Thursday, June 26, 2008

Excerpts from "My (very late) Mission Project"

In California schools, 4th grade is usually when students come up against the "Mission Unit." Part of California history curriculum, the unit is entrenched in the system, and impossible to avoid. Why is this a problem? It is a powerfully authoritative indoctrination in Mission Mythology against which fourth graders have little if any resistance, and intense pressu re is put upon students (and their parents!) to create a "Mission Project" that glorifies the era and glosses over both Spanish and Mexican exploitation of Indians, as well as American enslavement of post-secularization of those same Indians. In other words, the Mission Unit is all too often a lesson in imperialism, racism, and Manifest Destiny than actually educational or a jumping off point for critical and useful thinking.

One 4th grade teacher I spoke with recently - who has Apache blood but does not identify very strongly with that heritage - told me that she has simply turned the assignment of a Mission Project on its head. She tells her fourth graders that they are free to do the traditional Mission assignment or, instead, do their project on a California tribe. I didn't get a chance to go into her curriculum too deeply, but I hope she structures that alternative assignment so that students must look at the tribe before, during and after Missionization, or the benefit of her design change might be lost.

Anyway, I left California after kindergarten, and completed my schooling in Washington State (where I suffered through "The Oregon Trail Unit" instead, but that's another story!), so I never had to produce a Mission Project.

To make up for this omission in my education, I've put together a "Mission Glossary," much like the ones handed out to students in the 4th grade, or the others which come at the end of various books about the Missions, or which can be found online in the many official California Mission websites.

Only this is an Indian version of a Mission Glossary.

By the way, when I mentioned earlier that both students and parents are pressured to produce elaborate and impressive Mission Projects (typically on a given Mission, complete with diorama or model of a mission, happy Indians in the fields, productive little brown figures), check out this incredible website: which tells its purpose without shame or guile:

"Does Your Child Have a California
Mission Project Due Soon?"
If so... You're in the right place!
Grade A Projects offers you e-books for several California fourth grade mission projects.
(And they are available for INSTANT DOWNLOAD!)

Just A Few Hours From Now...
Your Child Will Be Finished With A
Beautiful, Historically Accurate Report
or Mission Model For Only $5 In Materials!

Next, the site pumps up the parent (who of course is doing the child's research for him/her?) by exhorting, "Avoid those long lists of expensive, hard to find materials and complex, hard to follow directions that take weeks to finish. Don't risk submitting a mission project that won't guarantee your child the best grade possible. Don't stress or search for another minute ... this system has been designed specifically to give YOUR student a TOP grade."

The page boasts multiple parental testimonials such as:

"My Daughter Got an A+!"
"We ordered our project only two days before it was due.
My daughter got an A+ on her mission project.
Her teacher had the rest of the class look at the mission project and used it as a guide as to how to do theirs. "

— Yvette Morales

As you can see, the manufacturing and maintenance of California Mission Mythology requires that parents assist their children in these "important" projects by making sure the child does not veer off the beaten track, and is guided every step of the way to stereotypical, uncritical, inaccurate and offensive projects. Looking at this website I was torn between hysterical laughter and absolute fury.

Hence, here is my Mission Project: very late, but perhaps I can make up for that with my innovative take on the project.


Massive Conversion Factory centered around a furnace constructed of flesh, bones, blood, grief, pristine land and watersheds. Dependent on a continuing fresh supply of human beings, specifically Indian, which were in increasingly short supply. Run by a well-meaning European religious order (see PADRES) convinced that they were doing the work of their Supreme Deity, aka God, a Mission was meant to suck in Indigenous peoples (see NEOFITO), strip them of religion, language, culture, melt them down into a generic worker instilled with Catholicism, Spanish values and a freshly overhauled, tuned up soul.

These reconditioned souls (now called “converts”) were to be spewed out the back end of the conversion factory in about ten years, by which time they would be expected to perform the basic functions of service to both earthly King and Supreme Deity, gladly forsaking their previous lives. However, production of converts involved a radical kind of brainwashing, more euphemistically called re-education, much like any religious cult. Unexpected physical and psychological resistance to conversion (rebellion, murder, self-destructive behaviors, chronic depression and a catastrophically low birth rate) by Indigenous peoples as well as unforeseen biological reactions to the introduction of European foods, plants and animals, diseases (measles, small pox, syphilis, tuberculosis, alcoholism, suppressed immune systems), led to extension after extension of the initial deadline.

