Women have always occupied positions of strength and respect across Native America.
For starters, most tribes were matrilineal. This generally meant that when a couple marries, the husband moved into the woman’s town and joined her family. Her brothers, the uncles, oversaw her household and important issues regarding her children; her husband was merely a guest. This afforded women a great degree of protection against abusive men, who could be quickly run out of town by relatives.
This happened, starkly, in several cases involving European fur traders married to Native women. In 1712, an English fur trader among the Yamasee warned his buddies because, in Yamasee society, “the women Rules the Rostt and weres the brichess.”
The power of women extended deep into the political arena, especially in eastern North America. The Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, going back five-hundred years, had a gender-based system of checks and balances: only men could hold office, but only women chose them. The men in power, especially the war chiefs, could be removed from office at any time.
The women’s standards for male political leaders remain high, as described here in the Iroquois Constitution. “Their hearts shall be full of peace and good will and their minds filled with a yearning for the welfare of the people of the Confederacy. With endless patience they shall carry out their duty and their firmness shall be tempered with a tenderness for their people. Neither anger nor fury shall find lodgement in their minds and all their words and actions shall be marked by calm deliberation.”
In the 1600s, Puritan women, consigned to a status akin to indentured servitude, were aware of the powerful political status of their Indigenous counterparts. When Cherokee leader Attakullakulla met with an English negotiating party in 1765, various clan mothers and matriarchs were with him. The English men came alone. Attakullakulla, immediately dubious of their intent to negotiate seriously, asked them, “Where are your women?”
Related to this is the traditional power of judgement and clemency that women had regarding prisoners. It was the women who decided which captives should be killed, traded, or adopted into their homes. In some cases, it was the women, aggrieved and furious over the killing of their children, who tortured captives.
It was women who granted clemency, as in the fictional story regarding Pocahontas asking her father to spare John Smith. (That didn’t really happen. Pocahontas was about ten years old at the time. Smith was spared for strategic reasons and was made to promise fealty to Powhatan.) The story probably emanated from a well-documented case in Florida in 1529, when the wife and daughter of Chief Harriga of the Tocobaga pardoned Juan Ortiz, a Spanish captive. In fact, they rescued him from a torturous death several times and eventually helped him escape.
One of my many-great-grandmothers, Nan-Ye-Hi “Nancy” Ward, Beloved Woman of the Cherokee, is well-known for both her military feats and diplomatic efforts. You can read all about her online – at Wikipedia and at her WikiTree bio page.
Late in her life she passed on her legacy to her daughter, Ka-ti Kingfisher, granddaughter, Jennie Walker, and great-granddaughter, Susannah Fox Taylor. All four of them were among the thirteen women who signed a petition in 1817 to the Cherokee National Council, asking them to not give up any more land to the white men. The council they wrote to included at least one of Nancy Ward’s grandsons (Major John Walker). Years later, John Walker’s son, Jack Walker, would be assassinated after a Council meeting for advocating giving up all lands and moving to Oklahoma.
In the petition, Nancy wrote, “We have raised all of you…. We have understood some of our children wish to go over the Mississippi but this act of our children would be like destroying your mothers. Your mothers, your sisters ask and beg of you not to part with any more of our lands….”
Susannah, Nancy Ward’s great-granddaughter, was only nineteen at the time of this petition. It wasn’t her first letter to be preserved in history. At age twelve she was a student of the Rev. Gideon Blackburn’s missionary school. Desperate for funding, Blackburn wrote a plea for support to President Thomas Jefferson. He included, as Attachment A, a letter from Susannah. Here is a transcription of it.
The Cherokee leaders ignored the women’s petition and signed what became Cessions 23 thru 26 in 1819. It was a slippery slope. By the 1830s, the State of Georgia allowed white pioneers to rob and rape with impunity. They also allocated Cherokee parcels to whites by lottery, so the pioneers were very targeted in their attacks. In 1834, Jennie, now 62, decided to flee to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). Those were difficult years, with the tribe split on whether to stay or go. If they made it to Indian Territory, there were no homes or services waiting for them. Jennie died within a year.
The Trail of Tears
At the time of the Trail of Tears, Susannah was 40 years old with 12 kids, ages 2 to 23, living in what is now Bradley County, Tennessee. On May 26, 1838, Cherokees woke up to troops of the US Army, commanded by General Winfield Scott, entering their cabins and farms. They were rounded up and forced into stockades. By nightfall, white pioneers were stealing their clothing, furniture, and livestock, and moving into their homes. Most of my family members probably ended up at Camp Foster or Camp Worth, at Rattlesnake Springs, just north of present-day Cleveland, Tennessee. According the Wikipedia, “a historical marker once stood near the site.” I guess no more. That’s why these stories must be retold. Hundreds died in those camps before the march west even started.
So many people died at the beginning of the Trail of Tears that the Cherokee Nation argued for permission from the US Army to manage, under contract, our own ethnic cleansing. Of Susannah’s 12 children, three went. Thomas Jefferson (“Jeff”) Parks and Richard Taylor Parks, ages 17 and 15, helped their uncle Richard Fox Taylor in driving wagons. Their older sister, Almira, joined, probably to keep an eye on them. Uncle Richard was in charge of the 11th Detachment, leading over a thousand Cherokees from their homeland to Indian Territory during the winter of 1838-39. In 1814, he was one of hundreds of Cherokees who fought with Andrew Jackson, saving his life.
Meanwhile, Susannah stayed behind. She could do that because her husband, Samuel Parks, was a white man. Samuel nevertheless contracted to provide transport services. (His contract dispute with Cherokee Chief John Ross eventually went to the US Supreme Court – see Parks v Ross, 52 US 362, 1850.)
Of Susannah’s 12 children, seven eventually ended up in Indian Territory, three managed to stay back with her in Tennessee, one died in Nebraska during the California Gold Rush, and one died in Idaho (I have no idea why).
Both of the boys driving the wagons, Jeff and Richard, returned to Tennessee after the trip, but then Jeff went back and settled near his sister in the Goingsnake District (Delaware County today). He married Maria Ann (“Ann”) Thompson, whose family had gone to Indian Territory a year before the Trail of Tears, when Ann was seven.
Thomas and Ann settled near what is now Jay, Oklahoma. Their first child, Susan Parks, was born in 1848. She is my great grandmother, the mother of my grandma Fannie Carr. In her older years, she lived with Fannie and was thus that grandma who lived with my father when he was a child. When I was child in California, my grandma Fannie lived with us for a while. When my dad was seven, his father died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving Fannie to raise six boys during the Great Depression in one of the poorest counties in the nation.
These are my grandmothers – warriors, fighters, survivors.
I listened to the oral arguments in Brakeen v Haaland. I heard your question:
“but why — why is it rational [to foster a child in the home of someone from another tribe, as a third-tier option]? Before the arrival of Europeans, the tribes were at war with each other often, and they were separated by an entire continent. And I — I don’t know how many cultural similarities you would identify if you compared a tribe in Florida with a tribe in Alaska.”
Let me help you.
First of all, given your grave responsibility, you should already know your shit. You should know why it’s rational. You’re in a position of power, dressed in a black robe with a group of eight others like a cloister of priests arguing over the interpretation of a holy scripture, and your decision will impact the lives of millions. To the extent you have jurisdiction over us, we are your people, your constituents, just as much as the Brakeens are. It seems the Brakeens lives and struggles you can imagine, but not so much with us. Work harder.
Your knowledge of history should run a little deeper than what the Declaration of Independence says: “the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” In this description, the Founding Fathers were wrong.
So, to answer your question, let’s unpack your statement.
First, the tribes were not “at war with each other often”. We should start with the word “war”, which was understood much differently in North America than in Europe. The majority of conflicts between Native American tribes were tit-for-tat killings and kidnappings of a few people. This followed a certain etiquette, with revenge carried out by the aggrieved family or clan.
