In 2009, in response to a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the Del Norte County Unified School District in northwest California acknowledged institutionalized discrimination against its Native American students – including a climate of racial harassment and disproportionate use of suspensions and expulsions – and agreed to implement a series of remedies over the next five years.
As part of this settlement, I was invited by Del Norte school officials in early March to lead a workshop for some twenty-five elementary school teachers. We met in Crescent City, just down the road from the notorious Pelican Bay supermax prison.
The teachers are grappling with how to make their curriculum respond to charges of racism. In particular, they express their frustration with how the state-authorized textbook for fourth graders – Our California: History-Social Science for California by William White (published by Pearson in 2006) – addresses or, more accurately, distorts and ignores California’s Native past. Given the relatively high number of Native families in the Northwest, the resurgence of Native cultural practices during the last thirty years, and the region’s history as an epicenter of mass extermination policies and land grabs in the wake of the Gold Rush, socially responsible teachers want to do the right thing by their students. And Our California, they tell me, gets in their way.
From the late 19th century until the latter part of the 20th century, the history of Native peoples in California was fashioned to suitably fit the state’s racially sanitized origins story and narrative of relentless Progress. By-passing California’s indigenous and Mexican roots, the state’s earliest textbooks and popular histories located the mythic idea of California in Castilian Spain, transported to the New World via religious missions from the 1770s through the 1820s.
The missions, that essentially functioned as colonial outposts and forced labor camps for some 60,000 Native neophytes, became in Malcolm Margolin’s words “places of defeat and death.” Yet, according to a typical children’s history book, published in 1908, the missions were a “fairy tale, wonderful and unreal,” an oasis of civilization in a “wilderness inhabited only by savage men and wild animals.” When newly independent Mexico abandoned the missions in the 1830s, it was retrospectively blamed by California writers for the degeneracy of Native peoples: “Free from restraint, they soon sank to a low depth of barbarism and vice,” observed a writer in Land of Sunshine in 1894.
Well into the 20th century, architects of the California Story built a cultural firewall that insulated generations of young people from the horrors of the genocidal past. Instead, students were drilled in a catechism that portrayed native peoples as biologically inferior, racially different, predestined to extinction, complicit in their own demise, and in need of the firm hand of civilizing institutions. Their only chance of survival, so the argument went, was in the abandonment of native cultural practices and assimilation into cultural values promoted by social workers and Indian matrons.
This official, mythic narrative of the past was disrupted in the 1960s and 1970s with the rise of militant Native organizations, protest literature, and revisionist histories. By the time that William White did his research for Our California, he had many sources to draw upon, including Carey McWilliams’ Brothers Under the Skin (1944), Theodora Kroeber and Robert Heizer’s Almost Ancestors (1968), Vine Deloria’s Custer Died For Your Sins (1969), Byron Nelson Jr.’s Our Home Forever (1978), Jack Norton’s Genocide in Northwestern California (1979), and Tomás Almaguer’s Racial Fault Lines (1994), not to mention a ton of specialized, academic monographs rooted in a critical framework.
On the surface, Our California seems sensitive to multiculturalism, gender, and race. There are pictures of Japanese farmworkers, a black mayor of San Francisco (Willie Brown), and the first woman in space (Sally Ride); acknowledgment of the “unfair treatment of migrant workers” (with images of César Chávez and Dolores Huerta) and a paragraph on tribal government in a chapter on governance (including a photo of the Agua Caliente Tribal Council).
But a close read reveals too many incorrect facts, problematic interpretations, as well as a heavy dose of amnesia regarding California’s Native past and present. By page two the misinformation is under way: “Our story of California begins hundreds of years ago with the California Indians.” This sentence manages to both reduce multi-linguistic and self-contained tribal communities to a generic Indian, and diminish their history by a few thousand years.
A well-meaning effort to portray the daily lives of four tribal groups (Cahuilla, Chumash, Miwok, and Hupa) “long ago” is undermined by the assumption that they were static and homogenous, with no internal divisions and no changes over time. The statement that “thousands of California Indians live in our state today” is accompanied by a photograph of a Miwok ceremony “still performed today.” There are no images of Indians looking like you and me in work or school clothes.
Accompanying an illustration of a swashbuckling, and no doubt studious Spaniard on horseback is a euphemistic take on the history of colonialism: “In the 1500s, European countries wanted to learn about new places.” And the vocabulary word for this lesson is “explore.”
Accompanied by an image of now four swashbuckling Spaniards on horseback, the next lesson asks the question, “How did the Spanish change how California Indians [sic] lived?” And “died” would have been appropriate since native populations declined by about one-third in the period of Spanish rule. This time, the vocabulary includes “colony,” ever so nicely defined as “a settlement of people who come from a country to live in another land.” Another key term, “mission,” becomes “a settlement set up by a religious group to teach their religion and other ways of life to native people.” The assumption that Native peoples are godless heathens is reinforced by an image of Chumash on their knees before a padre and giant cross.
The mission system and its founding father, Junípero Serra, get the star treatment. Serra, whose 300th anniversary of his birth will be celebrated this year, is being touted for canonization by the Catholic Church. Our California gives him his own page and a saintly image. The missions themselves, which figure prominently in representations of California iconography, get five images in the book, all of buildings bereft of people. My favorite is an illustration of a “Spanish Mission” that resembles a contemporary Napa Valley spa, complete with “guest rooms,” “workers’ housing,” and “pottery shop and oven.” Not an Indian in sight.
While the textbook acknowledges that “some California Indians” were “forced to give up their way of life” and that “many died from diseases brought over by Europeans,” the overall impression of the missions is positive. Here, “California Indians learned how to farm and make new things.” Presumably, stuck in the Stone Age for ten thousand years, they never got the hang of living off the land. Perhaps they were just lazy, given that the missions needed to teach them how to “work hard.”
On page sixty-three, we learn that under Mexican rule “many California Indians had no land or money,” so ended up working on ranches. But after the war against Mexico in 1848 (described in one sentence as a “gain” in territory), Native peoples disappear from history, only to be reincarnated eighty-two pages and more than a hundred and fifty years later in a section on “tribal government.”
Meanwhile, Our California sidesteps the challenge of teaching young children the history of genocide, mass extermination, human trafficking, and cultural erasure in the aftermath of the Gold Rush. Out of curriculum, out of mind.
No wonder teachers feel frustrated, families are angry, and Native kids rebel against a curriculum that whitewashes their California.