Shoveling in more Indians from further away to replace the dead was only a temporary solution: i.e., 80% of California Indians dead in a one hundred year period. In Heizer’s words, “… the Franciscan missions in California were ill-equipped, badly managed places … To continue to feed the furnace would have required a [Spanish] military force of much greater power than was available to go further each year into the unconverted interior and bring back the human fuel.” Despite Heizer’s optimism, Mission records themselves illustrate that even an endless supply of fresh Indians would not have changed the death rate, merely prolonged the closing down of the factory.

The bottom line is that individual Missions were successful only for the missionaries, who spent their lives secure in the belief that they served their Supreme Deity faithfully and had done no wrong.

Always know the limitations imposed by fuel availability.

NEOFITO (Neophyte).

1. A religious convert; a newly baptized Indian, or Indio, a sub-human, animal-like being from regions immediately around each mission. Judged to be desperately in need of Spanish religion and discipline in order to earn a soul, become human, be saved from everlasting damnation. Like very young children, Indians lived by instinct and desire, not knowing what was best for them. Priests regarded themselves in loco parentis, fatherly overseers with the responsibility to instruct and guide in both temporal and spiritual matters. This state of child-like existence continued on for the life of the Neophyte who, even should she live to one hundred years old, have children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, was never legally an adult and so could not leave the mission without written permission or own land. Officially emancipated in 1836 by Mexico; declared citizens of the United States in 1924. Are we grown up yet?

2. They are born among the mountains and in the ravines like savages, feeding on wild seeds, and are without either agriculture or arts. In their pagan state the Indians … mated after the fashion of animals. Their superstitions are as numerous as they are ridiculous and are difficult to understand.

3. Indigenous human beings who were loved to death by the Franciscan Fathers.

4. The Indians … possess in a heroic degree, in eminent fashion, only the virtue of obedience . . . They cease to operate by themselves as if they were a corpse, neither more nor less. It is certain that a gardener, though he knew his business very well, would plant a vegetable in the ground upside down if the father commanded him. When the missionary desires to punish them all that is necessary is to order them to prepare themselves and they receive the strokes. The other virtues they do not know.

5. Bestias. Lazy. Meek. Submissive. Humble. Timid. Docile. Obedient. Superstitious. Stupid. Ignorant. Children.

6. Feliciano Maria Quittit. Martina Josefa Tutuan. Santiago Ferriol Tocayo Maxya. Cunegunda Maria Malaxet. Juan Damansceno Yjaschan. Maria Nicolasa Yaccash. Yginia Maria Yunisyunis. Fructuoso de Jesus Real Cholom. Diodora Maria Mihausom. My ancestors.


It is a holy word: nine days' devotion to obtain special graces. The litanies used are called novenas, supplications to The Precious Blood, The Holy Face, The Sacred Heart of Jesus, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. O Mother of Perpetual Succour, behold me, a miserable sinner at thy feet. I have recourse to thee and put my trust in thee. O Mother of Mercy, have pity upon me. In California Missions, a novenario was a form of punishment for “serious offenders,” a special flogging: twenty-five lashes on nine separate days (sometimes followed by twenty-five lashes on nine consecutive Sundays). Succour me for the love of Jesus Christ; stretch forth thy hand to me, a poor sinner, who recommend and dedicate myself to thee, as thy perpetual servant. No doubt intense prayer was involved, but the objective of a special grace escapes me. The grace of leather slicing into skin? The grace of muscle ripped from bone? The grace of blood pooling, dark and thick, beside the mission steps? Or did grace come afterwards in the form of swollen scars, or sores roiling with fat white maggots? This then is the grace I seek from thee, and I beg of thee, to obtain it for me, namely, in the assaults of hell, always to have recourse to thee and to say to thee; O Mary, help me, Mother of Perpetual Succor, suffer me not to lose my God. Amen.


“The neophyte community was like one great family, at the head of which stood the padre . . . To him the Indians looked for everything concerning their bodies as well as their souls. He was their guide and their protector …” (Zephyrin Englehardt ).