You might be thinking of Europe. In the 1600s, Europe experienced several dozen wars between nation-states, at least thirteen of these resulting in thousands dead. The Franco-Dutch War saw 342,000 killed in action; the Great Turkish War between the Ottoman and Holy Roman Empires saw 384,000 killed in action; and the Nine Year’s War between France and most others saw 680,000 killed in action. In North America, large scale national wars, with large battles and hundreds of dead, were extremely rare. When the Puritans massacred the Pequot women and children at Mystic River, the Mohegan and Narragansett were appalled by the savagery, exclaiming, “Mach it, mach it! [Stop it!] For it slays too many.”
Yes, there were traditional rivalries and conflicts, but there were also vast confederations and alliances. The Comanche and Ute and Shoshone are connected, as are the Creek (Muskogee) and Seminole. The Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa are the Anishinaabeg. They have a history of partnership with the Ho-Chunk, Miami, Lenape, and Shawnee. The Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk are the Iroquois (or Haudenosaunee) Confederacy, the Five Nations. Later, when the English drove them out, they took in their relatives, the Tuscarora, and became the Six Nations. The Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota Sioux often lived together. Intermarriages between these allies are widely known. Both historically and now.
Today, not only are mixed inter-tribal families common, but many reservations are also mixed, having been created as concentration camps holding multiple tribes. Today it is this mixture, not the tribe, that is often the federally recognized entity. Take, for example, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, a federally recognized “tribe” that includes the Sinixt, Chelan, Colville, Entiat, Nespelem, Okanagan, Methow, Sinkiuse-Columbia, Nez Perce, Palus, San Poil, and Wenatchi tribes. Other tribes (e.g. the Lakota) are spread across multiple reservations, with each of those recognized as separate legal tribes.
Cultural similarities across all of Indian Country really started during the internment era, because we were all thrown together and had a common enemy: the United States. My own family is Cherokee, but one of my great-grandmas, born in Indian Territory just after the Trail of Tears, married a Choctaw man in the early 1880s. As early as 1889, the Ghost Dance movement, a spiritual revival, started among the Northern Paiute and spread to reservations across the West. Today, members of hundreds of tribes participate together in powwows, large cultural gatherings, each year. We meet each other, we marry each other, we have kids together, creating a pan-Indian culture. This has been going on for centuries, but especially in the last hundred years.
But it’s not just marriages and culture and dances that unite us. It’s also common cause. When the Dakota Access Pipeline was re-routed from Bismarck to Standing Rock and approved without tribal consultation or even an EIS, over a hundred tribes went to support the Standing Rock Sioux. This was likely the largest single gathering of Native Americans in history. So thank you in unifying us.
Perhaps our single most unifying factor is dealing with the federal government. This includes you, SCOTUS. For an education in our experience vis-à-vis your court, I recommend “In the Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided” by Walter Echo-Hawk. If there’s one document that unifies us, that puts all tribes in the same boat, that confines us to similar experiences in the modern world, it’s the Constitution of the United States. It treats us as “the Indian tribes” and thus confines us to a maze of contradictory SCOTUS decisions over time, most often decided by people like you who have never lived east of the Appalachians. You don’t know us at all.
So back to your question, what are the similarities among tribes across the country? Besides genocide, ethnic cleansing, internment, boarding schools, discrimination, political battles against states, forced sterilization, resource exploitation, poverty, diabetes, suicide, and child removal (which is addressed by ICWA). I suppose resilience, determination, family connections, love, and laughter. And powwows, frybread, the three sisters (corn, beans, and squash), Reservation Dogs, actual rez dogs, navigating the Indian Health Service, etc. All tribes are unique, but we are connected – culturally, experientially, and legally. My point is simply that tribes – and Native families – across the nation have a lot more in common with each other than they do with non-tribal families. We are part of a nationwide community we call Indian Country.
Remember, I’m doing this to help you. Get out; do some site visits. They answer a thousand questions you never thought to ask. Check out Colville, Chinle, Tahlequah, Red Lake, or Cannon Ball. Go to a powwow.
Lest one think the White Savior Industrial Complex is a recent development, Christians have been rescuing Navajo babies from their families for centuries. And the Supreme Court is considering it again.
It started with the Spaniards, but continued thru Mexican independence and the US conquest of New Mexico. They called them rescates, rescues. Like puppies at the pound, only they raided villages. The first known reference is from 1705, though the practice surely started up to a hundred years earlier. Spain always wanted a “fresh supply of infidels”. Historians track the abducted Navajo children by church baptismal records, because the captured were baptized, sometimes before they were put up for sale in the Santa Fe market, sometimes later by the family who bought them.
In peace negotiations between the Navajo and the Spaniards, the children were never included in prisoner exchanges, because they were baptized. The Spaniards considered them Christians and would not abandon them to heathens.
In 1776, “an Indian girl from twelve to twenty years old” fetched the highest price, two good horses. Wealthy New Mexican men, before marriage, would go on “bachelor party” raids to capture Navajo women and children to serve as domestic servants, gifts for their new brides.
In 1823, New Mexican Governor José Antonio Vizcarra explained, the slave raids were necessary “in order to attain this goal that the faith of Jesus Christ be propagated and that we complete with the perfect attribute of Christians the reduction of an infidel nation to the fold of the Catholic Church.”
This fits perfectly subpart e of the Geneva Convention definition of genocide: “genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: … e. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
In 1852, just a few years after the American annexation of the Southwest, an American in Santa Fe reported, “I have frequently seen little children eighteen months to six years of age led around the country like beasts by a Mexican who had probably stolen them from their mother not more than a week [before] and offered for sale from forty to one hundred and twenty dollars.” The practice of keeping indigenous children as slaves continued in New Mexico even after the Civil War.
It wasn’t just Catholics. Mormons got into the act as early as 1847. They organized slave raids. Brigham Young endorsed the purchase of Native children to “civilize” them. He defended the practice to the Office of Indian Affairs, stating that “very many children are taken into families and have all the usual facilities for education afforded other children.” He thought that makes abducting children okay. He had a Shoshone-Bannock slave, though he never taught her to read or write.
Tactics changed from violent slave raids to bureaucratic and legal maneuvers to separate Navajo children from their parents via foster care and adoption.
Important backstory: the Mormons considered Native Americans to be Lamanites, the barbarians who killed all but the last Mound Builder. In 1960, Mormon leader Spencer Kimball spoke of the adopted Native children among them, “The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised (2 Nephi 30:6). The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation. There was the doctor in a Utah city who for two years had had an Indian boy in his home who stated that he was some shades lighter than the younger brother just coming into the program from the reservation. These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and to delightsomeness.”
Racial fantasies aside, the predominant argument, of course, was that the children were better off in a white Christian home than in a Navajo home.
In addition to generations of child abduction to forced labor and re-education camps (i.e. boarding schools) and forced sterilization (up to 25% of Native women in the 1970s), too many Native families have stories of social workers pulling up to the house, their children running to hide. In 1978, when it was learned that a third of all Indigenous children in the US had been removed from their homes and placed with white families, the US Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). This made Native relatives and foster parents a priority placement for Native children.
But this hasn’t stopped white evangelicals.
As described by Rebecca Nagle in Season Two, Episode Four (Supply and Demand) of her podcast, This Land, one judge in Arizona, who personally disagrees with ICWA, will sign papers allowing Native children to be adopted by white parents. The podcast describes an illegal Arizona-to-New Hampshire Native baby pipeline occurring right now, with lawyers in both states, as well as adoption agencies, deliberately violating ICWA.
Samuel Alito has already written about the “domestic supply of infants”. Amy Comey Barrett, John Roberts, and Clarence Thomas have five adopted children between them. The White Savior Industrial Complex is in motion.
We were taking my one-year-old grandson to the local YMCA to go swimming. It’s the only public pool in town. My wife was doing a shift as lifeguard, helping to keep the pool open as they struggled to find enough staff.
By the way, they told her, they were expecting some kind of small protest out front, stemming from an incident with an angry customer a week earlier—some kind of confrontation regarding a transwoman in the women’s locker room.
At 11:30am I found myself out front talking to the woman at the center of the controversy. She was the only protester, standing alone with a sign that read, “Men Who Identify As Women Are Using The Women’s Shower/Dressing Room.” She had a clipboard with a petition.
