County Native American Cultural Committee and the Redding Rancheria over the return of his brain and ashes to Deer Creek revealed unresolved interethnic divisions among northern California’s Indian nations.

Although writer Troy Jollimore and photographer Byron Wolfe pursued Ishi’s landscape, history, and memory, and not Ishi himself, Jollimore noted that he wanted to experience something associated with Ishi, something “mystical or numinous.” Instead the experience was “ordinary and matter of fact.”7

As with many aspects of American Indian history, people often look for those things that tell them something about themselves, not about indigenous people. People have searched for Ishi not necessarily to learn more about Ishi, but to inform their own understandings of the world. This may be one reason that Ishi has avoided capture. Perhaps it is a good time to stop hunting Ishi and let him rest.

Notes

1 Benjamin Madley, “American Genocide: The California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873” (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 2009), 490–91.

2 On the racial ideas applied to California Indians, see James Rawls, Indians of California: The Changing Image (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984) and Tomás Almaguer, Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

3 On California Indians and the Spanish mission system, see the exceptional work of Steven Hackel, Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769–1850 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005) and James Sandos, Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

4 On the Mexican and American periods, see Albert Hurtado, Indian Survival on the California Frontier (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846–1873 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), and Madley, “American Genocide.”

5 One of the most famous books to consider Ishi’s life is Theodora Kroeber, Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, 1961). A revision, that places Ishi’s life in the context of modernization and ideas of wilderness, is Douglas Sackman, Wild Men: Ishi and Kroeber in the Wilderness of Modern America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). Ishi scholars should also consult Richard Burrill’s encyclopedic work Ishi’s Untold Story in His First World: A Biography of the Last of His Band of Yahi Indians in North America, Parts I–IV, (Red Bluff: The Anthro Company, 2011–2012).

6 Orin Starn covers the repatriation of Ishi’s remains in Ishi’s Brain: In Search of America’s Last “Wild” Indian (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004). The issue of repatriation also produced a retrospective on anthropology, Ishi and his place in California history. See Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber, eds., Ishi in Three Centuries (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003).

7 Troy Jollimore, “Some Version of the Same River: Rephotographing Ishi,” this volume.

Reviews

Man with a Mission

serra_misionsangabriel

By Sara V. Torres

Three hundred years ago in the Mediterranean isle of Majorca, the man who would become known as the father of the California missions was born.  “Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions” at the Huntington Library  commemorates the tricentennial of his birth with a visually stunning exhibition that weaves together the intertwined stories of Serra’s career as a missionary to Spanish America and the complex Indian responses to mission life through rich artifacts of material culture drawn from both Spain and early California. It is open through January 6.

On display are important documentary records of Serra’s own life and the founding of early California missions, along with maps, paintings, reliquaries, and early Indian artifacts, comprising nearly 250 objects from The Huntington’s collections and sixty lending institutions in the US, Mexico, and Spain. The exhibition gives voice to the wide range of Native American experiences in California missions and captures, through documents, artifacts, and oral histories, their spirit of cultural resilience in the face of pandemic illness and the incursion of new cultures. Audiovisual features help convey the rich cultural diversity of the nearly 350,000 Native Americans who lived in California at time of Serra’s arrival, and the survival of indigenous traditions through centuries of upheaval.

Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Conveying the full arc of the missions’ history, the exhibition moves forward in time to explore the secularization of the missions and the subsequent displacement and social marginalization of Indians during the annexation of Alta California into the US. Displays focusing on romanticized “myths of the missions,” including The Mission Play and the popular Ramona stories, stand in stark counterpoint to the documentary records and photographs of real-life missions, challenging visitors to think critically about the place of missions within state history and legend.

Co-curator Steven Hackel’s new biography, Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father (352pp, $27), complements the exhibition by painting a full and nuanced portrait of the famous Franciscan missionary in great scholarly detail, with a particular emphasis on the cultural, intellectual, and theological contexts of Serra’s upbringing and early career in Mallorca and how these experiences informed his mission work in Baja and Alta California. Together, the exhibition and biography tell a fascinating history of a man whose memory is lined with an aura of saintliness and whose legacy is imbued with controversy.

Articles

The Giant and the Waterbaby

by William J. Bauer, Jr.

From Boom Winter 2012, Vol. 2, No. 4

Paiute oral traditions and the Owens Valley Water Wars

In 1935, Susie Baker, an Owens Valley Paiute elder from Big Pine, California, told the following story: A giant approached the Alabama Hills, a range of small hills and protruding rock formations on the Valley’s southern edge.1 As the giant reached the hills, he screamed at the top of his great voice. Frightened, people scurried from their hiding places. As they fled, the giant picked them up and killed them. He planned to take his victims home for a feast with his wife. When the giant reached Tinemaha, a peak that looms over the Owens Valley, he again screamed at the top of his voice. More people ran from their hiding places, and the giant picked them up, too, and killed them. He traveled as far north as Tupueseenata (Hammil Valley) and then decided to return home with his prey.


The Alabama Hills. PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVE BERADI.