The Padre baptized us, gave us names and godparents; he taught us our catechism, officiated at our first communion, posted our marriage banns, performed our weddings, baptized our babies, administered last rites, listened to our confessions; he punished us when we prayed to the wrong god or tired of our wives or husbands. The Padre worked the fields with us, plowing and sweating in ragged wool robes; he rode horses into the corrals, roping cattle or herding sheep as well as any vaquero. The Padre attended us when smallpox or measles or flu or la galica took hold, wiped our faces and bodies with cool water, wept when our children died, prayed for the stillborn, castigated their mothers with hobbles and shame.

He taught us to sing (our own songs were ugly), he taught us to speak (our own languages were nonsensical), he made us wear clothes (our bodies were shameful), he gave us wheat and the plow (our seeds and acorns fit only as emergency gifts to keep the soldiers alive until real crops could be brought in). The Padre was driven insane at the sight of our women raped by soldiers, fled home to Spain a broken man; the Padre raped our daughters and wives, baptized his own illegitimate children, sold our mission lands out from under us, and when the mission fell apart, he abandoned us, moved away.

Yes, that Padre, he was everything to us Indians. At the giving end of a whip, he taught us to care for and kill the cattle whose hides were called “mission dollars,” worked us in the fields of wheat and corn and barley, instructed us in the building of adobe to make the Church, the monjeria, storerooms – promised it all to us if we would just grow up, pray hard enough, forget enough.

But it all went to Spain, to Rome, to Mexico, into the pockets of merchants, smugglers, priests, dishonest administrators and finally the cruel Americans. Nothing left for the children the Padre had worked so hard to civilize, poor savages pulled from the fires of certain Hell. He was our shepherd, we were his beloved and abused flock; now the fields are eaten down to the earth, we claw the earth yet even the roots are withered, and the shepherd has gone away.

But we are pagans no more! Now we are Christian vaqueros, Christian housekeepers, Christian blacksmiths and shoemakers and laundry women and wet nurses and handymen – none of us paid with more than a meal or a shirt or a pair of discarded boots – but Christians, poor Christians, drunken Christians, meek targets for 49’ers crazed by goldlust or ranchers hungry for land. We are homeless Christians, starving Christians, diseased and landless Christians; we are Christian slaves bought and sold in newspapers, auction blocks, San Francisco, Los Angeles, one hundred dollars for a likely young girl, fifty dollars for an able-bodied young boy, free to whoever bails the old men out of jail: every one of us baptized by the Padre, our primitive souls snatched from this Hell our bodies cannot escape, we are Christian, we are Catholic, we are saved by the Padres and for that, Jesus Christ, we must be grateful.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


This drawing exemplifies the Mission Mythology of Happy Indians Working at Productive and Useful Chores Instead of Lolling About the Undeveloped and Wasted Paradise! Published in Harper's Weekly in 1877, forty years after secularization, the drawing and accompanying article (which I haven't tracked down yet) show how deeply embedded this mythology became in American history. And, of course, this mythology continued to affect the descendants of the Indians in this drawing, including my great-grandfather, Tomas Santos Miranda.

He was born in 1877, the same year the article was published. Here is the only photo I have of him, sometime between 1920 and 1930-ish.

What do I know about Tomas Santos? It's a short list:

He married my great-grandmother, Ines Garcia, on May 5, 1901, at Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. Witnesses were Laura and Alfonso Ramirez - both consultants for J.P. Harrington, and related to Tomas by marriage. Inez (Agnes), perhaps on her wedding day?

In 1905-06, Tomas and Inez were counted in the Kelsey census in Sur, along with two children. There were noted to be "without land" and Indians. One of those children was my grandfather, Thomas Anthony Miranda.

Tomas Santos Miranda died in 1940. He was 63 years old.

In the tapes that Thomas Anthony made in the 1978-79, he says little about his father. That he was a hard man to work for; he demanded absolutely every ounce of energy and time from his workers, including his sons. Thomas Anthony left home at fourteen. Looking at that face, remembering my own father's fierce work ethic, I can understand why.

