Thursday, December 28, 2006

Grandpa, Tell Me About The Good Old Days

I am really behind on my blogging so I'm not going to wait around for this post to come together perfectly. My mother will be disappointed that I did not get all of the details and I am disappointed that I don't have pictures to post with it.

Months ago, I asked my mother about the ranch where her side of the family all congregates during holidays like Easter and how that plot of land came to be in the family. The answer she gave shows the duality of my checkered heritage.

I am roughly half Indian. My father is not quite full Indian. My mother is not recognized as Indian at all. There is a big political mess behind the Indian pedigrees. First, there are thousands and thousands of people who are indigenous to the land of North America but who are not recognized as "Indian" because, frankly, the government doesn't want to deal with it. To recognize all people who link their origins back to this homeland of ours would be expensive and a hassle of paperwork. Therefore, everyone seems to be fine in saying that these native north american people are not actually Indians. It's fine for most people but when people try to make laws where you MUST BE a FEDERALLY RECOGNIZED Indian to practice something like a religious ceremony involving peyote, that is the point where I say it sucks. Not because I support the idea of using peyote, but because I am against the basic idea of saying "These native people over here have been blessed with the sacred approval of the white overlords and hold certain rights while these native people over here have not been given the sacred approval of the overlords and will not be given those rights... because we don't want to deal with paperwork or admit any further that we totally jacked these people." It is more government laziness or flat-out refusal to deal with an issue.

My mother gets tired of the goofy racism-within-the-race where people who are more parts Indian think of themselves as better than the people who are less parts Indian. Petty bickering on this matter kind of sounds like the groundbreaking sounds to the building of the great road to inbreeding. How do you STAY Indian and keep your family placed on the tribal rolls if you marry someone, Indian or not, from outside the small tribal community (which, ironically, was a common practice with our ancestors)? The health problems I suffered as a child are thought to stem from an unfortunate genetic combination, which I'm sure would be made better by a dwindling gene pool (That's sarcasm, if you didn't catch it).

Around 1900, the tribal valley was occupied by white soldiers. There was relatively little fighting between my tribe and the soldiers. The Indians were forced to stop speaking their native langauge, stop having their traditional ceremonies, kids weren't even allowed to play the Indian games they grew up playing. The Indians of my tribe were made to dress as white people dress and attend schools like white people did. And I'm sure the heathens were given Christianity.

After a couple of decades, leadership had been passed around from white dude to white dude, and finally a white dude of authority was approached by some college dork with fancy degrees and told that it was important to preserve the culture. And things suddenly swung the other way. The Indians were again encouraged to speak their langauge and teach it to their kids. They were encouraged to have their traditional ceremonies like "The White Deerskin Dance" and "Salmon Runs." Kids were encouraged to play the "stick game" which is much like LaCross with a lot of wrestling. My tribe actually had things very good in comparison to what befell virtually all of the other tribes across this country of ours. I, personally, attribute this luck to the remote location of my tribe and to the great abundance of resources in the area.

In their corner of northern California there are tree covered mountains interlaced with rivers feeding into rivers that wind about and spill into the ocean. Indians of old spread through all the nooks and crannies of the region and that is why most of them are not considered Indians by our great Uncle Sam. If you can't clear things up with maps and clearly drawn borders than the issue just isn't worth dealing with.

My mother and her siblings are currently petitioning the government for Federal Recognition as part of a tribe of Indians who lived a ways upriver from my father's tribe. My mother's ancestors had a big village where two rivers meet. The government has a policy of only recognizing Indians who were included in any of the hundreds of worthless contracts formed between our Great Fathers in Washington and the indigenous peoples of this country BEFORE A CERTAIN YEAR (1914, I beleive). My mother and many others believe that their tribe was included in such a contract and have made several attempts to contact the government about it... but the government doesn't seem to be answering their phone or responding to their mail.

