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.

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.

Q4 2016 Book Review Roundup

AnIPHotUS Cover

The Indigenous experience has long been absent from colonial histories, which either dismiss or rationalize the existence of and fallout from European imperialism. With An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, activist and historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz examines U.S. settler-colonial framework and gives insight into the modern reality of Indigenous peoples’ experience. In roughly 230 pages, spanning more than four hundred years, the book challenges readers to rethink the national narrative of manifest destiny and to ponder how society would be transformed if the reality of U.S. history were to be acknowledged on a wider scale.

 

El Capitan Cover

Dr. Tanis C. Thorne’s El Capitan simultaneously details the advent of the Capitan Grande Reservation while speaking on the broader issue of Southern California Indian agency in overcoming Spanish, Mexican, and American colonization.  If historical narratives are comprised of evidence fragments, El Capitan’s narrative is presented in the form of detailed maps, photographic essays, and compelling accounts from individuals, families, villages, reservations, and government officials.  El Capitan is a brief, yet well-researched and accessible reconstruction of what happened and why at Capitan Grande.

R66andAA

 

Published by the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA), in partnership with the National Park Service, and written, photographed, and designed by Lisa Hicks Snell (Cherokee), American Indians & Route 66 offers an untold perspective of America’s most iconic two-lane highway. The nearly 2,400-mile stretch of Americana from Chicago to the Pacific Coast (or the other way around depending on the direction one heads) was an officially commissioned highway from 1926 to 1985 and guided travelers through the lands of over 25 Native nations. Also known as America’s Highway, Will Rogers Highway, and the Mother Road, U.S. Route 66 symbolizes American innovation and freedom to some and rapacious capitalism and cultural misappropriation to others.

The book is available free and online at: http://www.americanindiansandroute66.com/

Indigenous Pop Cover

Edited by Jeff Berglund, Jan Johnson, and Kimberli Lee, Indigenous Pop: Native American Music from Jazz to Hip-Hop aims not only to discuss the historical aspect of American popular music gatekeepers, but also to contribute to the gap in scholarship on contemporary American Indian music. While not a comprehensive source for biographical detail on Native musicians, Indigenous Pop successfully accomplishes its goal of noting not only the contributions and influence of well-known and obscure Native artists in popular music, but also illustrates with each essay the importance of song in the political and apolitical lives of Indigenous people, and explores the notion that musical oral traditions are both adaptive and transformative.