But the waterbaby, a spirit that lives in lakes, grew tired of the giant’s screaming, which had frightened him several times. Waterbaby knew when the giant would pass by his home in the Owens Lake, so he went near the trail, lay down on a rock, and waited. When the giant approached, screaming, he saw the waterbaby lying on the rock. The giant asked where his mother and father were, but the waterbaby refused to answer. The giant pressed the waterbaby’s little fingers to see if it would scream, but the waterbaby never said a word. The giant pressed his little head, but the waterbaby did not even mumble. Again the giant asked, “Little boy, where is your mother and father?” The waterbaby said nothing. The giant pinched the waterbaby’s finger, saying, “You have a very little hand and pretty little body.” The waterbaby sat up and seized the giant by the forefinger. The giant exclaimed, “Let me go, you must have thought I was your dad or mother but I am not!” The giant tried to escape with his great strength, but it was useless. The waterbaby stood up, dragged the giant to the edge of Owens Lake, and threw him into the water. Then the waterbaby jumped in after the giant and took him down to the bottom. Years later, the waterbaby took the giant’s bones and threw them opposite the Alabama Hills, across the Owens River, which drains into the lake. The remains of the giant’s bones are still there, Baker informed the younger Paiute woman who recorded her story.

There are multiple meanings to this story, not only for the Owens Valley Paiutes but for all who have an interest in the Owens Valley. Scholars and folklorists know that such oral traditions are far from fantasy or quaint myths. Baker, seventy years old at the time, purposefully used the story to contemplate the history and consequences of a crucial event in California history. She concluded her narrative by saying that the rock on which the waterbaby waited for the giant still existed, but “It may be destroyed by the Los Angeles aqueduct builders. The waterbaby’s home may be still there. I do hope it’s there.”2


Owens Lake. PHOTOGRAPH BY ALAN LEVINE.

The aqueduct to which Susie Baker refers is, of course, the famous channel that siphoned water from the Owens Valley toward Los Angeles, and its construction was a seminal part of the Owens Valley Water Wars.

The Water Wars

A popular topic of study in California’s history, the Water Wars have inspired many books and the film Chinatown. Authors have used the Owens Valley saga to assess the environmental and economic causes and consequences of water diversion.3 Yet in too many of these histories, scholars ignore the Owens Valley’s Indigenous inhabitants. Paiutes may appear as static “first inhabitants” of the Valley, but then they disappear, allegedly conquered by Owens Valley “pioneers.” They were thought to have had little at stake in the Owens Valley Water Wars—a sentiment that Susie Baker refuted. Water and the conflict over this precious resource were on the minds of Owens Valley Paiutes when they told oral narratives in the 1930s.4

Beginning in 1905, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power bought land and water rights from Owens Valley settlers. In 1913, the Department of Water completed an aqueduct that brought the water from Owens Lake and Owens River the 230 miles to Los Angeles. In the 1920s, conflicts between Owens Valley farmers and the City of Los Angeles developed. Drought had reduced the amount of water available for productive farming in the valley, and angry farmers attempted to sabotage the aqueduct. Eventually, the farmer rebellion failed and they sold more land and water rights to Los Angeles. By the 1930s, the city of Los Angeles owned 95 percent of the Owens Valley’s farm and ranch land.5 Through all this, the Paiutes and their oral traditions remained.


Owens River. PHOTOGRAPH BY RALPHMAN.

In 1935, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber of the University of California secured a state public works project grant and enlisted anthropology students to canvass the state and interview native peoples. Students Frank Essene, Frederick Hulse, and Abraham Halpern traveled to the Owens Valley to conduct their fieldwork. Anthropologists often hired younger Paiutes to interview and interpret the oral testimony of elderly Paiutes, which enabled Paiutes to control and shape historical and contemporary narratives. Many of these oral traditions involved or were related to water.

Oral traditions, those stories told for more than one generation that reflect social, economic, cultural, and political contexts, represent the ways in which indigenous people remembered and told their histories.6 Paiutes related their ethnogenesis to a specific river, which enunciated their relationship with water, and identified the location of springs as a way to define a historical consciousness that depends on place rather than chronology.7

Paiute oral traditions not only contemplate the past, they intentionally reflect and comment upon contemporary events. The diversion of water from the Owens Valley was one of the most important events in Paiute lives and politics, if not in all of California. Paiutes revised their oral traditions in a struggle between themselves and Anglo settlers over the meanings and consequences of Settler Colonialism in California.8 In their oral traditions, Paiutes argued that the war began at Paiute creation, not in 1905, when Frederick Eaton began to purchase land in the Owens Valley. The antagonist, rather than the City of Los Angeles, was more often than not the Owens Valley settler. And the ultimate victors in the wars may not have been the city of Los Angeles, but the Paiutes themselves—their systems of knowledge and their efforts to reclaim water.

