Reflections On Betty Goerke’s New Book “Discovering Native People At Point Reyes”

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

One thought on “Reflections On Betty Goerke’s New Book “Discovering Native People At Point Reyes”

  1. John, I am struck by the approach you take with your classes. As I am a transplant to California from Seattle I had to come to terms with what I learned about the true history of our State and Country, much as a youngster would growing up in the Golden State.
    We met at Kule Loklo last July, and I have appreciated your contributions, Betty’s and others to my education. I offer a story I have written as part of my process, if it is of any use to you. I just reserve the right to anthologize it at some point. It was published online in 2009, though most readers just thought it odd. I copy it here:
    Published: Static Movement, 4-09 about 1200 words
    Online Magazine
    Erik Svehaug

    We were in starry sky stretching to glimpse the lights of San Francisco past our seat-mates one minute and the next we were surrounded by dark fog bouncing and knocking shoulders, certain we would collide with Mt. Diablo or another plane. My ears were ringing like Christmas at the cathedral. Our jet shook and dipped and maybe dropped through the fog and then, Bam! we felt a huge hand-like slap on our plane. We startled and were screaming and trying to inventory the engines while the Captain’s voice apologized for turbulence. We dropped out of the fog into dark night with bright lights and smashed onto the concrete runway like a carton of eggs.

    Rattled, hurried, subdued, we were herded to the jump chute exits by a terse, pale steward, who was ignoring a forcefully cheerful forty-something stewardess whispering behind her teeth like a ventriloquist: “Is it on fire?” They had us hop outward feet first, while crossing our arms on our chests. A woman seemed to snare her feet on the inflated ramp and bounced face forward onto the pavement where she lay still. Two uniformed men with Red Cross insignias on their sleeves bent over her while the police gathered the rest of us into an old yellow bus out of the drizzle that had already penetrated my light jacket. The bus said ‘St. Francis Academy’ on it. A uniform with a nasal voice told us “not to leave the confines of the bus.” He reached across a seated grandmother and put his hand in front of a camera phone a young man was using to try to video the ramp victim and broken plane. “No pictures,” he said. The bus doors closed and with no driver fifty or so passengers were in darkness, not headed to the terminal as expected, but waiting.

    After some agitated whispering, a large red-haired man, “Red,” the celebrity Lotto winner in short sleeves from Iymoutahere, PA, tried to open the front door of the bus which wouldn’t yield. He had gotten a lot of attention on the plane by questioning his seat and aisle neighbors if they had “seen me on the tube, you know, winning the Power Ball?” He rapped on the glass to attract the attention of the attendant outside and was ignored. He banged on the door with his fist.

    The attendant spoke into a radio and turned to the bus. Red backed up and the guard climbed to the first step and addressed us all: “For your own safety, you will remain seated until we get clearance to the terminal. Do not distract the officers trying to keep order,” he said, looking pointedly at Big Red.

    “That’s fine until we have to use a toilet,” said Red. The guard stepped to the tarmac and motioned Red to follow him. He spoke into his radio and in moments a dark blue Town Car pulled up. The two occupants got out and escorted a confused Red to the back seat where they tucked him in, slammed the door and stood talking to Guard One with their backs to the bus.

    “We’re fucking prisoners!” somebody shouted. “Shut up!” yelled another.
    There was crying. An awful fecal smell came from close by. I glanced at the middle aged woman next to me who had covered her face with her hands, leaned against the glass and shook gently with sobs.

    On the school bus, some were on cell phones crying bitterly, some begged, and some shouted. None were happy, that I could make out. One phrase I heard repeated several times was “I don’t know where we are!” “You find out!” demanded one high-pitched chalk-on-the-blackboard voice.

    Headlights gleamed off the wet runway. A car pulled up near Guard One at the door of our bus. Less like our school bus shape and more like a Metro Transit, a new bus with windows spilling out light pulled up behind the sedan. The front door of our bus creaked open and a bald man in a suit came up our stairs with a radio in his right hand and addressed us.

    “I’m Frank Lazzaro, Capital Airlines, and I’m so sorry to have kept you here this long. Please forgive me and understand that these gentlemen were only doing what I asked. We had to keep you safe until we could assess your circumstances and develop a plan for your care.”

    “That’s not good enough,” yelled a man. “We need toilets!” yelled a woman. “And food!” yelled another. “Get us to the terminal!” yelled someone. “What about our stuff?” “My family’s waiting! “Bring Dennis back in here!” shouted Red’s wife, becoming bolder.

    Looking ashen, the man in the suit began to sob himself. “My God!” he exclaimed. “I had no idea you were going through so much!” He hit his forehead hard with the palm of his hand and it left a mark of purple. “We didn’t know if the plane would explode!” He hit himself again, harder. “We had to keep you together, off of the runways, so you wouldn’t be killed by any kind of aircraft or emergency traffic!” He hit himself again.

    A woman near him grabbed his radio hand with both of hers and said: “Stop! Stop it!” loudly. “Hey, don’t hurt yourself,” yelled a man. “We just want to go home,” yelled another. “It’s okay, just get us out of here!”

    Looking at his feet, the bald man whispered to his associate with a clipboard. He spoke into his radio. His forehead was bright red. Addressing us again, meeting our gaze, he said: “People, thank you for your understanding. Please follow George’s directions and remain orderly while we take care of your needs. We really only have your best interests at heart. Thank you on behalf of our entire staff.”

    He descended to the pavement and went to the Lincoln where Red was sitting, watching the plane. Frank opened the door and knelt in the rain near Red’s seat.

    Inside the bus, Clipboard was saying: “Please gather your things and head across to the front of the nearby bus. Please watch your step.”

    When I looked back, Red was outside of the station wagon bending over Frank Lazzaro, as Frank lay prostrate with his face on the pavement. I managed to hear Red yelling: “Hey, it’s okay, stop it; I forgive you!”

    As we filed out of our wretched-smelling confinement, a true deluge commenced, drenching and pummeling those emerging. “Keep moving,” yelled George over the loud water. At the door of the new bus, we were first handed a small container of milk and then a granola bar in a blue wrapper and a small sealed packet marked “towelette.”

    “Move all the way to the back, please. No pushing!” he said to those trying to force their way out of the torrent. Red had managed to get a seat behind his wife and they were holding hands at an awkward angle across the chrome bar.

    The uniforms outside clustered and conferred. The old stink hole of a bus drove off and Guard One approached our door, shut it and walked back to a group of smokers under umbrellas near the station wagon. Frank and his car were gone.

    “Oh, not this again!” complained someone loudly. “Can it!” yelled someone, “they’re trying. Don’t make it harder.” “They don’t know what they’re doing!” said someone.


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