Friday, January 8, 2010

Isabel Meadows: Scholar, Storyteller, Visionary

Isabel as a young woman. From A Monterey Album: Life by the Bay By Dennis Copeland, Jeanne McCombs

Isabel in her later years. From Monterey: Presidio, Pueblo, and Port By J. D. Conway

Who was Isabel Meadows? Her standard bio reads like this: "Isabel Meadows was born in Carmel Valley on July 7, 1846, the day the American flag was raised over Monterey's Custom House. The daughter of former whaler and pioneer James Meadows and Loretta Onesimo, a member of a local Indian family, Isabel was a speaker of the Rumsien Ohlone language, the native language spoken in the Monterey coastal region. In the 1930’s, Isabel became a primary informant of Smithsonian ethnologist J.P. Harrington for her knowledge of tribal culture and languages in the Monterey/Carmel/Big Sur area. In her eighties, she accompanied Harrington to Washington D.C. for five years to continue their work on language; she died there in 1939."

After years of reading Isabel's recollections as recorded by J.P. Harrington, I feel that I know a little more about this mixed-blood woman whose mother came from our shared Esselen-Rumsien ancestors and culture. When I say “shared,” I mean that in a tribal way; Isabel never married and did not leave behind any direct descendants; and although Jacinto, one of her half-brothers through her mother’s first marriage, married my great-great-great grandmother Sacramento Cantua (her second marriage), they did not have children either. I want to make this lineage clear because there must be no doubt among Isabel’s descendants through her nieces and nephews that I am in any way staking some claim to the memory of Isabel. What I am doing, however, is trying to bring to light the intellectual and determined work that is Isabel’s legacy to all California Indians. She was a scholar, a theorist, a storyteller, and a visionary.

The following is an excerpt from my essay, “’Saying the Priest had Grabbed Her’: Rape is the Weapon, Story is the Cure” forthcoming in a special Indigenous issue of Inter/text, edited by Laura Beard and Kathryn Shanley. Following this excerpt you’ll find some genealogy as it relates to Isabel. It is not meant to be complete, only to give you some idea of where she fits into the complex constellation of characters of whom she speaks.

These three short quotes helped me think about Isabel as I wrote this essay:

“Art and literature and storytelling are at the epicenter of all that an individual or a nation intends to be. And someone more profound than most said that a nation which does not tell its own stories cannot be said to be a nation at all.” Elizabeth Cook Lynn, “Life and Death in the Mainstream of American Indian Biography” (93).

“Who is actually the author of field notes? … Indigenous control over knowledge gained in the field can be considerable and even determining…Ethnographers aspire to a Flaubertian omniscience that moves freely throughout the world of indigenous subjects. Beneath the surface, though, their texts are more unruly and discordant.” James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (45, 48)

Survivors might “use confession and memory as tools of intervention …storytelling becomes a process of historization. It does not remove women from history but enables us to see ourselves as part of history.” bell hooks (110).
In 1935, salvage ethnology was the name of the game: ethnologists and anthropologists were obsessed with preserving “traditional” knowledge like language, vocabulary, religious beliefs, creation stories, hunting and gathering techniques and resources. The J.P. Harrington field notes, however, record stories illustrative of the corruption of authority and power by Europeans - not a topic at the top of anyone’s salvage list. Yet Isabel Meadows, from the Monterey/Carmel Indian community, made sure that these stories found a way into the archives. Meadows knew she was a valuable resource to Harrington; he returned to her again and again, pleaded with her to work with no one else, snapped up the bits and pieces of cultural information and language she fed him, always enough to keep him hooked. But in between the language lessons and coyote stories Harrington was after, Isabel snuck in the stories she wanted to salvage: her own private project, a memorial, and a charmstone of hope for future generations.