I was the first person to walk up to her. She relayed a story about the vulnerability of women, the need to feel safe, and the fear she felt when she was naked in the shower and heard a man’s voice. Then, she said, she saw a man, in the shower, staring at little girls who were changing. Her story sounded positively creepy. How can this be? she wondered.
I had already been briefed a little. The state law, since 2016, allows transgender people to use the bathroom and locker room of their choice. The Y had been following this law since then. This woman had also been swimming there since then. When I asked her what solution she wanted, she said that was up to the Y.
A few other people joined the “protest” on both sides: a “journalist” from the “Port Townsend Free Press”, another woman with a sign that said “Women’s Rights”, and a few LGBTQ supporters.
As more Y supporters arrived with detailed knowledge of the incident, it soon became clear that the woman’s initial story left out some key details.
I learned, for example, that the transwoman (between her freshman and sophomore years in college) was actually a Y staff member doing their job, shepherding two girls in the youth program thru the locker room with another staff member.
It also came out that the transwoman was not naked or showering at the time (though, legally, she could have been).
And it came out that the woman had so verbally assaulted the staff member – demanding, in front of the little girls, if she had a penis – that the Y had evicted and banned her from the premises. The Y would later add that this was not the first time the woman had violated their policies.
At this point my son’s girlfriend, at the Y with our family, provided an observation of moral clarity. She said, “This woman is not having this discussion in good faith.”
A few more people came. The discussion deteriorated from our original faux search for common ground to agree-to-disagree to name-calling.
The police, whose station is fifteen feet away in the adjacent building, had left their doorway and gone back inside. We left.
The “journalist’s” article came out in the “Port Townsend Free Press”, a right-wing blog that poses as a legitimate newspaper. At the protest, he portrayed himself as a real journalist, asking people if they’d like to “make a statement.”
The article tells the story from the woman’s point of view, in great detail, with many paragraphs emphasizing women’s safety. The premise of the argument is that they have a reasonable fear that a transwoman could be a sexual predator, or could be a man posing as a transwoman simply to get access to the women’s locker room to attack women. The article was also dismissive of the concept of transgender people in general, continuing to use male pronouns for transwomen. Their strategy was clear: to use women’s safety as a wedge issue, pitting two marginalized groups, women and transgender people, against each other.
An online search revealed that these talking points, employing the “vulnerable women” wedge issue, even describing right-wing activists as “feminists”, is a nationwide strategy of the far right. It appears that this argument was simply regurgitated here as if they had just thought of it.
It isn’t the first time that public swimming pools and women’s safety have been at the center of controversy. In the 1960s, public pools across the southern US were closed, even filled with dirt, rather than integrate. Thus was born the private country club and the gated community.
The woman in the locker room also played the naïve granny card, asking for help in understanding our changing societal culture. I don’t know if she was honest about that, but I’ll reply anyway. I get it, that human culture is changing, probably at an exponential rate. I struggle to keep up, and my kids can tell you my deficiencies. I would recommend to the woman from the locker room – and to anyone struggling with what is or is not socially acceptable – the words that a trainer once said to me when I worked at a homeless shelter. “If you forget all of our policies and principles,” he said, “just remember this: Be kind.”
If you don’t understand transgender people, if you don’t know any LGTBQ people, if you struggle to use the right pronouns, just relax and be kind. Most humans are nice. Most will respond positively to kindness. It is that simple.
There was a city council meeting that night. While the issue at hand involves the YMCA and a state law, the city owns the property. So they took public comment on the matter. I heard it was heated, with lots of public comment on both sides. Apparently the NextDoor email chat was similar. I should watch the whole meeting and read all the emails before I write about it, but I just don’t have the stomach for it. One thing about hate – it’s exhausting.
There were more protests the following days, which drew a few more people. I heard that Y supporters were always in the majority.
About this time, the Y began getting increasing numbers of angry phone calls and even death threats. These actually started before the first protest, suggesting they emanated from the protest planners, at least at first.
The Y shut down today. No swimming. Two staff members went in early to check the pool chemicals. In the brief time they were there, at 7 o’clock in the morning, they answered the phone twice. Both were angry calls or threats.
Here is the Y’s statement:
We have made the difficult decision to close the Jefferson County YMCA/Mountain View Pool for the remainder of the week. We apologize for any inconvenience. Not only have we been struggling with a shortage of staff but we have also been working to navigate the stress of receiving countless harassing and disturbing phone calls, voicemails, and emails – most of which have been from outside of the community.
In the midst of this really challenging time, the overwhelming response in support of our Y and in support of being an inclusive, welcoming place for all has given us hope. We are so grateful!
We plan on seeing you next week!
I get that closing for a week is a reasonable strategy to calm things down and wait until it blows over – and to possibly forestall a violent attack. But it’s still a concession to mob rule, allowing a kind of street Taliban to override state laws.
Eight days after the first protest and threats, and there still hadn’t been a single news article about the situation from a reputable news source. Many in Port Townsend hadn’t heard a thing about it. But the story was going viral in far-right circles, generating death threats from all over the nation.
Here is where the story showed up this past week. These are all right-wing sources or tabloids. It isn’t hard to figure out where it all started. Most of the articles quoted the “Free Press” article verbatim and used its photographs.
Day 2: Port Townsend Free Press
Day 4: The Distance
Day 4: Port Townsend Free Press (another story), The Post Millennial
Day 5: Fox News (Laura Ingraham), Ben Shapiro (via Twitter), Daily Wire, KOMO News, KIRO Dori Monson Show
Day 7: Outkick
Day 8: Fox News, Behind the Line, KTTH, The Daily Mail (UK) (and apparently other UK right-wing outlets)
The right-wing press wasn’t limited to blogs and the resulting death threats; it included harassment of local social media groups. New members started joining local community Facebook groups, linking these right-wing stories. Their Facebook pages were filled with memes saying things like “My pronouns are Fuck and You” and “This is Murica, Bitches.”
Does this happen with every story that Dori Monson or Ben Shapiro or Fox News or the PT Free Press covers?
Finally, on Day 8, an unbiased story appeared in a regular newspaper that follows professional journalistic standards: The Peninsula Daily News. (This story is hyperlinked.) The article provides a balanced review of the incident, but does not include the closure of the pool, as that announcement likely came after it went to press.
Finally, the Port Townsend Leader reported on the incident. The paper only comes out once a week. The story had just missed their press deadline earlier. It provided important framing of the incident, with perspectives from the Y, the police, and the mayor, as well as from the woman.
Here’s a quote from Mayor David Faber from the city council meeting, “Port Townsend is a welcoming community, and hate and discrimination have no place in this community. LGBTQ people, trans people in particular in this case, are entitled to basic respect, and they have not been receiving that in much of the commentary tonight, calling them ‘pedophiles’ and ‘rapists’ and ‘predators.’”
Our mayor started getting death threats.
I’ve yet to hear of any of these people trying to change Washington’s state law.
This evening, in the place where we usually have free concerts at the waterfront park across the street from city hall, there were dueling protests. I arrived after it was in full swing. The city police were augmented by state police. They had the street shut down. About four Antifa-wannabes, some about high school age, were dressed in full black, with masks and walkie-talkies and clubs. The cops followed them around. The atmosphere was festive, except in the front row, where it was argumentative. Approximately ten anti-trans protesters, with a Charlie Brown PA system, were speaking about sexual assaults and the danger that transwomen pose to women. Approximately three-hundred pride activists were chanting and singing to drown them out.
Only seventy people were allowed in the city council chambers. It was all performative, with no legal meaning, because the issue in contention is a state law. Nevertheless, the city council unanimously picked up the baton, supported the local trans population, and adopted this remarkable proclamation.
