(Revised and deepened)
This month has been Pomo Honoring Month in Sebastopol,
and yesterday I went to see Hinthel Gaahnula (Talking Indian) a film produced by James BlueWolf giving a narrative
history of the Clear Lake Pomo from shortly before contact with Europeans to
the present day. The Pomo were the tribe that once occupied
much of this part of northern California, including Sebastopol. The film began by recounting their
pre-contact culture, ways of working with the land to create a sustainable
relationship lasting over 1000 years, and respectful relations with the animals
and spirit of place.
Nevertheless, it was not a pleasant film to watch, for while by far the longest in Pomo history, this period was the shortest in the story told by the film. The terrible
inroads European introduced diseases made on a long established oral culture
were devastating to the people, but were as nothing compared to the crimes
deliberately committed against them by whites, be they Russians, Spaniards or,
worst of all, Americans.
California’s first governor, a monster named Peter Burnet, in his first
address to the state legislature, called for annihilating all Indians:
“a war of extermination will continue to be waged between
the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected.” There is not one record of protest by a
white Californian to these sentiments.
There are plenty of records of agreement. For example the Chico Courant argued a few years later
It is a mercy to the red devils to exterminate them, and a
saving of many white lives.
Treaties are played out – there is only one kind of treaty that is effective
– cold lead.
Interestingly, when the Nazis implemented their “final
solution” they were still human enough to keep it quiet and out of the
press. Not so California’s leaders
and money crazed immigrants.
Along with out and out murder there was widespread seizing
of children and selling them into slavery, forced labor, organized rape,
fraudulent land claims with the connivance of local and national politicians
were the order of the day by those we now regards as intrepid pioneers.
This is what happens when greed, lust, and religious bigotry
combine into an unholy hell.
Against all odds a remnant of Pomos survived, and some say
they will join us November 20, at the Presidio Interfaith Center for a People
of the Earth gathering (scroll down). I certainly hope
so. All practitioners of Earth spirituality are most welcome.
After seeing the film the question on everyone’s mind was
“now what?” Such crimes, bestial,
murderous, depraved, by people our towns are named after and who are honored
names in California history, presents a problem, to say the least. So also the fact that the majority of
white Californians apparently supported such actions and those who did not mostly
remained silent. (But not
all. When the Pomo were expelled
from the Clear Lake area, one rancher refused to go along. People stayed on his ranch. It is always possible to do the decent
thing, be it the people who harbored Jews during the Second World War, or that
rancher. Those who say ethics were different in “those times” are at best ignorant.)
Fortunately perhaps the German people have shown us the
way. After World War Two as they
confronted the enormity of Nazi crimes, as a nation Germany did not say “Let’s
move on” Obama style, it did not hide what happened from its history books, as
the Japanese did and do. They
confronted as a nation and as a culture what had happened, and the complicity
of so many Germans in the horrors that were perpetrated. And Germany emerged a far better and
more decent place for doing so.
Hopefully as a stateCalifornians will confront the crimes of
its founders, and study these horrors in as much detail as possible, all the
while asking “How could people like us (for they were often like us) do things like this?” And “How can we make sure such horrors
are never done by us again?”
America has been a pretty cowardly nation in this
regard. We like to “move on.” We moved on from Indian genocide to
Philippine genocide. Then we moved
on the excesses committed on Haitians, Latin Americans, and more recently My
Lai and the casual slaughter of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, two nations
far from our borders.
It is this moral cowardice and historical blindness that
enables the Tea Partyers and contemporary Republicans to admire the depraved
culture of Dixie during and before the Civil War. And to seek to perpetuate it
A Constructive Alternative
The point is not simply to condemn wrongdoers. In a different context, one not involving Indians, much of what some did was
admirable. The fact that so many people acquiesced tells us that “normal folks” could go along with hideous crimes, just as the fact that a very few did not acquiesce eliminates the excuse that “those were different times.”
We like our heroes and
villains in primary colors, and the world is not that way. We as Pagans should be particularly
aware of this. We are free from the nasty fantasy that absolute Good confronts absolute Evil, a fantasy that convinces many imagining themselves good to embrace evil.
In a world that sees everything in absolutes of good and
evil it is hard to come to an appreciation of our strengths and our weaknesses,
our nobility and our depravity as a nation. Thinking in such absolutes simply leads to another
round of rationalizations, guaranteeing more crimes in the future.
This is true for our national character, and it is equally
true for our individual character. (How many Americans remember that Lt. Calley was made the tragic hero of a popular song many otherwise ‘good people’ purchased and played? Or that no one today honors the Americans who landed a helicopter and trained their guns in American troops to halt the slaughter? Again, like the rancher, not everyone is a moral cipher. Again, like the rancher, they are not honored as we ‘move on.’
I hope Pomo Honoring Month may begin a process where we Californians
will show as much courage and integrity as the German people, for our
ancestors’ crimes were as bad as theirs. Germany has shown us the way.