However polite its title, the 1891 “Petition to the Senators and Representatives of the Congress of the United States in the Behalf of the Remnants of the former Tribes of the Yosemite Indians Praying for Aid and Assistance” was anything but deferential.
The petition offered a blunt critique of the mostly white gold miners’ brutal incursion into the Yosemite region in the late 1840s. It sharply criticized the state-sanctioned violence that California unleashed in the 1850s on the Indigenous Peoples of the Central Sierra, and astutely recognized that elite tourists—and the amenities they required to cushion their late nineteenth-century visits to the rugged landscape—were also responsible for cultural disruption and physical dispossession. The petition reported that the previous half century of exploitation had turned the Ahwahneechii and Monos into “poorly-clad paupers and unwelcome guests, silently the objects of curiosity or contemptuous pity to the throngs of strangers who yearly gather in this our own land and heritage.”
The once fertile and sustaining terrain of the Indigenous Peoples had been torn apart. “The gradual destruction of its trees, the occupancy of every foot of its territory by bands of grazing horses and cattle, the decimation of the fish in the river, the destruction of every means of support for ourselves and families by the rapacious acts of the whites,” the petition asserted, would “shortly result in the total exclusion of the remaining remnants of our tribes from this our beloved valley, which has been ours from time beyond our faintest traditions, and which we still claim.”
The US government did not respond to this appeal for the return of tribal lands, an ironclad treaty that would protect their inheritance, and compensation for their decades of immiseration. Instead, the petition, to which forty-three survivors put their names, was buried in the 1891 report of Yosemite’s acting park superintendent. But its bureaucratic fate doesn’t diminish its importance any more than does the probability that the document’s amanuensis was a Euro-American fluent in English. The oral histories on which the petition depends, and, as anthropologist Ed Castillo observed, the “incredible description” it provides of the “political, military, and ecological factors driving remaining tribesmen from their valley could only have as their source local Indigenous knowledge.”
That knowledge, and the distressing catalogue of injustices it contains, is an important challenge to settler-colonial justifications for How the West Was Won. One facet of that master narrative also centers on Yosemite National Park— by the time tourists arrived to “ooh and ahhh” over its iconic waterfalls, steep granite walls, and staggering vistas, the land was “empty.” Its putative emptiness, the result of violent dispossession, set the stage for an early twentieth-century, decade-long battle over whether to build a dam in the park’s Hetch Hetchy Valley. The dam’s proponents, including federal officials, as well as citizens and politicians in San Francisco eager to secure a stable water supply following the 1906 earthquake that devastated the city, believed the dam was emblematic of Progressive Era reforms that provided essential—and publicly owned—resources to a rapidly urbanizing society. John Muir, founding president of the Sierra Club, which was established in 1892, was among those who pushed back, arguing that the dam’s construction would inundate the wild Hetch Hetchy Valley. “Dam Hetch Hetchy!” he thundered, “as well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated for the heart of man.”
What neither side admitted was that their respective arguments depended on a shared perception that no one lived in the Hetch Hetchy Valley., or that no had ever lived there. Its emptiness enabled dam supporters to conclude that the site would be perfect for a reservoir. Its emptiness, for those like Muir who pressed for the valley’s preservation, was a mark of its higher utility as pristine nature. Yet to conceive of this valley as devoid of people required two forms of erasure of the history and contemporary status of the Indigenous Peoples that their 1891 petition so brilliantly evoked.
The first erasure occurred in the mid-nineteenth century, when California and the United States governments sanctioned the violent expulsion of the Indigenous Peoples from the Sierras’s flanking valleys and foothills. The dispossession of the Miwok, Paiute, Shoshone, and others from their ancestral territories was an act of genocide, historian Benjamin Madley argues in American Genocide. He writes: the “pressures of demographics (the migration of hundreds of thousands of immigrants), economics (the largest gold rush in US history), and profound racial hatred all made the genocide possible, it took sustained political will—at both the federal and state levels—to create the laws, policies, and well-funded killing machine that carried it out and ensured its continuation over decades.”
The second erasure is embedded in the continuing and disquieting silence over the interlocking connection between the ruthless uprooting of Indigenous Peoples from the Yosemite region, the establishment of the national park, and the subsequent Hetch Hetchy controversy. Until that silence is broken, our understanding of the ongoing debate about the dam and reservoir will remain incomplete. This accounting is especially necessary because scholars and activists assert that the formative battle over the Hetch Hetchy dam marked the birth of the modern environmental movement in the United States. The assertion reveals a troubling and complicated story.
Muir was integral to each of these erasures. Consider his reflections that he jotted down in his journal after a hike up what he called Bloody Canyon in Mono County and then revised for publication in his book The Mountains of California 1894). Entering the pass, the “huge rocks began to close around in all their wild, mysterious impressiveness,” Muir wrote, “when suddenly, as I gazed eagerly about me, a drove of gray, hairy beings came into sight., lumbering toward with a kind of boneless, wallowing motion like bears.” Anxious about “so grim a company,” and suppressing his fears, he realized “that although hairy as bears and as crooked as summit pines, the strange creatures were sufficiently erect to belong to our own species.” He was hiking up a trail that the Mono and other Indigenous Peoples had worn smooth over the millennia, transiting between the Mono and Owens basins and Yosemite and the valleys below. His disdain for these men and women shows throughout his descriptions, such as, “the dirt on their faces was fairly stratified and seemed so ancient and so undisturbed it might almost possess a geological significance.” To Muir they belonged to a distant time, and befouled his wilderness. “Somehow they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.”
The larger settler-colonial culture adopted his perspective and, whether Indigenous Peoples were forced out of Yosemite by force of arms or the scratch of a pen, a key consequence was that this “empty” terrain was ripe for commercial exploitation. Tourism to the region, enabled by a growing cross-continental transportation grid, and the growth of San Francisco and Los Angeles, was fueled by artists and photographers who visited the region a decade or more before Muir’s arrival there in 1868. James Mason Hutchings, who hired Muir to work at his Yosemite hotel, was a relentless promoter. He drew a swelling number of artists, scientists, and tourists to make the arduous journey to the remote location through his publication of tour guides, lithographs, and magazine articles about Yosemite’s wonders and curiosities. Many of these visitors recounted their experiences in the rough and wild space, some published, others not. However manifest, these documents reinforced the cultural conversation about what they perceived to be Yosemite’s prime value—a beneficent refuge in an industrializing world, where you could escape civilization, and yet have its amenities.