In notes taken by someone - I think Thomas Anthony's second wife's daughter, Bella - a different story is sketched out. Here's what I made of it:

"Rabbits - 7 years

1907 Father built big home. Had never seen little rabbits. Finished [house] by xmas eve. Father had saw and ax. Took Tom clear across hill to brush between Pacific Grove and Presidio. Dad stopped and looked at tree. Dad cut down tree and gave Tom ax and saw to carry home. Dad working for PI Co then. Dancing - party. Indians and Portuguese. Women wore big skirts. Couple weeks later Dad built rabbit pens. Dan went to work and Tom wandered out to pens and saw five or six tiny ones in nest. He ran to mother - hollering - She came running - just baby rabbits!

Father went to school. Spoke good English."

This story is written in blue ink on the back of a form letter from AARP. Both the story and the form letter are undated. It's the most information I have on Tomas Santos.

A little map accompanies the story: showing where the house was located in reference to Pacific Grove and Presidio. This was in Monterey, I think; Tomas and family must have moved back from Sur.

I love this story, bare bones as it is. My son, my brother, and my father are all incredibly handsome, and as little boys, adorable. I have no reason to suspect that my grandfather was anything but adorable as well. I can just see him running to Ines, his mother, hollering about these weird little aliens in the cage with the rabbits. "They're just baby rabbits!" she must have laughed.

The story about going to cut down a christmas tree is sweet, too. I'm glad Tom remembered it. He must have felt important, carrying the ax and the saw all by himself. I wonder how they decorated the tree? I wonder how they celebrated Christmas?

And oh, those parties. How I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall! What music did they play? what dances did they dance? Who was there?

How grand that must have all seemed to a seven year old boy. Maybe Tomas Santos knew how to play as hard as he worked.

And exactly where was this "big house"? and how big was it (remember, seven year olds often think small places are huge)? and what happened to it, did they lose it, did they stay?

and Tomas had gone to school, "spoke good English." What school? how long? What else would he have spoken besides English? Spanish? Old Carmel Spanish? Indian? Scraps of various Indian dialects?

I've been trying to write about the photograph of my grandfather, which is part of a larger photograph.

He kneels alone on the far right, one knee on the ground, resting his left arm on the other, long white sleeves buttoned around his wrists. He is staring – no, glaring – into the eye of the camera. Into my eyes. Dressed in clean new denim overalls and a white shirt, I imagine this is a dressy day for him; the swoop of a watch chain, gold or steel, runs like a wing from a buttonhole at the top of the overall big to what I imagine is his watch pocket further down on the bib – his arm obscures it, but what else could it be? The cuffs of the overalls are carefully folded up about 2 inches. I think my great-grandfather is meticulous about his appearance, even if it is just work clothes or a cook-out.

The only thing I know for sure is that the old man is my father’s grandfather. His name and position (“far right”) are written on the back.

But I’d know that face anywhere.

Ay, his face. There’s too much of my own father in that face; it scares me, makes me wonder what the hell I did wrong this time, makes me want to turn tail and run for the hills. The dark skin, the wide nose, the scowl, the thin lips set in an almost straight line – yes, I know Tomas, though he died long before I was born.

Tomas bears the look of a man who has seen the worst life can throw at him, yet refuses to give up. But he’s not fighting back with faith or tenderness or even a sense of protecting his family. No, this man fights back out of bitterness, out of sheer cussedness, out of a bent and misshapen pride. He fights back because violence is the only way he’s ever known anyone to get what he needs. He fights back with his fists and feet, his bear body, his biting wolf teeth, his human eyes. You don’t mess with this man. He’s created a space around him that few dare to breech, a kind of glow, like a smoldering ember, that you don’t want to touch or approach too intimately. People walk around him, go out of their way to maintain a safe distance.

Even in this family portrait around a campfire, twelve of the other fourteen people gathered seem huddled together on the left side of the photograph, their bodies held away from Tomas. This man is dangerous. Not because he’s bad or mean or evil. But because he has seen too much pain, witnessed too many of his loved ones killed, known too much injustice to even imagine that justice might exist somewhere.

This man is dangerous not because of what he believes in, but because of all he does not believe in. He has no faith in God, in religion (Indian or white), in goodness or tenderness that goes unpunished. Everything he’s ever loved or hoped for has let him down, betrayed him, or abandoned him to this solitary place on the edge of the family, poised on one knee, ready to lunge upward if necessary, ready to strike without asking questions. Doubt is one problem that doesn’t plague this man. He knows the world is a shitty place.

His hands – or rather, the one hand I can see, his left hand – is huge. Like my father’s. Big square palms with thick strong brown fingers. He’s worked all his life, from the moment he could hold a basket or hammer or grab hold of a stick. These are not the slender graceful hands that some Esselen ancestor left on the cave walls, hands immortalized as “noble” and “beautiful” by a white man, the “poet laureate” of California. These hands are not the hands of a peaceful or content soul.

These hands are hungry. These hands have had too many things slip out of their grasp. These hands can’t be gentle; gentle means dead. And while these hands may be deadly, they are very much alive, and intend to stay that way as long as possible, by any means possible. Desperate hands. Ruthless hands. Frightened hands. Frightening hands.

This is my great-grandfather, my grandfather’s father, my father’s grandfather. This is the bridge between missionization and post-secularization.

"I am the result of the love of thousands." Linda Hogan wrote that. It's true, over and over again. And sometimes we are the result of the bitter survival of thousands, as well. Sometimes we get here any way we can. Sometimes our bodies are the bridge over which our descendents cross, spanning unimaginable landscapes of loss and brutal history.

“Little Mendocino” and Stealing Souls

I almost feel like I can't comment on this article. Exploitation? Abuse? Complete and total idiocy? Lack of human compassion? Egocentric? I'm fishing for words to describe this artist, who was quite well known. There is a museum dedicated to her in her hometown, people still buy and sell her paintings, and all in all, she did very well making her living off of California Indians.

A brief bio: "Grace Hudson's paintings of Indian children were enormously popular in her lifetime and were informed by a first-hand knowledge of the tribes in her native California. Born and raised in Ukiah, in the Potter Valley, Hudson received her formal art training in San Francisco, where she studied with Virgil Williams. In 1890, she married John W. N. Hudson, a prominent Pacific Coast ethnologist for the Field Museum of Chicago, who diligently researched the life, language, and art of California's Pomo Indians. Painted in 1892, Little Mendocino attracted national attention when it received an honorable mention at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. Her reputation secure, she traveled widely with her husband over the next two decades, painting other Indian tribes including the Pawnee in Oklahoma Territory. Though many of her paintings were destroyed by the earthquake and fire of 1906, Hudson remains well known as California's preeminent painter of Pomo Indian life and children in the late nineteenth century." (from the Autry National Center website, )

I found the following article in the NYT archives. The pdf file wouldn't publish here (although I managed to capture the photograph and headline), so I have typed in the article itself.

"Little Mendocino" - (a crying Pomo baby)

“And you want to know how I get Indian babies to pose for me, do you?”

Mrs. Grace Hudson, the young California artist who has made herself famous by painting papooses, wiped her brushes and dropped into a chair in the ivy-covered veranda of her studio at Ukiah.

“Now, I’ll tell you all you want to know and more, too, perhaps. I have much to contend against, but with the exercise of a little ingenuity and a great deal of perseverance I am able to catch a snap shot of an Indian baby in some interesting attitude or occupation. There’s the little fellow lying on his back trying to get his little brown foot into his mouth,” said the lady, pointing to one of her pictures. “That baby looks as if he never did anything but laugh, but I had to give him gumdrops to get that little rascal to look pleasant. That gave me the expression. The pose and coloring had to be done without the model.

When I see a baby that I want to paint I cannot borrow it for an indefinite period by telling its parents it’s the sweetest thing on earth. I have to kidnap it first and then overcome the natural inclination of a baby to do everything except what is most desired.

“There is a popular superstition among the Indians, that neither arguments nor bribes will shake, that to be sketched or photographed is sure to bring some terrible calamity down on the head of the subject. If it is not a speedy death it is disfigurement for life, or at the very least blindness. As all Digger Indians become blind in their old age from sitting all their lives over the smoke of their campfires, their superstition never lacks confirmation. Why, if those Indians here in Ukiah knew that I photographed and painted their babies I would be regarded as a murderess and my studio would be shunned as a chamber of horrors. I once induced Captain John, a very old Indian, whom I had known from my birth, to sit for me. He was so aged and infirm that he could not earn a livelihood and was in imminent danger of starvation.

“After a great deal of moaning and groaning, he finally accepted a bribe of bread and boiled beef, but he insisted on eating it first, for fear he would not live to enjoy it. When he had devoured the last crumb, he took his seat, and sat for hours staring at me stoically, and awaiting his impending fate like a stoic. Great beads of perspiration [sic] stood out on his face, and every few moments he would draw another long breath and brace himself for another effort. He must have suffered untold agony in the few hours he sat for me, for no bribe that I could offer would induce him to pass through the ordeal again. He declares he would sooner starve. I have tried to induce him to bring his grandchildren to me, but he only shakes his head and mutters: ‘No, bueno Muchacho.’ Nothing will induce him to imperil their lives, for he is positive that he escaped death only because he was so old and tough.

“But about the babies. When I want a subject I first have to find a squaw with a papoose. If the child’s face suits me, I enter into negotiations with the mother to do some work, usually scrubbing or window cleaning. She leaves the baby strapped up in his basket, and braced against the side of the house, where it will be under her eye. The next manoeuvre [sic] is to get possession of that papoose. I must make it cry, so that I may have some reasonable excuse for taking an interest in it. There is where Mascot ‘does his turn,’ as the theatrical people say. Here, Mascot, speak.”

An orange and white St. Bernard, almost as big as a Shetland pony, bounced up out of the cool ivy, and let out a roar that fairly shook the house.

“That will usually make an Indian baby cry,” explained Mrs. Hudson. “If it doesn’t frighten the baby, it does the mother, and I have to go to the rescue in any event. Mascot just loves to poke his cold nose into a baby’s face when it is strapped up hand and foot and perfectly helpless. So the mother is glad enough to let me take the papoose inside, where it will be safe. I promise to take good care of it, to buy it a new dress, and to give it some beads. In a jiffy I have that baby propped up in the light against the front door of my studio. Then comes the task of getting one fleeting expression on the face of the baby indicative of interest in life. They are regular little stoics. They will sit and stare without blinking an eye or moving a muscle while I perform the most grotesque antics in order to provoke a laugh. I can occasionally interest them by giving them something to eat, but there is always something about the way they accept food from me that reminds me of the caged animal.

“I worked three days on a baby before I could get a smile, and only then by putting on a feather headdress and dancing around like an Apache medicine man. I worried, tormented, bullied, and frightened one little fellow for two days trying to make him cry. But when I tried to propitiate him with candy and beads he yelled lustily, and I got a splendid photograph of him.

“But to have them sleep is another thing. I have been almost tempted to chloroform them. It seems to me that they never sleep. I have rocked them and sung to them till I was hoarse, and dizzy, and still their big brown eyes, that looked like painted porcelain, would stare at me just as unblinkingly as if there were no such thing as sleep.”

“Have any of the babies you painted died?” was asked.

“Yes, one. It was my namesake, too. Its mother promised to name it after me, but it chanced to be a boy. Had it been a girl its name would have been Grace Hudson Billy-Bow-Legs – the family name is quite up to date, being hyphenated. The poor baby struggled along under the name of Dr. Hudson Billy-Bow-Legs for about a year and then died. If its mother knew that I had ever painted and photographed it should would hold me responsible for its death.”

“One would think that an Indian village would be the last place on earth in which to study art,” was suggested.

“On the contrary, those indolent, improvident people, who live in little shanties of old boards and boughs, who like nothing less than labor and nothing more than whisky, can teach the world art. They are masters of the art of basketry, and none finer is found anywhere. All of their baskets are made from the roots or twigs of shrubs, but the coarsest of them are watertight. I have found among them baskets which contained fifty-two stitches to the inch and appear almost as fine as linen. The little collection I have made, containing something over 350 baskets, is worth nearly $5,000. Some of the plainest in appearance are the most valuable because they canot [sic] be duplicated. They are woven with the stitches which the oldest of Diggers have forgotten, and basketry is now, to a certain extent, a lost art with them. I have found fourteen different weaves, but the best living basketmakers have forgotten half of them.”

Mrs. Hudson makes her home in Ukiah with her husband, Dr. J. W. Hudson. She was born and reared in Mendocino County, and spends much of her time whipping the trout streams or climbing over the hills with her dog and gun, for she is an ardent sportswoman. She is a crack shot and an expert swimmer, but has never attempted to wheel.