P R O C L A M A T I O N
WHEREAS, Washington state law protects the rights of transgender people to be free from discrimination and to enjoy all the privileges and protections granted to all people, including full enjoyment of public accommodations, employment, and participation in all aspects of civil life; and
WHEREAS, the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law study found that transgender people 16 and over are four times more likely to be crime victims than cisgender people; and
WHEREAS, half of all transgender people are sexually abused or assaulted during their lifetimes according to the US Department of Justice; and WHEREAS, PBS News Hour reported that 2021 was the deadliest year for transgender people with a record number of transgender murder victims; and
WHEREAS, the FBI reported that hate crimes against transgender and gender nonconforming people increased 587% between 2013 and 2019; and
WHEREAS, the Williams Institute reports that 40% of transgender adults have attempted suicide in their lifetimes, 30% of transgender youth have attempted suicide in the last year, and transgender individuals are at a higher risk of suicide due to family rejection and discrimination; and
WHEREAS, Vanderbilt University found that transgender people are 11% less likely to have jobs than comparably situated cisgender men; and
WHEREAS, National Women’s Law Center reports that transgender individuals are twice as likely to live in poverty as the general US population; and
WHEREAS, many transgender people raise children, have grandchildren, and are the center of loving families;
NOW, THEREFORE, I, David J. Faber, Mayor of the City of Port Townsend, do hereby proclaim that the City of Port Townsend values our transgender residents and visitors and urges all residents and visitors to be respectful, welcoming, and kind to everyone regardless of gender identity. I further proclaim that discrimination and prejudice, in any form, particularly against transgender people, are unwelcome and have no place in the City of Port Townsend.
I heard that, among the public speakers at the city council meeting, all but one supported the Y.
The entire city council began to get death threats.
The pool opened today. The transwoman who was targeted in the original incident has gone back to college; this was only a summer job for her.
A little more on the angry calls and death threats. They continue to pour into the Y – over a hundred each day. The threat calls are turned over to the police, but apparently they come from burner phones, often from faraway places like Kentucky or Georgia.
Our friend from a suburb near Seattle told me her local high school got death threats after school administrators pivoted away from a “red, white, and blue” theme for a high school football game. That seemed to start with one angry parent and the Dori Monson show.
I searched the Y’s phone number on the internet. After a page and a half of the various services offered by the Y – youth camps, family camps, health workshops, job training, etc. – these two Twitter accounts came up, instructing people to harass the Y:
I’м Иот Д Яцssiди Бот (@BOTomatic_S854)
Os Durman (@DurmanOs)
I reported them both for “online harassment”, one of Twitter’s no-no’s. Twitter makes it extremely difficult to report someone like this. I had to specify the offending tweet in a small pop-up box that scrolled thru tweets a few at a time. But the offending tweets were two or three weeks ago, and these people post a hundred times a day. I gave up. Twitter said they didn’t violate any policy. Then I tweeted the issue directly to Twitter, where I could explain the harassment more clearly, cc’ing my local congressman. Twitter responded saying they had blocked Os Durman after all.
But now I see he’s back with a non-stop stream of trans hate, probably leading to more death threats somewhere else. I feel sorry for that community.
Today the woman from the original incident gave an interview in the pool parking lot to a “film crew”. They then came into the YMCA, filming, asking to go into the locker rooms to film. They were denied. The police – still fifteen feet away in the adjacent building – were called to escort them out. No video-taping signs are now up everywhere.
The Port Townsend Leader came out today. Remember those dueling protests from Day 21? It turns out the anti-trans group claims they were physically and sexually assaulted during it. I was there. It seemed like a non-violent, albeit angry, protest to me. When one of the anti-trans people dropped their sign, I gave it back to them. It was that kind of atmosphere, at least where I was standing.
The police also said they were there – in force – and didn’t observe assaults of that nature. The right-wing side said they are considering suing the police department over it.
The woman apparently appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show, now attacking the local police department. They are getting death threats now too.
The Leader article closes with a hair-raising paragraph. The city has granted a permit to Robert Zerfing of Vancouver, Washington for a protest in Port Townsend. I looked him up online: Proud Boys; says the young woman who was hit by a car and killed at the Charlottesville, Virginia Neo-Nazi riot in 2017 actually died of a heart attack; says he would support Adolf Hitler, etc. He’s so bad that the local Trumpers, the ones who started this whole thing, “have disavowed the event, stating they disapproved of the date, format, language, and messaging of the protest.” That’s a relief – they draw the line somewhere, somewhere between death threats and Nazi rallies.
Seriously, it is a relief. This is a battle between a former ruling class that is losing influence due to demographic and societal changes. And they aren’t going out with a whimper. If they had more support, say in a more Red area, maybe they would openly support the Proud Boys. But somehow they’ve concluded that would tarnish their image.
I don’t know if there are any plans for a counter protest. Given that the local right-wingers are disavowing them, perhaps the best response is the cold shoulder. Obviously they are coming here to provoke. If they wanted a solution, they’d go to Olympia to petition for a change in the law. Or they’d hold a bake sale and raise money for better shower curtains. But I suspect they didn’t even consider those options.
Like the January 6 insurrection, we are somewhere between Rwanda, where private militias massacred thousands while the police and army looked the other way, and a small group of radicals that will fade in the face of civil society and democratic institutions. Or get locked up. For now democratic society is winning, but the mere fact that there are now militias that are household names, and that death threats have become a common political tool, is disconcerting. Extremely disconcerting. Because it means that small group of radicals is getting larger.
If laws are broken, these people must be prosecuted. Those who promulgate the death threats must be named, confronted, and arrested if warranted.
As for the rest of us, when in doubt, be kind.
The Proud Boys came, only eighteen of them, and they were forced by their permit to remain inside a small chained link enclosure, sort of like a playpen. Hundreds gathered outside around them and blew bubbles. And then this sordid chapter ended, at least for now.
As the American Ornithological Society (AOS) contemplates changing potentially dozens of English bird names to names more representative of the bird, and more inclusive of our society, many have voiced interest in and support of indigenous bird names.
This post is a deeper dive into that topic. Its primary audience is me. I’ve been invited to participate in AOS’s ad-hoc committee to come up with the process to change bird names, and this topic came up already at our first meeting. I’m trying to learn more about it. The second audience are Native birders or biologists that have thoughts about this. Please contact me or add to the discussion in the comments. I really want that. The final audience is the larger public, just so everyone is aware of the issues.
Types of indigenous bird names
Indigenous bird names could mean several different things:
The actual name of the bird in an indigenous language
We have many examples of this from Hawaii – the `i`iwi, `elepaio, and ‘amakihi, etc. On the mainland, sora, condor, ani, kiskadee, and tanager are indigenous names (more on that below). I’ve heard that chickadee (and possibly towhee) may be derived from the Cherokee tsigili’I, or they may simply be independent attempts to mimic the bird’s call (an onomatopoeia), like killdeer or chachalaca. In the mammal world, raccoon, moose, and skunk are all derived from Algonquin words.
An English translation of an indigenous name
Another option is to take the meaning of the indigenous name and translate it into English. For example, the Iñupiaq word for Steller’s Eider is Igniquaqtuq. This translates to “duck that sat in the campfire”, a reference to its dark orange underparts. An anglicized form of the name would be Fire Eider or Campfire Eider. The AOS’s task is, after all, to revise English bird names. This name is English, but derived from an indigenous name.
A name using an indigenous word
The recently described Inti Tanager in South America is an example of this. A bright orange-yellow bird, Inti refers to the Incan sun god. Another example is the Montezuma Quail, referencing its range centered in Mexico. The Steller’s Eider version of this might use the actual Iñupiaq word for the bird, such as Igniquaqtuq Eider.
A name based on the name of a tribe
Examples would be Aztec Thrush and Inca Dove. The Norwegians eschew most American honorifics in their names for American species. Bendire’s Thrasher is navahospottefugl, or Navajo Thrasher; Cassin’s Sparrow is apasjespurv, or Apache Sparrow; and Brewer’s Sparrow is shoshonespurv, or Shoshone Sparrow.
Current bird names with indigenous roots
There are several North American birds that currently have English or Latin names with indigenous roots. Almost all of these names come from south of the US border, indicative of a different social dynamic when they were described by Europeans.
Birds with English names derived from indigenous words
Sora – derived from “soree” based on its call, from the Virginia region, so probably an Algonquin-based name.