The sanctuary status was one of the key arguments that Muir and others developed in the early twentieth century against the city of San Francisco and its political allies who laid claim to the Hetch Hetchy Valley inside what became Yosemite National Park. The thrust and counterthrust manifested in a series of congressional hearings, in the pages of many of the nation’s leading magazines and newspapers, and in oft angry speeches. The fierce debate testifies to the centrality of a valley that few Americans had ever visited. Even though San Francisco’s interests prevailed, and the O’Shaughnessy Dam and its steep-walled reservoir that funnels potable water to the Bay Area was built, the controversy continues to simmer. Beginning in the 1980s, an odd coalition of Republican state and national politicians and the Sierra Club and its allies periodically call into question San Francisco’s reliance on the reservoir and urge the federal government to tear down the dam and restore the long-submerged valley.
Yet any resolution of this enduring latest struggle to define the future of Hetch Hetchy, and by extension Yosemite, must start by prioritizing what hitherto has been ignored. Novelist, historian, and activist David Treuer writes, “America’s national parks comprise only a small fraction of the land stolen from Native Americans, but they loom large in the broader story of our dispossession.” His pithy conclusion—”the American West began with war but concluded with parks”—is mirrored in the Yosemite Indigenous Peoples’ claims asserted in the 1891 petition: “We say this valley was not given to us by our fathers for a day, or a year, but for all time.”
Char Miller is the W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College and the director of the Claremont Colleges‘ environmental analysis program.
Adapted from The Unnaming of Kroeber Hall: Language, Memory, and Indigenous California, by Andrew Garrett, published by The MIT Press (to appear in 2023).
It rained for ten days in late February and early March 1911. “Enough Water to Last All Summer” was the Sacramento Bee headline. Juan Dolores was stuck inside, unable to do the work that had brought him to the state capital. Instead, he spent 14 hours a day writing out a story in O’odham, the Indigenous language of his childhood, family, and people in southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico. Writing all 2,873 words took him seven days; a precise English translation took two more. He finished at 11 pm, went to bed, and dreamed about translating O’odham.
Dolores described his dream in a letter: “I saw words appearing on the wall, like [a] moving picture show. First a word would go clear across the wall and then automatically arrange itself into two or three words. Sometimes there would be only one letter and under it, would be two or three English words. When I awoke, I said this is no dream. It is the correct way of writing the Indian language.” He emphasized the semantic complexity of O’odham: “I have to write t[w]o or three English words for one Indian word.”
The story Juan Dolores finished writing in March 1911 was one of dozens that he wrote and rewrote in a lifetime devoted to documenting the O’odham language. When he died in 1948, he left thousands of manuscript pages and over 60 sound recordings of his own voice and the voices of elders he recorded. Dolores was “the first writer of his people’s legends,” to quote a later romanticized formulation, and he did write many creation stories (“legends”). He also transcribed oratory, vocabulary, the autobiographies of elders, the words of songs and what they signify, and a memoir of his Arizona childhood in the 1880s and 1890s. For four decades from 1909 to 1948, he did most of this language work as a University of California researcher and museum employee.
The University of California does not memorialize such details, but Dolores may have been its first Indigenous employee. He was almost certainly its first Indigenous researcher. Yet though he is well known to O’odham people in Arizona, in Berkeley he is almost forgotten. His career and life reveal the challenges facing an Indigenous scholar and writer within the academy in the first half of the twentieth century, as well as his profound achievements in the face of such challenges.
Dolores was born about 1880 on the Mexican side of the border dividing a transnational O’odham community. His parents moved the family to the US, where Dolores enrolled in government schools in Arizona and Colorado. In 1898, he entered the Hampton Institute, a primarily Black college in Virginia, graduating in 1901 and continuing for a year in a postgraduate course. In his last student years, Dolores showed his aptitude as a writer, publishing a short creation story (a “legend”) in TheIndian Advance and a valedictory perspective, “As an Indian Sees It,” in the Hampton Institute’s monthly magazine.
In 1901, Dolores spoke at the Nineteenth Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian, a meeting of white philanthropists who thought they knew what was best for Indigenous people. His speech recounted the words of an O’odham elder who had asked: “What is that thought so great and so sacred that cannot be expressed in our own language, that we should seek to use the white man’s words?” Credited to an elder rather than in his own persona, this was a polite rebuke of his hosts, who favored the assimilation of Indigenous people into Euro-American culture and the elimination of tribal authority. It was also a repudiation of language practices that brutalized children throughout the US, at schools whose students were taught Euro-American ways and severely disciplined if they spoke their languages.
Dolores had been one of those students. He did not know English when he first entered the Tucson Indian School. If students were overheard speaking an Indigenous language, he later wrote in his O’odham-language memoir, the teachers “would punish us with the mule whip, or would give us extra work, or would lock us up in the dark house.” But he channeled his linguistic commitment into subversive play. If a teacher happened to say an English word that sounded like O’odham, Dolores would whisper that to the other students. Ita tcitcivitak hepay ha’itcu sta’a’askima o’otamkatc, he wrote: “this was very funny in O’odham.” Sometimes one of the others “could not control herself and she would just burst out laughing. I was delighted. I was constantly listening for words that would sound funny in O’odham.”
Dolores headed back west after his school years. Seasonal work as a teamster and skilled laborer took him to Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, and California. It was in San Francisco that he met the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber in 1909. The two men — one in his early thirties, the other a few years younger — had very different backgrounds but converging goals.
Kroeber, born in 1876 to a middle-class German-American family in New York, had come to the University of California in 1901 after finishing a Columbia University anthropology PhD. His central research mission was recording Indigenous languages and stories. Many aspects of culture interested him, but he had shifted to anthropology from literature and once said that his “actual work will always be literature.” His main legacy a century later is the documentation of languages, speech, stories, and songs that Indigenous people in California and elsewhere shared in their work with him, his students, and his colleagues.
Like most contemporary Euro-Americans, Kroeber believed mistakenly that Native American cultures and languages were “dying” or even “extinct.” Recording them whenever possible was seen as urgent by some anthropologists and many Indigenous people themselves. Their purposes were not the same. Researchers like Kroeber thought Native languages and stories could make world culture more ecumenical and culturally tolerant, while Indigenous people understood that they were making records for their own communities.
