Review: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People

The following review appeared in the Winter 2019/2020 edition of News from Native California.

With An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, activist and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (Cherokee/Scots-Irish) examines U.S. settler-colonial framework and gives insight into the modern reality of Indigenous peoples’ experiences. A recent adaptation, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People, provides a similar critical lens for middle- and high school students.

Curriculum experts Debbie Reese (Nambe Owingeh) and Jean Mendoza maintain the overall scholarly essence of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States while reformatting its structure to include chapter subheadings, discussion topics, activity prompts, maps, informational text blocks, and bullet points.

These additions serve the modified structure well, providing context and opportunities for critical thinking. For example, in the subchapter titled “Indigenous Peoples of What is Now California,” Reese and Mendoza briefly chronicle Spanish colonization of the state from 1769 to 1823 with a focus on California missions.  The “Did You Know?” section of this subchapter highlights the discrepancy between the sanitized version of California mission material usually taught, versus a more historically accurate approach the Native community pushes schools to teach.

A “Consider This” section in the chapter titled “A Critical Look at Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson” asks readers to unpack the term ethnic cleansing. A portion of the section reads:

“Bringing a critical lens to words we use is important. Generally speaking, people think of cleansing as a good [sic]; the removal of something bad or dirty. But people are not bad, dirty objects that can be moved or done away with, without regard for their humanity. The term cleansing hides the motives and actions of powerful governments or groups who are deliberately harming many people. What other terms can you think of that might be more accurate?”

In these increasingly divisive times replete with echo chambers and “alternative facts,” An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People is a reminder of the importance of critical thinking. Even though the title references an “Indigenous Peoples’ History,” the material encourages readers to think, consider, and investigate for themselves in order to come to a well-rounded view of United States history. In this spirit, the closing chapters “For Further Reading” and “Some Books We Recommend” provide readers with respective lists of Indigenous women and Indigenous writers as starting points to address historical inaccuracies and underrepresentation.

As with the original, the adaptation offers a periodization of U.S. history in roughly 230 pages and demonstrates the active nature of Indigenous survival through organizing and storytelling.  While the level of analysis in the adapted version is not as academically dense as the original, critical content remains and is presented in an engaging style.

Review: Shapes of Native Nonfiction

Below is a short review I wrote for the Fall 2019 issue of News from Native California. I remember writing this around the time my daughter was born almost a year ago. 

Shapes of Native Nonfiction is a collection of essays by twenty-one contemporary writers. Edited by Elissa Washuta (Cowlitz) and Theresa Warburton, Shapes emphasizes the equal importance of both form and content in essay writing.

ShapesWashuta and Warburton utilize a basket weaving motif to illustrate this concept: “Just as a basket’s purpose determines its materials, weave, and shape, so too is the purpose of the essay related to its materials, weave, and shape.” With this, the collection is structured into four sections: technique, coiling, plaiting, and twining.

Technique focuses on craft essays, in which prose and poetry are often combined. An apt example is Stephen Graham Jones’ “Letter to a Just-Starting-Out Indian Writer—and Maybe to Myself.” In this series of numbered prose poems, Jones (Blackfeet) advises novice Native writers on how to write from an authentic place while circumventing colonial labels and expectations.

Coiling holds essays that appear seamless and connected. Like coiled baskets woven so tightly that they can hold water, Washuta and Warburton note, the essays in this section unify content far ranging in time, place, and meaning.  Deborah Miranda (Ohlone Costanoan Esselen/Chumash), illustrates this style perfectly in “Tuolumne,” which uses the Tuolumne River as the center of spiral rounds that connect periods of her father’s lifetime and familial influence beyond death:

“But my father never told me what he was thinking that day his dad took him back to the river. What I do know is that in 2009, when my father was dying, he gave my brother this command: ‘Take my ashes back to that river. Scatter me on the Tuolumne.’ He told our sister Louise the same thing over the phone, calling her in San Jose from his hospice room in Everett, Washington.”

Plaiting contains segmented essays from a single source, such as from the author’s life. Kim Tallbear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) plaits prose with 100-word prose poetry segments in “Critical Poly 100s,” which draws from Tallbear’s polyamorous experiences with multiple human loves and “other-than-human loves,” such as various knowledge forms and approaches to life.

Twining focuses on essays comprised of material from different sources. As with twined baskets, the co-editors write, essays in this section display flexibility in that they combine the author’s personal experience and narrative style with researched material, such as in “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground” by Alicia Elliott (Tuscarora) who correlates the historical etymology of depression with the effects of colonialism:

“I’ve heard one person translate a Mohawk phrase for depression to, roughly, ‘his mind fell to the ground.’ I ask my sister about this. She’s been studying Mohawk for the past three years and is practically fluent. She’s raising her daughter to be the same. They’re the first members of our family to speak the language since priests beat it out of our paternal grandfather a handful of decades ago.”

Shapes of Native Nonfiction is a vibrant, form-conscious essay collection that does well to challenge conventional expectations of what Native nonfiction can and should be; it goes beyond simply providing “Native information” and shows instead “Natives in formation.”

