The Saturday Rumpus Essay: The Diggins


I think about my family and wonder if there was a time when America was great, for them. The longer I ponder the question, I think that, for Native people, the time when America was great was before it was America. It is the only logical answer when I look at the intersection of federal and state policies with my family, my ancestors.

I often wonder what it must be like for non-Indian Americans living in a stolen homeland. Many acknowledge the misdeeds of the past and truly have no specific culpability for the deeds of others. How many times have I heard people say, “I wasn’t the one that killed the Indians” or “my family didn’t kill the grizzly bear.” But someone did, and it wasn’t that long ago, and it wasn’t the Natives.

The grizzly bear is the symbol of California, and is the primary image on the state flag. The grizzly is pictured walking on green grass over the words CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC, which is written in bold print over a wide red stripe. A single red star hovers above and just ahead of the lumbering grizzly. Designed by William Todd (nephew of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln), the flag was raised at Sonoma, California in 1846 by American settlers in revolt against the Mexican government. The “Bear Flag” was officially adopted as California’s state flag in 1911.

It is said of the images, that the grizzly bear portrays strength; the star represents sovereignty; the red color signifies courage, and the white background stands for purity. When I look at the flag, I see the murder of my ancestors, who are represented in the red blood under the grass. The white is “purifying” the red, and state sovereignty leads the grizzly to his death because there can only be one true predator in California: humans

I still live in my homelands, the land of the grizzly, which includes many parts of California. Being tribally mixed, I have many homelands: Northeastern California, the high Sierras, and the Coachella Valley. We have no choice but to be mixed. It is taboo to marry our relatives, and there are so few of us, the descendants of the survivors of genocide. We must marry outside of our tribe, or at least not sleep with our cousins.

When I travel through my homelands, I imagine what it used to look like before immigrants rushed in during the 1800s. Sprawling wetlands and marshes covered the vast central valley from Redding to Bakersfield, and bustling villages bordered the wetlands, just out of reach of the insects. The desert was a shifting dune that coagulated in new places over generations, but the mesquite forests, now gone, were the constant. Most of the palm trees came later, except for the Native filifera, but the grizzly travelled across all of it. The grizzly bear lived among us as our relative.

Many of the tribes have stories about men and women who turned into bears; they had bear medicine. We still have the bear dance in many parts of California, but there are no more grizzlies. The last known grizzly bear was killed on Saturday, August 5, 1899 in the mountains above Camp Pendleton in what is now San Diego County. The end of the grizzly was surely not a great moment to the Native people, and the 1800s were not great for Natives, or for grizzlies.

I grew up living with the legacy of Native massacre, the theft of my family’s ancestral lands through unconstitutional takings, and the repercussions of Indian boarding schools on my grandparents, my mother, and me. Although I did not personally live through these failed federal policies, my ancestors did. I can trace my family tree to 1867, when my ancestor was not killed in a massacre. She did not die, and then the story goes on that her daughter found safety, and her daughter was a vagabond; her daughter was taken to boarding school, and her daughter was my mother. Today, I still struggle with their intergenerational legacies, five generations of pain.

My earliest childhood memories involved pain, either the pain of a slap, or a belt, or the bullet wound of my uncle’s murder. Whether it was at the hands of my white stepfather, or my Indian mother, the pain inflicted on my soul came from the same history: the history of Indian-white relations, the pain of racism and the pain of being raised by parents who were raised in a military school. I was not saved by the military Indian boarding school; instead a part of my soul was killed there.

My mother was raised by parents who met as children at Sherman Indian Boarding School. It is hard to imagine that she ever thought that America was great. She was born in 1946 on a California Indian Rancheria in what might be considered a “redneck” part of California. It is the part of California where Native people struggled to find jobs, and were treated as second-class citizens, especially because they were the people with the darkest skin. It is the part of California where I am sure some people felt remorse when they learned of the massacres in that region, while others just wished the soldiers had been a little better at killing.