Indigenous cultures did not die out, of course. Some languages remain vital, too, despite policies of language oppression in government schools. Others are in peril, with just a few elders who grew up with language in the home; or dormant, without speakers but with people who want to learn. Throughout California in 2023, as communities reclaim their languages and stories from archives, what prescient ancestors shared and wrote down a hundred years ago is given new life every day.
Kroeber knew that Indigenous people themselves, with the proper tools, could transcribe their own languages better than outsiders like himself. So part of his work included teaching Indigenous people how to write their languages — in Dolores’s case, the O’odham language he had been whipped for speaking in school. Together, Dolores and Kroeber worked out a quasi-phonetic spelling system for O’odham. With this, Dolores began what would be his life’s work.
Dolores’s employment was itinerant for many years. The University of California hired him for O’odham language work with Kroeber in 1909 and 1911-13. According to UC records, he was first a regular “employee” (rather than a consultant or contractor) in April 1912. Until 1916 he worked for the UC anthropology museum in San Francisco, where his duties included public lectures on O’odham culture. In 1918-19, he held a UC research fellowship to engage in linguistic fieldwork, recording O’odham elders in Arizona.
In 1926, Dolores returned permanently to university work. He had worked outside academia since 1919, but he had health problems as well as a strong desire to resume O’odham linguistic research. Toward the end of 1925, he was hospitalized in Los Angeles with chest pain and an infected foot. He used a cane after he left the hospital. “My speed is about that of a snail,” Dolores wrote with his usual dark humor. “A continuous strain through these five months has now deprived me of my good looks and all that is left of me is courage.” Bruce Bryan, an archaeologist at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, told Dolores in February that he might be able to hire him in a month or so. Meanwhile, Dolores reported, “the pain inside of me got worse” and he used crutches for a while. He told Kroeber that he wanted to continue “that work I started with you some years ago” and that an O’odham dictionary “will give me something to do for a long time.” Otherwise, he lamented, “I shall have to sell shoestrings and chewing-gum for my living.”
So it was that Dolores resumed full-time UC museum work for ten years beginning in 1926; in 1931, the anthropology museum moved from San Francisco to Berkeley. In 1936 and 1937, Dolores managed a government-funded research project at the University of Chicago, focusing on the lives of Mexican immigrants. He returned again to Berkeley and his museum job late in 1937, eventually retiring as a “senior preparator” a few weeks before his death in 1948.
The presence of an Indigenous scholar in conventionally white spaces fascinated newspapers and presumbly their readers. In 1911, the Dolores-Kroeber collaboration occasioned a San Francisco Examiner article steeped in dehumanizing language ideologies. “Gestures are a part of [Dolores’s] speech,” the writer opined. “If he broke his arm he could not talk.” The O’odham language was said to express “common English thoughts” with comically long words. Only a month later, ironically, Dolores would recount his dream showing that two or three English words may correspond to one short O’odham word — precisely inverting the Examiner trope.
In 1927, a reporter found it newsworthy that an Indigenous person worked in a university museum. Why, Dolores was asked, had he chosen the job? His answer demonstrates how effectively US acculturation policies had trapped many Indigenous people:
Indian life and customs as I knew them when a boy are more faithfully represented here in showcases than they are on the reservation. Nothing would suit me better than to live as my fathers lived, hunting and fishing and gathering fruit and berries. There is plenty of time for one to think then. But if I were to try to live that way now, I would be arrested for trespass or something.
American practices had removed Indigenous cultural heritage to museums, and kept Native people from living on their own land. Even those who had adopted new ways were subject to Euro-American whims:
I might possibly go back to Arizona and work on a piece of land I have fenced in there — my grandfather was one of the first men in our tribe to raise cattle under his own brand — but I have seen so many of my friends work for years on land and then be evicted by some court order or entanglement in titles, that I wouldn’t dare improve my piece for fear some white man would decide it was worth having.
These comments were quite candid for a medium that often celebrated white benevolence.
Even in 1935, it was national news when Dolores married Sylva Beyer, a UC anthropology graduate student. It made the front page in Oakland (“U.C. Co-ed and Indian Marry”) and Tucson (“Indian and White Woman Marry”). The story ran in Minnesota, and the Oakland Tribune even published a follow-up. Kroeber was the witness at a civil ceremony that was of broader interest only because it challenged assumptions about who belonged in elite spaces.
Dolores published four academic papers on his language. Two presented information about nouns and verbs, respectively; in another, for a volume in honor of Kroeber, he wrote about nicknames. A fourth paper, co-authored with University of California anthropologist Lila O’Neale, was a novel study of O’odham color terminology, showing how it is embedded in its cultural and environmental contexts. As a person’s hair turns white, they wrote, there is a stage when “the head looks … like ground [saguaro] cactus seeds … The kernel is white, but the bits of crushed black shell in the mixture give the whole an appearance of gray, or skaima’ki” (in Dolores’s O’odham spelling). This was two decades before cross-cultural differences in color naming became a prominent object of anthropological and linguistic study.
Dolores also tried to publish the O’odham stories he assembled over many years. Kroeber said his “new way of writing stories” in English might attract general interest, different as it was from the style of academics and “literary people” alike. “I will try to get them placed for you as a book under your own name,” he told Dolores in 1927. He sent some to New York publishers, but nothing came of the attempt.
By 1947, Dolores had prepared a large set of O’odham stories and translations to submit as a scholarly monograph. He was concerned to include all his stories and “not let the little ones get left behind.” He sent the manuscript to the series editor, Charles Voegelin of Indiana University, and continued to work on issues related to spelling. It was not until the month of Dolores’s death in 1948 that Voegelin finally decided not to publish the volume; apparently it was not academically rigorous enough for him. Dolores had returned to Arizona and never found out.
Dolores also did not live to see the publication of an O’odham grammar based on his work. This was written by the linguist J. Alden Mason and published under Mason’s name. While acknowledged in the introduction, Dolores was not named as a co-author even though the book was almost entirely based on Dolores’s own collection of stories, shared with Mason in 1919. It was Dolores, too, who introduced Mason to O’odham people during the linguist’s only Arizona fieldwork, a trip of “a few weeks … to get some impression of the phonetics.” It was common at the time for the intellectual labor of Indigenous collaborators to be deprecated as service or mere data production.