Thus, Isabel’s stories become an example of storytelling as indigenous survival strategy; Isabel’s words become petroglyphs or hyperlinks or, as poet and scholar Paula Gunn Allen once said, “hyperglyphs” which, when we touch on them, reveal layer upon layer of detail embedded in her narrative.[i]

For example, we might ask, why does Isabel Meadows tell Harrington the story about a girl named Vicenta who is raped by a priest, and tells? [see the field note earlier on this blog at ]Why do I, in turn, discuss that story of sexual violence as part of reclaiming and reinventing a California Indian identity? Why give room to these particular destructive powers when trying to harness the creative powers necessary to create our mosaic history? I know these are questions that people will ask, even members of my own tribal community. The short answer is a brief and brutal fact: California Indian women have still not healed from the tragedy of Missionization, colonization, and the violence it inflicted on our bodies. 86% of contemporary rapes against Indian women are committed by non-native men; this is unusual in a crime which, among other ethnic/racial groups, does not typically cross racial lines to any great degree. In response to Amnesty International’s statistics showing Native women 2.5 times more likely to be victims of sexual assault, Sarah Deer says, “[contemporary] Native American women suffer the highest rate of sexual assault in the United States,” yet when she travelled into Native communities,

advocates tell me that the Justice Department statistics provide a very low estimate, and rates of sexual assault against Native American women are actually much higher. Many of the elders that I have spoken with in Indian country tell me that they do not know any women in their community who have not experienced sexual violence. (456)
In other words, as with most women, Native women tend to under-report sexual assault, yet because the rate of sexual assault is so high, the rate of under-reportage is much greater than most groups of women in the United States. At the same time, due to jurisdictional issues, prosecution of rapists of Native women are notoriously non-existent. [ii] In fact, the rape of a Native woman in the United States is almost as invisible to the eyes of the law now as it was in 1835, or during Missionization. This invisibility makes healing from rape extremely difficult.

Such healing is possible – as an individual woman who has experienced rape, and as a Native woman whose culture has been raped, I know this truth. However, healing implies that the body and soul have worked through a complicated process in which medical care of the body and tender care of the spirit have been administered so as to knit wounds together, form scars, and lead to invention of new ways to cope with what has been lost and who we have become. The loss itself is never denied in a healthy recovery; a person who says, “Oh, I was raped, but it’s been twelve months and I’m over that now,” is continuing to act as a victim; voiceless, unacknowledged even to herself. Silence may allow a victim to become somewhat functional, but the energy necessary to labor under that kind of unresolved trauma is draining and limits your ability to form relationships, live fully, and be a creative, fulfilled human being. When an Indian woman cannot report the crime committed against her, much less prosecute, voicelessness becomes yet another burden she must endure.

This, I think, is the wisdom behind the story told by Vicenta and Isabel: Silence solves nothing. Even if a rape victim goes through the long process of reclaiming his or her body and processing the most intimate kind of invasion there is, healing is not guaranteed and is not immediate. And no matter what kind of justice occurs, nothing can bring that person back to who they were before the rape. How we raise our children, how we walk down the street, how we dress, how we form or don’t form friendships, even how well we sleep or how well we do or don’t take care of our bodies, is affected by the experience of rape. The ripples of a rape spread in every direction. How we respond to rape determines whether those ripples continue to be destructive, or move towards restoration.

Isabel and Vicenta knew that the rape of Indian women was an open secret; we know that explorers and colonizers kept logs, wrote letters home, and most significantly, did not recognize their actions as wrong. Unfortunately, this knowledge and our legacy of historical documentation, while valuable in many ways, does not record Native women resisting or surviving rape; it does not record the crime itself as a crime, but only as historical detail that leaves Native women the perpetual and helpless victims, a story that does not inspire or teach. Isabel, in particular, seems to know that without a voice, one remains a victim; with a voice, one becomes a survivor. I believe that in her story, Isabel also demonstrates that by telling our stories, Native women can move past survival and into the role of healer.

We know that colonizing Europeans frequently kidnapped Native women purely for the purposes of death by rape – rape was a weapon much like the sword, musket or mastiff. Andrea Smith drives this point home in her book, Conquest:
The project of colonial sexual violence establishes the ideology that native bodies are inherently violable – and by extension, that Native lands are also inherently violable. As a consequence of this colonization and abuse of their bodies, Indian people learn to internalize self-hatred, because body image is integrally related to self-esteem … when the bodies of Indian people are designated as inherently sinful and dirty, it becomes a sin just to be Indian. Native peoples internalize the genocidal project through self-destruction. (12)

Given the centuries of rape as a colonial weapon, and the generations of raped Indian women who came before her, then, Vicenta’s loud protest at the violation of her Indian body becomes more and more amazing. There is no doubt that Vicenta learned to “internalize self-hatred,” and to recognize that “the bodies of Indian people are inherently sinful and dirty.” Yet Vicenta, somehow, for at least one moment, transcends this brutal training.