California Condor – Condor is a Quechuan word.
Montezuma Quail – Montezuma is derived from Moctezuma, the last ruler of the Aztec Empire, and now widely used as a surname in Mexico.
Inca Dove – After the people group from Peru, though the species’ range is primarily in Mexico. Possibly intended to be Aztec Dove?
Ani – The Tupi name for the species. The Tupi were one of the most numerous peoples of pre-colonial Brazil. They are related to the Güaraní.
Kiskadee – The Tupi nickname for the species.
Aztec Thrush – After the people group from Mexico.
Tanager – The Tupi word for various colorful songbirds.
Birds with Latin names derived from indigenous words
Snowy Egret – thula is Araucano for Black-necked Swan, applied to the egret in error.
Roseate Spoonbill – ajaja is the Tupi name for the species.
Limpkin – guarauna is the Tupi name for the species.
Emperor Goose – canagica is said to derive from an island and people group in the Aleutian chain, though there is no island by that name or a similar name.
Franklin’s Gull – pipixcan is Nahuatl (Aztec) for gull.
Great Kiskadee – Pitangus is the Tupi name for the family.
Green Jay – yncas refers to Inca. The southern part of their range includes the lands of the Incan Empire.
Tropical Parula – pitiayumi is the Güaraní name for the species.
Hepatic/Summer/Scarlet/Western/Flame-colored Tanager – Piranga, the genus name, is the Güaraní word for various colorful songbirds.
Whatever route a future naming committee takes, there are two issues to keep in mind:
Bird ranges and indigenous lands do not map perfectly to each other.
This is immediately apparent to most. There are over 500 federally-recognized tribes in the United States, and hundreds more terminated and fighting for re-recognition, or never recognized at all. Bird ranges typically cover the traditional lands of many tribes.
Taking an example from above, the range of the Brewer’s Sparrow, called the Shoshone Sparrow in Norwegian, is indeed centered on traditional Shoshone lands. At least the breeding population. But it also includes some Paiute, Umatilla, Walla Walla, Salish, Blackfoot, Crow, Cheyenne, Lakota, Arapaho, Ute, and Navajo land – and others. The wintering grounds are centered on Tohono and Hia-Ced O’odham, Cochimi, Apache and other lands. This is a typical situation. Not that Shoshone Sparrow is a poor name. It’s probably the best fit if you needed to choose one tribe. And we do have California Condor, California Gull, Carolina Wren, Oregon Junco, Tennessee Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, and many others who do not really fit the territory of their name. But those are all misnomers. It seems to me the range/territory should be a tight fit to go this route.
This type of name could be considered for species with a very limited range. Gunnison Sage-Grouse, for example, fits entirely within Ute lands, with no overlap to other lands (as best I can tell). While Gunnison is a “second-order” honorific (that is, named after a place named after a person), it could accurately be called Ute Sage-Grouse.
And I’m not even including one important caveat. Just like in Europe, lands and territories of different people groups have shifted through history. All those maps you see of traditional native lands (this is one of the better sources), those are just snapshots in time.
In some cases, focusing on language may be easier. Many adjacent tribes descend from the same language group, and thus words in their languages may be very similar. Algonquian-based languages, for example cover much of the Midwest and Northeast.
After years of being subject to external government and academic studies, many resulting in insulting and incorrect stereotypes, tribes have an expression: “Nothing about us without us.” For government entities, it’s a legal requirement. If you’re going to do anything about or involving a tribe, talk to them first. Most tribes have a department of natural resources, or something similar, which would be a good starting point. They will direct you to the right people.
In the majority opinion of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, the Supreme Court relied upon social and historical mores in the 18th and 19th century to interpret the US Constitution. Because Roe v. Wade, they argued, relied upon the 14th amendment from 1868, why not rely on the social standards of that era? White Christian male social standards, when women couldn’t vote. The same standards that described Native Americans as “merciless Indian savages” in the Declaration of Independence.
The Court’s attack on women
In their thinking, the Constitution, while conferring a right to have a gun, confers no right to “privacy”, by which they mean basic personal autonomy to make life decisions regarding sex, marriage, or your own body.
To quote the Supreme Court’s approach, “The Court finds that the right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition.” They did not let the nation’s diverse and multi-cultural history slow it down; they focused exclusively on the dominant white male society of the 1800s.
Using astounding Orwellian political-speak, the Court went on, “In interpreting what is meant by ‘liberty,’ the Court must guard against the natural human tendency to confuse what the Fourteenth Amendment protects with the Court’s own ardent views about the liberty that Americans should enjoy.” Apparently there’s a difference between the 14th amendment and the Court. And the Court doesn’t think that bodily autonomy is one of the liberties that Americans should enjoy, even if it can be found in the 14th amendment.
First, they subject the interpretation of the Constitution to life centuries ago, then they limit that history to a Eurocentric perspective. This is both erasure of other peoples’ histories and white supremacy – the notion that the US is exclusively for white Christian Europeans (in the 1800s). Swept under the rug are Jewish, Asian, Native and any other traditions that accept abortion, though this nation is filled with these peoples too. Perhaps if the Court considered other cultural traditions, or if they just focused on common sense inalienable rights to bodily autonomy, their list of liberties for us would have been longer.
The Court now threatens to plunge the US into a kind of theocratic totalitarian regime reminiscent of the fictional Republic of Gilead in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid‘s Tale.
The Court’s attack on Native sovereignty
For a few days after the Dobbs ruling, there were questions as to whether abortion could still be available in red states on Native reservations. Native legal experts explained that, indeed, access to abortion could be available on reservations, but subject to these restrictions (all functions of US attacks on Native sovereignty):
Because of the Hyde Amendment in 1980, no federal funds, including the Indian Health Service or its facilities, could be used.
Because of Public Law 280 (PL 280) in 1953, certain states had the right to apply state laws to sovereign Native land. These states include the red states of Nebraska and Alaska, and possibly Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah, depending on how they categorize abortion.
The patient would probably have to be a tribal member.
All this meant that, really, tribes could only offer abortion care to their own people on their own land using their own funds. At present, no such services exist. Native women on reservations have essentially been living in a post-Roe world forever, forced to travel hundreds of miles for abortion services.
Five days after the Dobbs ruling, the Supreme Court added to the list of obstacles:
4. The care providers have to be tribal members as well.
In Oklahoma v Castro-Huerta, the Court dramatically peeled back native sovereignty, basically extending PL 280 to every state, allowing states to come in and apply their laws on Native trust lands, at least to non-native perpetrators. The Court allowed tribal governments “concurrent” jurisdiction, meaning that a tribe may prosecute a non-Native person (say, a sexual predator) on Native land. But the ruling also means that a state may now reach into a reservation and prosecute someone for an act that is illegal in the state but perfectly legal on the reservation (say, a doctor providing an abortion, or a non-Native member of a business selling fireworks). Thus, the Supreme Court essentially usurped the role of Congress and also plugged an important loophole in their abortion ruling.
Ironically, the very people that the Founding Fathers deemed merciless savages respected women and gave them tremendous political power. Since the 1400s the Haudenosaunee (aka Iroquois) constitution established an elaborate balance of power among the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk, and between men and women. Men held positions of leadership, but only women could vote. Much of this balance continues to this day. The white suffragist women in the US were cognizant of the enormous gap between the authority of and respect for Native women in Native societies, and their own plight in the colonies, where they were essentially reduced to property of their husbands.
Throughout much of the US, many tribes gave women the right to offer clemency and pardon captives. The mythical story of Pocahontas sparing John Smith from execution comes from this. (In reality, she was only ten years old at the time. Smith was actually spared because he promised to be a vassal of the Chief Powhatan Wahunsenaca.)
Most tribes were matrilineal, frustrating British fur trader’s who married Native women in the 1700s. They typically moved into Native towns where, they reported, “the women Rules the Rostt and weres the brichess.” Abusive husbands were run out of town by their wives’ relatives.
