Saturday, June 25, 2016

Katrina Jagodinsky's "Legal Codes and Talking Trees"

Katrina Jagodinsky is the 2015-2017 Harold and Esther Edgerton Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Legal Codes and Talking Trees: Indigenous Women's Sovereignty in the Sonoran and Puget Sound Borderlands, 1854-1946, and reported the following:
Part of Chapter 4: “Juana Walker’s ‘Legal Right As a Half-Breed’: Arizona, 1864-1916,” page 99 describes the vulnerability of Akimel O’odham and other Arizona Indians denied the rights of citizenship. Barred from making economic contracts to secure title to their lands, denied the sanctity of marriage through miscegenation bans, and ignored by federal agents who failed to protect their interests, Akimel O’odham families used creative, and desperate, means to retain individual and tribal claims to the Gila River on the northern edge of the Sonoran Desert.

Sometime before 1873, Juana’s O’odham mother Churga married John D. Walker, an American who served during the Civil War hauling wheat from O’odham fields to supply the Union Army. Churga left John when their daughter was young, died a few years later, and Juana grew up with Mormon guardians even though her father continued to correspond with her and lived nearby until his death in 1891. Juana’s father had accumulated considerable wealth from a silver mine he acquired through the aid of O’odham friends who themselves were unable to exploit mineral claims on their reserved lands. At the age of eighteen in 1892, Juana sued her American paternal uncles for her father’s estate. Her “Legal Right As a Half-Breed” became the sensational question in the case because Arizona territorial law barred inter-racial marriages, made mixed-race children illegitimate heirs of white fathers, and denied Indian claims to mineral rights. Surprisingly, a jury made up of white men agreed that Juana deserved her father’s wealth even as they acknowledged her mixed-race and illegitimate status, showing that not all white Arizonans agreed that Indigenous contributions and claims to family wealth should be ignored. Juana’s uncles appealed the lower court’s ruling, however, and Arizona’s Supreme Court overturned the finding on Juana’s behalf. Having lost her claim, Juana lived a life of poverty until she died in 1916 despite her family’s rich history.

Page 99 explains some of the conditions that made Juana and her mother dependent on men like John D. Walker, and subject to dispossession in territorial Arizona:
Indian agents Ammi White and Levi Ruggles, charged with defending O’odham lands against unscrupulous whites, actually founded Florence and Adamsville on lands just north of the reservation and helped Americans claim uncultivated O’odham lands to the west. Anglo citizens viewed unimproved lands as public domain and registered their plots despite protests from tribal leaders. While [John D.] Walker and other Americans built homes and irrigated fields in the midst of O’odham territory, some diverted water that had fed O’odham crops and then made claims to the military for Indian depredations that stemmed from tribal crop failures…

When the Gila River began to fail in 1870 due to drought and upstream water demands from white farmers, O’odham families found the lands they had used for seasonal harvests and hunting occupied by settler-colonists, so they began to move north toward the Salt River—an area that had not attracted citizens because of its proximity to Apaches, who were feared by many and misunderstood by all. In his role as intermediary between O’odham and Americans, which he would fulfill for another twenty years, [John D.] Walker knew intimately the frustrations of his Indigenous friends and neighbors. By 1870, Juana’s father established his ranch on O’odham land and married his O’odham wife [Churga] in tribal tradition, demonstrating that his service to [O’odham leader Antonio] Azul profited him personally and politically. With little access to capital or contracts, the O’odham used sex and property to reward the citizens who befriended them. Contemporary observers noted that while the tribe struggled to reestablish self-reliance through agriculture on Salt River lands they claimed without federal sanction, some turned to “stealing, begging, and prostituting their women in efforts to survive” the devastation wrought by starvation and sickness. Although outsiders viewed some O’odham practices as prostitution, it is only because the federal and territorial governments barred the O’odham from citizenship, thus waiving Churga’s right to the marriage contract, that her commitment to Walker lacked legal and moral sanctity. Were she and her parents American citizens, Churga might have commanded more respect from Walker’s [American] friends and relatives, and the tribal land that Walker farmed might have been held in her name…
Legal Codes & Talking Trees: Indigenous Women’s Sovereignty in the Sonoran and Puget Sound Borderlands, 1854-1946 includes Juana’s story among five other Native women in Arizona and Washington who similarly used a daunting American legal system to make claims for protection and privileges other Americans took for granted. Some sought inheritance rights like Juana, while others lodged child custody petitions, filed sexual assault charges, and fought to preserve land claims. All bore the brunt of settler-colonialism, a process that relied on legal and violent means to ensure Indigenous dispossession, and all challenged their dispossession in creative and critical ways. Collectively, their histories reveal a long yet generally unacknowledged tradition of Indian women’s active critique of the U.S. legal system.
Learn more about Legal Codes and Talking Trees at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue