As a school teacher I introduced the subject of Native American studies each year with the following guided visualization:
It’s Friday night. You’re excited about the weekend as you sit with your family for dinner about to begin your favorite meal – maybe spaghetti and meatballs with ice cream for dessert. Suddenly there’s a heavy knock. You jump up, run over and open the door. In your face stands a gang of threatening space aliens wielding powerful weapons. The leader blurts out “get out of our way” as the whole hoard forces its way into your home. They scream, “Leave now or we’ll wipe you out with our laser guns!” Of course you and your family protest, “But this is our home and our land and you can’t have it!” What do you do?
The answers to this question varied from year to year but generally student responses involved some sort of angry and aggressive resistance. However, when the power of the dominant attackers becomes evident and the family is either wiped out, dies from alien diseases or runs for dear life, the shocking reality grabs hold. Seeing themselves as an intimate part of this teaching story allowed the kids to embody the experience of our indigenous people when the overwhelming force of the European invasion descended upon them and their traditional cultures.
Noted anthropologist and retired College of Marin professor, Betty Goerke, doesn’t dwell on this sordid affair in her latest book about our native Miwok who successfully sustained themselves and their environment for thousands of years. But she doesn’t mince words in describing the devastating impact of the modern world upon their lives. She writes, “Newly arrived immigrants to California, both U.S. citizens and those from other countries, were hungry for land, livestock, and gold. They found the native population an impediment to their ambitions, which meant that being an Indian in many parts of California was dangerous. There were few protections.”
She continues, “John McDougal, an early American governor of California, believed that a “war of extinction” directed against the native population was “inevitable.” Kidnappings continued, Indian children and women were bought and sold, and bounties were issued for Indians accused of supposed crimes.”
Millions of Indian people across the North and South American continents were killed whether from diseases to which they had no immunity, land wars or outright massacre. Fortunately such was not the final word in West Marin. As the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, our local tribal organization, attest: “We are still here.” And despite the ravages of the past, native communities, both locally and across the land, continue to cherish their cultural heritage.
How do we come to terms with the genocide upon which our country was founded? For the most part, we don’t. Genocide is a term reserved for what other conquerors do to those peoples they seek to dominate and/or eliminate. Even today, I’d find myself in troubled water within many school districts across the land if I presented an opening narrative like the one above. Or in deeper water by suggesting that the establishment of the “home of the free and land of the brave” was dependent on the eradication of its original people and the theft of their land. But then, hasn’t this same pattern dominated the conflict-ridden history of the civilized world, at least since the development of agriculture and sedentary living?
But back to Betty’s book. The first section flows as a well researched and highly readable narrative of the history of our local Miwok people from Francis Drake’s first contact, through the depredations of the mission period and right up to the contemporary moment. Archival photos offer a window into that past and present. Like the miraculous rebirth of our Bishop Pine trees after their holocaust of the Mount Vision fire, the text encourages the awareness that our first people have survived the onslaught of the modern world and their descendents remain alive and well today. She writes, “The Coast Miwok people are now recognized by the U.S. government as a sovereign nation – an achievement that would have seemed unlikely for much of the last two hundred years.”
Betty goes on to describe a recent and momentous occasion in which some sense of reconciliation may have been achieved. “In December 2007, both the Catholic Church and the Coast Miwok commemorated the 192nd anniversary of the founding of Mission San Rafael at a mass at Saint Raphael Church on the site of the original mission….In a moving, and unprecedented tribute, retired Bishop Francis Quinn apologized to the Coast Miwok people for past injustices.” Tribal Chief Greg Sarris, who spoke from the same pulpit, received and accepted the Bishop’s sincere regrets.
In the second section of her book Betty Goerke, an avid hiker, describes a number of “destinations” in the Point Reyes area and how they reflect traditional Miwok lifeways. These special places include some of the premier hiking trails in the Point Reyes National Seashore. In company with the narrative, these sites offer an understanding of the sacred relationship between this beautiful natural environment and the people who nurtured it for thousands of years. The lovely photographs that accompany the text serve as a testimony to the wisdom inherent in our society’s choice to protect and enshrine this stunning landscape as a national treasure.
Available For Purchase At: MAPOM,com