Identity and water

At a basic level, Paiute oral traditions define Paiute identity. In the 1920s, George Collins, a Paiute man in his thirties or forties from Fish Springs, said that the Owens Valley Paiutes called themselves nün’wa paya hūp ca’á otūŭ’mu, “we are water ditch coyote children.” In one version of their creation story, Coyote the creator placed Paiutes next to the “water ditch,” or the Owens River, that runs through the Valley.9

Anthropologists lump Owens Valley Paiutes into the Great Basin cultural area and have attempted to define them by their language and economy. Paiutes speak Mono, a dialect of the Numic language mostly spoken in the present-day states of Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, and California. Archaeologists and anthropologists believe Paiutes settled the Owens Valley as early as 600 C.E., but archaeological evidence shows that indigenous people occupied the Valley 5,000 or perhaps 6,500 years ago. A common trait of Great Basin Indians was their ability to adapt a hunting and harvesting economy to the arid environment east of the Sierra Nevada and west of the Rocky Mountains.10

But whereas anthropological cultural areas, such as the “Great Basin,” identified practices that indigenous people of a specific region shared, and archaeologists endeavored to discern a specific time or date when Paiute culture appeared in the Owens Valley, Paiutes demonstrated the importance of place in their sense of self. Paiute ethnogenesis occurred next to a known and specific body of water; they were not “water ditch coyote children” until Coyote created or placed them next to the Owens River. Oral traditions explicitly linked Paiute identity to Paiute water, and water to Paiute worldview.


PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANK KOVALCHEK.

All things, especially water, are sentient in Paiute cosmology, with human emotions and abilities. In one story, a group of women are gathering basket-making materials near a lake at present-day Dyer, Nevada. The women foolishly begin to make fun of the water. Angrily, water leaps out of the lake and attempts to sweep them to the bottom.11 Although the lake fails to take its intended prey, water, like humans, feels insults and attempts to exact revenge for affronts.

Additionally, water possessed its own spirits, such as the waterbaby in Baker’s story.12 Often, waterbabies were troublesome sprites associated with bodies of water, such as lakes or rivers, although they also functioned as spirit helpers for healers. Another oral tradition relates that a group of children were playing at Pasasa’a (now known as Casa Diablo Hot Springs and home to a geothermal power plant). An impetuous boy begins to throw rocks into Pasasa’a, despite his peers’ warnings. A waterbaby emerges from the spring, abducts the boy and takes him under the water.13 Such stories about water revealed the way in which Paiutes understood and related to the world in which they lived—namely, that aspects of the physical world possessed access to supernatural forces. Moreover, these stories warned children of the real dangers of playing too close to springs, creeks, or lakes.

Paiutes animated water by imbuing it with puha, power or “a force or energy” that everything in the world possesses. Puha can have positive and harmful effects; it can be a generative or destructive force in the People’s lives. Yet the relationship between puha and water might be much more than just possessing power. The Paiute word for water—paya—sounds like puha, the word for power.14 A Southern Paiute man from Las Vegas described puha in liquid terms: it “flows into and down the sides of mountains.”15 The Paiute worldview accorded water an important role and place in the People’s lives.

The places of history

Paiute histories emphasize place, rather than chronology.16 Oral traditions and historical narratives move across space, not time; from place to place, not from date to date. Consider again the story of the giant, who traveled from one distinct place to another on the Owens Valley Paiute landscape. The giant walked from the Alabama Hills to Tinemaha to Tupueseenata and then returned to Owens Lake. Baker knew the exact location of the rock on which the waterbaby waited for the giant. Other stories about water, too, were clear about where they occurred. We know that the story of the basket-makers took place at Dyer, and the story of the children occurred at Pasasa’a. In the Owens Valley as well as the Yukon Territory, specific places serve as “anchors of memory,” linking human history to place.17 We don’t know when these stories occurred, but they are “true” from a Paiute perspective because they occurred at places known to historical and contemporary Paiutes.


PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANK KOVALCHEK.

Looking into the stories deeply, we see a narrative structure emerge that adheres to topographic features. In Paiute cosmology, high places such as the Alabama Hills or Tinemaha are associated with positive manifestations of puha. Hence, puha “flows down” from mountains. Benevolent spirits live on mountain peaks; doctors go to the tops of mountains to seek visions and puha itself. Low-lying areas, such as Owens Lake, Pasasa’a, and other bodies of water, usually (but not always) have negative manifestations of puha. Waterbabies emerge from water and snatch women and children. In between high and low areas are the plains, or Owens Valley itself, an area of stasis or what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan describes as “space.”18 Paiutes structure their oral narratives to replicate this understanding of their topography. Oral traditions begin in space, either on the plains or at the foot of the hills, and proceed to high or low places. The story of the giant originates at the foot of the Alabama Hills and then moves from named place to named place before the giant meets his end at Owens Lake.19 Other oral traditions about water adhere to this topographic narrative structure.

