This ancient Karuk story is adapted from Leaf Hillman’s account in a compilation of stories about traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) shared at the annual California Department of Water Resources Tribal Water Summit in 2018.
On the Pacific coast, where the redwood forests rise in waves, ridge upon ridge, from the crashing shoreline, “suddenly there appears a light on the mountain.” Hillman explains, “It’s a fire, actually. It’s not just a little fire; it is a lot of fire. For three days prior, six young men have been on top of the mountain, preparing for the fire. At the moment when darkness sets in, on the darkest night, the fire is pushed off the mountain and rolls down the hill. It sets the entire face of the mountain ablaze.”
In late summer the Karuk repeat this up and down the river.
“These fires burn from that time until the fall rains extinguish them. They burn and they crawl across huge areas of the landscape, creating necessary openings, killing the acorn weevils. At the same time, the inversion from the smoke from all these fires sets into the valleys along the river – cooling the Klamath River by two to three degrees, triggering the fall run of the salmon. “
When English pirates arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 and sold 20-32 African slaves (which they had stolen from a Portuguese vessel off the coast of Spanish-controlled Veracruz, Mexico) to the settlers there, it was the first time that a British colony on what was to become US soil enslaved Africans.
I totally get that 1619 is a historical marker that is useful for focusing public attention on the legacy of slavery and the on-going history of discrimination against African Americans. (See this post for how reparations could work.) But there are several other options for historical markers in “US” history. I put “US” in quotes because it did not exist, of course, until over a century and a half later.
If our focus is slavery inflicted by Europeans within US lands, we could possibly go back to 1501, when European slavers off the coast of New England (or maybe Canada) kidnapped native Wampanoag. Or 1511 when Spanish slavers abducted some native Timucua or Ais in Florida, and again in 1513, as well as Calusa in 1513 and Matecumbe in the Florida Keys in 1516 and Tuscarora in South Carolina in 1521. You get the idea. In fact, the enslavement of Native Americans exceeded that of African Americans in US lands until some time in the 1700s. Florida was almost entirely depopulated by English slavers around 1700; the Seminoles of Florida are descended from Creek refugees and arrived from the north afterwards.
Focusing on the enslavement of Africans in the US, the first record is from 1526, 93 years before 1619. The Spanish colonists set up a fort called San Miguel de Guadalupe at Sapelo Sound, Georgia. It was Guale territory at the time. The outpost lasted four months before it was overthrown by their African slaves in concert with the Guale. We know little of what became of the liberated Africans, but it’s clear they did not depart with the fleeing Spanish survivors. We could use this year to mark the 493rd anniversary of African slaves in the US, and at the same time honor the first slave revolt, a successful one at that.
Two years later, in 1528, the Moor slave Estevanico was one of 600 men of the ill-fated Narvaez Expedition to land at Tampa Bay, Florida. Four years later, he was one of four survivors who trekked across the Gulf Coast to Texas and eventually Mexico. He later joined a precursor to Coronado’s attempted invasion of New Mexico, where he was either killed by the Pueblo or defected to them. He was undoubtedly the first African in the Southwest, not to mention the first Muslim in the US.
CLICK TO ENLARGE
The enslavement of Africans to the US got off to a slow start compared to elsewhere in the Americans, where it started in 1492. By 1619, over half a million slaves had been shipped from Africa to the Caribbean and South America.
Looking at the timeline, the history of African slavery got off to a slow start: two short episodes involving a single settlement and a single individual. I can understand not counting them as the true beginning of the enslavement of Africans in the United States.
But in 1565, still a full 54 years before 1619, the Spaniards founded St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest currently-inhabited city in the United States founded by Europeans. As historic sites in St. Augustine attest, enslaved “African Americans helped establish American’s oldest city.” This fully functioning slave market continued thru the Civil War.
