Two years ago, I took course titled “First Peoples of North America.” It was taught Tuesday nights, from six to ten PM- and since it was the winter we often arrived in darkness. The classroom seemed to be an oasis in a large, mostly empty campus.
The teacher was Mark, soft-spoken white guy who grew up in the same sleepy California suburb that I did. However, a unusual conflict during his stint at Humboldt State led to an interest in indigenous people and their rights. In the late 70s, Northern California natives were pitted against federal authorities over fishing rights in the Klamath River- a conflict sometimes referred to as the “Salmon War.”
From this article:
“Federal agents began to assert control over the Indian gillnetting fishery on the Klamath River. About 20 agents armed with billy clubs grabbed five Yurok Indians and confiscated their salmon catch. The Department of the Interior set up a Court of Indian Offenses to prosecute the cases, however, the judge dismissed the charges and ordered the fish returned to the Indians. The Yurok informed the Department of the Interior that they planned to continue fishing in spite of the fishing ban.
In the conflicts which followed, Indian boats were rammed by federal officials and Indians arrested and jailed by heavily armed agents. In one instance, a federal agent held an Indian’s head under water until he was out of air, let him breathe, and then pushed him back under water. In another instance, an Indian woman was sexually fondled while in handcuffs.”
The conflict took thirty years to finally resolve (improve the salmon run by removing dams on the river), and as the above quote shows, the federal agents used an amount of force that I would call inappropriate.
Mark returned to the Bay and met a large contingent of Lakota that had settled in San Jose- including several leaders in the American Indian Movement (AIM). His story is full of interesting events- helping build and maintain a native-run college called D-Q University, being inducted as an honorary Lakota and communing in a sweat lodge, running across the state to raise money for D-Q and stumbling into a farm worker’s camp run by César Chávez. His history was colorful and his storytelling ability unmatched.
A point he made early on, and reiterated throughout the course, was that this course was not simply a history course. Indigenous inhabitants of North America did not disappear and leave their artifacts behind. They are still here, their story is not finished. It continues.
Thus, a new era is born.