And she demonstrates that we are allowed to, in fact must, fight that training. Isabel says Vicenta “went running to her house, saying the padre had grabbed her.” In that time and place, when California Indians, especially women and children, were legally being sold as slaves, the rape of a native woman was almost an oxymoron. If you were a native woman, you were a raped native woman. You were available to be raped at any time. So “telling” was the real crime. Yet Vicenta told. Despite being raised in a culture where rape was part of life, despite the historical devaluation of her body and her humanity, and despite fear of retribution from a white man more powerful than she in every possible way, Vicenta told.

I believe that Vicenta’s story, recorded in this ethnographic field note, is a precursor to contemporary Native women’s literature, a stepping-stone between Indigenous oral literacy and Indigenous written literature. The women of her community heard and remembered her story, but how could it survive beyond their uncertain lifetime? Most of the Indian women at Mission Carmel in that time period were, like Isabel Meadows, illiterate; Isabel’s “signature” on government documents asserting Indian blood for many, including my relatives, was her thumbprint. Yet Isabel understood that, in a perilous time, Vicenta’s narrative had to also enter into the written realm in whatever way she could manage, in order to return to us someday – as it turns out, almost two hundred years after it happened. To me, this means three important facts: first, that Isabel herself knew the power of story; secondly, that she believed in our survival – she believed that future Indian women would exist, need this story; and thirdly, she trusted our potential to become healers, to heal ourselves and each other, and to reintegrate body, soul, community even hundreds of years after the initial violence. These were beliefs Isabel would have learned from her mother, who learned it from her mother, and on backwards into time immemorial.[iii] She passed on an inheritance from our grandmothers as precious as any “salvage ethnology.” Thus, I regard the field notes that J.P. Harrington took while working with Isabel Meadows as Isabel’s body of work: her engagement in a creative use of words, literacy, and empowerment on behalf of her community.[iv]

For myself, my sisters, our daughters and granddaughters, Isabel and Vicenta’s story passed down through California Indian women to California Indian women is as potent as any coming-of-age ceremony, as medicinal as any gathering of women’s herbs, as healing as any grandmother’s caress of a fevered forehead. Through the vehicle of this field note, we are engaged in a very indigenous practice: that of storytelling as testimony, education, community action, resistance. Isabel preserves and praises Vicenta’s brave act and exhorts women of her generation, and the women who will one day read this note, to claim that kind of self-awareness. We are valuable human beings, she tells other Native women: our bodies are sacred, our voices are power.

[i] Paula Gunn Allen, in conversation with the author after a reading at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, April 19, 1997.

[ii] See Amnesty International’s report, “A Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA” for more information about difficulties in prosecuting sexual assault cases in Indian Country.

[iii] Significantly, Isabel told this story to Harrington in April, 1935, leading me to speculate that either her memory was jogged by the time of year (the rape happened during Lent), or that the story itself had become “canonized” into local indigenous life as a story, like most others, to be told in certain seasons – in this case, appropriately, as a memorial of the rape and anniversary of Vicenta’s refusal to remain silent. This latter possibility strongly suggests that California Indian storytelling maintained deep ties to traditional patterns long after the ravages of colonization had taken hold … managing both an adaptation to change, and a retention of cultural values. [iii] Storytelling has long been known to help survivors heal from traumatic events; see Amanda Konradi’s Having the Last Word: An Examination of Rape Survivors’ Participation in Sentencing, as well as author Maxine Hong Kingston’s work with veterans suffering from PTSD (her motto: “Tell the truth. And so make peace”). Sheffield et al note that, “According to inhibition theory, failure to confront traumatic events requires physiological effort and places the body under long-term stress (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986). In the short term, this physiological effort results in increased autonomic nervous system functioning (Pennebaker, Hughes & O'Heeron, 1987). Over longer time periods, failure to resolve traumatic events may result in continued rumination and negative emotions making cognitive processing and assimilation of the event more difficult (Horowitz, 1976). By contrast, active confrontation or disinhibition appears to begin a process of insight into the experience, improving overall mood and subsequently boosting immune functioning (Lutgendorf, Antoni, Kumar, & Schneiderman, 1994).” “Active confrontation” may be defined as taking control of the story, as Vicenta does here, and as Isabel amplifies by passing the story on to future generations.


