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Steven Newcomb: 'Indians' book from 1864 carries present-day significance

Filed Under: Opinion
More on: books, california, genocide, steven newcomb

A marker points to the location of Indian Island in California. The island was the homeland of the Wiyot Tribe until a massacre on February 26, 1860, nearly wiped out the entire nation. Photo: Ellin Beltz

Can a book published in 1864 still share important lessons about colonization, genocide and domination in California? Steven Newcomb (Shawnee / Lenape) of the Indigenous Law Institute looks at the ongoing significance of The Indians of California:
I believe that English creates a false sense of disconnection between the present and the past. This article is an effort to point out that “the present” in the United States, as just one example, has historical continuity with a dark and bloody past. I believe it’s important for us to increase our awareness of the extent to which ideas and actions of domination and dehumanization committed against our indigenous ancestors continue to control our thoughts and behavior, and the thoughts and behaviors of the United States in the present. If we at this particular past-present lose sight of what led up to this moment, then we are likely to be blinded as to what needs to be addressed.

J. Ross Browne was born in Dublin, Ireland, and moved to the United States in 1833. In 1855, at the age of 34, he became a U.S. Customs’ agent and an Inspector of Indian Affairs on the Pacific Coast. His book The Indians of California, first published in New York in 1864, does an excellent job of providing insight into those heinous acts of domination and dehumanization committed against Native peoples to create present day “California.” Browne was noted for being “efficient and fearless in exposing serious frauds committed by agents in the use of governmental supplies; and in denouncing the outrageous treatment of the Indians on the reservations.” Browne’s writing style, which apparently influenced Mark Twain, is marked by sardonic and biting wit. A case in point: “An honest Indian Agent is the rarest work of God I know.”

I have spent a great deal of time writing about domination and dehumanization, which Browne wrote about quite artfully without once using either of those two words. By the time he arrived in California, the Spanish Mission system had only been ended some 20 years earlier. After the mission system was disbanded large numbers of the Indian people lived in abject conditions. “In the vine-growing districts,” wrote Browne, the Indians “were usually paid in native brandy every Saturday night, put in jail next morning for getting drunk, and bailed out on Monday to work out the fine imposed upon them by the local authorities.”

Read More on the Story:
Steven Newcomb: ‘The Indians of California’ Through the Eyes of an Irishman in the mid-1800s (Indian Country Media Network 4/12)

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