Traditional Native societies respect women, give them political authority, and traditionally allowed for abortion. Since the Middle Ages, European men have deemed their own women the inferior gender, mindless property of men. Women in the US were not allowed their own credit cards until 1970. When it came to Black or Native women, European men had them bred like cattle, sterilized, or their children taken from them and sold or adopted out to white families. All the Native women depicted in murals in the Capitol Rotunda are either captive or threatened with rape. As recently as the 1970s, a quarter of Native women were sterilized, many without consent, and a third of Native children were removed from their homes and sent to live with white families, perpetuating the breakup of families and forced child labor and re-education camps known as boarding schools. At least in their suffering, Indian Reservations mirrored the Republic of Gilead.
I remember when I was in 5th grade Jimmy Carter had won the election, famously describing himself as a “born again” Christian. He was a Democrat, as were many White Evangelicals. Abortion was a Catholic issue, part of their pro-life stance that opposed everything from contraception to right wing dictators in Latin America. In the aftermath of Roe v Wade, the Southern Baptists issued resolutions repeatedly thru 1979 affirming a nuanced view of abortion. “Be it further RESOLVED,” they wrote, “That we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”
Then something happened. Jerry Falwell created the Moral Majority and a host of other White Evangelical leaders made a deal with the devil, the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan would be their savior, abortion would be THE ISSUE. The rationale was slim — abortion is not directly mentioned in the Bible. And the argument was based on compassion, not really a core component of the Republican Party platform. White Evangelicals would embrace the entire Republican Party platform – the white supremacy (which was a no-brainer for those in the South; they were already there), lower taxes, gun rights, support for US imperialism overseas, even support for the Contras to fight communism. It was obvious that abortion was just an opiate for the masses, a way to get poor white people to vote against their interests. Flags were wrapped around crosses on pulpits. White Evangelical churches, already racially segregated, became patriotic social clubs and nothing more.
I remember when I was in high school. I became “born again”. A nice man, a Bible study leader, bemoaned to me how, even though he was a lifelong Democrat, he had to vote for Ronald Reagan because of abortion. I remember, in my own White Evangelical church, a “study group” was created to “take back America”. There, in a multi-million-dollar home overlooking California suburbia, I was told that Martin Luther King was a Marxist-Leninist.
I remember when I was in my college Christian fellowship group. I was supporting Reagan. I was challenged that there was more than one issue at stake. The Contras were massacring villages. Bishop Tutu was calling for sanctions against his own country. I studied the life of Jesus, in depth, for four years. By the time I graduated, I was working for the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign.
I watched, decade after decade, as White Evangelicals joined ever more radical right wing causes to suppress immigrants, the poor, people of color, and any other marginalized people. These are the very people Jesus gave priority to, the very people that Christians should be advocates for. We all saw the hypocrisy; there are thousands of memes. You could tell they were Christians by their hate. But, in the absence of any real mission in life, White Evangelicals created targets. First it was communists, then gays, then Muslims. While real people needed real help, they were demonizing Michael Jackson, Magic Johnson, the Smurfs, Harry Potter, and Sponge-Bob.
I watched, no longer surprised, when they embraced Donald Trump, one of the most vile, repulsive and un-Christian men in the world, with the tortured logic that “God used Cyrus”. Never mind that Cyrus was oppressing thousands. I read that, when Hitler took power in Germany, church attendance increased 30%. They supported him so much that he grew concerned about their prominence and ordered them to remove swastikas from their pulpits.
One thing about “the pioneers” as we call them in the US — they were essentially white renegade militias, operating outside of US law, who sought to ethnically cleanse the land for their own acquisition. And that’s the opinion of their own people.
For 250 years, from the 1520s to the 1770s, Europeans interacted with Native Americans in nuanced ways. Most interactions started with trade, attempts to be friendly, and attempts to find common ground. The Spanish raped and pillaged, but they also sought alliances and converts. The French mostly wanted to trade, and intermarried freely. The British often forbade intermarriage, but sought to negotiate and buy land for their own colonies, and accepted many Native cultural practices to secure military alliances.
My own family history reflects this. I’m a descendent of dozens of Cherokees who were on the Trail of Tears. Before that, several of them had intermarried with British traders. I’m a direct descendant of Ludovic Grant. Captain John Stuart, aka Bushyhead, the Indian agent for all the southern colonies in the 1700s, married one of my Cherokee great-grandmothers (though I descend from a later marriage of hers).
To a large extent (the Pequot Massacre notwithstanding), the British sought some kind of peace, middle ground, or understanding on the edges of their colonies. They forbade settlement east of the Appalachians.
This all ended with in the runup to the American Revolution. American pioneers – largely Presbyterian Scot, Scots-Irish, Pennsylvania Germans, and Virginians wanted land. Their own white governments considered them lawless and out of control. In the late 1700s, just before the American Revolution, British authorities described the illegal homesteaders:
“lawless banditti whose actions are a disgrace to human nature”
“the very dregs of people”
“too Numerous, too Lawless and Licentious ever to be restrained”
“Beyond the arm of government & freed from the restraining influence of religion”
“generally white Savages”
“a Sett of People… near as wild as the country they go in, or the People they deal with, & by far more vicious & wicked”
Thomas Jefferson gave them a mixed and ironic review, calling them “our own semi-barbarous citizens, the pioneers of the advance of civilization.” Arthur St. Clair, Governor of the Northwest Territories, observed, “Though we hear much of the Injuries and depredations that are committed by the Indians upon the Whites, there is too much reason to believe that at least equal if not greater Injuries are done to the Indians by the frontier settlers of which we hear very little.”
More to the point, the pioneers were Indian haters. They sought to destroy any middle ground between indigenous and European worlds. Henry Knox, George Washington’s Secretary of War, rued, “The deep rooted prejudices, and malignity of heart, and conduct, reciprocally entertained and practiced on all occasions by the Whites and Savages will ever prevent their being good neighbors.”
In a world that already had 250 years of intermarriages and cultural exchange, the new American pioneers especially targeted Native peacemakers, allies, converts to Christianity, and women and children – symbols of diversity and mixing. For the most part, they made no alliances and took no prisoners. They considered all Natives enemies and sought to make them enemies of all white colonists. They wanted division and war because they wanted the land.
When my ancestors were on the Trail of Tears, one of their biggest problems was getting enough sleep. Because most nights, after they had stopped the wagons and made camp, drunk white settlers from nearby came among them, sometimes wanting to drink and play cards and win money off them, or heckle them, or steal things. This would go on night after night at each stop.
In the words of Richard White in The Middle Ground, “Pure Indian hating penetrated the middle ground the way backcountry fighters penetrated an Algonquin village – just far enough to destroy it. The middle ground blurred boundaries, and what pure Indian haters sought above all was to keep boundaries intact. Captives and converts, white or Indian, proved the greatest danger to Indian hating because they passed across borders…. They did not believe Indians could become “civilized”. To them, becoming civilized meant becoming white, which Indians could never do.”
The federal government, forced to choose between honoring treaties or bowing to the passions of white renegade militias, almost always chose the latter, though the pioneers openly “sneered at” federal authority. After all, the pioneers were white, their brothers and sisters.
The pioneers’ ideology of separation and conquest prevailed in Washington DC. In 1830, Congress hotly debated but then passed the Indian Removal Act (101 to 97 in the House). This was Andrew Jackson’s “Wall”, what he campaigned on — ethnic cleansing on a massive scale. White liberals at the time considered reservations and ethnic cleansing to be merciful, protecting Natives from violent pioneers. Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) was considered a good solution. Congress followed up with the Homestead Act of 1860, a kind of affirmative action government hand-out for whites only, to incentivize ethnic cleansing by the public. Within a few years, calls for indigenous “extermination” were common from Minnesota to California. When white militias massacred peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho in 1864 and again Apaches in 1871, the US federal government condemned them, did investigations, held hearings, but ultimately did nothing.
Some argue that past behavior should not be condemned according to modern ethical standards. (I strongly disagree—in most instances, the behavior was controversial at the time and was certainly opposed by its victims.) But in this case, the reverse has happened. The pioneers were considered a basket of deplorables in their own time, and were only later idolized.
