Indigenous voices are being raised. The amazing story of Idle No More, and their resistance to the exploitation of the Alberta Tar Sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline, is a source of tremendous inspiration for me. Local groups are organizing around the themes of Indigenous Rights and the Rights of Nature. These rights have been ignored and abused for far too long.
Near the winter solstice of 2012, the Catholic Bishop at Mission San Juan Bautista offered a formal apology to the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of Ohlone/Costanoan Indians. Valentin Lopez, Tribal Chairman of the Amah Mutsun band of Ohlone said they misreported that he accepted the apology. Instead, he acknowledged the apology, as it was not sufficiently extensive to accept.
You [nearly] exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better?
Perhaps there is no way to truly apologize for the damage done by colonialism. Healing from historic trauma is a vast challenge that will confound us as a species for a long time.
Everybody’s been traumatized in this society… To civilize us, they have to traumatize us.
Still, an apology is not a bad place to start, as long as everyone understands the inadequacy of the gesture. In the US, a 2010 military spending bill included an apology to Native Americans that was signed into law, far too quietly, by President Barack Obama. In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper did his best to apologize for the (not-un-Borg-like) government efforts to assimilate previous generations of First Nations peoples via residential schooling. At least in Canada, they’ve adopted something like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, trying to bring the history of atrocities into the light of day, so that healing might begin. As far as I can find, the only Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the United States is in response to the Greensboro Massacre by the KKK in 1979.
Willow : …we should be helping him redress his wrongs. Bring the atrocities to light.
Giles : If the history books are full of them, I’d say they already are.
Is the truth really out there? You can find it, if you’re looking in the right history books. In her book Bad Indians, Deborah Miranda sketches the terrible history of the California missions. California received the barbed tip of the lash that was struck across Turtle Island. It tore asunder languages, cultures, people. The reverberations of that violent blow have echoed down the generations descended from the too-few survivors. This book is brilliant, sometimes in the way that a fresh wound is brilliant with crimson. Miranda‘s indictments of the 4th grade California history mission assignments are sharper than an obsidian scalpel.
One might also seek enlightenment in museums. The website of National Museum of the American Indian (part of the Smithsonian) certainly doesn’t foreground the atrocities of colonialism, but you can search for “massacre” and find some of it. Valentin Lopez mentioned that there is fundraising to establish a museum in San Francisco that would highlight a history of the atrocities against Native Americans, especially in California (this may be a reference to the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center in Santa Rosa). Stan Rushworth (instructor of Native American Literature at Cabrillo College) notes that the missions, the scenes of so many atrocities against indigenous California peoples, rarely if ever acknowledge that part of their history; this is in contrast to places like Dachau and Auschwitz, where the brutality of what was committed there is central to their stories.
However, it’s a tiny minority of people that actually go to museums, and those are often people who are already aware and seeking more information. Mass media only tells these stories occasionally. Valentin Lopez commented that there has never been a movie about the native people of California – it’s just too sad for a Hollywood story. We can watch Schindler’s List and The Pianist, but not this?
When the Occupy Movement was emerging in the fall of 2011, I was excited about their ideas, but a little less sure about their chosen name. This image from Occupy Oakland inspired me to create (well, borrow and rework, with some help from my spouse) a hometown version (full-size for printing).
California was perhaps the most populous and culturally diverse area of pre-contact North America. The peoples now referred to in the aggregate as Ohlone were actually several culturally and linguistically distinct bands, including the Chochenyo in the area that now includes Oakland (those who left the shellmounds that gave Shellmound Drive in Emeryville its name) and the Awaswas of Santa Cruz.
If we want to understand how to live here on the central coast of California,we need to ask the Amah Mutsun, the Rumsen, the Indian Canyon Mutsun, the Esselen, the Chumash, and so many other peoples, living and extinct.
And, more difficult still, we have to ask politely. We of “mainstream American” culture, must be humble, we must be patient, and we must learn some manners. We cannot just expect to be welcomed into what remaining mysteries the natives of this continent have managed to retain, to dip our toes in, to take a weekend retreat.
I’m proud to say that this semester, Cabrillo College (where I work) has been actively engaged with conversations about the genocide of indigenous people, about the invisibility of white privilege and how we’ve benefited from historic efforts to exterminate native people. Last November, the school newspaper published the article “400 Years Too Late: The Reality of Thanksgiving.” On March 14th, we had an intense and critical discussion of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, a short story collection by Native American author Sherman Alexie that was banned from curriculum lists in Tucson, Arizona. On April 15th, Cabrillo will host Deborah Miranda (author of Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir).
On Earth Day this year, Cabrillo College will emphasize the theme of Indigenous Rights. We’ve invited a speaker from the Pachamama Alliance to talk about the Achuar and other tribes of Ecuador. We also plan to host Darryl “Babe” Wilson, California Indian author and activist.
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
~Lilla Watson and Aboriginal activists groups, Queensland, Australia 1970s