Review: Land of Our Ancestors

mission sugar cubesA popular rite of passage for many California fourth graders is the “mission unit,” an element of the state’s History / Social Science educational framework designed to help teachers navigate the complexities of the California mission period. Unfortunately, mission unit lessons often devolve into little more than scale mission models made of sugar cubes and popsicle sticks. The 2016 update to the framework denounces the literal sugarcoating of mission history and provides instead content standards geared more toward researching the experiences of the people who lived in and around the missions.

With that in mind, teachers looking for more mindful material for mission unit lessons may want to consider historical fiction works, such as Gary Robinson’s novel Lands of our Ancestors. Robinson (Choctaw/Cherokee) wrote the book for fourth, fifth, and sixth graders, and notes that while the story focuses on characters from the Chumash Nation, it represents what happened to the Indigenous people from nearly forty tribes who encountered the Spanish priests and soldiers that came to the region to establish religious missions and colonial outposts. Robinson also notes that the Chumash depicted in the book lived in the Santa Ynez Valley and spoke a Chumash language called “Samala.”

land of our ancestorsLands of Our Ancestors begins as a light-hearted coming-of-age story during the California mission period. The protagonist, Kilik, is a twelve-year-old boy who trains to become the “ideal Chumash man” like his uncle Salapay, who is as knowledgeable and strong as his name implies. As the narrative progresses, however, an uneasiness sets in.  Kilik’s father reads the night sky and sees an inscrutable change coming for his people. There is anxious talk between Chumash villages of strangers who “speak an odd language and wear odd clothing that covers their entire bodies.” Readers knowledgeable of California mission history will know who the strangers are and what they want. What they won’t know, however, is what happens to Kilik and his family after encountering the strangers. Along with other narrative draws—including relatable characters, high stakes, good pacing, interpersonal conflicts, and balanced syntax—the unknown ending, the open loop within a known history, makes the Lands of Our Ancestors a definite page-turner.

The novel includes in its introduction an overview of relevant Chumash words, character names, and tribal history, but also refers readers to the accompanying teacher’s guide for further exploration of the Chumash people in pre-Columbian California.  Created by Robinson and Cathleen Wallace, the guide also includes highlights of Chumash cultural revitalization work, images of traditional Chumash life, critical thinking prompts, additional vocabulary, and project ideas designed to meet fourth grade History / Social Science Common Core Standards, per the guide’s description.

History has been whitewashed for various reasons, some more insidious than others. Land of Our Ancestors strikes a great balance in its effort to provide another perspective of California mission history to young people and their educators.

Bay Curious: West Berkeley Shellmound

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Back in July, I wrote a piece for News from Native California about the battle over development of the West Berkeley Shellmound. Although the developer’s application for a  260-unit complex was officially denied in September by the City of Berkeley, the site remains under threat of development.

Curious to know any happenings between September and now, I searched a few of my usual news outlets and came across a recent episode of KQED’s Bay Curious podcast, which answers listener questions about the San Francisco Bay Area. The relative inquiry reads:

“There Were Once More Than 425 Shellmounds in the Bay Area. Where Did They Go?”

While it surprises me that people who frequent the Emeryville shoreline area don’t know who the Ohlone people are or have never heard of shellmounds, I’m happy that some are curious enough to find out. That said, the episode is definitely worth a listen.

For more information, visit shellmound.org

Review: The Modoc War

The bare bones story of the Modoc War, also known as the Lava Beds War, is one of institutionalized genocide and land theft in the name of Manifest Destiny. The fleshed-out version reveals the complexities of human nature while demonstrating what little has changed regarding relations between Indigenous peoples and the U.S. Government.  Robert McNally’s version, aptly titled The Modoc War, falls into the latter category.

themodocwarMcNally, author and co-author of nine nonfiction books, is known for his vivid, information-laden writing style. His telling of the armed conflict between the Modoc people and the United States Army near the California-Oregon border from 1872 to 1873 is true to form, a historical thriller that reveals the intricacies of the conflict:

“A mixed-race lieutenant who kept secret the African American portion of his heritage in order to command white troopers, [Lieutenant Frazier] Boutelle knew more than a little about playing a role. He unholstered his revolver and locked eyes with the Indian whose heavily scarred right cheek pulled an otherwise strong and handsome face into a perpetual sneer. His Modoc name was Chick-chack-am Lul-al-kuel-atko, something local settlers wouldn’t even try to wrap their mouths around, so they dubbed him Scarface Charley.”

Several chapters of The Modoc War focus on the national press coverage of the time. Modocs were demonized as savage and treacherous for fighting back against those who tried to dispossess and destroy them. A New York Times editorial on the Modocs referred to the “innate ferocity and treachery of the Indian character.” Ironically, the white settlers and governmental figures perpetrated the very savagery and treachery they projected onto Natives. After having fled the shackles of British rule, Americans sought independence for all men, though, when it came to Indigenous peoples, “the United States government approached Indians with a Bible in one hand and a Sharps carbine in the other.”