New York Times, November 5, 1895

Monday, June 23, 2008

Burning the Digger

Place Where They Burnt the Digger
Amador County

Place Where They Burnt the Digger is a Miwok Indian ceremonial area located on Old Stockton Road east of Highway 88 near lone, California. The site consists of approximately four acres of oak, manzanita, and pines, on top of a small hill above the road. Prior to 1920, a round house, about 40 feet in diameter, was constructed here. Four large poles and eight smaller poles in two circular patterns supported a roof made of dirt mixed with clay and wild grasses; 100 poles extended from the center of the house, forming a dome-like structure. In 1942, on the death of Dance Captain Charlie Maximo, the round house was destroyed.

In April 1922, the Miwok Indians of the Jackson Valley held a "Big Time," which is a gathering of all Indian people in the area for social or ceremonial reasons. This particular Big Time attracted many Indians from the surrounding region, especially from the lone, Tuolumne, and Jackson areas. On April 20, a dummy, made of old clothes and stuffed with straw, was burned as an effigy for the name "Digger." Prior to the burning of the Digger, the Miwok Indians, also called Mewuk and Mewok, had been named Digger Indians by the federal government. The following statement, issued to the Sacramento Agency by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, appeared in the California Indian Herald:

Indians Score Victory After Government Eliminates Name Digger From Official Use

Hereafter the term "Digger" as representing the name of a tribe of Indians in the Sacramento jurisdiction, and appearing in the records of this Bureau, will be discontinued, objections having come from others that this term is one of contempt and regarded by the Indians as humiliating and opprobrius. It will, therefore, be replaced by the name 'Mewuk' which, upon accepted ethnological authority, is the true tribal designation of these Indians.

The change from "Digger" Indians to Mewuk, Mewok, or Miwok was the result of an appeal made by the Indian Board of Co-operation and nine of its delegates. Today, the Place Where They Burnt the Digger is important to the Miwok in two respects: first, it represents official recognition of the Miwok Indians and their cultural tradition; and second, since the time of the burning, the Indians of the area refer to themselves as Miwoks, and do not call themselves by their village names. (California Indian Herald, 1922:14)

Article found online at

Sometimes you have to invent the right ceremony. Many California Indians ceremonially burn or destroy a person's belongings - clothes, baskets, even (as noted above) a sacred roundhouse - upon that person's death. It isn't such a leap, then to transfer that same sort of cleansing ceremony to the embodiment of racism and hatred.

Burning the Digger

Strike the match, a yellow-blue flame
cupped in your callused hand.
Let it eat the air for a moment -
hungry, unfulfilled. Touch it
to the dirty straw feet,
dry as hatred. Flames
sizzle up his lazy legs,
smoke seeps out of filthy
pants. Burn the poverty
of that cotton, watch lice
pop like delusions. Burn
the gluttony, envy, desire
for alcohol and white women.
Burn his spineless body,
burn his ape-like arms,
burn his beastly face.
Oh the foul black odor
rises above our heads
like an enormous smudge,
wraps around our limbs,
blesses us. Lean in,
let the heat singe
your hair. Wail for all
that was lost, but not
for him. Smile though
your tears streak down
sooty cheeks. You know
this death has been
a long time coming.
You know this death
is a good one.

Joyful Indians

As I've researched this past year, I would sometimes come upon a photograph or painting of Indian people that really moved me. As time went on, I came to cherish representations of California Indians who were happy, smiling, or at peace with themselves.

Once you've done a little of this kind of research, you begin to understand just how rare it is to find a happy Indian. After all, it was the End of the World - there wasn't much to celebrate.

But isn't joy - and our capacity to feel it, celebrate it, spread it - isn't that what all this resistance is about? Not just about surviving, about preserving the bits and pieces we can find and reclaim, and not just mourning those things we've lost. The true devastation of colonization, the profound tragedy of conquest, is when the body survives but the soul is a ragged, thin, embittered ghost that haunts that wounded flesh.

So tonight, to celebrate finishing the first full draft of my book project!, I want to go through my materials and post the images that have carried me through, and have helped me keep my eyes on the prize. It would be so easy to get lost in grief. But grief - although necessary, and normal - is not what is going to save us as human beings.

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