Mason never learned to speak or understand O’odham; he analyzed it through Dolores’s writing alone, as one might study Latin. Dolores had little respect for the man who was writing what they both assumed would be a major reference. “How does anybody know how to write a word unless he knows how that word is pronounced?” he asked in 1919. Kroeber promised “to try to see to it that you get a crack at everything he does before publication.”
Dolores also disagreed with Mason’s linguistic choices. The 1911 dream that showed Dolores “the correct way of writing” O’odham expressed a sense that its sentences had many small words. These include grammatical particles and pronouns that Mason chose to treat as parts of complex words. Partial English parallels are I’ll and wouldn’t’ve. Mason might have called each a single word; Dolores might have said they are two (I + ’ll) or three (would + n’t + ’ve). “Dr. Mason takes a whole phrase and calls it a word,” Dolores complained in 1920, “because he can’t understand why any part of an unpronounceable collection of syllables should have any special meaning.”
Most of all, Dolores was upset by Mason’s long delay in finishing the grammar. It was not a high priority to Mason amid other professional obligations, but to Dolores it was absolutely essential to see it completed. His letters to Kroeber reiterate his impatience as he waited for the indirect fruit of his own intellectual labor. Whatever Mason has done, he wrote in 1921, “I am sure is good enough to all who don’t know the [O’odham] language … I wish him good luck but more speed, so I can see the work finished before I depart to some other sphere.”
A year later, he echoed this sentiment with characteristic irony: “My health is good, but my teeth are getting bad, and I suppose when I can’t eat, I can’t live. I must be nearing the time when I shall have to take a trip to some other planet, so hurry up Dr Mason, I want to see his work before I go.” Tragically, it was not until 1950, two years after Dolores died, that the grammar based on his work saw the light of day. He never held it in his hands.
The whimsy in Dolores’s language dream and imagined interplanetary voyage was an enduring feature of his writing. In a May 1911 letter from Sacramento, he speculated about a Berkeley linguist formulating grammatical “rules” for O’odham:
Whoever makes the rules for the [O’odham] language, he or she must take into consideration the great difference in the climate of southern Ariz. and Berkeley. You see, I was thinking that many things which grow in Berkeley could not grow in southern Ariz. The climate I think could make anything grow in Berkeley, I believe, I grew some the time I was there. The hot weather has taken me back to about 150 lbs now. For this reason I am compelled to think very seriously, whether the rules now growing on the college grounds (there among the beautiful grass, trees, and flowers, and the nice sea breeze blowing over them every day) could not be too tender, and when exposed to that hot and dry climate of Ariz., get sun burned, change its color, [d]ry up, lose its flexibility, it[s] elasticity and break.
Dolores’s fanciful comments about environment and grammar anticipated his disapproval of Mason’s knowledge of O’odham from writing alone, as well as his collaoration with O’Neale on the ecological context of O’odham color terms. To understand the language, it would be best to learn to speak it in the place it truly lived.
Later that year, Ishi walked into Oroville, California. Publicity surrounded a man who was luridly called a “wild Indian.” Kroeber and his colleague T. T. Waterman both said the US should grant him land in his ancestral territory; newspapers predicted a treaty. Dolores saw this and said he should hide in the mountains so white people could “find” him too. Then, he wrote, “tell [President] Taft or somebody, that they have to make a treaty with me. I think that will be the only way I can get some good place to stay the rest of my life.”Whimsy could not mask the need so many Indigenous people had for their land back.
Wherever he found himself, Dolores was linguistically aware. In 1914, he and his brother were working in Los Angeles together with two young O’odham men. “We have a tent by ourselves,” he told Kroeber, “and in the evenings we tell to one another the funny things our people used to do, and what they used to say.” One of the young men spoke the Akimel O’odham dialect, called “Pima” at the time. “When the Pima boy speaks,” Dolores wrote, “I nearly always laugh at him; not because he always tells a funny story, but I laugh at the way he expresses himself. I have not heard the Pima language for a long time, and it sounds funny to me.” The pleasure that Dolores’s language gave him is a recurring theme in his writing.
Dolores returned to his own land with university support during his research fellowship year, 1918-19, recording the speech (and songs) of O’odham elders. Even then, his correspondence highlights the clash between his employers’ assumptions and Indigenous realities. To reimburse a researcher for expenses incurred, university procedures (then and now) require receipts. The acting museum head asked, “Will it not be possible for you to obtain the receipt for the $3.00 you paid for the two stories, and for the $1.50 for the saddle?” In a letter from November 1918, Dolores explained how inappropriate this would be:
The people who came through San Xavier are some relations to me, and they let me have the saddle horse to Tucson. They charged me nothing, but I gave them the $1.50. I thought that this was right; I might need their help again out in the desert. … I did not ask anybody to sign a voucher, because by that act the thing freely given becomes a different thing altogether. The $1.50 which I gave is not the value of the service to me. It only shows to my friends that I am as willing to give any help that I can. I might go on and make a longer explanation which I think will not do me any good; so charge the $1.50 to me.
People who insist on signatures may be “looked upon now,” he added, “as we look upon a German spy.” More generally, a Euro-American assumption (then and, all too often, now) was that research in Native communities is transactional — money for knowledge. Dolores knew better. Indigenous community-based research is relational, and succeeds only in the context of healthy, mutually supportive relationships.
Writing to Kroeber in 1920, Dolores spun out a fantasy of O’odham language collaboration under the stars:
Some day when we are all well, I’ll build a house and then I’ll send you that invitation. I am in no hurry about building that house, and if you want to come out next summer I’ll find somebody to board us, and we’ll sleep in the open, look at the stars, and talk [O’odham] until your tongue gets tired flying up and down trying to make that t [sound] … In day times, when you are not working on the [O’odham] language, it will be a good exercise to go out and help me chop trees, dig stumps, or if it rains we’ll plant corn, beans and do all kinds of stunts you never done before. While doing the above named exercises, we will at the same time puzzle out the meanings of [O’odham] phrases.
The first sentence alludes to long-term health problems. These included tooth pain; and Dolores’s 1925 hospitalization was mentioned above. In 1940, a workplace fall damaged a shoulder and caused permanent loss of vision in one eye. Worse still, in November 1947, the elderly Dolores was beaten up, robbed, and left unconscious outside his Oakland apartment. Doctors suspected traumatic brain injury, though Dolores “seemed cheerful.” From this assault he never fully recovered.
After Kroeber married Theodora Kracaw Brown in 1926, Dolores grew close to their whole family. He had a weekly dinner invitation at their Berkeley home and spent his vacation every year with them at their summer house. Their daughter, the writer Ursula K. Le Guin, recalled that “Juan — a killer croquet player — always got there in time for his birthday” at the end of June.Dolores gave Christmas presents to the children, like a bow and arrows to four-year-old Karl in 1930. “I hope he’ll not be trying to shoot his play mates,” Dolores wrote. “The arrows have no points but I imagine Carl will not be hunting mountain lions and the arrows will be good enough to play with.”
Le Guin also remembered Dolores’s first vacation with her family, in 1931, “the summer I learned to walk.” She would “stagger” over to him and ask him to walk with her:
And whatever he was doing, writing or reading or talking or working, Juan would excuse himself and gravely accompany me across the yard and up the driveway on a great journey of a hundred yards or so, I holding on to him by one finger. . . . I know which finger it was, the first of his left hand, a strong, thick, dark finger that entirely and warmly filled my hand.
Those who knew Dolores well were aware of how important his relationship with Kroeber was. At the end of Dolores’s short marriage to Silva Beyer, who lived with him in Chicago in 1935-37, she told Kroeber that “you . . . are far more significant to him than I had become.” And Dolores’s niece Rosaria Vavages wrote Kroeber in April 1947 that her uncle “has told me a lot about you and your family [and] how he feels that your family is his family too.”
Juan Dolores died on July 19, 1948, in Vamori, Arizona in the Tohono O’odham Nation. He had left Berkeley for the last time when he retired at the end of June. He reached Tucson “a very sick man,” his niece said. He hardly ate, but every day he “dragged himself to the park,” which was cooler than the house and his room (“just like an oven”).  He would not let her call a doctor, insisting instead that he be taken to Vamori, where he could be buried near his brother and sister. Dolores had lived almost all his life away from O’odham land, but wanted to be home with his family. He asked his niece to tell his Berkeley colleagues that she should receive his pension, and to send Kroeber all the manuscripts he had brought with him in retirement.
Dolores’s O’odham manuscripts record language, stories, and songs. He added many details about language and the contexts and meaning of what he recorded. One 60-page story is followed by six pages of notes like this: “The race track is that open space, under the mountain, on the west side. There are no trees on this land, and [it] is level. The distance is about 50 mi[les] or more.” A song transcript comments that a word meaning “Come along” is used “only in baby language.” In the song, the earth doctor is “speaking to the earth as if it is his child, holding it by the hand [as] he pull[s] it along, saying Come along.” Dolores’s writing includes histories and speeches, biography and geography. As a whole, it comprises an O’odham cultural atlas from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Dolores’s manuscripts have been scattered over the decades and are now housed in archives in Berkeley, Tucson, and Philadelphia. His memoir has appeared under his name; many of his stories are in a volume assembled by others who acknowledged his contributions but did not credit him as an author. While some of his writing has been brought home, much awaits the reclamation he surely desired. Almost five decades passed from his student essays to his last work, but Juan Dolores, the “gentle, intellectual man, living in exile and poverty” that Le Guin saw in memory, never lost sight of how land and language would strengthen his people.
 “Enough Water to Last All Summer,” Sacramento Bee, March 2, 1911: 3.
 Dolores to Alfred Kroeber, March 16, 1911, Records of the Department of Anthropology, CU-23, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, Box 11.
 Like others at the time, Dolores always called his language “Papago” in English. This term is now often seen as a slur, so I have replaced it throughout with “O’odham.”
 For the quotation see Dean Saxton and Lucille Saxton, O’othham Hoho’ok A’agitha: Legends and Lore of the Papago and Pima Indians (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1973), iii.
 Before the Hampton Institute, Dolores spent four years at the Teller Institute in Grand Junction, Colorado: Dolores to Kroeber, December 22, 1925, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49. For brief accounts of Dolores’s life, see A. L. Kroeber, “Juan Dolores, 1880-1948,” American Anthropologist 51 (1949): 96-97, and Juan Dolores and Madeleine Mathiot, “The Reminiscences of Juan Dolores, an Early O’odham linguist,” Anthropological Linguistics 33 (1991): 233-35.
 J. M. Lolorias, “The Last Great War,” The Indian Advance 2/8 (April 1, 1901): 4; John Miguel Lolorias, “As an Indian Sees It,” The Southern Workman 31/9 (1902) 476-80. “Lolorias” was an Anglicization of the O’odham pronunciation of “Dolores.”
 John Lolorias, “Address,” Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian, 1901, ed. Isabel C. Barrows (New York: Lake Mohonk Conference, 1902), 76-77.
 Dolores and Mathiot, “The Reminiscences of Juan Dolores” (n. 5 above): 294, 309, 312-13.
 Letter to Edward Sapir, November 4, 1917, in Victor Golla, ed., The Sapir-Kroeber Correspondence: Letters Between Edward Sapir and A. L. Kroeber, 1905 – 1925 (Berkeley: Survey of California and Other Indian Languages, University of California, Berkeley), 260.
 Documents relating to Dolores’s university employment are in Records (n. 2 above), Box 16.
 “Indian to Lecture Here,” San Francisco Examiner, November 21, 1911: 2.
 Dolores to Kroeber, December 22, 1925, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49.
 Dolores to Kroeber, February 25, 1926, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49.
 “Juan, Indian, Defies Alphabet,” San Francisco Examiner, February 3, 1911: 3.
 “Indian Guards U.C. Relics of Fathers,” The Ripon Record, May 6, 1927: 5.
 “U.C. Co-ed and Indian Marry,” Oakland Tribune, November 20, 1935: 1; “Papago Indian and White Woman Marry,” Arizona Daily Star, November 21, 1935: 1.
 “Indian’s Bride to Teach at Chicago,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, November 26, 1935, p. 10; “Indian’s Bride to Help Him Write Book,” Oakland Tribune, November 21, 1935: 21.