The Modoc once lived in villages on and near Tule, Lower Klamath, and Clear Lakes until the intrusion of fur traders and white settlers, who demanded that the Modoc be relocated on the Klamath Reservation with the Klamath and Yahooskin Paiute nations. The Modoc and the Klamath separated in the late eighteenth century and remained distantly familial, McNally writes, though other accounts say the Modoc and the Klamath were enemies and competitors. The Modoc described in the book were composed of three groups loosely following the waning leadership of Kientpoos (nicknamed Captain Jack by the settlers). Initially convinced to move to the Klamath Reservation, Kientpoos and other Modoc left the poor conditions of the reservation for their home on the Lost River. What followed was a series of attempts by the U.S. Army and militiamen to either move the Modoc people back to the reservation or exterminate them. The war resulted in the unfair trial of Modoc fighters who were charged as war criminals and hanged. The survivors were forced onto the Quapaw Reservation in Oklahoma where they again found little of the food, clothing, shelter, and medicine promised by the government.

In under 360 pages, McNally’s The Modoc War uses the power of hindsight to characterize historical subjects in thematic fashion, revealing deeper motivations behind the heart-rending war in the Lava Beds.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World

Told in segments, akin to short films unto themselves, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World hops regionally across the United States to examine Native American influence on American popular music, most notably rock music.

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Executive producer Stevie Salas (Apache) said during a 2017 Electric Playground interview that Rumble was conceived while he was playing a gig with Rod Stewart. “I said to myself, there’s not a lot of guitar players that look like me. So, I started to research if there were other, you know, Native American musicians out there, and as I dug in, I started to realize there were a lot, it’s just, people didn’t know it.” He then mentioned being interviewed later by music journalist Brian Wright-McLeod (Dakota-Anishnabe) in Canada during a rock music festival where Wright-McLeod mentioned a research project he was working on, The Encyclopedia of Native Music. “He really turned me on to these guys,” Salas said, “you know, Jesse Ed Davis (Kiowa/Comache) and Link Wray (Shawnee), and that really got the seeds going.”

As the title denotes, Link Wray and his hit rock instrumental, “Rumble,” with its distorted guitar and throbbing bassline, are the launching points and connecting themes of the documentary. The impact of “Rumble” and its reverberating influence throughout American popular music is expounded upon throughout the film’s 143-minute runtime, integrating photographs and archival footage with contemporary interviews from stars, such as Slash of Guns N’ Roses, musician and actor Steven Van Zandt, Wayne Kramer of the MC5, and Rolling Stone editor David Frick.

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Directors Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana also feature interviews with Taylor Hawkins, Taj Mahal, John Trudell (Santee Dakota/Mexican Indian), Iggy Pop, Steve Tyler, George Clinton, and Tony Benet, who not only note the influence of Wray, but also of other musicians of Native ancestry, such as jazz pioneer Mildred Bailey (Couer d’Alene) and Delta Blues titan Charlie Patton (African-American/Choctaw), whose segment convincingly illustrates the Indigenous essence of his music. Other segments in the South feature such artists as the Neville Brothers and musician and actress Rhiannon Giddens (Occaneechi) of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and “Nashville” fame, that show not only the influence of Native music in the region, but the shared history and beautiful melding of African and Native cultures.

Buffy Saint-Marie

With a roster of Native musicians similar to that of the 2016 book  Indigenous Pop: Native American Music from Jazz to Hip Hop, the documentary also features jazz musician Buffy Sainte Marie (Cree), who speaks about being a target of the FBI due to her music’s activist essence, and other “Native Axmen” besides Link Wray, such as Robbie Robertson (Mohawk), Jimi Hendrix (Cherokee/African-American/Scottish), and Jesse Ed Davis, who formed the Grafitti Man Band with poet and civil rights activist John Trudell in 1985.

While Robertson recalls being told as a youth to “be proud you’re an Indian, but be careful who you tell,” Pat Vegas of Southern California band Redbone, on the other hand, recounts singing traditional songs and wearing regalia in shows, as evidenced during the live 1974 performance of the band’s hit “Come and Get Your Love” on NBC’s “The Midnight Special.” “We used to mic the floor,” Vegas says in the documentary, “so, when we came out, the stomping sounded like a heard of buffalo coming.”

Taboo_11Vegas’ segment blends unexpectedly into a joint segment with Taboo (Shoshone/Mexican-American) of the Black Eyed Peas (BEP). In a music studio, Taboo and Vegas share a moment of camaraderie, due to both having lived in East L.A., while Taboo loops a section of “Come and Get Your Love.” He demonstrates to Vegas how the bassline is similar to the BEP song “Let’s Get It Started.” He then explains how his Indigenous roots inform his musical style, but also how Vegas’ pride and positivity as an Indigenous man continues to inspire him.

Joined by Trudell near the end of film, Salas recounts the time drummer Randy Castillo (Isleta Pueblo), who played with Ozzy Ozborne, took Salas to Indian Country amid Salas’ descent into the darker side of rock star life. Trudell, who passed in 2015, adds, “The secret to Indian Country is, when you’re losing your mind, only lose the parts that need losing.”

1958-rumble-cover300Rumble concludes with footage from the Dakota Access pipeline protest in Standing Rock, North Dakota to the tunes of Taboo’s song, “Stand Up for Standing Rock,” and those of several other Native artists, before returning to titular “Rumble” and a reenactment of Wray in a garage, poking holes into a speaker to create the song’s infamous distorted guitar—a sound that contributed to the song being the only instrumental in United States history to be banned for fear it would incite gang violence.