So that’s a strange thing to ignore. Why don’t we count 1565 as the start of the enslavement of Africans in the United States? I assume it’s because white America discounts the roles played by Spain and France in their history. Because they weren’t British or didn’t speak English, they are erased like Native Americans. The basic white narrative is this: the land was empty, the British/white Americans came, and then they brought slaves from Africa. The role of the slaves in building the colonies (or tearing them down in the case of San Miguel), and the role of Spain and France in the history of the US, are simply ignored. Florida belonged to Spain and not to England, so it doesn’t count. In a strange way, ignoring the slavery perpetuated by Spanish colonists dismisses non-English people as founders of the US; only the British count.
If we want to be Anglocentric, 1619 wasn’t even the first incident involving African slaves and the British in the United States. That happened in 1586, when Francis Drake dropped off a cargo of several hundred men on a sandbar near the fledgling colony of Roanoke. He had ransacked St. Augustine, absconded with the slaves, and was heading back to England. For reasons unclear, he dumped them as jetsam on a remote beach on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Another English vessel arrived in the area four days later, but found no sign of the men. They had disappeared into the forest and probably sought refuge among the Powhatan.
In reality, both St. Augustine in 1565 and Jamestown in 1619 were tenuous footholds on Native land. In a 2017 article in Black Perspectives and Smithsonian Magazine, Michael Guasco argued that “the most poisonous consequence of raising the curtain with 1619 is that it casually normalizes white Christian Europeans as historical constants… [that the Europeans were] already home. But, of course, they were not. Europeans were the outsiders. Selective memory has conditioned us to employ terms like settlers and colonists when we would be better served by thinking of the English as invaders or occupiers. In 1619, Virginia was still Tsenacommacah, Europeans were the non-native species, and the English were the illegal aliens.” To illustrate the tenuous position of the English in Jamestown in 1619, three years later the Powhatan rose up and killed a quarter (347 of 1,240) of the British colonists in one morning.
All this is to say that British US history should not serve as the benchmark for all US history. Ignoring slavery in Spanish Florida, of course, erases the non-English roots of the US. As Guasco notes, “When we make the mistake of fixing this place in time as inherently or inevitably English, we prepare the ground for the assumption that the United States already existed in embryonic fashion. When we allow that idea to go unchallenged, we silently condone the notion that this place is, and always has been, white, Christian, and European.” And exclusively English.
Palm Springs is Cahuilla territory, specifically the Agua Caliente Band. This was apparent to everyone attending the Tribal Lands and Environment Forum, which is what I was doing there. The Agua Caliente Band were regularly acknowledged and thanked as the host tribe. And they welcomed us with song and dance.
This is a screenshot of their Powerpoint presentation on bighorn sheep restoration, showing their reservation checkboard laid over the mountains and desert.
They have one of the few reservations in the state that was created in the 1800s. It’s big (over 50 square miles) and a bit unique— it’s a checkerboard created by a presidential executive order in concert with a gift of otherwise Cahuilla land to the Southern Pacific Railroad (the squares in the checkboard). It encompasses rugged mountains and canyons and flat desert floor, including a lot of prime real estate in Palm Springs. The history on that and how the tribe managed to keep it is a long and sordid story. Key to the tribe’s success and transition out of poverty was Chairwoman Vyola Olinger and four other women, who became the first all-women tribal council in the nation in 1954. Move over, Marilyn, there are some other powerful women in the history of Palm Springs (see page 60 of Me-Yah-Whae for their story).
It hit 115 degrees when I was there. Historically, the Cahuilla would spend the summer in the cool shade of the palm oases in the canyons, descending to the hot springs on the valley floor in the cooler months.
At the conference, we learned about various initiatives of the Agua Caliente, such as their work with state and federal agencies to double the local population of desert bighorn sheep, and their multi-million dollar museum and cultural center under construction downtown around the hot springs that give both the tribe and the city their names.
Over 500 people from tribes across the continent attended the conference, as well as officials from state and federal agencies.
Ta’Kaiya Blaney (Tla’Amin First Nation) filled the hall with her haunting voice during an evening of cultural presentations. Here’s a snippet.
At the end, the Agua Caliente bid us farewell and safe travels.
My dad, my grandma Fanny Carr, my brother and me (bottom left) outside of my dad’s childhood home in Grove, Oklahoma.
