Saturday, June 7, 2008

"Digger Belles"

This image comes from The Argonauts of 'Forty-nine, by David Rohrer Leeper (1832-1900). Leeper left South Bend, Indiana, for an overland trip to the California gold fields in February 1949. The Argonauts of 'Forty-Nine (1894) details Leeper's journey west and his life in California: prospecting at Redding's Diggings, Hangtown, and the Trinity River; lumbering around Eureka; and early Sacramento and Humbolt Bay. Leeper shows special interest in Digger Indians, illustrating the book with sketches of tribal garb in his personal collection.

Originally, I found this image courtesy of Perseus Digital Library Project, Tufts U. However, that link seems to be broken. The entire text of the book, plus illustrations, is also available at

The description "Belle," with it's connotations of civilization and domesticated femininity invented purely to serve men, seemed to be a wide-spread joke in California - sarcasm, irony, mean-spirited making-fun of Indian women fallen on hard times. Here's another example:

Titled "The Belles of San Luis Rey."

When I searched for the photo to give you more information, I found an original for sale at with the following blurb: "WAITE, C. B. The Belles of San Luis Rey. All over 100 yeras old. Indian Women. ca. 1895, gelatine silver print, 20,4 x 12,3 cm, on mount. Photograph no 140. Slightly faded. Offered for EUR 81.75 = appr. US$ 129.08 by: KRUL Antiquarian Books - Book number: 27715"

I also found that this image had been marketed as a popular hand-tinted postcard. Note the message "Harvey" wrote to his friend scribbled around the edges. He compares these "Mission Belles" to "Mission Bells" - how easy it is to go from human being to object, and a mythologized object at that.

Obviously a popular image, I also found mention of "The Three Belles of San Luis Rey" in a review of Oceanside: Where Life Is Worth Living. By Kristi S. Hawthorne. (Virginia Beach, VA: The Donning Company Publishers, 2000. Full-color and Black/White photographs, bibliography, index, 192 pages, $34.95 Hardcover): "Hawthorne vividly describes three "Belles of San Luis Rey", elderly tour guides during the late 19th century mission restoration who told compelling stories of making the mission bricks as children. Exploitation of these native peoples continued through the Mexican and American periods, a process which Hawthorne candidly discusses."

I'll try to track down this book and see what else the "tour guides" had to say.

These images intrigue me, break my heart, haunt me. I have so many questions (and ask myself, do I really want to know the answers?)

Why is the "Digger Belle's" hair so short? Was it cut in mourning, and just growing out? If she was in or near the goldfields in '49, she was in the middle of one of the bloodiest U.S. Government-approved genocides ever documented. One million dollars was appropriated by Congress to pay bounties on Indian scalps in the goldfields. Thousands more Indians simply starved to death as their food resources were devoured by miners or trashed by gold-mining techniques. Still others, particularly women and orphaned children, were sold as slaves - yes, true slavery existed in California, and persisted until after Statehood and the end of the Civil War; most white households had at least one Indian slave, and usually several. Young girls, of course, were bought up by single men, for about $100 apiece.

Who was this beautiful woman? Was she paid to sit for the photograph? Paid in money, or food? Her fierceness, her face a mask of hardness and suspicion, burns through the photographer's lens and artist's hands.

And the "Three Belles of San Luis Rey" - who were they? what were their names, Indian or Mission? Were they really all over 100 years old, or did they just look that way after a lifetime of post-secularization? Were they paid as tour guides, and how much? They look as if they could barely walk themselves. Imagine being old during Armageddon. How did they survive?

Sometimes all you can do is sell what you've got. Your face. Your breasts. Your Otherness. Your frailty. Your story.

Or the story people with money want to hear.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Juan Justo's Bones

Juan Justo’s Bones

From letters by A. P. Ousdal, Doctor of Osteopathy in Santa Barbara, to J.P. Harrington. On Dec. 9, 1930, Ousdahl was issued U.S. Pat. No. 1,784,382, for apparatus for utilizing solar radiations for therapeutic purposes.

I took it upon myself
to take care of this Indian

as he has been very sorely
neglected. I found him sick

with gangrene of the leg.
I immediately began to photograph

and X-Ray him in order
to get some records

for comparative studies
before he should die.

However, the ulcer,
approximately eight inches

in diameter, is healing
and the man is feeling so

very much better that I am
in hopes of making more

of a personal study of him.
I am trying to make several sets

of X-Rays, not neglecting
any bone whatever (realizing

that one set can be lost or destroyed,
and in being handled will receive

a certain amount of abuse,
as they are not ever-lasting).

When I get the sets completed,
I will certainly cooperate

with the Smithsonian Institution
making an interesting exhibition

and a small booklet of my study.
I hope to raise enough money

from this booklet to pay for
a granite monument, full size,

of our friend, Juan Justo.
So far I have taken care

of all expenses myself,
which is only my contribution,

tribute to the race
that once was.

Enclosed: measurements
of the bumps on the Indian’s head:

Horizontonal – 16 cm.
Breadth – 15.25 cm./

Depth – 18.75 cm.
Temple – 13 cm.

Circumference – 17 ¼ inches.
Social – 2%

Idealism – 8%
Combatative – 6%

Ear Formation – 10% (Almost perfect ear)
Width of nostril – 4.25 cm.

Width of cheekbone – 12.25 cm.
Depth of face – 16 cm.

Round prominent chin
Eyes – cataract over right eye

Color – Peculiar agate brown
I am also taking Juan’s heart rate today

by the Electrocardiograph which
will make an interesting record.

The ulcer on Juan’s leg
has healed up a couple of inches,

looks much better.
It is of a varicose nature.

I think with a little care
the old boy might outlive

any of us. It seems that a touch
of soap and water, with a few rays

from the sun, go a long way
with him. There are two burial

mounds near the city
that we ought to excavate;

I believe that they are rich
in deposits of bones and skulls …

I am anxious to compare
those skeletons with Juan’s –

they are of the same tribe. He
is improving but with a gunnysack

in the window and a leaky roof.
During the rainy season his palace

on the dump is not any too inviting.
He had to move his bed to the far

corner of the shack the other day;
to protect himself

he has an empty cement bag
which he slips over his feet at night

beside his regular bed clothes,
and this in spite of all

our organizations
for charity.

Our Juan has been sick this last
week from absorption of poison

from his leg. I was hoping to have
his picture in the nude soon.

Once I have that, with the head dress
you are making up, and your manuscript,

my book will be ready for publication.
I am hoping that when he wanders

with the spirit of his fathers
and has no use for his old bones,

that they may become the property
of the Smithsonian Institution.

That has been my aim since
I knew the man, so as to not lose

track of the data, and I pray
that I will be able to accomplish it.

In the meantime our X-Ray work
will have to do. It is a good idea

to let the public know
that Juan Justo is Smithsonian

property. Somehow
I like that idea.

His Chumash name was Suluemeait.

[I have removed the photo posted here previously, after learning from John Johnson at Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History that the person featured was incorrectly identified as Juan Justo in December's Child, by Thomas C. Blackburn.  I hope to have a photograph of Juan Justo to add soon.]  dm

Monday, June 2, 2008

Abalone Heaven

I can't say I made these beautiful abalone (and various semi-precious stones) necklaces, but I certainly can say they stopped me in my tracks with their stunning colors and textures. There's something about abalone that feels rich, substantial, luscious, to me. I want to lie down and roll around in piles of abalone beads and pendants - it's my treasure!

These necklaces were made by Louise Miranda Ramirez, my sister, Chair of the Esselen Nation, and her grand-daughter Alex.

Thank you for bringing this beauty and power into the world, Louise and Alex. Mislayaya Kolo.



for Linda

Miracles made of punched tin:
arms, heads, legs,

bottles, cows, Jesus, eyes,
penitents, sacred hearts,

keys, trucks, cactus,
chalice, lungs, Mother Mary.

Heal me, fix that, bless him,
remove this, send us a vision!

Oh battered milagros, stand-ins
for what we can't say,

must have, will die without.
Shine like a rich man’s silver,

catch the fickle fancy of god,
carry each clumsy prayer

to his hand. What wouldn't we give
just to jingle in his pocket,

know someone hears the tin tin tin
of our poor voices?

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