Through the 1900s and into the present, white US mythology rallied behind the pioneers, erasing and revising history. They are celebrated as the bedrock of the United States, as if others, indigenous peoples, Latinos, Asians, and Blacks were simply obstacles or tools along the way. Among pioneers, Daniel Boone became the archetypal white savage, appropriating Native virtues while killing them, in a sense becoming a new improved white Indian. The story of Pocahontas, kidnapped and impregnated in the early 1600s, was resurrected and re-written in the 1800s. She became the archetypal good Indian, “snatched from the fangs of a barbarous idolatry”, to quote the artist whose painting of her hangs today in the Capitol Rotunda (along with other Native women fleeing with their clothes off).
The settlers are now explorers and discoverers. Dale Van Every’s Ark of Empire: The American Frontier, written in 1963, is typical:
“Their like [the pioneers] had never been before nor has ever been since. They were as distinct from their fellow Americans as they were from the alien enemies with whom they were confronted.… As befits conquerors, their most striking characteristic was an assurance of their innate superiority to any antagonist… Without regard for land-company designs, restraints of their own governments, Indian resistance, or the opposition of foreign powers, they kept on westward.”
Today we have Pioneer Square, Pioneer Park, Pioneer School, Pioneer Bridge, Pioneer Reservoir, Pioneer Parkway. Lots of them. The Sooners is a name that honors illegal white squatters taking Native land (that would be Oklahoma again).
This is the essence of white supremacy—the notion that the US is primarily for white people, that white people are the center of its story. White rural America will not move past its religious devotion to guns or its fear of fellow citizens of color until it recognizes and acknowledges its past. My family includes both early British fur traders and indigenous people, slave owners and slave traders, Loyalists and Revolutionaries, Unionists and Confederates, settlers and internally displaced people. I have to come to terms with that. Likewise, America has to come to terms with all the parts of its past.
When the story of the nation is told, whether in history class or in place names, it must not be assumed that whites are the protagonists while indigenous, Black, Latino, Asian, and other people, who have been here for hundreds of years, are pushed to the edges of the story. And, remember, in their own time, judged by their own people, the pioneers were considered bad guys.
I live in Port Townsend, Jefferson County, Washington. It was originally called qatáy by the S’Klallam, a place with a small lagoon and a series of freshwater ponds that allowed for kayak portages from Puget Sound to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, thus avoiding the wind and tidal currents at Point Wilson.
That’s already six colonial monikers and I’m only introducing where I live. Let’s review them.
Townsend, actually Townshend, was a friend of George Vancouver’s. Townshend led the British army against the French near Quebec, but that’s as close as he ever got to this area. The same can be said about Point Wilson, which is kam-kum to the S’Klallam and kam-kam-ho to the Chimacum. George Wilson was another Vancouver colleague who never came to the Pacific.
Washington is after George Washington, known to the Mohawk as “town destroyer”. Jefferson is after Thomas Jefferson, who considered Native Americans “savages… living under no law but that of nature.” He wrote repeatedly how to use indebtedness to divest us of our land. Puget Sound is another moniker bestowed by George Vancouver, after his lieutenant, Peter Puget. Juan de Fuca is the Spanish name for a 16th century Greek navigator, honoring his claim to have explored a hypothesized Pacific connection to the mythical Northwest Passage. The name was bestowed by fur trader Charles William Barkley.
As land acknowledgements have become somewhat routine, they have received a lot of attention and scrutiny. I get that they are “not enough” and may seem performative, done mindlessly without reflection, but I still appreciate them.
I appreciate them because we already have competing land acknowledgments all around us. The current “official” names reveal what our society acknowledges, honors, and celebrates, what virtues we signal.
By way of example, I’ll focus on a tiny speck of land—a two-mile radius from my home. Let’s call this a reverse land acknowledgment. Instead of walking the path of indigeneity, we’ll go the other way and head down the road of settler colonialism. This journey may be painful.
Back to Port Townsend. The town sits at the tip of the Quimper Peninsula. Manual Quimper was a Spanish “explorer”. His men raped a woman at Neah Bay. After a violent exchange with the Makah men, Quimper planted a crucifix on the beach and claimed it for god and king.
Walking up the road from my house, I gain views (on a clear day) of Mt Baker, Mt Rainier, and the Olympics. Native names varied with local dialects, but are generally modernized as Kulshan, Tahoma, and Sun-a-do respectively. Baker was another officer under George Vancouver. Rainier was another friend of Vancouver’s who never came to the Pacific. Like George Wilson, Peter Rainier fought for the British against the American Revolution, and thus was allied with many Native American tribes (though Native Americans fought and died on both sides of that war). The name Olympus, or Olympics, was bestowed by English trader John Meares, based on Juan de Fuca’s 16th century account, in which de Fuca named the range after the Greek mountain. de Fuca, remember, was Greek.
Nearby street names include Sheridan, Scott, Kearney, Cass, Calhoun, Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Grant, Polk, Fillmore, Harrison, Pierce, Roosevelt, Taylor, Tyler, Quincy, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson. You get the idea. The list is actually longer. Just to drive home (no pun intended) this veritable celebration of ethnic cleansing (aka “Manifest Destiny”), these streets are connected by Discovery Road. And this is a very liberal, albeit white, town – only 13% for Trump – known as an “arts community”.
I won’t go into detail about each president. Suffice it to say that all of them played a part in the grand white American supremacist project of ethnic cleansing and genocide, of building a country originally intended for white people, using stolen land and slave labor. In 1830, Andrew Jackson, the President Trump of the 19th century, signed the Indian Removal Act, one of the most hotly debated pieces of legislation in the history of the US. He had campaigned on it. In 1850 President James Polk stood on the floor of the House of Representatives with a lock of Narcissa Whitman’s hair and promised to imprison all Indigenous peoples of Oregon and Washington in concentration camps. In 1875, President Grant launched an unprovoked war to seize the Black Hills, already ceded to the Sioux in the Treaty of 1868. Sheridan was the primary general who implemented this war. He used a “winter campaign”— deliberately targeting Native families in their winter camps, attacking them in sub-zero weather and burning their provisions. When Congress debated a bill to protect the declining buffalo, General Sheridan implored a joint session to embrace biological warfare: “For the sake of lasting peace, let them kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated.” The local healthcare facility here includes the Sheridan Clinic. At least it’s not a veterinary clinic.
Kearny (spelled this way) was a key military leader in the Mexican-American War to fulfill Manifest Destiny; Kearney (spelled this way, like the street) was a key fort on the Oregon Trail. Calhoun was a fierce proponent of state’s rights and slavery. Cass was Jackson’s Secretary of War, which basically meant Secretary of Ethnic Cleansing. During a smallpox epidemic, Cass selected which tribes would be sent the vaccine and which tribes would not.
Whoever chose these names was certainly pro-slavery and pro-ethnic cleansing, even by historic US standards. These men were not simply representative of values at the time. These ideas were controversial among whites – and no doubt opposed by Blacks and Natives. Indian removal was hotly debated. A war was fought over slavery. Among Port Townsend street names, only Benjamin Franklin stands out as one who regularly respected Natives and Native ideas. He applied many principles of the Iroquois Confederacy, arguably the world’s oldest democracy, in the development of the US Constitution.
Favorite local beaches and promontories include Fort Warden, Point Hudson, Fort Flagler, and Cape George. I’m too tired to look all these up, but I’m guessing they were white European men from around the time of local ethnic cleansing.
The names don’t stop with place names. Even the birds – yes, even the birds – have names that honor European conquest. I’m a birder. In the first hundred yards from my house, I’ll likely hear Anna’s Hummingbird and possibly Townsend’s Warbler. The latter would probably be in the Douglas-firs. Anna was one of several women – or girls – honored by Audubon or his colleagues using their first names. Last names were reserved for men. Anna was honored for being “a beautiful young woman, not more than twenty, extremely graceful and polite.” A bit cringy. Townsend (not the same at George Townshend), in addition to his ornithology, collected Native skulls to support Samuel Morton’s Crania Americana. I could get into trees, squirrels, and crabs, but I’ll stop here.
