Saturday, May 8, 2021

Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer's "We Are the Land"

William J. Bauer Jr. is an enrolled citizen of the Round Valley Indian Tribes and Professor of History at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Damon B. Akins is Associate Professor of History at Guilford College, in Greensboro, North Carolina, and a former high school teacher in Los Angeles.

Akins applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, We Are the Land: A History of Native California, and reported the following:
The book is a history of Native California from the time before memory to the present. We organized it chronologically, so page 99 is a glimpse into a specific moment in time—in this case, 1810-1811. The page describes the settlement of the Undersea People at Métini among the Kashaya Pomo and Coast Miwoks. The Undersea People (the Kashaya term for Russian and Aleut traders working for the Russian American Company, so-called because they believed the boats brought the sailors up from under the water where they lived) were major players in the global fur trade and had expanded their territorial control east from Siberia, along the Aleutian Islands and down the coast of present-day Alaska. At that time, Spanish imperial weakness and disinterest in extending its territorial possession north of the San Francisco Bay area left an opening for the Undersea People to push south. In 1811, they founded Fort Ross, approximately 75 miles north of San Francisco. The presence of two European colonial powers in competition and close proximity provided Kashaya Pomo and Coast Miwok peoples with both challenges and opportunities. Encroachment on Native land was a familiar challenge. But the presence of the Undersea People, interested primarily in trade rather than spiritual conversion or large-scale settlement, gave the Kashaya and Miwok Peoples opportunities to leverage trade and labor relations to support their resistance to the Spanish missionaries.

While this story is only a small one in the larger colonial history of California, and an even smaller bit of California Indian history, it is a fairly effective glimpse into the book for a number of reasons. For one, the terminology we use illustrates an important goal of the book. Scholars have long accepted Spanish names for Indigenous People derived from the name of the mission to which Spanish missionaries forcibly removed them. By framing the encounter here as the Undersea People arriving at Métini, rather than the Russians establishing Fort Ross, we resisted the ways that language can naturalize colonialism. We did the same with other Peoples and encounters. We did something similar with the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who gave the name Ishi to the Yahi man who was captured in Oroville in 1911. He described the name as “not genuine, [but] singularly appropriate.” In the book, we often use Big Cheap to refer to Kroeber—the name that Ishi gave him and preferred. Elevating the terminology that Indigenous Californians used to an equal or preferred status compared to the standard terms deployed by scholars is a small but important step toward dismantling settler colonial narratives and their ongoing power to shape our knowledge.

Additionally, the brief excerpt points to the diversity and multivalent nature of California’s colonial history. In this instance, the actors are Kashaya Pomo, Coast Miwok, Undersea People, and Spanish. The fact that the Kashaya and Miwok played the Undersea People and Spanish off each other, and used the resources that the traders provided for their own purposes illustrates one of our fundamental arguments in the book: that Native Californians persisted by selectively adapting, and creatively engaging with a steady stream of colonizers and settlers who sought to impose destructive policies or practices on them. They formed relationships with Russians and Aleuts, they cooperated when that was in their best interests, or resisted when that proved more effective. They demonstrated a particularly fierce kind of cultural resistance that bent rather than broke. They hid but did not disappear. On page 99, they did this with the Undersea People, but opening the book to other pages, the reader would find the pattern repeating itself with the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Americans, and later, California, violent settlers, powerful corporate entities bent on controlling the land, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, heavy-handed progressive Friends of the Indians, the court system, Congress, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Learn more about We Are the Land at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue