Rewriting History in the Land Called California

I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area of California for eight years during the 1970s and 1980s.  One of the reasons I moved there in the first place was because of its radical history, much of it fairly recent and much of it still alive at the time.  It was one of the few places I have lived in the United States where a fair amount of that history was somewhat common knowledge, even mainstream—the Black Panther Party, Free Speech Movement, People’s Park, Haight-Ashbury and the counterculture come to mind.  While I lived there, an awareness of the historical role of the Latino population in California was on the rise.  One group whose history was less known and mostly barely acknowledged was that of the original inhabitants of the land.  It was as if the indigenous people whose lives had been disrupted and their lands stolen had never existed.  This was in spite of various efforts by the descendants of some First Peoples to reverse that erasure.  I had never lived in a place where the histories of Native Americans (no matter how distorted) had been so completely erased.

It was through an Ojibwa fellow I knew for a short time that I learned the names of some of the California Native peoples tribes: the Ohlone, the Shoshone, the Nisenan were just the beginning of a long list of Native Peoples group identities.  Unfortunately, even armed with these names, the actual histories were still difficult to discover.  There didn’t seem to be many books written about any of them.  Most municipalities built on land taken from the indigenous ancestors gave little or no acknowledgment of who was there before the European and American occupiers.  No museums existed dedicated to this history existed while the museums that did exist celebrating California’s  colonial history barely mentioned those the colonizers found when they arrived.

A new book, titled We Are the Land: A History of Native California, is an attempt to fill in this historical gap. Authored by historians Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer, Jr., the text is a comprehensive, decades-spanning discussion of Native People’s history in the territory now known as California.  Each chapter is deeply researched via both primary and secondary sources.  The narrative is academic in approach, but mostly conversational in tone, making it accessible to the general public.  Like many texts concerning complex and even complicated  histories, the challenge to the authors is to create a readable and complete story that provides both detail and context.  Given the difficulty of the task—from plowing through research to composing an interesting and concise chronicle—Akins and Bauer have written a classic.

This is a history seen through the lenses of indigenous communities and individual storytellers, not the eyes of great capitalists and invaders.  The indigenous history prior to the European and American invasion is told via legends and remembrance.  The history of these same peoples becomes one of resistance to and accommodation with those intruders once the first contact is made.  This is similar to other such texts like Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.  Of course, it seems ridiculous to think any other approach could be accurate, especially in the twenty-first century.  However, the reader knows that a small but powerful element of the ruling elite vehemently oppose histories that tell the truth about the brutal European and the US conquest of the new world.  After all, such truths give lie to their holy legends about American exceptionalism.

The book is mostly arranged chronologically.  However, interspersed between the chronology are chapters focused on the history of individual California cities: Ukiah, Los Angeles, Berkeley and Oakland, Sacramento, etc.  Each of these chapters summarizes the particular history of the Native Peoples who lived there and the results of their interaction with the Spanish, the Americans and even the Russians, who traded with various coastal peoples.  Attention is paid to the ecology of the area and its effect on the relations between indigenous people and the foreign invader.  One thing becomes quite clear as the reader delves further into the text—settlers,  prospectors,  politicians and the US Army supported each other intentionally and otherwise in the genocide of California’s indigenous people.  The massacres by settlers were joined with rewards offered by the government for trophies of body parts from dead Indians.  Laws intentionally misnamed to create an illusion that they were designed to protect Native People’s actually exacerbated their removal from their lands, the kidnapping of their children and the disruption of their culture and economy.  Although the Spanish missions were devastating to Native Peoples during and after their existence, it was the infamous gold rush that legend says began in Sutter’s Mill that seems to have been the most destructive in all regards. The land rush that followed only hastened the ultimate goal of erasing the Native People from the land and from history.

Even though We are the Land may not necessarily have been conceived and written as a consciously radical history, it is one.  The very fact of its existence and its approach to the history of a people whose history has been intentionally erased and replaced by that of the conqueror ultimately makes this text a radical one.  Not only is it a much needed and important retelling of the invader’s history from the perspective of the invaded, it is also a relocation of the region’s indigenous peoples from a history based on their erasure to a history based on their preeminence.

 

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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