Mission records from The California Early Population Project ( reveal the following genealogy. I’ve done this myself; if there is a mistake, it is my own. I use the Mission abbreviations as per The California Early Population Project. SC = Mission San Carlos, also known as Carmel Mission. The SC numbers below are all baptismal records. m = marriage. “Hackel” refers to Steven Hackel’s book, Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis. "Ensen" and "Unegte" refer to tribal villages or origin as recorded by the Padre who officiated at baptism.

Cushar [Ensen] SC 01750X
m. Celedonia Josefa Usari [Ensen] SC 01765X
Lupicina Francisca [Unegte, Ensen] SC 01725X
m. Codrato Antonio Patcalaush [Ensen] SC 01737X
↓ child
Maria Ygnacia SC 02323 8/6/1800
m. Onesimo Antonio Yeucharom/Deucharon SC 02105X
↓ child
Maria Loreta SC 03061 (also written as 03062) [dobap 12/10/1817] [dod 2/29/1902]:

1st m. 11/07/1832 Quirino Apaja SC 02993 (Hackel says he was a vaquero on the ranchos, 417)
↓ children
Julian SC 03991 [dob 3/1/1836]
Jacinto SC 04279 [dob 8/29/1840]
- 1st m. unknown woman
- 2nd m. Sacramento Cantua (no children)
Maria Magdalena 03911 [dob 7/21/1834]

Loreta's 2nd m. [1842] James Meadows (Englishman) dob 1817; dod 7/2/1902
↓ children
Maria Ysabel [Isabel Meadows] SC 04723 dob 5/7/1846; dod 1/?/1939
Thomas P. dob 7/2/1860
Eduardo (dates unknown)
Frank Meadows (dates unknown)
James Jr. (dates unknown)

I found this photo, titled "Omesino Meadows and brother Thomas," in the Autry Museum's online photo collection. I am not sure where Omesino fits into the above genealogy. If anyone reading this knows, please contact me.

The Monterey County Historical Society’s entry on Isabella Meadows’ father James ( has one mistake: MCHS states that Loreta was known as Loreta Onesimo de Peralta, widow of Domingo Peralta; this is simply a case of sloppy genealogy. Actually, Meadows’ Indian wife, Loreta, was married to a San Carlos Indian man named Quirino Apaja (see above) prior to her marriage with Meadows, and that couple had at least three children: Julian, Jacinto, and Maria Magdalena. A different woman named Loreta Albiso was married to Domingo Peralta, but both parents were classed as “Razon” and not Indian; Peralta was listed as a “Soldado de cuera de la Mission de Nuestro Santo Padre San Francisco” and the presence of a Hispanic surname for that Loreta indicates European origin (in 1787, when their child Chrisanta Antonio Peralto was baptized, few if any Mission Indians used surnames, let alone Hispanic surnames). Finally, Loreta Peralta had her child at Mission Santa Clara, not SC.

Isabel Meadows newspaper obituary, found online:


Although she was 94 years old, news of the death yesterday in Washington DC of Miss Isabel Meadows, Carmel Valley pioneer and "Aunt Belle" to all her large family, came as a shock to her many friends in this section.Born and raised in the Carmel Valley, Miss Meadows was the daughter of the late James Meadows, founder of the prominent valley family. She enjoyed excellent health until her last short illness and has kept in constant touch with her friends here many of whom have fine examples of her needle work, which she had sent to them as gifts.Leaving the valley many years ago, Miss Meadows went to Santa Ana California, where she lived for some time. Later, she moved to Washington where she was for many years an official in the Department of the Interior. Miss Meadows was living in Washington at the time of her death. Surviving Miss Meadows is her brother, Thomas Meadows of Monterey, and many nieces and nephews, besides a host of friends. Final funeral arrangements have not been made, but the body will be brought to Monterey for burial.

[The person who posted this obit notes:] The name of the newspaper and the date are not included in the clipping (alas!).

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