The Frog Sisters and Rattlesnake

Here is another story Susie Baker told in 1935: The Frog sisters lived at a spring. Rattlesnake, who lived about one mile or more away, planned to steal the spring away from them. He kept very close watch until he had a chance. One afternoon, when the Frog sisters were fast asleep and no one was around, Rattlesnake came down to the spring and drank as much as he could, holding the rest of the water in his mouth. He took every bit of the water in the spring and started for his home. He was about a half-mile away when the Frog sisters woke up and to their surprise found no water in their spring. They immediately investigated and guessed what had become of their water. They pursued Rattlesnake and saw him climbing up the hill. The Frog sisters followed him up the hill as fast as they could. Upon seeing the sisters in pursuit, Rattlesnake increased his speed, but as he ascended the mountain, he became tired, coughed, and spat out some of the water. He continued on his journey until the Frog sisters overtook him, stopped him, tickled him, and made him spit all the water he had in his mouth. The Frog sisters drank the water and took it back to their spring where they deposited the water in its rightful place.

This story embodies the topographic narrative structure that undergirded Paiute oral culture and history. As we can visualize, the story begins with Rattlesnake on the plains, moving down to the spring and stealing the water. Afterward, Rattlesnake climbs a hill, where the story’s positive resolution occurs. Additionally, Baker used the Paiute language to map the Owens Valley landscape. Baker identified the place where Frog sisters lived as ya qua java joh (Frog Spring). She called the place where the Frog sisters overtook Rattlesnake togo wamo cha qua tepu (Snake Spat Out).20

The Paiute landscape functioned as a mnemonic device, reminding Paiutes where valuable sources of water exist—essential knowledge in an arid environment.21 In 1935 Mattie Bulpitt, a ninety-five-year-old Paiute woman from Round Valley, told a variation of the Frog sisters and Rattlesnake story: “[Frog] owned a spring about five miles out, north of Big Pine and it still is there just below the state highway.” She also identified the locale of Snake Spat Out: “These willows can be seen still to this day near the top of the mountain just off the main state highway.”22 The places mentioned in Paiute oral traditions were not atavistic memories; they were meaningful locations that, on a daily basis, Paiutes saw and into which they invested meaning.

When Paiutes moved into the Owens Valley approximately 1,500 years ago, they grafted meanings on the area’s mountains, hills, valleys and waterways. These early Paiutes used language, stories and place names to create a home in the Owens Valley. They named the places in their homeland—the Owens Valley—in their own language: Mattie Bulpitt called the places “Frog Spring” and “Snake Spat Out.” With these oral and historical narratives, Paiutes transformed nebulous space into place and made a political claim on it. Naming a place is laden with power relationships and the act of naming generates debates over the meaning of those names.23

Early twentieth-century settler historians of the Owens Valley and Inyo County challenged Paiute ideas about history and the land. William Chalfant, a local news-paperman and contemporary in age to Susie Baker, wrote Owens Valley and Inyo County histories, constructing a usable past that glorified American settler colonialism.24 Settler histories use Indians as foils, introducing them as premodern people who gave way to civilized settlers. Chalfant dedicated his book “to the pioneers” and to his father, who was a “Pioneer of Inyo and [a] pioneer in endeavor[ing] for her moral as well as material growth.” Chalfant suggested that Paiutes failed to work for Owens Valley’s social and economic development. Then, he went so far as to deny Paiute indigenousness in two chapters on Paiute cultural practices, freezing them in the time in which they encountered Anglo settlers in the mid-nineteenth century, and denying them any history beyond. He argued that no one, not even the Paiutes, had occupied the Valley for long before Anglo Americans arrived. The Indigenous artists who made rock paintings in the Owens Valley, he claimed, were interlopers. He further argued that archaeological remains were the products of a “wandering warrior from some other region” and not of a long Paiute occupation. Finally, Chalfant provided detail into the process by which the Owens valley, river and lake received their name: Captain John C. Frémont named the area’s predominant features after a fur trading associate, Richard Owens.25 In the Owens Valley, as in southern New England, Settler naming-practices replaced “Indians in their homelands” and argued for the “indigeneity” of the Settlers themselves.26


Owens River at sunset. PHOTOGRAPH BY MARSHAL HEDIN.

Paiute oral traditions challenge Chalfant’s arguments. They argue that Paiutes had occupied the Owens Valley for a long time and possess a deep understanding of the area’s history through knowledge of places and what occurred there. Although “pioneers” had arrived in the Owens Valley and displaced the Paiutes—Mattie Bulpitt told her listeners—the place names, historical actors, and tellers of history remained. Although she did not explicitly refer to Chalfant’s work, likely, she and Susie Baker knew the meanings Settlers had embedded onto the Paiute landscape, and they refuted his arguments with their oral traditions. The story of Rattlesnake and the Frog sisters reasserted a Paiute landscape, known to them, defiant of American colonialism, which began in the 1850s.