My mother was dark and rotund, and she hated herself for both. She worked as many jobs as she could to provide for me and my sister, and was lucky that she could rely on her parents to help take care of us when our white father walked out of our lives to start a new family—an all-white family. She sold her Indian land and invested it in a business with my stepfather, and, as with most divorces, the proceeds were split fifty-fifty. When she sold her land, I am sure that she thought she was going to finally have something, that she would turn her forty acres of Indian land in the desert into something more, build a nest egg. It was a dream that caused a thirst of greed and desire that could not be quenched with any amount of liquor.

My stepfather owned a cattle ranch, one that he inherited from his father, who likely inherited it from someone who was good at killing Indians. It was the remnant of a vast cattle ranch that had water rights due to its appurtenance to the Bear River. As a child I didn’t know that it was the settlers, like my stepfather’s family, who killed Indians to steal their land, but as I grew up, he told me. It was something that he was proud of. He was also not ashamed that he met my mother in a bar, the aptly named Bar of America, and took her as his savage wife, his squaw.

That word, to me, is one of the dirtiest words that I know. It is safe to guess that I learned it from Gary, my stepfather, along with other dirty words, including digger and another slur that rhymes with digger. A digger is a racial slur for a California Indian. It is a slur that not many know about, thankfully, or people would probably use it more often. I was told that I was “a good digger” if I was behaving as a young child, working hard, and not talking back. Like nursery rhymes, the rhythm of racism cannot be forgotten.

The river was the place where racism didn’t reach me. The Bear was a river of carved granite boulders and swimming holes. Most of the flat places were dotted with deep holes and grinding rocks. It was there where Native women, probably Nisenan or their relatives, ground acorn and processed food for their villages. Grinding rocks are evidence of California’s “pre-history”—hard to ignore artifacts that are described in a very short chapter in elementary school books.

For me, the deep mortar holes were not a rarity, because I had always known they were there. I never ground acorns in them, but instead I filled the depressions with water and stashed small rainbow trout in them as I cast out another line. The sunlight glimmered and reflected the cold mountain water, and I remember wondering what it was like to live out there along the river. The boulders were like a kitchen, but not like the one at home where I might be hit with food, or have coffee thrown on me if the meal was not presented just right. The grinding rock was warm and cool, and yet it was constant.

There were no grizzlies at Bear River because the last had been killed seventy years before I was born. The meadows between our house and the river were no longer tilled by the grizzly as they dug for gophers, weasels and other subterranean rodents. The grizzly ecosystem of wildflowers, tubers, and roots had been long replaced by tractors and by cattle. I once heard a tribal elder explain how grizzly bears tilled new planting grounds for Native foods. The union between bear and human was symbiotic and respectful; the region’s two largest predators did not hunt one another, but practiced a careful dance of coexistence.

I went to my first bear dance with my grandparents as a very young girl. My grandparents had a photograph on the wall that showed a man, one of my great-great grandfathers, standing with my great uncle when he was a boy. They stood in front of a giant grizzly bear hide, the one that was used at our family’s bear dance. The striking photo was taken at a time when practicing Indian religions was illegal. As part of the US government’s suppression of traditional Indigenous religions, tribal ceremonies such as the bear dance were banned for over eighty years by a series of federal laws.

I would guess the photograph was taken around 1930 because the boy was my great uncle, Leonard Lowry, who was born in 1920. The photograph is significant because in 1924 Indians became US citizens under the Indian Citizenship Act, but they were not free to practice their religions until 1978 with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The sepia family relic is priceless evidence of our family’s role in the bear dance, and it is also evidence of a crime.

Uncle Leonard, like his older sister, my great-grandmother, were the first generation of my family to be taken from their parents and forced to attend Indian boarding school. There were eight children in that family. Several died as children, and each of the surviving ones suffered in unique ways. Leonard and his brother, Stanley, focused their deep loss onto the battlefield in the US military, killed many men, and returned even more deeply scarred. My great-grandmother seemed to fare better, but she always seemed very sad. One can only imagine how painful it would be to be taken from your parents as a young child and forced to go to Indian school. Some of the children in that generation tried to run away, but died in their attempt to return home. In response, the federal Indian agents decided that the answer was to send the children even farther away, so far that they would not be able to leave. And that is what happened to her daughter, my grandmother.