My father was born on a small farm in Delaware County, Oklahoma in 1925. At the time it was one of the poorest counties in the poorest state in the nation. His parents’ birth certificates say “Indian Territory”. His father, my grandfather, died of a heart attack when my father was seven years old. It was 1932, the height of the Great Depression. My grandmother, left to care for six children, had a nervous breakdown and my father was sent off to an aunt’s house. It was a bleak beginning.
As with most of the people in the county, my father was a poor Okie Cherokee, a few generations removed from the Trail of Tears. But he looked white and had a name that sounded white. That was key. He turned 18 in 1943. The US Army timed the mail so that his draft notice arrived on his birthday. He graduated high school, went to Germany, came home, briefly attended the University of Louisville, and then jumped straight to the law school at the University of Southern California thanks to the GI Bill.
After that, he was set. He became a lawyer, married, bought a house in a nice neighborhood, and then I was set. My mom came from an equally poor background, and was of course subject to all kinds of job discrimination because she was woman. But that didn’t matter; my dad had a good job. I went to good public schools, an even better private college, and eventually earned a PhD and got a good job and a house in a nice neighborhood. Furthermore, I stand to inherit my parents’ house, which has increased 3,500% in value since I was born. It’s a textbook American dream story.
The X-factor in this story was the GI Bill. Without that, I’d probably be working at a Walmart in Tulsa. The GI Billprovided college tuition, living expenses, low-cost mortgages and low-interest business loans to nearly ten million white veterans. These benefits were largely denied to people of color. Of 67,000 low-cost mortgages, fewer than 100 went to non-whites. Yet there were about a million non-white veterans.
Today, millions of white people can trace their ascent to the higher socio-economic classes back to the GI Bill. If not that, their forefathers may have received an infusion of good fortune from the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which granted unions the power of collective bargaining, a watershed moment in labor relations that gave white workers power and leverage. That Act, however, allowed unions to exclude people of color, denying them access to better jobs and union protections.
Or perhaps their big break came from the National Housing Act of 1934. This created the Federal Housing Administration, which made home mortgages available to millions of white families. Blacks and others were excluded via redlining, as were Native Americans on reservations. This, more than any other measure, led to the massive racial discrepancy in wealth today. Between 1865 and 1990, African Americans’ share of national wealth grew from 0.5% to 1.0%. This was largely a function of the value of their properties, which have not appreciated like my parents’ house.
Some white people can trace their families’ properties all the way back to the Homestead Act of 1862 (or several later revisions of it), which essentially gave away over 270 million acres of land taken from Native Americans. Nearly all of that went to white settlers. This amounted to about 14% of the Lower 48. Compared to Spanish Latin America, where vast haciendas were granted to a few powerful families, the Homestead Act was remarkably progressive and egalitarian, divvying up the land to 1.6 million white families. Each family received 160 to 640 acres, essentially creating the white middle class.
These laws, some of them considered the bedrock of US public policy, illustrate that the nation was built on the premise that it was created by and for white people. The rest were either second class citizens, support staff, slaves, or not wanted at all. This was not only white privilege, it was welfare, socialism, and affirmative action for whites only.
I posted this picture, which is Psalm 10 in its entirety:
CLICK TO ENLARGE
I introduced it as “A prayer for God to kill @realDonaldTrump”, which Psalm 10 very much seems to be (as well as a prayer for God to “destroy” others who oppress the vulnerable). It is hardly a stretch to say that Trump’s policies regarding Guatemalan refugee families would fit the psalmist’s description of the oppressors.
Such prayers, for God to judge the oppressor, are common in the Old Testament. An important part is that it is not a call for people to kill the wicked; it is asking God to intervene and do so. This is a foundational principle of Christian non-violence, that “vengeance belongs to the Lord”; it is not for us to take. My tweet is a description of a prayer, not a prescription for people.
Within hours, Twitter sent me an email saying that my account had been locked for violating their rules. Specifically, they stated, “You may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. We consider abusive behavior an attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice.”