Anglo colonialism and Paiute displacement

In the mid-nineteenth century, Anglo Americans arrived in the Owens Valley, which sparked conflict over natural resources. Jennie Cashbaugh, a seventy-year-old Paiute woman from Bishop, noted that “Trouble arose every now and then as the white people wanted more water.”27 American Settlers established a mining, pastoral, and agricultural economy in the Valley, which drained water from Paiute communities and resource areas. Conflict ensued as Paiutes clashed with miners, ranchers, and the military. In 1863, the California Volunteers forcibly removed nearly one thousand Paiutes to Fort Tejón.28 From there, federal officials relocated the Paiutes to the Tule River Reservation, near modern-day Porterville, California. By 1870, very few Paiutes remained at Tule River, for they had returned to the Owens Valley, but by that time, Anglo American farmers and ranchers had claimed much of the best land and water. Paiutes eked out a living by creating a mixed economy of wage labor, hunting, and using the little water available to irrigate gardens and small fields.29

Giving places Anglo American names signified the process by which Anglo Americans exerted rule over the region. Indeed, place-naming worked in concert with Settler economic practices and histories to erase Paiute histories and systems of knowledge. In the 1860s, Confederate sympathizers living in the Owens Valley named the Alabama Hills after the CSS Alabama, which sunk the Union ship Hatteras off the coast of Texas.30 Paiutes reclaimed such places by telling their own narratives about them. The Alabama Hills are not significant because they commemorate a Confederate naval victory, Paiutes tell listeners; they are important because they were the place from which the giant began his rampage and where, ultimately, he ended his journey and his exploitation of the People. Paiutes were not interlopers, recent arrivals or wandering warriors—they had a deep history in the Owens Valley.

An alternative history

If we continue to probe the sometimes murky meanings of oral tradition, other historical meanings and interpretations rise to the surface. Susie Baker deliberately ended the story of the giant with a reference to a contemporary event, that the rock on which the waterbaby waited for the giant “may be destroyed by the Los Angeles aqueduct builders.”31 Similarly, she concluded the story of Rattlesnake and the Frog sisters, “[ya qua java joh and togo wamo cha qua tepu] were springs at one time, but they are now dry.”32 In other words, in 1935, Frog Spring and Snake Spat Out no longer had water. Why not? Simply, someone had entered the Valley and drunk all the water.

Paiutes used their oral traditions to offer an alternative history of Paiute-American encounters and interpret the impact of those encounters on the water and, therefore, the People of the Owens Valley. “An enduring value of informal storytelling,” anthropologist Julie Cruikshank writes, “is its power to subvert official orthodoxies and to challenge conventional ways of thinking.”33 It is no surprise that the Paiutes called the Owens River the “water ditch,” for they irrigated the Owens Valley for centuries before Anglo Americans arrived. At a town Paiutes named pitana patü, near the modern-day town of Bishop, Paiutes used irrigation ditches to increase the growth of indigenous plants, such as nā’hāvīta (spike rush). In the spring, the town head man announced the beginning of the irrigation season, usually when snow runoff from the southern Sierra caused creeks to rise. Residents of pitana patü then elected or chose a tuvaijü’u, or irrigator, who led a corps of twenty-five men in building a dam out of rocks, brush, sticks, and mud on Bishop Creek. After completing the dam, the tuvaijü’u directed the water into the ditch, which fed northern and southern fields in alternate years.34 Stories about the “water ditch,” then, reposition Paiutes as the indigenous people of the Valley and those who had first used the water.


Owens Valley in the fall. PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANK KOVALCHEK.

Reframing time

Paiute oral traditions reframed the timing of events. The Owens Valley Water Wars did not begin when Los Angeles Department of Water and Power representatives bought land in the Valley. Rather, the wars’ genesis flows back to creation, when Coyote placed his children next to the “water ditch.” After that, Paiutes productively used Owens Valley’s water by irrigating fields of nā’hāvīta. Then, Anglo Settlers arrived in the Valley, who seemingly could never slake their thirst for water.

Although Los Angeles entered the Valley and preyed on water, Paiutes identified new “villains” or antagonists in this story. In many Owens Valley histories, Los Angeles and its representatives are the story’s bad guys.35 Paiutes told it differently. Jennie Cashbaugh actually had kind words for Los Angeles: “The city of Los Angeles is a different proposition all together,” she said. “They would meet the Indians part way, they realize they have made the Indians homeless and took their work from them, the means of bread and butter they had, just a living but today they are fair enough to compromise with the Federal Government so as to give better land to the Indians to at least make a living.”36 Los Angeles, according to Cashbaugh, promised to work with the Paiutes, something that Owens Valley settlers had never offered. Unlike the settlers, who also “made the Indians homeless,” Los Angeles promised to create a land base for the Paiute and provided jobs in 1930 and 1931 on city-owned ranches, roads, and waterways.37 Settlers, on the other hand, had marginalized Paiutes to the lowest rung of the region’s economic ladder and usurped the best land in the Valley.38 For Paiutes, settlers (the typical victims in Anglo histories of the Owens Valley), not Los Angeles, served as antagonists.


Owens Valley. PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANK KOVALCHEK.