This is a good place for the story to start, I s'pose. In this story, a white man named Charles from Ohio floated down the Mississippi River and into central america. He crossed the isthmus where the Panama Canal would later be constructed and ventured to nothern California in hopes of striking it rich in mining along the rivers in the vicinity of my father's tribe. A law was passed, which essentially made it legal to kill the Indians who lived there. The village where my mother's ancestors lived was leveled. The Indians were killed or run off. The invaders constructed a vast lumber mill on the spot. White men came in with their picks and shovels; panning didn't seem to be effective anymore. They searched all along the waterways for rich stuff.

But, wouldn't you know it? Indians were still lurking about, hiding around in the mountains. And they scared and stole from and pestered the miners to no end. There was nothing to do but form a mob... I mean, a militia. This white man, named Charles, took a break from mining and joined a group of Indian Killers. I believe they called themselves the "California Battalion." These do-gooders rode around and killed any Indian they could find.

In later years, the government had taken all the land from the Indians, except for the parts they deemed "uninhabitable" or land they simply didn't care about (at the time) and all of the Indians were forced at gunpoint to stay on these reservations. Suddenly, the government realized they had more land than they knew what to do with. What else could they do but give it away (to white people)?

So the man named Charles took advantage of The Homestead Act and got himself a good plot of land in the mountains. This plot of land is where my cousins and I would come to canoe in vernal pools and hunt for easter eggs in spring. It is still a tradition with my mother's side of the family.

It turns out that Charles had a nephew who came to take over the ranch when he was grown. The nephew took an Indian wife. His wife is either my great or great, great grandmother (I waited too long to tell this story, I can't remember for sure).

Now about my grandpa: This is the grandpa who died last December. I believe he was one of eight siblings. Most of them were loggers. That is still a family trade. Many of my uncles and cousins are loggers. I asked my mother for a picture of my grandpa and his twin brother showing them successfully cutting down a seqouia redwood tree with a two-man handsaw. Maybe that isn't cool nowadays but, in those days, man knew that nature was out to get us and there was nothing better we could do to spit in nature's face than to dam all of the rivers and cut down all those smug, punk-ass trees. At any of these given family reunions, my uncles and cousins could probably have a hundred acres of land clearcut by sunset.

There was a recent lawsuit where a lot of people were searching to be federally recognized as Indian. My grandpa was among them. The case has taken most of my life to come to an end and it was finally decided in court that my grandfather on my mother's side was Indian. Grandpa snuck in by a hair and much of the decision was based on the fact that he lived on the Indian reservation throughout the time the case was pending. My grandpa's twin brother never has been, nor ever will be, recognized as a "legitimate" Indian.

When the "New" Indians had won their case, the government compensation was to say, "Okay, okay. YOU ARE INDIAN. Go tell Emmett's Indian tribe to share their shit with you." My tribe has to pay the "New" Indians a bunch of money for the government's oversight because they already gave to that charity and they aren't going to give any more.

I asked my mother, "So who actually owns that ranch now?"
She said, "The Government."

Either Grandpa or his father sold the land back to the government and bought the plot of land on a neigboring mountain where my grandpa built the house where he raised his children and where he died in bed. It is the place where I spent much of my youth eating blackberries and running through the woods.

So, my checkered past is this: despite my Indian heritage, despite my pride for my people and my hope for our future, despite my dark skin, eyes and hair, I share blood with an old Indian Killer named Charles who unwittingly passed his land down to an Indian family.

And despite the generalization that Indians are in touch with nature and hold deep respect for the things that live on this great earth, this Indian descends from a line of people committed to cutting down forests to pay the bills. And I, myself, will never feel like I have made my right of passage into manhood until I own my own chainsaw.


Native Minnow said...

There's obviously a lot to comment on with this post, but it would take too long for me to gather my thoughts so I'll just say thanks for telling the story.

Anonymous said...

I always wonder how people feel about their ancestry when it includes someone like Charles. It happened a lot with African-American slaves too...I guess it is just something you recognize as wrong, but live with...

ShootingStar said...

This post was amazing! I love that fact that you are a walking contradiction. Thanks for the great story and the clever ending.