Comments on Two Books

© 2021 Wyndy J. Knox Carr

The Ohlone Way and Native Resistance: Relationship, Renewal and “Religion”

 “The problem is our attitude toward the natural world.” 

– Oren Lyons, Standing on Sacred Ground, “Profit and Loss.”

“If now isn’t a good time for the truth, I don’t see when we’ll get to it.” 

– Nikki Giovanni

Rereading The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area by Malcolm Margolin alongside LaNada War Jack’s Native Resistance: An Intergenerational Fight for Survival and Life, 2019, is a difficult journey. Encouraging, inspiring, but also deeply shocking and heartbreaking. 

Margolin describes in detail how 10-26,000 hunter-gatherers lived without mass “material culture,” warfare, famine or major disease in extremely intimate knowledge and reciprocity with each other and the extremely bountiful natural resources that existed and they nurtured here. Want ecology? They knew how. Want “cultural oneness with spiritual practice?” They did it. Were they “happy,” dancing and singing “to restore order and balance…repair the world?” Yes. A lot happier than we seem to be, and more often.

 “Power was everywhere, in everything, and therefore every act was religious,” Margolin says. For between 10,000 and at least 4,000 years.

That is, until “The Last Two Centuries” of their existence, between the 1769 arrival of Spanish missionaries when, suddenly, “Most of the (kidnapped, imprisoned and enslaved) Indians refused to learn church doctrine… under crowded and depressed conditions, diseases swept through the missions in devastating epidemics.” Then came the Anglo Gold and Land Rushes of 1846-1873. Over 80% of the Ohlone died in the first 50 years. 

The Anglo governor put cash bounties on the heads of all “savages” in California in the mid-1800s such that massacre and murder overtook the “unassimilated” natives except for “Ishi,” the last Yahi, who came out of hiding in 1911 and died of tuberculosis in 1916 under UC Berkeley’s anthropologist Alfred Kroeber’s “protection.”

Kroeber’s attitude in his 1907 article “The Religion of the Indians of California” begins, “Fundamentally, the religion of the Indians of California was very similar to that of savage and uncivilized races (my italics) of the world over.” It is typical justification for the broken treaties and cultural misunderstandings further marred by settler overrun; unpaid, inappropriate or unusable compensations; actual and what I’d call “values violence” that Wikipedia calls “California Genocide.” (17 April 2021)   (30 April 2021)

Margolin’s illustrated and detailed account of the Ohlone’s magnificently balanced hunter-gatherer way of life and their relatively rapid, radical and horrific destruction is a must-read for those wishing to repair and somehow atone for the devastations of our American socio-ecological fabric.

LaNada War Jack is a powerful voice who “participated (as) the first Ethnic Studies Program (student) in the UC statewide effort in establishing” Native American, African American, Chicano and Asian Studies programs. After 1953’s Termination Act depleted reservations, her 1969 Alcatraz Island Occupation instigation with SFSU’s Richard Oakes and Native students “turned that whole tide of assimilation.” After Alcatraz, “People were being proud of who they were as native people” for the first time in a century.

In the meantime and after, she  worked with her father and attended law school, negotiated land rights claims, legal and tribal planning against evasive corporate, Federal Department of the Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) legislation, actions, policies and cooptation of tribal governments. She fought “encroachment of lands and endangerment of their waters” in dozens of cases all the way through Standing Rock. 

 “(T)he Shoshone nation… held their women in higher regard,” and War Jack stresses the matrilineal gender equity and respect for women and mothers that persisted. When she went back to D.C. to fight for litigation to confirm Indian treaty rights to Alcatraz Island because it had been abandoned by the government, she “did not realize that this was all turning into a copy of the White man’s patriarchal system…it was morphing into a warrior society… A warrior society is good but is balanced with other societies in which women hold respect and have a voice.” 

When she told AIM leaders, including her brother-in-law, Russell Means, not to let the tribal leaders bring in guns, she said “Any Indian resistance had to be in a peaceful manner… Remember what happened to the Black Panthers when they took up arms? They got killed…” 

This speaks to me LOUDLY of our need for “intersectionality” in all we do in progressive movements in Berkeley and beyond. On Alcatraz, “we formed an island organization and it was called “Indians of All Tribes,” because they knew the media, police and agents provocateurs would try to pull them apart the way they attacked tribal council members and chiefs on the reservations with bribes, slander and political favors. 

She is a Big Picture thinker. Sometimes confusing (I wish there was an Index!), but always ringing with the integrity of what she knows, what she feels, what she’s seen and how it affects all people, not just her own. She places her own story within the larger context, holds a mirror up for us of rapacious European arrivals both awed and terrified by a completely foreign landscape, its creatures and inhabitants. Many of our ancestors were fleeing poverty, disease and cultural and religious horrors and persecutions thourselves*; fueled first by the “Doctrine of Discovery” that claimed Native homelands were “uninhabited,” full of “souls” that needed saving, dreams of what Margolin calls “Utopian Visionaries” and “hatred of the flesh.” 

For War Jack, this was followed by “lies, deceit and pure mythology” that brought imperial, militarist hierarchies, weird customs, dreadful diseases and shocking “religious” practices to peoples harmoniously entrenched in environments for millennia. 

 “Native people have tried to promote and communicate an understanding of our natural laws that are connected to all life on Earth, taking only what is needed with prayers and respect.” I agree. It was all, “intentionally” or not, about speed, fear and greed.

Alfred and Theodora Kroeber are a strange team in a pivotal period for Native American extinction, remembrance, renewal and in the 21st Century, some form of reconciliation. She is said to have finally written the story of Ishi, the Last Yahi’s life for her husband because “Alfred could not bring himself to do so,” out of shame and sadness, which she also found in “its challenging subject material: it recounted the destruction of the Yahi people by white settlers and Ishi’s many years spent largely in solitude,” as well as his eventual death and dismemberment, which were NOT carried out according to his wishes and religious customs. Ishi was not a person, at the time and place for Alfred Kroeber, he was a research project. A “specimen” of a “dying race.” But at the same time, Kroeber was haunted by their co-humanity and time together, scientist or not.

There is courage, persistence, endurance, beauty, spirit, value and resilience here; but also a whole lot of suffering and death. What to call the now-unnamed Kroeber Hall or rename the Phoebe Hearst Museum, still holding 8,189 human remains and more than 200,000 “funerary artifacts?” How about Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum West, or Tuol Sleng (Khmer Rouge) Museum of Genocide East? Seriously. Lest we forget…

“Power was everywhere, in everything, and therefore every act was religious.”

*A new word invented by the author to best express the concept she had in mind

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