 Juan Dolores, “Papago Verb Stems,” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 10 (1913): 241-63; Juan Dolores, “Papago Nominal Stems,” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 20 (1923): 19-31; Juan Dolores, “Papago Nicknames,” in Essays in Anthropology in Honor of A. L. Kroeber in Celebration of his Sixtieth Birthday, June 11, 1936, ed. Robert H. Lowie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1936), 45-47.
 Lila M. O’Neale and Juan Dolores, “Notes on Papago Color Designations,” American Anthropologist 45 (1943): 394.
 Kroeber to Dolores, April 16, 1927, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49.
 Dolores to Kroeber, July 26, 1947, A. L. Kroeber Papers, BANC MSS C-B 925, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, Box 13:15.
 Voegelin to Kroeber, July 9, 1948, Ethnological Documents of the Department and Museum of Anthropology, BANC FILM 2216, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, 134.8.1.
 J. Alden Mason, The Language of the Papago of Arizona (Philadelphia: University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1950), 3.
 Dolores to Kroeber, December 26, 1919, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49.
 Kroeber to Dolores, March 9, 1920, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49.
 Dolores to Kroeber, August 23, 1921, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49.
 Dolores to Kroeber, October 31, 1922, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49.
 Dolores to Kroeber, May 10, 1911, Records (n. 2 above), Box 11.
 On Ishi, see chapter 7 of Garrett, Unnaming of Kroeber Hall (first note above), and references cited there.
 “First Train Ride for Nogi Indian,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 5, 1911: 3; “President and Senate to Make Treaty with Aborigine,” Oroville Daily Register, September 4, 1911: 1.
 Dolores to Kroeber, September 10, 1911, Records (n. 2 above), Box 11.
 Dolores to Kroeber, January 4, 1914, Records (n. 2 above), Box 16.
 E. W. Gifford to Dolores, October 30, 1918, Records (n. 2 above), Box 16.
 Dolores to Gifford, November 3, 1918, Records (n. 2 above), Box 16.
 Dolores to Kroeber, August 2, 1920, Records (n. 2 above), Box 16.
 Theodore Kroeber to Alfred Kroeber, November 15, 1947, Theodora Kroeber Quinn Papers, AA-15, Arizona State Museum Library, University of Arizona.
 This and subsequent quotations from Ursula K. Le Guin are to The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (Boston: Shambala, 2004), 14-17.
 Dolores to Kroeber, December 22, 1930, Records (n. 2 above), Box 49.
 Beyer to Kroeber, June 15, 1937, Kroeber Papers (n. 21 above), Box 13:16.
 Vavages to Kroeber, April 16, 1947, Kroeber Quinn Papers (n. 36 above).
 Vavages to Kroeber, July 22, 1948, Kroeber Quinn Papers (n. 36 above).
 Ethnological Documents (n. 22 above), 134.1.15, p. 62.
 Ethnological Documents (n. 22 above), 134.4E.
 In Berkeley, they are in the Ethnological Documents (n. 22 above); in Tucson, they are in the Kroeber Quinn Papers (n. 36 above); in Philadelphia, they are in the John Alden Mason Papers, Mss.B.M384, American Philosophical Society Library.
 Dolores and Mathiot, “The Reminiscences of Juan Dolores” (n. 5 above); Saxton and Saxton, O’othham Hoho’ok A’agitha (n. 4 above).
Andrew Garrett is a professor of linguistics and the Nadine M. Tang and Bruce L. Smith Professor of Cross-Cultural Social Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is also director of the California Language Archive.
In May of 1928, Congress passed an enabling act to allow the “Indians of California” to sue the federal government for the land lost because of the eighteen unratified treaties signed in 1851 and 1852. To limit the scope of the action and consolidate lawsuits, the act provided the first legal definition of the Indians of California: “all Indians who were residing in the State of California on June 1, 1852, and their descendants now living in said state.” Lawmakers hoped this would prevent a flood of lawsuits parcel by parcel, rancheria by rancheria, village by village, tribe by tribe. The act authorized the lawsuit, which became known as the California Indian Claims Case, often referred to by its docket number: K-344. The case wound its way through the courts until a 1944 decision.
There have always been Indians in California, and despite their distinctiveness, the conditions they faced often shared important characteristics. But the idea of a category, much less a legal category encompassing all of the state’s far-flung and various Indigenous Peoples, was a new and contested notion. The “Indians of California” resulted from decades of activism and various networks of education and mutual support in response to attacks on their existence and livelihood in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Indians of California increasingly pressed their collective issues through the courts, laws, at state fairs, and the state capital, and in defense of the land itself. The category did not subsume individual, village, rancheria, reservation, or tribal identities. Instead, the name provided yet another aggregate conceptual category to organize and strengthen local activism.
In the middle of the twentieth century, the various people that the federal government subsumed under the moniker “Indians of California” responded to and shaped the ebbs and flows of federal Indian policy. Across the state, officials clamored to dam rivers and flood reservation lands in the name of urban development. During the Great Depression, the federal government initiated what it considered a new phase of federal Indian policy—the Indian Reorganization Act. The government promised the new act ensured the independence of California Indians and other Indigenous People in North America. In Southern California, Indigenous People questioned those beliefs. Finally, in the 1950s, policies swung back toward those of the 1920s, attempting to absorb Indigenous lands and sovereignty through the ominously titled “termination” policies. Throughout the era, California Indians charted their own path to secure land and sovereignty.
Indigenous People were bound up in California’s image of itself, which was one of the state’s most valuable export commodities in the 1920s and 1930s. The region’s Mediterranean climate, landscape, and architecture, as well as its increasing prominence in the global economy, contributed to the production of the “Spanish fantasy past.” Business, culture, and political leaders highlighted California’s imaginary Spanish past to promote their vision of nostalgia for a vaguely European heritage and the tourism it supported. That story also helped to erase the diverse present by relocating people of color to the past. The gauzy stories of happy and orderly early California featured prominently at inter- national expositions held around the region. These expositions announced California’s promising future, yoked to an imaginary past. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 in San Francisco and the Panama-California Exposition of 1915–16 in San Diego celebrated California’s growth, especially because of the increased maritime trade brought about by the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914. Both expositions presented to the world a highly idealized version of California as paradise, with its Indians an important part of that past, not the present. Later expositions and fairs, such as the Long Beach Pacific Southwest Exposition of 1928 and San Diego’s California-Pacific International Exposition of 1935–36, continued this theme.
