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.

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

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.

Review: Tending the Wild

Co-produced by KCETLink Media Group and the Autry Museum, Tending the Wild, a six-part multimedia series, displays the traditional environmental knowledge of Indigenous people across California by exploring their methods of shaping and caretaking the land for millennia.

Tending the Wild began airing in October 2016 on KCET, commencing with the first episode, “Cultural Burning,” which shows how Native people practice cultural burns that help to sustain meadows, coastal prairies, and grasslands. The inaugural episode is focused on the area just south of Yosemite National Park where the North Fork Mono and the Cold Springs Rancheria of Mono Indians tribes conduct the practice. “Cultural Burning” opens with slow panning shots of the aftermath of a wildfire at the Kaweah Oaks Preserve in Tulare County, California, overlaid by a traditional song sang by Tribal Chairman of the North Folk Mono, Ron W. Goode, as embers flurry and smoke winds from trees and charred earth.

Tending the Wild Ron Goode

“You have to know how to work with fire,” Goode says, shown seated among the brush at Mariposa Ranch in Clovis, California. “I take my young ones out—smell the smoke. Smell it!” He continues as a hint of his song lingers in the background, “That’s grass fire. Smell the smoke! That’s a house burning. Smell the smoke! That’s tires burning. That’s a wood fireplace burning. You should be able to smell every different kind of smoke. The animals teach their young to do that and if there’s no fire, they can’t teach them to do that. That’s why we have to burn. That’s why we have to keep the fires going.”

Walking the area with tribal council member Jesse Valdez (North Fork Mono), Goode explains how the careful application of fire can increase fruit and seed production from bushes and promote new tree and bush growth with naturally enhanced resources for making baskets and medicine.

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But today’s fire suppression methods have been detrimental to cultural burning efforts, resulting in dense forest situations with high tree mortality due to disease, insect infestations, and large-scale wildfires, Goode says.

“You need to be able to see through the trees,” Goode says. “The concept we are bringing forth when we work out on the land is this open concept.” He then says, pointing to the weaving of a baby basket, “When the baby is inside the basket, look through the basket. See the world! See through the basket to the outer world. See through the forest. See through from this world to the next world. Always the ability to see through.”

Tending the Wild Basket 2

Jared Dahl Aldern, Ph.D. EPA Program Manager, Cold Springs Rancheria of Mono Indians, dates current modern forest service and CalFire fire suppression policies back to the times of Spanish conquest in the Americas. He says during the episode that the Spanish view of Indigenous cultural burning was one of recklessness  by “primitive” people. “Fire suppression is very much tied up with social and political oppression of Native American people.” He continues, saying that the forest service wanted to maximize the amount of trees per acre, changing the landscape by placing thin trees in the wide spaces that had been maintained for thousands of years by Indigenous fires. “By suppressing fire and keeping people from lighting cultural burns, you’ve built up the fuel over time, and that’s what has led to a situation today where the forest is full of trees, but really closely packed and ready for that spark and for a huge wildfire to start at any time.”

Aldern’s comment segues the remainder of the segment into the California wildfire issue, introducing Abran Lopez (Amah Mutson) of the Amah Mutson Native American Stewardship Corps, who emphasizes, as he analyzes shells and other cultural burn material at UC Berkeley’s Department of Anthropology, that proactive prescribed burns are the key to mitigating the massive, virtually uncontrollable super fires that serve only to sterilize the land. Near the end of the episode, Aldern speaks about the necessary collaboration between the forest service, fire suppression agencies, and Indigenous people to tend the land for the benefit of all parties involved.

Subsequent episodes apply similar narrative style and filmmaking devices and successfully merge both documentary-style interviews with moving cinematic expression and heartfelt narrative all under 25 minutes.

For details about Tending the Wild and to watch episodes, go to: KCET.org/Tendingthewild. For general and other KCET programming information, visit: https://www.kcet.org.

Review: Redskins? Sports Mascots, Indian Nations, and White Racism

For centuries, the concept of race has forged our beliefs about one another regarding identity, culture, and even humanity. Though widely used as a classification tool for various genetic purposes, the social construct is not supported scientifically as an accurate marker of human genetic diversity; yet, the popular belief that such diversity exists continues to have a profound and, in many cases, devastating effect on our lives.

Redskins coverIn Redskins? Sports Mascots, Indian Nations, and White Racism, James V. Fenelon (Lakota / Dakota), sociology professor and director of the Center for Indigenous Peoples Studies at California State University, San Bernardino, adds a critical viewpoint to race research  through an assessment of the Washington team’s mascot.