I’d love to think I was harassing or intimidating Trump. I doubt it, though. But what would exceed that would be if he thought that Psalm 10 applied to him.
As for Twitter’s rules, attempting “to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice” pretty much describes hundreds of Trump’s tweets. Did he get notified by Twitter as well?
On June 18, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom made headlines with an executive order apologizing for a past “war of extermination”, emphasizing the state’s commitment (via AB 52 and executive order) to tribal consultation (including many non-federally-recognized tribes), and establishing a “Truth and Healing Council”.
The coordinated and deliberate genocide of Native Americans in California, largely during the Gold Rush, is one of the most well-documented genocide in history. The state offered bounties, reimbursed vigilante groups (white death squads), and regulated the enslavement of Native children (where girls sold for twice the price of boys). While there are many books on the topic, largely relying on old newspaper accounts, none are more comprehensive than Benjamin Madley’s An American Genocide.
Here’s one story from 1864, related in Kroeber’s book Ishi.
The Northern and Central Yana are already “brought in”, with most of them working as farmhands and domestic workers on farms and ranches in the Sacramento Valley. (Ishi and the related Yahi remain in the hills.)
Two white women are found killed and the ranchers want revenge.
They convene a meeting at Pentz’s Ranch near Oroville and call themselves “guards”. They steal onto farms and ranches, entering barns and homesteads. They look for “Diggers”, as they call the Northern and Central Yana. Reminiscent of Rwanda, they know exactly who has Yana working for them, which ranches, which farms, and where they sleep. In many instances, they know the names of their victims.
They go door to door, farm to farm, ranch to ranch. On Little Cow Creek they shoot down three Yana men working in a barn, against the protestations of the rancher’s wife. Outside of Redding, they tear a girl from the arms of her white employer and slaughter her in the yard. At a ranch house north of Millville, they seek a young maid.
Eliza, come out. We are going to kill you.
The girl replies, Don’t kill me; when you were here I cooked for you, I washed for you, I was kind to you; I never asked pay of you. Don’t kill me now.
But they pull her out of the house, with her aunt and uncle, and pump them full of bullets. They count eleven bullets in Eliza’s breast, and then bash in her skull for good measure, saying, I don’t think that little squaw is dead yet.
The farms of Cottonwood yield twenty more. The largest haul comes at Oak Run, where three hundred Yana had gathered to celebrate the harvest. No one survives.
In the last two weeks of August, the death squads kill nearly all of the two thousand remaining Yana. As one member explained, We must kill them big and little, nits will be lice. The same comment is made at Sand Creek, Colorado, the same year.
Sometime later the pioneer men discover that the two white women had not been killed by Yana after all.
Today, surviving Yana live at the Redding Rancheria, among other places.
Did Europeans deliberately give smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans? Absolutely. There is one proven case and many other suspicious ones. But the largest smallpox outbreak, the one that killed possibly hundreds of thousands of Natives, started during the Revolutionary War. While the war naturally brought people – and the virus – together and then re-distributed them, the virus was also spread when the British army, most of whom had already been exposed to the disease, deliberately tried to infect American colonists with smallpox.
Inoculation and Biological Warfare
They didn’t use blankets; they used each other. Enter Onesimus, an African slave of the Puritan minister Cotton Mather, who taught the colonists sixty years earlier how to inoculate people against smallpox. This practice emanated from Africa and was unknown to Europeans. Inoculation, or variolation, is not quite the same as a vaccination. The skin of a healthy person is deliberately slit and infected with a scab from a smallpox victim. The result is a mild form of the illness, usually not fatal, resulting in lifelong immunity. But the infected person is temporarily contagious, able to pass on the full-fledged form of the disease. This made inoculation controversial; it was banned in some colonies and Mather’s house was burned by an angry crowd when he promoted the practice.
During the Revolutionary War, when under siege in Boston in 1775, the British weaponized their prisoners, inoculating and releasing them. This, along with the comings and goings of the war, led to the largest single smallpox outbreak in North America.