 

 

#Run4Salmon

Tucked away from the East Oakland streets, behind a series of large Victorian houses, a small art party was held on September 6th at Canticle Farm. Working with crayons and markers on sketch paper, activist and organizer Niria Alicia (Xicana) encouraged other party participants to create “Bring Our Salmon Home” signs and post them on Instagram with the hashtags #run4salmon and #salmonwillrun.

https_cdn.evbuc.comimages29572216747816980551originalThe “Bring Our Salmon Home” slogan stems from the effort by Winnemem Wintu’s Run4Salmon fundraising campaign, which aims to return the sacred winter-run Chinook salmon home to their traditional spawning waters along the McCloud River. At least four distinct runs of California Chinook salmon are now classified as threatened or endangered, per the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Dams are sighted as problematic for salmon because they impede access to historic salmon spawning grounds and change the nature of rivers by creating warm, slow-moving water pools that leave salmon more prone to predators. Other factors, such as climate change and drought, are also trouble for salmon, per a May 2017 report by UC Davis and CalTrout.

“We wanted to hold space for people to come and paint the reality that they want to see on those rivers in the face of everything that’s happening with the fish, with the proposal to build the tunnels, declining salmon populations,” Alicia said as she added an additional layer of blue to the waterfall she drew above a thriving salmon. “We think it’s important for us to envision what we want our future to look like and to manifest it in the form of art. Sometimes there’s things you can only communicate through art. There’s beautiful medicine in the silence of creating.”

20855852_1498171187.4085The Winnemem Wintu have been meeting with the United States Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for over seven years. According to the August 2013 Landowner and Stakeholder Workshop program report by the BOR, Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu spoke about the Winnemem Wintu’s history with the Chinook salmon. Chief Sisk made the case that the salmon were originally sourced from the McCloud River in the late 1800s and are genetic matches to the water shed. She advocated for the use of Chinook salmon from New Zealand as the root stock for re-introduction and indicated the tribe would like to be involved with the reintroduction program. Nearly four years later, the Bureau of Reclamation set aside partial funding for the sample gathering, but an additional $85,000 is needed to ensure proper sample collection. With that, the tribe partnered with GoFundMe to raise the balance. UC -Davis fish biologists are scheduled to perform DNA testing on the samples to confirm to the federal government that the salmon in New Zealand are the direct descendants of the McCloud River winter-run salmon.

Indigenous leaders, such as Alicia, Chief Sisk, Corrina Gould (Chochenyo/Kerkin Ohlone), and Desirae Harp (Mishewal OnastaTis, Diné) worked with a collective of Native and non-native supporters to organize the Run4Salmon campaign, now in its third year.

Desirae Harp1Harp, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area music collective Audiopharmacy, also attended the art party. Her piece was a colorful mélange of sky blue, sunshine yellow, and sage green with “#SavetheDelta” and “Bring Our Salmon Home” superimposed in black marker. She said she joined the campaign due to her people’s connection to the salmon, as well as to the Winnemem Wintu through ceremony and shared mountains. She said she also joined because the movement is women-led.

“I come from Mount Saint Helena and there are a lot of stories talking about the connection between the mountains here in California and the mountains in Hawa’ii,” Harp said. “I met Aunty Pua Case from Hawa’ii, who’s helping to protect Mauna Kea and Big Island, and I met Chief Caleen Sisk who’s helping to protect Mount Shasta, and I wanted to stand in solidarity with these Indigenous women.” Harp added she had also heard about the sacred sites work Gould has done and wants to support her efforts in the Run4Salmon. “As a young Indigenous woman, it’s very difficult to exist in a lot of different spaces. I feel like it’s safe space being with the aunties, and I 100 per cent trust to be under their guidance, and I will walk with them for the rest of my life.”

Events for Run4Salmon 2017 took place in segments by boat, foot, bike, and horseback from September 9 to September 23. The winding 300-mile trek followed the route of the winter-run salmon, commencing  at Segorea Te (also known as Glen Cove in Vallejo, California), traveling along the Bay-Delta Estuary up the Sacramento River, and concluding at a Winnemem Wintu ceremonial site on the McCloud River.

The Intertribal Friendship House of East Oakland, California

With its perpetual focus on community building and traditional healing, East Oakland’s Intertribal Friendship House (IFH) has been green long before wellness and sustainability became buzzwords. The “Urban Rez” is now literally green, technically “Sweet Grass” green, after volunteers spent several summer days last year painting the facility as a part of routine upkeep and beautification.

Established in 1955 as one of the first community centers for Indigenous people in the nation, IFH was founded by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to serve as a hub for Indigenous people displaced by the Indian Relocation Act, which was designed to relocate American Indians from reservations to urban cities, such as San Francisco.

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IFH from white to green. The “Intertribal Friendship House” lettering had yet to be added at the time this image was taken in 2017.