If Paiutes reframed the chronological narrative of the Owens Valley Water Wars and pointed to new adversaries, they also used their oral traditions to address the unique ways in which the Water Wars affected the People. The disappearance of water particularly harmed Paiute women. When Jennie Cashbaugh described the sedge plants Paiutes gathered, she remarked, “Nā’hāvīta is a taboose class of seed food, [it] cannot be found in the Owens Valley since the Valley went dry. The plant must have all dried up, never to grow again.”39 The development of a mining and pastoral economy in the Owens Valley, and Los Angeles’s siphoning of the Valley’s water, destroyed indigenous food sources, specifically those harvested by Paiute women, and harvesting indigenous plants grounded women’s identities: At Creation, the Paiute Father gave baskets to women in which they could gather plants.40 Without water, women could not perform this essential contribution to the family economy. (Paiute women found job opportunities as domestic workers and washerwomen, but they were poor substitutes for these lost resources.)41

The Los Angeles aqueduct also threatened Paiute systems of knowledge. The aqueduct threatened to destroy the places where Paiute oral traditions occurred. Passing the Alabama Hills in the Owens Valley, Paiutes remember that screaming giant. Passing the rock where waterbaby waited for the giant reminds them of waterbaby’s unusual service to the People. If those places ceased to exist, the history might disappear. Likely, Owens Valley Paiutes had another sobering thought in the 1930s: If the water disappears, what will become of the People? What will become of “water ditch Coyote children”? When Frog Spring and Snake Spat Out were dry, and nā’hāvīta no longer grew in the Owens Valley, the very identity of the People was threatened. In 1935 this was literally true, and it was the result of the colonization of the Owens Valley.

Still, there is a glimmer of hope in these stories, a thought that Paiutes may emerge victorious. The stories of the giant and of Frog sisters refer to a predator entering the Owens Valley, moving across the Paiute landscape and harming the People. Both the giant and Rattlesnake act in ways that mimic the actions of Los Angeles. When the giant walks from Alabama Hills to Tupueseenata, he comes from the direction of Los Angeles (south) and parallels the pattern in which Los Angeles purchased land in the Owens Valley, moving from the south to the north. The Frog sisters story likewise resembles the history of Paiutes, Anglo settlers, and Los Angeles. Someone—Paiute leaders, the Office of Indian Affairs, Owens Valley settlers—was asleep when Rattlesnake crawled into the Valley and stole the water. At this point, it certainly looked bleak for Paiutes and water, with murderous giants and thieving Rattlesnakes.42

The stories’ conclusions, however, offer a positive narrative for the future. For one, the giant story suggests that the Paiutes were prepared for Los Angeles. They already knew that violent and threatening beings could come from the south and invade the north. Paiutes also knew that they and their water had the puha to defeat these large monsters. In parable-like fashion, the oral tradition of the Rattlesnake pointed out the folly of greed. Rattlesnake took too much water, for he could not swallow all of it. He eventually lost all the water and the Frog sisters returned the water to its rightful place. In the end of both stories, diminutive, ostensibly powerless, characters reclaim the water and defeat powerful enemies. The small waterbaby throws the giant into the lake and devours him; the Frog sisters reclaim their water from poisonous Rattlesnake. Although things may have looked bleak in the oral traditions and in 1935 when the women shared these stories, the future need not be. Paiutes had faced large foes like this before and won; Paiute cultural heroes returned the water to its proper place.

In 1935, when Paiute women told these narratives, their leaders were negotiating with the United States and Los Angeles about the future of the Paiute nation. In the early 1930s, the federal government and Los Angeles had recommended removing the Paiutes from their homeland, from the site of the “water ditch” to a new reservation, near modern-day Merced, or to Nevada’s Walker River Reservation. In fact, many of the people interviewed in 1935, such as Cashbaugh and Bulpitt, were children when the federal government removed the Paiutes to Tejón at the end of the 1860s, and they told stories of that difficult experience. Los Angeles’ suggestion for removal resurrected those memories of the forced march to Tejón and the awful living conditions there and at Tule River.43

Between 1935 and 1937, federal officials held outdoor meetings in the Owens Valley to explain the situation to the People. Paiute women appeared at these meetings in equal numbers with Paiute men. Perhaps the stories they told their leaders energized them in their effort to reclaim land, water, and power. At any rate, the Paiute leaders, supported by their elders, insisted they were not leaving. Historian Steven Crum suggests that the Paiutes’ “deep attachment” to the Owens Valley galvanized their resistance to removal.44 Paiute history and oral tradition likewise bolstered their fight to remain near the “water ditch.”

In the end, Paiutes emerged victorious because they avoided removal and displacement. In the 1937 Land Exchange Act, Paiutes and the United States traded 2,914 acres of “previously allotted lands” to Los Angeles for 1,392 acres, which became the Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine reservations.45 The Paiutes would remain next to the “water ditch” forever.

The story, however, did not end there. The Land Exchange Act provided for Paiute water rights, but the federal government failed to secure them from Los Angeles. As part of the exchange, Los Angeles had promised to provide 6,064 acre-feet of water to the Paiutes; but at the same time, the city insisted it could not transfer water rights to the Paiutes without a two-thirds vote by city residents. Moreover, the amount of water promised failed to meet the demands of a growing Paiute population and tribal economic development.46

In 1994, the Department of the Interior investigated the water rights issue, which is still open to debate. The Owens Valley Indian Water Commission—a consortium made up of the Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine Reservations—fights for water rights and, like their oral traditions, hopes for a positive future.47

In their oral traditions, Paiutes told an ethnohistory of water and water rights in Owens Valley, which detailed the destructive consequences of economic change and offered a critique of historical changes in the Valley. Seen in the context of a struggle over water and culture, these stories enable us to see ways in which Paiutes re-envisioned their past and made it usable for contemporary political struggles, providing a snapshot of Paiute interpretations of past, present, and future.