At first, American colonists were skeptical that the British would do this to other white people. But General George Washington became suspicious. He wrote to John Hancock, “The information I received that the enemy intended Spreading the Small pox amongst us, I could not Suppose them Capable of – I now must give Some Credit to it, as it has made its appearance in Severall of those who Last Came out of Boston.”
The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82
The virus spread with the war. It killed 500 American troops outside Quebec, thus preserving Canada as British territory. After that, George Washington secretly inoculated and quarantined his own troops; he viewed this as a critical strategy to win the war. In Virginia, where the British offered freedom to 30,000 escaped African slaves, 90% of the so-called Ethiopian Regiment was wiped out by smallpox. It then spread thru trade and war to the Creek in Pensacola, to the Cherokee on the Holston River, and to the Ojibwe in the Great Lakes.
In August 1779, smallpox appeared in Mexico City, possibly arriving from Spanish-controlled New Orleans. From there, the virus raced up the El Camino Real to Santa Fe, infecting the Pueblo and Hopi. After that, it outpaced European colonists, spreading thru Native trade networks to regions never before exposed to the virus. It passed from the Comanche up the east slope of the Rockies to the Shoshone. On the Great Plains, it especially struck the sedentary farming villages of the Arikara, Mandan, and Osage. Where there were thirty villages before the plague, there are two afterwards. The nomadic Sioux fared better.
From the Shoshone, the virus spread north to the Blackfeet and Cree all the way to Hudson Bay. It also jumped the Continental Divide, struck the Nez Perce, and spread down the Columbia River to the Pacific Northwest. Ten years later, when Captain George Vancouver arrived in Puget Sound, he encountered as many abandoned villages as occupied and described an apparent depopulation. Former villages were overrun with weeds; survivors were pockmarked and sometimes blind in one eye.
Most accounts describe an infection rate exceeding 50%, and a mortality rate, for those infected, approaching 90%. This was largely due to poor care for victims. In regions where no one had immunity from prior exposure, care-givers either became sick or fled. Total population loss for the hardest hit areas often exceeded 60%.
Viruses and indigenous peoples
But that wasn’t the only smallpox epidemic; there were many smaller outbreaks—some before, some after. The common refrain that imported viruses wiped out 90% of the indigenous people of the Americas is probably an exaggeration. At the very least, it did not happen all at once. It did happen in isolated instances—such as at Pawtuxet in 1620, allowing the Pilgrims to establish Plymouth. But most epidemics hopped and skipped thru the land at intervals since the 1500s, missing some areas while conferring immunity to survivors. Additionally, sometimes Native populations rebounded between epidemics. Nevertheless, a massive depopulation of North America did occur at the same time that Native tribes in the US lost their British, French, and Spanish allies. Tribes after the Revolutionary War were left alone, short-handed, to face the new and aggressively expanding United States of America.
The only well-documented instance of Europeans deliberately attempting to infect Native Americans with smallpox occurred in 1763 at Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania. English General Jeffrey Amherst recommended it: “Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among the disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them.” (He now has a town and a prestigious college named after him.)
Colonel Henry Bouquet agreed to implement the plan: “I will try to inoculate the bastards with some blankets that may fall into their hands.”
But, unbeknownst to them, the garrison at Fort Pitt had already done it on their own. A diary written the same day as Amherst’s letter (and well before it would have been received) said: “We gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.” Ecuyer later submitted an invoice stating, “taken from people in the Hospital to Convey Smallpox to the Indians viz; 2 Blankets, 1 Silk Handkerchief.” He wanted to be reimbursed!
The fact that both Amherst and the men at Fort Pitt thought of it independently, and that Bouquet quickly agreed to the plan, suggests that it was a practice all were familiar and comfortable with; it was “a thing”.
In addition to this incident, there are many more stories from tribes who have similar suspicions. By the 1800s, the smallpox vaccination had been created and supplied to many white people in the East. However, Natives were largely unvaccinated and vulnerable.
In 1865, a newspaper in the Sacramento Valley asserted that “the [white] people are enraged against them, and are ready to knife them, shoot them, or inoculate them with smallpox – all of which have been done.”