Carol Wahpepah (Ojibwe) has worked with San Francisco Bay Area non-profits for decades and has been IFH’s executive director for over nine years. She said IFH owns and maintains the building thanks to volunteers and donations. “When relocation first happened, the Native community worked with them (AFSC) to start this place,” she said, sitting in the front hall of the Friendship House amid three large murals, each on its own wall, telling its own story of cultural survival, “and they donated the building. We own the building because they gave it to us.” She noted that AFSC San Francisco had been active in the local Native community for a long time and would soon celebrate its centennial. As she spoke, Lakota artist and educator Janeen Antoine highlighted how fortunate the center is to own a building of its size given the rising Bay Area rental costs. “I know what it means to be without a space because we had a gallery in San Francisco for 20 years—a Native non-profit art gallery—and then we got ‘Dot-comed.’ We were one of the only urban galleries in the country that worked with Native artists. That’s my swear word: Dot-commit! But that’s been the experience for so many Native non-profits and art non-profits. It’s displacement with the rising costs. And I feel that this place is really important and it’s so important to keep it financially solvent.” She mentioned long-time AFSC staff member Wes Huss, who had recently passed away. Wahpepah recalled how Huss was instrumental in the success of IFH and his decades-long service to the Bay Area Indian community.

The House expanded its programs over the years to counter the continual cultural displacement caused by the relocation program, and now serves over 8,000 community members per year from more than 100 tribes. One recent program is an occupational training program for Native youth between ages 18 to 24. Working with organizations such as United Indian Nations, an American-Indian managed non-profit providing job placement for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives living in the Bay Area, IFH employs about six Native youths per year through the program, Wahpepah said.

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IFH Youth Development Coordinator Javier Patty (Muscogee Creek / Seminole) actively manages the youth trainees, the most recent being Boyce Duncan (Shuswap). “He really wanted to work in the garden,” Wahpepah said of Duncan. “He’s worked with me, Javier, and Janeen—she did some sage harvesting with him.” Nearly a week before helping to paint the Friendship House, Duncan dismantled the raised wooden planting beds along the House’s small, fenced-in parking lot. The impact of Duncan’s hammer against the wooden planks echoed into the neighborhood, competing with the cacophony of weekday morning International Boulevard traffic. As Duncan works, Patty explains why the beds are being removed. “This is what happens,” Patty said as he pointed to one of the beds with planks that had shifted out of place. Patty said he attended a meeting at City Slicker Farms, a West-Oakland-based non-profit urban farm, where he learned the significance of having metal incorporated into the gardening boxes. “We love their boxes,” he said, adding that it was nice to see another urban garden in Oakland. Wahpepah said the IFH job training program is important because it provides confidence and experience to young people who never had an official job. “You get to know the person good enough and find out what their goal is and what they would like to do. We had one [trainee] that really liked to cook, so he was cooking a lot. And when he left here, the staff helped him with an application to go to the Bread Project in Berkeley.”

drumdance2017IFH offers other programs to Native youth, including summer cultural programs and gatherings. From late June through early July last year, the center hosted “Rooted in Tradition,” in which demonstrators instructed participants from ages four to eleven in a variety of cultural workshops. The House also offers leadership opportunity within its annual youth council, which Patty said is managed completely by its members, who help with other IFH programs, as well as organize their own events. Wahpepah said youth council membership was determined through an application / interview process in the past, but members have been recently chosen from promising youth who attend or volunteer for IFH programs.

Other IFH programs include Family Movie Night, Family Gardening Day, Pow Wow Drum and Dance, Zumba, yoga, Four Directions AA Meeting, parenting workshops, community garden harvesting, traditional food classes, art exhibits, nationally known musical and comedy performances, community healing ceremonies, annual harvest dinners and holiday parties, and monthly elders’ gatherings with food distribution.

Patty said the annual harvest dinner is twofold, one for community and one for the elders. “So, we have two each for Harvest and Christmas,” he continued. “For the Harvest dinner, we feed about two roomfuls, like 300 people. We have a lot of volunteers who help us out with that too.  The Elders’ Harvest Dinner is for about 45 people.

20141230_Elders+Luncheon_0011Wahpepah said she is happy about the continued community support and reiterated the importance of volunteers and donations to the House. She mentioned several donated items around the hall and in the kitchen and office before gesturing behind her, “This back room here—all the windows that are in it got replaced about four years ago. We used to have these windows that wound open and the people that walked outside got hit in the head in the dark. So, this guy shows up one day that I know from the community and he has this big, nice van and I said, ‘What do you do? That’s a nice van.’ He said, ‘I replace windows.’ I was like, ‘Just the man I wanted to talk to!’” Wahpepah said the man measured the windows and ordered them from Home Depot. “And we had about five guys just show up that Saturday to help, and they installed all those windows. We have a room upstairs where he installed them up there too. But that only costs us the money of the windows.”

IFH recently finished a five-year strategic plan, as well as a fund development plan, Wahpepah said. Planned improvements include roof repairs and a roof replacement over the main hall, new asphalt for the parking lot, and a dancefloor for the back room. She also hopes to add another full-time staff member and enhance the Native youth council. She said individual donations have improved, but she would like to increase donations from individuals and other sources.

For more information about Intertribal Friendship House and its programs, visit: ifhurbanrez.org.

Afrofuturism and the Black Panther?

Before the release of Ryan Coogler’s superhero blockbuster Black Panther, I discovered social media buzz about Afrofuturism. The term immediately brought to mind images of pyramids and spaceships with AFROFUTURISM written in pink neon graffiti across the starry night sky. I was close.