Building from the historical framework of white supremacy, the book astutely argues how the conquests of the Americas was racialized and how framing people of color as inferior others “is critical to the maintenance of racial domination.”  The overall scope of Redskins? will not be shocking to those forced to deal daily with systemic racism and the fallout of settler colonialism, but the finer historical details and the accompanying images of Native caricatures, Neo-Nazis protesting to “Keep the Redskins” football team “White,” as well as crazed football and baseball fans in headdresses and redface all do well to crystalize that the criticism of Native mascots goes well beyond being defensive.

We tend to think of murderers as wicked individuals or small groups of degenerates, but what of the organizations and governments that perpetrate genocidal acts in some delusional belief they have the knowledge and the right to do so?

cartoon-lalo-honoring-youAs evidenced in the “Indian wars” and genocidal slaughters such as Wounded Knee, there has been an overt attempt by the United States government to exterminate Native Americans. Fenelon illustrates in Chapter 3, “Redskin,” how the media propagates abhorrence of Indigenous peoples  through defamatory language and racist imagery. A clip from an 1853 Yreka Herald piece reads, “We hope that the government will render such aid as will enable the citizens of the north to carry on a war of extermination until the last redskin of these tribes has been killed.” Headlines from the Bismarck Tribune in 1890 read: “Old Sitting Bull Stirring Up the Excited Redskins,” “BAD, BAD INDIANS,” and “Some Bad Redskins.”

In the chapter “Surveying the Landscape of Racist America,” Fenelon explores how mascots and negative stereotypes hurt Indigenous Nations and people, specifically children. He references one such incident from Erik Stegman’s and Victoria Phillips’ 2014 report on “hostile environments” in schools, described by a Miwok student at a California high school, that involved a cheerleader shackled against her will while dressed in a Halloween “Pocahottie” costume as other cheerleaders danced around her, feigning the beating of a slave.

Fenelon also mentions late Native activist leader Fern Mathias (Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota) and her fight against various mascot issues such as California’s Arcadia High School “Apache” mascot. During a July 12, 1999 Public Hearing on “Official Insignia of Native American Tribes” held at the San Francisco Public Library, Mathias remarked:

“I didn’t bring my evidence,  like the  Cherokees, the jeeps, or Dakota Trucks.  Too big to bring. My name is Fern Mathias.  I’m director of the American Indian Movement in Southern California…I came from a school called the ‘Redmen.’ I did not feel comfortable going to that school.”

She continued:

“Indians are always told that  sports  mascots honor  Indians.   Where is the honor in a name  like Redskins?   Where is the honor in a grinning stereotype like the Cleveland Indians’ mascot?  How do you think it makes Indian children feel?  How does it make non-Indian children feel?   It teaches them racism.  No wonder the people of America are racist.  Racism is taught in the schools of America.”

Redskins? reads like a scholarly work written plainly and passionately. In under 140 pages, Fenelon manages to successfully delve into the what, how, why, and what now? of White America’s conscious and “blind” fervor for historical and continued racism towards Indigenous people.

Q4 2016 Media Review Roundup

Below are several reviews I wrote for News from Native California last year, condensed for roundup purposes:

Doctrine of Discovery

Through interviews and effective use of historical maps and artwork, the hour-long documentary demonstrates how obscure fifteenth century Vatican documents created a worldwide code of institutionalized domination that continues to haunt Indigenous people.

Both approachable and academic, Doctrine‘s main strength is in its encouragement of thought and questioning a system that serves certain types of people and condemns the rest.

 

***

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Showcasing activism within the San Francisco Bay Area Native community, the documentary short Beyond Recognition does much in its twenty-five-minute runtime, managing to intertwine federal tribal recognition fallout and the colonization of Native California.

Winner of Best Short at the 2015 San Francisco Green Film Festival, Beyond Recognition has been shown at the American Indian Film Festival, Human Rights Festival, Cinequest Film Festival, Wild & Scenic Film Festival, Cine Las Americas International Film Festival, and the Native Spirit Film festival in London, and has been broadcasted on several public television stations.

***

Almas FronterizasAlmas Fronterizas brings a twenty-five minute style infusion of both the traditional and contemporary on its 2015 self-titled release.

In the same spirit as the band’s live performances, Almas Fronterizas advances themes of decolonization with a collection of vibrant, wistful rock and folk offerings.

While the trio hasn’t garnered much mainstream press coverage, Almas Fronterizas has maintained an underground presence online through YouTube and its Bandcamp site, as well as a word-of-mouth following through live stage and street performances throughout California and Mexico.

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.

News from Native California Winter 2015

nnc292cover_web800pxLast year, I was blessed with the opportunity to become a regular contributor to News from Native California, a quarterly magazine devoted to the Indian people of California. In volume 29, no. 2, my first contribution is a review of Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States―an impassioned, well-documented telling of the history of America from an Indigenous point of view.

The theme of the issue is “Long live the cultures!” In light of resurgent efforts to quash minority voices, this sentiment is most apt.