Indians from around the state and region found work at the fairs and expositions, building the Painted Desert exhibit in San Diego in 1914–15 and performing as “show Indians” in the pageants recounting California’s history. They also produced items for display and sale. In the 1910s and 1920s, the market for California Indian baskets changed. As the collector’s craze for baskets declined, Wiyot-Hupa Louise Hickox and Washoe Lena Dick led the way to finding retail outlets to sell their baskets and to promote their work at fairs and expositions. Hickox learned weaving from her mother, Elizabeth, and her grandmother, Polly Conrad Steve, who survived the notorious Indian Island massacre in 1860, when she was twelve years old.
Pomo-Patwin Mabel McKay appeared at the California State Fair and at various times at the California State Indian Museum, where she displayed her exquisite work. At the state fair in 1929, fair officials forced her to wear a skimpy beaded and fringed buckskin dress. After McKay reluctantly put it on, she asked wryly, “Do I look like an Indian yet?” In 1934, she appeared in the Sacramento Union, again dressed in a stereotypical Indian costume that bore no resemblance to Pomo culture. McKay displayed some of her well-known laconic wit when asked, what, besides basket weaving, the Pomos do. “Just live,” she answered.
In McKay’s case, tensions between “traditional” and “market” considerations revealed themselves. McKay was a Dreamer and a sucking doctor in the Bole Maru religion. Her great uncle, Richard Taylor, led the revivalist religious movement that became Bole Maru in the nineteenth century. While McKay grew up around very accomplished basket makers, including her aunt Laura Somersal, she learned weaving in her dreams. Baskets served a critical function in her healing practice, and McKay steadfastly refused to sell those baskets. At the same time, she often took commissions at demonstrations such as the 1929 State Fair.
Indians saw attending the fair as work—perhaps unsavory at times but work that had value. Margaret Harrie, a Karuk basket maker, single mother, and pikváhaan (storyteller), wrote to Grace Nicholson:
I send you this little red basket just for [a] present. . . . My little girl made it. . . . I sell my baskets to you very cheap. [T]hat black basket cost very high [b]ut I send it to you very cheap [b]ecause I think you are my friend. . . . We do not get our straw to fix the basket with up here. We get our straw down the Klamath River they do not grow up here so we have a hard work in get- ting them I have a hard living Because I have childrens to take care of all by myself. P.S. I forgot to tell you that my baskets were all $28.75 worth.
Harrie established a trade relationship with Nicholson for very practical economic reasons and pointed out the importance of site-specific har- vesting. She pursued a similar strategy later when the anthropologists began to show interest. Around 1930, Harrie worked with Hans Uldall, a Danish linguist, reciting the story of “Coyote and Old Woman Bull- head.” Whether it was baskets or stories, Harrie recognized the value of her culture, to herself and to others.
California Indian baskets are ecologically sensitive and site specific. While weavers have adapted new plants and forbs into their baskets, the sedge, redbud, willow, and other materials that formed the core of the craft were susceptible to environmental change. Urbanization pushed increasingly complex water projects farther into the state’s interior. California’s map is dotted with sites where urban, industrial, or agricultural demand for water came at the expense of Indian communities: Hetch Hetchy Valley was flooded to provide water to the city of San Francisco; Owens Lake was drained to provide water to the city of Los Angeles; Capitan Grande was flooded to enable the city of San Diego to grow.
California Indians sat at the center of some of the most well-known histories of water disputes in the state, but they are commonly sidelined in the narratives constructed about them. For example, long a staple case study in environmental history, the story of the flooding of the Hetch Hetchy Valley is often depicted as a victory of conservationists over preservationists and an important step in the beginning of the modern environmental movement. The valley, however, was also Miwok land. Both the Ahwahnechee and the Tuolumne Bands of Sierra Miwok claimed the valley in summer and fall. John Muir praised the valley’s “natural” beauty, calling it an “acorn orchard.” Orchards are not natural, and neither was the valley’s landscape, which Ahwahnechee and Tuolumne managed through controlled burns to increase seed output and fern growth. In addition to increasing the deer population, regular burning also reduced underbrush and contributed to the growth of the black oak trees, whose acorns formed a critical component of the Miwok diet.
The actors in the story, as it is normally told, are San Francisco city officials, the secretary of the interior, President Theodore Roosevelt, and John Muir. They all wrestled for control of the valley throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century. Some saw in it a solution to the city’s growing water problem, while others saw it as a place of great natural beauty deserving protection. That distinction pitted a reflective, aesthetic use of the valley for leisure against the “daily comfort and welfare of 99 percent.” The Miwok absence in the story highlights a central tenet of the environmental movement in California—namely, that preservation often, if not always, involved removing Indians from their land or severely reducing their ability to use it. In 1919, construction of the dam began, and within a few years, waters submerged the vast “acorn orchard.”
One of the most dramatic examples of urban infrastructure intervening in the Indigenous landscapes occurred in the Owens Valley in the eastern part of the state. Owens Lake lives on as a vestigial legacy on digital street maps, but it has long since disappeared. The lake dried up in 1926 (see fig. 24). The Owens River flows south through the slender valley, fed from the Sierra Nevada on its west and the White Mountains and Inyo Mountains on the east. Owens Valley Paiutes built a comprehensive irrigation system with lateral aqueducts running off of the east- west flowing creeks to grow seed grasses and edible tubers. As a result, before American settlement, the valley supported a Paiute population of between one thousand and two thousand people.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, American settlers, attracted by the valley’s suitability for ranching, encroached on Paiute settlements. In a familiar pattern, settler cattle destroyed grasses and tubers, and ranchers increasingly appropriated the water, without which the valley floor would become a semiarid dustscape. In 1862, tensions exploded into violence when settlers pushed Paiutes to the north end of the valley. Owens Valley Paiutes and Shoshone Bands from the east united under the leadership of Joaquin Jim and pushed the settlers back, reclaiming the valley for a brief time in the spring. By summer, the US Army moved in to starve the Paiutes out. They destroyed grain stores and ditches and forced the Paiutes into the mountains. Fighting continued through a peace treaty, eventually leading to the forced removal of almost one thousand Paiutes from the valley to the Sebastian Indian Reserve near Fort Tejon.