Through cursory research, I found Afrofuturism to be a movement centered on the intersection of art, science, and technology. The term was coined by the author and cultural critic Mark Dery in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future,” which examines science or speculative fiction within the African diaspora. Jamie Broadnax, editor-in-chief and creator of the online community Black Girl Nerds, takes the definition a bit further, adding that Afrofuturism is different from standard science fiction because it’s steeped in ancient African traditions and black identity. “A narrative that simply features a black character in a futuristic world is not enough. To be Afrofuturism, it must be rooted in and unapologetically celebrate the uniqueness and innovation of black culture.”

Janelle Monae With that, I realized I had totally seen Afrofuturistic elements in the music and art of Outkast and Janelle Monáe, and in the science fiction of Octavia Butler. I took these as one-offs, however; it didn’t register as a conscious movement.

Now I see the Black Panther in a different light, as a great step forward in not only Afrofuturism, but in superhero storytelling. The film has already exceeded box office expectations and continues to pull in crowds with its  critical praise and positive word of mouth, even with the highly anticipated Avengers: Infinity War coming in less than three months.

I went with to a matinee with my wife and siblings-in-law at the Grand Lake Theater the day after Black Panther opened.  Because Coogler is from Oakland, directed Fruitvale Station, and includes Oakland-based locations and characters in the film, Grand Lake was the obvious choice.  Apparently, everyone else thought so too! Lines stretched down Grand and Walker avenues, taking anywhere from 45 minutes upward before moving. An extra draw to the theater that day may have been due to Coogler’s surprise appearance the night before. According to social media reports, he dropped several Easter eggs about Bay Area representation in the film.

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Photo taken by my wife of the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland before the matinee.

We didn’t see any cosplayers or anyone with Afrofuturistic style at our showing, but a good number of people wore African and African-Inspired clothing, especially for the evening showing—ladies donned jewelry, colorful head wraps, and regal gowns, while men wore tunics with fancifully embroidered collars.

Inside, the diverse crowd buzzed as people searched for seats and stood in concession lines. Once the house lights dimmed and the red velvet curtain rose, the crowd hushed as previews began. The only previews that stood out were both science fiction entries—A Wrinkle in Time, which appears to have Afrofuturistic elements, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, which…I actually don’t know what to make about Solo just yet. The film seems way undermarketed, which is not a good sign for a movie, especially for a brand as huge as Star Wars; plus, the trailer left me with more questions than excitement.  (Editor’s note: my view of this film has changed after seeing the finished version!)

a-wrinkle-in-time-poster-slice-600x200At any rate, the Afrofuturistic elements and strong female leads in A Wrinkle in Time and Black Panther made me think of how diversity and gender equality are having moments even in this socially and politically divisive time. Further, with the successes of Jordan Peele’s social thriller Get Out, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017), and the evermore-diverse Star Wars films of late, moviemakers should realize the time has died for appeasing only one type of audience for box office success. Video game developers have known this for a while with the advent of create-a-character games, which allow players to gallivant as versions of themselves around virtual worlds.

The success of Black Panther creates a new template for Marvel’s movies, much like the first Iron Man did back in ‘08, Gamespot’s Tamoor Hussain notes. One reason is because T’Challa is already a hero who fights for and with his people, as opposed to a goodhearted, yet selfish person who gains superhero status after forced maturation, such as with characters like Tony Stark, Thor, and Dr. Strange. Hussain also adds that the Black Panther is doing so well at the box office because the film has its own identity, akin to how Thor: Ragnarok felt so different from the usual Marvel superhero movie.

And the above-mentioned difference is partially why I haven’t written a formal review for the film—there is so much to unpack. I mean that in a good way. The movie offers so many avenues for discussion that I want to see it again to both enjoy and analyze.

0218_WI_APAFRO_02_sq.0One of my criticisms with the film going in was regarding CGI usage. The trailers didn’t impress me in that regard. In general, I’m against CGI because it rarely adds whatever artistic weight filmmakers intend. Said plainly, most CGI looks fake. Thankfully, many of Black Panther’s sets and characters are grounded in the physical world, leaving room for only a few flat digital effects. What remains is pretty good. The African utopia brought to life, with its elevated Vibranium-powered bullet trains, humming around high-rise buildings and through bustling markets is a sight.

Much like Afropunk, Afrofuturism seems like it’s always been a thing, but the requirement mentioned above, the unapologetic celebration of the uniqueness and technological innovation of Black culture, is hard to come by in mainstream pop culture. Even those who don’t identify as Black or of African descent can see, at least for this moment, the great amount of celebration and pride the movie has inspired.

Wakanda forever, yes, but Afrofuturism, too. I think it’s cool.

Missing California Gold Rush Education

Gold Rush Graphic 7All U.S. states are known for something: Idaho for potatoes, Georgia for peaches, and Arizona for the Grand Canyon and State Bill 1070. California, however, is the only state widely associated with gold, one of the most prized metals known to man—so prized, in fact, people uprooted their lives, migrating and immigrating from all over the nation and world in 1849, to hit pay dirt in Northern California. Few became rich. Some broke even. Most died poor.