The sheer number of honorific names is rather astounding. They dominate maps in both the urban and wilderness areas. It’s impossible to avoid them as you move about the town. This probably applies to nearly every town in the nation. And nearly all of these names honor European men (Anna being the only exception). It is virtue signaling of a kind, just usually not what I would consider virtuous.
If you look hard enough, there are some references to “other history”. Chetzemoka Park honors the chief who ultimately capitulated to white colonists, giving up the land to avoid a war he could not win. He did that from a hilltop just a few hundred yards from my house. Both his face and those of his two wives are honored in the portico of the federal building, built in 1893. His is the only local indigenous name you’ll likely learn around here.
Also nearby is Chinese Gardens, such a peaceful name for a painful place. It’s a shallow lake now. Chinese immigrants used to grow vegetables there, both for themselves and sale to local white residents. After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and subject to racist vandalism and assault, they began to leave the area.
In general, the Pacific Northwest is above average in using Native names. We have Seattle, Tacoma, Clallam, Issaquah, Puyallup, Tulalip, Nisqually, Skagit, Sequim, Snoqualmie, Samish, Suquamish, etc. I’d love to live on a street with an indigenous name, like qatáy Valley Rd. At least thank god my address isn’t an Indian killer street name.
So there it is – it’s actually possible to tell much of the most horrid parts of US history based on reminders within two miles of my house.
For a traditional Native land acknowledgement of Port Townsend (aka qatáy), see this post.
It’s dawned on me that the California’s missions were a lot worse that most people realize—objectively a cross between the ISIS theocratic state and Nazi concentration camps. Call it California’s Gulag Archipelago. European visitors at the time were horrified by what they saw. The Mexican government, as soon as it was independent from Spain, immediately disbanded the missions and sent the radical priests packing.
Today, we don’t even hold the missions to the moral standards of that time. We white-wash them, cover them with bougainvillea, glorify them, and have even developed an entire architectural style based on them: we have mission-style banks, restaurants, homes, and hotels.
For sixty-five years, from 1769 to 1834, the Natives of California lived Father JuníperoSerra’s archipelago of twenty-one missions stretching along most of the coast and valleys. Each mission depended on Native labor and controlled vast lands, maintained thousands of head of livestock, and provided traders and nearby settlements with corn, wheat, beans, vegetables, butter, tallow, hides, leather, olive oil, and lots of wine. The Franciscan friars lived so well that they had servants to handle all the silver and gold they earned; they could not touch it due to their vows of poverty.
Serra and his missionaries were extremists. Many were into self-mortification, gauging their own flesh in spiritual penitence. Moreover, unlike Spanish missions elsewhere in the world, they restricted the converts from leaving the missions without permission and deliberately kept them illiterate.
The priests sought to maintain their labor force. Escapees were re-captured. Natives outside the mission were threatened or taken by force. To increase the birth rate within the missions, the priests resorted to punitive measures. They suspected that the high miscarriage rate among Native women was the result of deliberate abortions. Women suffering miscarriages were whipped, put in stocks, and publicly humiliated, forced to stand outside the church holding “a hideous painted wooded child in her arms.” At Mission Santa Cruz, Friar Roman Olbés ordered a Native couple to have sex in his office while he watched. When they refused, he settled for an inspection of their genitals. When it was her turn, the Indian woman fought back and a struggle ensued between her and the priest. He screamed for help and the woman was hauled away, given fifty lashes, and made to hold the wooden child outside the church. Her husband was shackled and forced to attend daily mass wearing bull horns lashed to his head.
The purpose of Serra’s kingdom was to convert as many Indians as possible and send their souls to heaven. In this regard he was efficient; they were dying faster than they could reproduce. The Native “converts” lived in squalor, worked hard, ate little, attended mass daily, and were whipped frequently, sometimes during mass if they were not paying attention to the sermon, which was given in Latin. Diseases spread through their dark crowded dormitories more often than not. The priests seemed to care little. In 1775, Fray Pedro Font wrote that “they are so savage, wild, and dirty, disheveled, ugly, small, and timid, that only because they have the human form is it possible to believe that they belong to mankind.” During the mission period, 1769–1834, the Indian population at the missions, according to one estimate, declined from 72,000 to 18,000, with deaths exceeding births by 60 per cent.
The death rate within the missions equaled that of the worst slave plantations. In November of 1790, Father Fermín Lasuén, Serra’s successor, reported to Mexico City that, of the 13,308 Indians living in the missions, 4,780 had died so far that year—that is 36%— and there were still six more weeks to go. Thirty years later, high death rates remained a hot topic in communications between the missions and Mexico City. Father Mariano Payéras, another successor of Serra, blamed the Indians. He reported that they did not “value their health as they should but rather waste it and place it secondary to vile pleasures and whims.”
Their bones, however, do not lie. They are stunted and show signs of malnutrition, in contrast to Natives from outside the missions. The Natives did not lie either. On one occasion, twenty-three escaped the Mission Dolores and were re-captured. Six listed hunger and starvation as their reason for leaving, nine described the deaths of immediate family members, and, when a cause of death was given, it was starvation. Eight of the captives mentioned they were whipped or put in stocks for not working while they were sick. One man said that, after his wife was raped by a vaquero, he was whipped because he had not properly protected her.
Many of the young missionaries, arriving from Spain with visions of helping the poor, quickly became disillusioned, because “the manner in which the Indians are treated is far more cruel” than they expected. Of the three young Franciscans met by the worldwide French expedition, one quit in his thirties, another was relieved after seven years due to “depression”, and the third lasted only a few years, becoming “incapacitated for work by reason of insanity.”
In 1779 King Carlos III of Spain heard that the conditions were “worse than that of slaves” and ordered all Natives freed after ten years of education. But the order was ignored and the Natives were kept illiterate; most could not even speak Spanish. Seven years later, a visiting French expedition noted that “corporal punishment is inflicted on the Indians of both sexes who neglect the exercises of piety, and many sins, which in Europe are left to Divine justice, are here punished by irons and the stocks.”
Visiting Russians and Americans had similar reactions. When a new priest was sent to fill a vacancy at the Mission San Miguel and was shocked that “the manner in which the Indians are treated is far more cruel” than he expected, he was quickly removed from his post, branded unstable, and returned to Spain.
In addition to constant runaways, there were notable uprisings. In 1775 the Kumeyaay rose up and sacked Mission San Diego. Priests constructing the mission as San Juan Capistrano heard about it, abandoned their construction site, and buried the giant mission bells to hide them. An attempt to build missions up the Colorado River was quashed by Quechan (Yuma). The Great Chumash Revolt of 1824 at Missions Santa Inés and Santa Barbara led to the establishment of a secret survivor’s colony at Walker Pass in the southern Sierra.
White-washing history today
For decades California’s 4th graders studied a sanitized and white-washed version of the missions, complete with the infamous assignment to build a model of a mission out of sugar cubes, complete with a bell tower to summon the faithful to mass. This would be akin to German children building little models of Auschwitz. The mere fact that California history (the mission period was followed by a state-sponsored genocide in the 1850s) is relegated to 4th grade, is itself questionable. The topics are inherently difficult and violent, more suitable to older children. This would be akin to Rwanda only teaching its history in 4th grade. It’s a deliberate decision to avoid topics.
California recently revised teaching standards, but the mission models may live on thru various school districts and teachers.
Today most of the missions are preserved by the Catholic Church. None of them offer an experience such as at Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, curated to put visitors in the position of the slaves and walk them through the daily life of a captive. None of that. Instead, you can pray in the chapel or visit the giftshop, replete with little statues of Mary.
I’ll end with her words from what is known as the Song of Mary or the Magnificat, one of the more radical pieces of literature ever written at the time, a prayer for the poor and against the powerful:
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
It’s time to teach the true history of the missions and remember those who suffered.
Perspectives on ways-of-knowing focusing on science, culture & media discourse, especially Indigenous knowledges. All views are my own, with no intent to reflect my employers', my family's or my community's views.