Ultimately, the war cost the lives of more than two hundred Paiutes and around thirty American settlers. The army remained in the valley for more than a decade to defend settler possession. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Paiutes made up around 20 percent of the local population but a majority of the labor force in the valley’s ranching economy. Ranchers depended on Paiute labor and mountain water and therefore resisted efforts to remove Paiutes to reservations farther south or to give them a solid legal claim to control their own resources.
All of this changed when the city of Los Angeles came to the valley. Beginning in 1905, the city, desperate for additional sources of water to accommodate its rapidly growing needs, began to surreptitiously purchase land in the valley to get control of the water rights attached to it. Within a few years, the LA Department of Water and Power (LADWP) began to construct an aqueduct to carry the river water more than two hundred miles south to the growing city. By 1913, the city had fully diverted the river into the aqueduct. As much as settler society dispossessed the Paiute residents of the valley, the LADWP effectively dispossessed the dispossessors, who themselves depended on Paiute labor. By the mid-1920s, resistance by valley residents again turned violent, and they dynamited the aqueduct on several occasions. Nonetheless, by 1926, the lake dried up, leaving a toxic salt flat and layers of animosity and anger. The story, often told as a fight between small farmers and ranchers and the city of Los Angeles, took place on Paiute land and reinscribed the colonial process as it erased the wage labor that enabled Owens Valley Paiutes to retain a tenuous grip on their homeland.
Beginning in 1925, Paiutes who received individual allotments, and were able to sell their land, recognized the value of their water rights as Los Angeles attempted to increase the volume of water it took from the valley. But rather than selling their land and water rights individually, Paiutes banded together and proposed a land exchange. They proposed giving up allotted individual plots of land in return for community tracts. At first, the city of Los Angeles resisted the proposal and attempted to pressure individual owners into selling. Paiutes persisted, and as a result, Los Angeles officials abandoned the plan.
By 1932, the city agreed to the land exchange, and in 1937, Owens Valley Paiutes traded Los Angeles previously allotted land for the land that became the Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine Reservations, allowing Paiutes to retain tribal land in the valley. The land exchange did not include water rights, which Paiutes retained to be negotiated later when the city of Los Angeles secured necessary approval. In the interim, Los Angeles promised to deliver water to the Paiutes. That has yet to hap- pen. As of August of 2020, the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission is still fighting for the rights guaranteed by the 1937 legislation.
A map of reservoirs in California follows the contours of Indigenous land. Nowhere is this clearer than in San Diego County. In 1919, Congress authorized the construction of a dam on the San Diego River through an agreement with the city of San Diego and the BIA. The dam was designed to create a reservoir to store water for the city’s growing needs. The Capitan Grande Indian community opposed the dam. Their resistance prolonged but did not prevent the construction, which began in 1931. Members of the Capitan Grande community split into three groups over their forced removal: approximately 35 percent of the 153 members of the community moved in early 1932 to newly constructed, architect-designed “model” cement block houses with indoor plumbing at Barona. Approximately 15 percent of the community, the shaahook (or “ten”), took their per capita shares in cash and left the reservation. The remaining 50 percent held out, refusing to move or allow officials to relocate their graveyard unless the BIA purchased a nearby ranch for their relocation. With the dam completed in October of 1934, the BIA relented and purchased the land that became the Viejas Reservation. Bureaucratic delays hampered their move. Ventura Paipa complained, “Here it is 1936, winter is upon us, and through unnecessary delay and lack of attention to our planning by the Bureau, we are facing a chance for a POOR CROP next year [with families] still living in barns with little or no protection from the winter snows sure to come.” By 1938, water filled the El Capitan Reservoir, and the former residents of the lake bed relocated to new reservations. Residents at Barona and Viejas successfully pushed to retain control over the portion of their former reservation that remains above water as a nature preserve.
This pattern of flooding Indian lands for the “greater good” of non-Indian peoples repeated itself across California time and time again. Between 1923 and 1961, major dams built on the Colorado, Feather, Merced, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Trinity, and Tuolumne Rivers flooded lands of the Chemehuevi, Hupa, Maidu, Miwok, Paiute, Wintun, Yokuts, and Yuroks, among others. The state left few rivers untouched. Forty of the fifty largest lakes in the state are man-made reservoirs, and every one of them flooded Indigenous land. A hydro- logical map of the state is a map of Indian dispossession. In the 1950s, the Bradbury Dam on the Santa Ynez River created Lake Cachuma. In her poem “Indian Cartography,” Ohlone-Costanoan-Esselen poet Deborah Miranda describes the dam’s effects:
Lake Cachuma, created when they dammed the Santa Ynez, flooded a valley, divided my father’s boyhood: days he learned to swim the hard way, and days he walked across the silver scales, swollen bellies of salmon coming back to a river that wasn’t there. The government paid those Indians to move away, he says; I don’t know where they went.
Most poignantly, Miranda points to the land under the surface of the water, “not drawn on any map.” A map of California highlighting reservoirs is a map outlining theft and erasure of Indian land.
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.
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.
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….
Shuck: And the slight breeze changes, and it’s a whole different setting.
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.
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)
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
Tapped sacred songs onto library walls
City hall walls
The thing we bring here today is not predicted by your security
Coal hot memories
And a terrifying patience
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.
Lynell George, adapted from photo by Al Quattrochi.
 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
McKinley Statue, Arcata
Dewey Monument, San Francisco
Early Days, San Francisco
Boalt Hall, UC Berkeley School of Law
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.” 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.” 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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.  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. 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
 Maya Salam, “America’s Public-Statue Gender Gap,” The New York Times, international edition, 15 August 2018.
 Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
 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.
 Charles Reichmann, “The Case for Renaming Boalt Hall,” San Francisco Chronicle, 18 May 2017.
 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.
 Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (London: Verso, 1994).
 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.
 Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (Yale University Press, 1998), 104.
 Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (Wesleyan University Press, 1986), 7, 385, 409.
 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.
 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.
 Tony Platt, Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, From Patton’s Trophy to Public Memorial (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2006), 140-141.
 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).
 Personal communication from Jennifer King, Director, Downtown Oakland Senior Center.
 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.
 “Trilby’s Artist,” Omaha Daily Bee (16 September 1898).
 Carey McWilliams, Brothers Under the Skin (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1944), 50, 67.
 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).
 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.”
 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.
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.
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.
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?
Leaning toward the past.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.