 

I learned this basic bit of California history during my grade school years in the Midwest. The other bit, about the Native people of Northern California before, during, and after the 49ers’ arrival, was not included in the lesson. Curious to know what California students are learning about the gold rush today, I asked Anjali Kamat, an Instructional Coach at Anna Yates Elementary in Emeryville, California, who said California teachers are to adhere to “History/social science content standards, but they must also teach Common Core, which is more skills-based than content-based, focusing on language arts.”

According to the Common Core Standards website, forty-two states, including California, the District of Columbia, and four territories have adopted the same standards for Math, English, history/social studies, science, and technical subjects in order to help students nationwide succeed under shared educational expectations and goals.

When asked if there are certain books students are required to use to meet the standards, Kamat explained that Common Core Standards are not a curriculum, so lesson planning and implementation are left to teachers within the California Department of Education History/Social-Science curriculum framework, the most recent adopted by the California State Board of Education on July 14, 2016.  This means that the depth and balance of a student’s formal gold rush public school education depends on the combination of her teachers and texts.

silver-maidu Per the curriculum framework, teachers usually focus on California History in the fourth grade. Though the grade four History/Social-Science curriculum framework isn’t the only one that asks students to analyze aspects of the gold rush, it does hone in on that period more than the others. The timeline of the framework spans from the lives of California’s Indigenous people before European arrival, California history after European arrival through statehood, and growth and development after statehood. The gold rush component outcomes ask students to “consider how the Gold Rush changed California by bringing sudden wealth to the state; affecting its population, culture, and politics; and instantly transforming San Francisco from a small village in 1847 to a bustling city in 1849” among other thinking points regarding cultural and gender diversity during the period.

From a random sampling of textbooks, westward expansion, including the gold rush, is covered in varying degrees of detail, depending on grade level and curriculum. This means encounters between indigenous people and Europeans are sanitized less with each increasing grade. For example, the fourth grade text, Our California, uses words and phrases like “problem” and “forced to give up their way of life”; the fifth-grade text, Our Nation, uses “conflict,” “assimilate” and “massacre”; and the eighth grade text, History Alive: The United States through Industrialism, drawings of Spaniards burning and hanging resistant Indians next to a quote from Bartolomé de Las Casas, who accused colonists of being “wild beast” who took pleasure in “killing…, torturing and destroying the native peoples.”

Even though contemporary narratives continue to slant toward the colonial telling of American history, critical thinking is usually encouraged in these texts by way of prompts such as “How justifiable was U.S. expansion in the 1800s?” and “As you read, think about how each new area was acquired and whether the decisions that led to U.S. expansion across North America were justifiable” to get students to weigh the presented information and come to their own conclusions. In History Alive, Chapter 2: European Exploration and Settlement, there is a section titled “How Historians Use the Sources,” in which the process for evidencing history is examined; Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) is shown in various lights, such as noble, destructive, or a man with good and bad qualities who committed “errors of the times,” as noted by Washington Irving in his book The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. The problem remains, however, regarding the vast number of pages dedicated to the lives and deeds of male European explorers compared to the handful devoted to other cultural and ethnic groups.

Outside of textbooks, there are a plethora of educational guides and resources online for teachers. A general internet search revealed a mixed bag of lesson plans, ranging from total omission of an Indigenous presence during the gold rush to full inclusion and consideration. As with textbooks, the level of education a student receives depends on his or her teachers’ abilities and willingness to unpack available materials. So, hypothetically, if Mr. Adams wants to focus on miner dredging techniques for most of the gold rush instruction period and gloss over discussions about settlers massacring Indigenous people and stealing their land, it would be his choice.

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There was no internet during my grade school years, so any specialized subject searches required skulking about libraries and picking the brains of people more knowledgeable than I was.  With the information age upon us, however, we have the luxury of search engines and high-speed downloads; gold rush history from many different angles is available as fast as our internet connections allow in the form of books, news articles, documentaries, and social media platforms. But I wondered about the information being disseminated to the average person searching for a gold rush experience at the many gold-rush-themed attractions and historical organizations across the state.

My first inclination was to set out on an adventure of my own, visiting each major attraction in a 70-mile radius, but with time and money constraints, I decided to start local. The Gallery of California at the Oakland Museum is an ever-evolving collection of stories and experiences through the years to ambitiously illustrate the diverse history of California, beginning with its indigenous people and continuing through to present day with the increasing global influx of people. Within the gallery is the gold rush exhibit, which focuses on “different cultures, languages, ambitions, and experiences of the gold rush era.” Although the histories of various Native nations are told more expansively in other sections of the gallery, especially before the arrival of the Europeans, the gold rush exhibit includes descriptions of Native people in various aspects during the gold rush as miners, defenders of their homes and families, outlaws, victims, and successes.

The museum also offers a supplemental curriculum series titled Myth & Reality: The California Gold Rush and Its Legacy, which, according to the curriculum website, relies on primary source materials. The site also notes that volumes have been created separately for grades four, five, eight, and eleven and all lessons presented in the volumes relate “directly to strands in the History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools.”