Other histories of the Owens Valley Water Wars have treated Paiutes as bit players, something akin to the background that the Alabama Hills offers for movies. Paiutes were not scenery to the story; they were central to the Water Wars, which threatened the very core of Paiute life. The stories tell us that small, seemingly powerless people can slay the giant and tickle Rattlesnake. Perhaps nothing is more valuable than these oral traditions as a tool for understanding Paiute history, politics, and culture, or as a guide to assist modern-day Paiutes in future struggles for natural resources.

Notes

I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their excellent critiques of this essay and for pushing me to improve. I appreciate my friend Louis Warren for soliciting this essay for Boom. Charles Roberts shared research materials with me and directed me to important sources. Damon Akins, Laurie Arnold, Brian Collier, Duane Champagne, Steve Crum and Bridget Ford prodded me to think about this paper in new ways. I thank audiences at Stanford University, the University of California, Davis, and the University of Notre Dame for sitting through my lecture about Paiutes and water. Your questions improved this essay. The American Indian Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Center for Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University provided space and time for me to write.

1. The Alabama Hills have served as the scenic backdrop of Hollywood films, such as The Ox-Bow Incident, Joe Kidd, Star Trek Generations, Iron Man, and Django Unchained.

2. Susie Baker, Ethnological Documents of the Department and Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1875–1958, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA, BANC FILM 2216, (hereafter ED), Reel 149–152, Item 152.4: 296–98.

3. See Roman Polanski, dir., Chinatown (Paramount, 1974); William Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict Over Los Angeles Water Supply in the Owens Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993); Gary Libecap, Owens Valley Revisited: A Reassessment of the West’s First Great Water Transfer (Palo Alto: Stanford Economics, 2007); Abraham Hoffman, Vision or Villainy: Origins of the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Water Controversy (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001).

4. There are correctives that include Paiutes in Owens Valley water history. See Nancy Walter, “The Land Exchange Act of 1937: Creation of the Indian Reservations at Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine, California, through a Land Trade Between the United States of America and the City of Los Angeles” (Ph.D. diss., Union Graduate School, 1986); John Walton, Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture and Rebellion in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Andrew Franklin, “Desiccating a Valley and a People: The Effects of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power on Owens Valley and Its Inhabitants, 1924–1931” (M.A. thesis, California State University, Sacramento, 2000).

5. For an overview of the Owens Valley Water Wars, see Walton, Western Times and Water Wars, 131–97.

6. I follow Jan Vansina’s definition of an oral tradition: a “verbal message which are reported statements about the past beyond the present generation.” Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 27. Rather than merely a personal recollection, Vansina suggests, oral traditions reach far deeper in time and are told with more consistency. Dakota scholar Waziyatawin adds that oral tradition also involves the process in which the story is relayed. Remember This!: Dakota Decolonization and the Eli Taylor Narratives (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 27.

7. Anthropology and ethnohistory have come a long way from the days in which Robert Lowie could dismiss oral traditions out of hand. I have been influenced by Marshall Sahlins, Islands of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); Peter Nabokov, A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995); see 1–28 for discussion of oral tradition and Lowie; Julie Cruikshank, The Social Life of Stories: Narrative and Knowledge in the Yukon Territory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998); Jonathan D. Hill, ed., Rethinking History and Myth: Indigenous South American Perspectives on the Past (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).

8. Nabokov, A Forest of Time, 92. Peter Nabokov describes oral traditions as “mythic revisionings”: “rather than being closed systems of fixed symbols, if myths are to remain relevant and recited, they must be susceptible to internal tinkerings and updatings.”

9. Julian Steward, “Ethnography of the Owens Valley Paiute,” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 33:3 (1933): 235, 234 for a description of Collins. By using the past tense (“called”), I do not mean to insinuate that the Owens Valley Paiutes no longer think of themselves as “we are water ditch coyote children.” Rather, they “called themselves” this name in the 1930s.

10. Sven Liljebald and Catherine S. Fowler, “Owens Valley Paiute,” Handbook of North American Indians, 17 vols., William Sturtevant, gen. ed., Warren D’Azevedo, vol. ed., (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute, 1986), 11: 412–34; Steward, “Ethnography of the Owens Valley Paiute,” 233–38; Walter, “Land Exchange Act,” 31.

11. Mary Saulque and Emma Washington, ED, Reel 205–206, Item 205.3: 159.

12. Susie Baker, ED, Reel 149–152, Item 152.4: 296–98.

13. Susie Baker, ED, Reel 149–152, Item 152.4: 288–92.

14. For a concise overview of puha, see Jay Miller, “Basin Religion and Theology: A Comparative Study of Power (Puha),” Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 5:2 (1983): 66–86.