This experience, however, was an exception. Upon calling a handful of other sites, I found “Unfortunately, we don’t have any information about Native Americans” to be a standard refrain. The Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park’s Gold Discovery Museum and Visitor Center attendant told me by phone the park has an exhibit that features Native people before prospector arrival, but not during the gold rush. I asked about the offered “Living History Days” tours; the attendant said the tours usually focus on the miners’ experiences due to knowledge of Native life during that time being “few and far between.” She added there were not many American Indian tour volunteers available to depict Indigenous life during that period, and that the park only offered an exhibit with Indigenous artifacts. The term “Living History” is a medium museums and other history-related organizations use to educate the public about various aspects of a historical period. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park’s “Living History Days” event features docents dressed in period clothing who discuss the 1850s and give demonstrations in rope making, candle dipping, dutch oven cooking, sawmill wood working and games.

Not having more information, the attendant referred me to the proprietor of the local bookstore, Floyd D.P. Øydegaard of The Columbia Booksellers & Stationers. Floyd said via phone he didn’t have extensive knowledge of California Indians during the gold rush, but said members of the Paiute tribe had killed miners for “any reasons they wanted to” and the miners retaliated.  He also mentioned tensions between the Paiute and Miwok nations and how the Paiute caused more trouble to the Miwoks than the Miwoks did to themselves. He continued, saying Indians also “danced in the streets,” performing for money and attempting to launder clothes for pay “like the Chinese, but not as good.”  He added that some Native people worked alongside the miners, but “they didn’t care about the gold as much.” He said the museum didn’t have much beyond Indigenous artifacts and the museum store didn’t have an extensive collection of books about Native people, but he mentioned specifically Tending the Wild and Tribes of California.

Gold Prospecting Adventures, LLC has, according to the company website, earned the title of “best of the best” in gold prospecting and gold rush history, however, the attendant told me during a phone call their packages, such as school programs, mining camp, prospecting courses, and travel, don’t include Indigenous history. She said there is a huge Miwok history available through other avenues, such as from the tribe itself, though, the Gold Prospecting Adventures, LLC staff is “still learning” and she wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching Indigenous history without more knowledge.

The Wells Fargo History Museum attendant said not in “either one of our museums do we have anything about Native Americans in the West at all.” One of the locations she referred to is in the Old Sacramento Historic District and the other is on Capitol Mall about half a mile away. Similar “I’m not aware of anything specific to Indian history” phone conversations were had with the Sacramento History Museum and Gold Country Visitors Association staff members.

A visit to Old Sacramento revealed a 19th-century frontiersman ambience that lingers in the small town replete with horse-drawn carriages trotting down the cobblestone streets, brick and wooden buildings with wood plank walk ways, and a riverboat and railroad station lining the Sacramento River.

 The Sacramento History Museum website says the museum is “dedicated to Sacramento’s rich and diverse history” and its “galleries and exhibits explore the history and stories of the area’s first inhabitants, the pioneers who settled here during the Gold Rush, life on the farm, and more.” When asked by phone, a Sacramento History Museum guide said there was nothing extensive regarding Native Americans, that only a small portion of an exhibit was dedicated to Indigenous people. “And some books,” she added. In person, I spoke with Me’Lisa James, Educational & Interpretive Programs Manager, and tour manager Shawn Turner, whose alter ego is Thomas Legget, the name of a man of Irish descent who reportedly resided in Sacramento in the 1850s. Turner’s name tag read “Thomas Legget, Proprietor,” though he was not in character at the time we spoke. Both James and Turner confirmed the museum had mostly gold-rush-era artifacts with Indigenous mentions before and after the gold rush—not during, and said that I would find more information at Sutter’s Mill and the State Indian Museum.

IMG_2650 I browsed the store merchandise to find various elixirs and vials of “real” gold and silver amid dream catcher kits and shiny rocks and marbles. There was a bookshelf of general American Indian interest made up of dream catcher bracelets, American Indian fun activity books, which included inspirational Native American leader puppets, corn husk doll kits, archeological dig kits for Indian relics, and several books geared toward adult readers, such as Grave Matters and Deeper Than Gold. I then toured the museum myself, walking the gold rush exhibit four times to find not one mention of California Indians.

The Sacramento Visitor Center, located down the walkway from the Old Sacramento Wells Fargo History Museum, contained as the extent of its Native history offering a small, three-panel display that described the dwelling place of the Nisenan people in that very spot over 200 years ago. The attendant suggested the State Indian Museum for more offerings. That was about the third or fourth time I had been told to ask Indians about Indians, so I took the hint.

IMG_2677 While there was no specific exhibit related to Indigenous people during the gold rush in the State Indian Museum, there were images displayed from that time period. One of the attendants gave me a page-and-a-half long handout titled, “California Indians & the Gold Rush: Discovery, Devastation, Survival,” which highlights the decimation of Indian people in California during the gold rush and their determination to rebuild in its wake. Along with the Native-made items, snacks, and usual museum swag, such as t-shirts and key chains, the museum also had several books among its large bookshelves related to California Indians and the gold rush.

The American history narrative is multifaceted and has many voices. And while educational standards in the California public school system seem to be slowly evolving, classic institutional barriers to true understanding and healing remain stubbornly embedded. In my search for Native history, I recognized the theme of “ask Indians about Indians” to be a directive, a call to action, as if the burden of history must be lifted largely by those underneath its girth, hidden by its shadow.

The “unfortunate” gaps in historical knowledge must be filled by those who hold the history. Yes, California Indigenous history during the gold rush and beyond exists but, like gold in the foothills today, we must dig for it.