15. Richard Stoffle, Richard Arnold, Kathleen Van Vlack, Larry Eddy, and Betty Cornelius, “Nuvagantu, ‘Where the Snow Sits’: Origin Mountains of the Southern Paiutes,” in Landscapes of Origin in the Americas: Creation Narratives Linking Ancient Places to Present Communities, ed. Jessica Joyce Christie (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009), 36, 38.

16. “Whether in physical reality or cultural memory,” anthropologist Peter Nabokov writes, “language, religion, and history always ‘took place.’” A Forest of Time, 131. Perhaps the best known book on the role of place and worldview is the fantastic work by Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996).

17. Cruikshank, Social Life of Stories, 17, 18.

18. Yi-Fu Tuan defines space as “that which allows movement.” Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 6. Here, too, I am influenced by Daniel Gelo’s exceptional work on how Comanches (also Numic speakers) view of the landscape. “Recalling the Past in Creating the Present: Topographic References in Comanche Narrative,” Western Folklore 53 (October 1994): 295–312.

19. For a similar narrative structure, see Gelo, “Recalling the Past in Creating the Present.”

20. Susie Baker, ED, Reel 149–152, Item 152: 321–22.

21. Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places, 15, 16. Basso notes that Western Apaches recognized that water too had left their homeland. Many Western Apache placenames referenced water existing in places that are now dry.

22. Mattie Bulpitt (Paiute), ED, Reel 149–52, Notebook 43: 336–38.

23. For helpful studies of place and power, see Tuan, Space and Place and Tim Cresswell, Place: A Short Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004). Historian Jared Farmer has put the theories of both scholars to good use in his history of place making in Utah: On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians and the American Landscape (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

24. Across the United States, local histories were instrumental in the construction of ideas about American Indians and westward expansion. Writing about southern New England, historian Jean O’Brien argues, “the local gave particular valence to the twinned story of non-Indian modernity and Indian extinction.” Jean O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), xiv.

25. Willie Arthur Chalfant, The Story of Inyo (Published by the author, 1922), frontispiece, 8–41, 9, 10–13, 46–47.

26. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting, 56, 73.

27. Jennie Cashbaugh, ED, Reel 153–155, Item 154, Notebook 31: 198–206

28. For a concise overview of removal, see George Harwood Phillips, ‘Bringing Them Under Subjection”: California’s Tejón Indian Reservation and Beyond, 1852–1864 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 248–49.

29. Walton, Western Times and Water Wars, 24–52; Sharon Dean, et al., Weaving A Legacy: Indian Baskets & the People of Owens Valley, California (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2004), 23–26.

30. Erwin Gudde, California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographic Names, 4th ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, 1949), 6. Anglo Americans named Tinemaha after a Paiute chief. Ibid., 394.

31. Susie Baker, ED, Reel 149–52, Item 152.4: 296–98.

32. Susie Baker, ED, Reel 149–152, Item 152: 321–22.

33. Cruikshank, Social Life of Stories, xiii.

34. Steward, “Ethnography,” 247.

35. See especially Reisner, Cadillac Desert and Walton, Western Times and Water Wars.

36. Jennie Cashbaugh, ED, Reel 153–155, Item 154, Notebook 31: 198–206.

37. Kahrl, Water and Power, 356.

38. Jennie Cashbaugh, ED, Reel 153–155, Item 154, Notebook 31: 198–206. For the Paiutes, events during the next couple of years ensured that they would remain in their homeland. In 1937, the Land Exchange Act created reservations at Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine. On behalf of the Paiutes, the federal government exchanged nearly 3,000 acres of land with the City of Los Angeles for nearly 1,400 acres of land. Questions remain about Paiute water rights, and modern-day Paiutes and scholars argue that the United States failed to protect Paiute water rights and fulfill its trust responsibility to the Paiute Nation. Walter, “Land Exchange Act.”

39. Jennie Cashbaugh, ED, Reel 153–155, Item 154, Notebook 31: 196–97.

40. Jim Jones, ED, Reel 149–152, Notebook 29: 129–33.

41. Walton, 25–27.

42. Anthropologist Julie Cruikshank notes that for Indigenous people of the Yukon Territory, “If one has optimistic stories about the past . . . one can draw on internal resources to survive and make sense of arbitrary forces that might otherwise seem overwhelming.” Julie Cruikshank, Social Life of Stories, xii.

43. For Owens Valley Paiute removal, see Steven J. Crum, “Deeply Attached to the Land: The Owens Valley Paiutes and Their Rejection of Indian Removal, 1863 to 1937,” News from Native California 14 (Summer 2001): 18–20. Crum also notes that in 1873, the federal government proposed returning the Paiutes from Owens Valley to Tule River. However, Owens Valley Settlers, who needed Paiute labor, blocked these efforts.

44. Crum, “Deeply Attached to the Land.”

45. Sharon Dean, et al, Weaving A Legacy: Indian Baskets & the People of Owens Valley, California (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2004), 31-33.

46. Walter, “Land Exchange Act,” 213, 379.

47. http://www.oviwc.org/index.html (accessed 1 August 2012).