My grandparents met at Sherman Indian Boarding School in Riverside, California. My grandmother had a difficult time with the transition to Sherman, which was a twelve-hour bus ride from her home. The federal policy at that time was to “kill the Indian and save the man,” the slogan of Army Lt. Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Indian boarding school system. The Indian agent had decided that too many Indian children died when they went to school close to home, so my grandmother was sent far away. Sometimes, the Indian was killed.

My grandfather has fond memories of being raised at the school because he was an orphan and had no one to take care of him. After his mother died, he was passed around to the other relatives, but as they also died, he was left with a choice: he could either find another relative to stay with and go to St. Boniface, the Catholic School, or go to Sherman. Life was not great for my grandfather, but he would never complain about hard work. He was raised by the protégés of Pratt, and, for him, the regimen stuck.

While the boarding school experiment may have sometimes “worked” to instill American values into Indian children, the price was the destruction of the Indian family. After surviving massacres and seeking out safe havens, the federal government found the survivors and took their children. Today, my family is a vast network, as I must have a thousand blood relatives through the generations of inter-tribal and inter-racial marriage, many of whom I may never know. The bloodline is deep when you are in your homeland. Many of us, the descendants of survivors of massacres, carry the memory of the grizzly in that bloodline. It might be the one thing that remains, despite the Indian boarding school.

The Bear River is where I remember my childhood. Even then, it was not the same river that flowed from the Sierras to the Valley before the Gold Rush. The River, like the Native people, was turned into a ghost of itself. Hydraulic mining pressure washed entire mountains down into the Valley. The silt and mine tailings from places such as Malakoff Diggins in Grass Valley, California caused tremendous floods in what is now the Sacramento Valley, and irreversibly altered stream channels and historic watersheds. The gold miners had no regard for the people, plants, or animals that might be in the path of the water cannon, or the runoff.

The concept of cutting down mountains in search of nuggets is unthinkable to me, but the 1800s in California was, in fact, the Wild West. It was big, it was wild, and there were even “wild Indians.” In 1865, a Yahi man named Ishi and his family were attacked in the Three Knolls Massacre, in which most were killed. Although thirty-three Yahi survived, cattlemen ultimately killed about half of the survivors. The last survivors, including Ishi and his family, went into hiding for the next forty-four years, avoiding all contact with the settlers because the State had a bounty program in place that authorized payment of fifty cents per scalp and five dollars per decapitated head. Fear drove them deeper into the hills.

In late 1908, a group of surveyors staking out “unclaimed” land came across an Indian camp inhabited by two men, a middle-aged woman, and an elderly woman—Ishi, his uncle, his younger sister, and his mother, respectively. The former three fled while the latter hid herself in blankets to avoid detection, as she was sick and unable to flee. The surveyors ransacked the camp and Ishi’s mother died soon after his return. His sister and uncle never returned. After they were seen in 1908, Ishi spent a few more years alone and in hiding. Finally, starving and with nowhere to go, at around the age of fifty on August 29, 1911, Ishi was captured attempting to forage for meat near Oroville, California, after forest fires had ravaged the area.

The profoundly sad story of Ishi has fascinated me throughout my life. As a child I wondered what it must have been like to live alone as he did for so long. After all of that time, he was taken to live with professors at the University of California, Berkeley, at what is now the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. He became a living subject for anthropologists who were developing the field of California Archaeology and Anthropology. Ishi also worked with them as a research assistant and lived in an apartment at the museum for most of the remaining five years of his life.

While the survivors of massacre in my family were living on Indian Rancherias set aside by the federal government in the early 1900s, and the children were sent to boarding school, Ishi died of tuberculosis on March 25, 1916. Ishi had tried to avoid being killed by the immigrants by hiding, and instead he was killed by their contagion soon after living with them. Ishi had conveyed his wish to have his body kept intact, according to his tribal custom, but instead, the UC medical school performed an autopsy and removed his brain in the name of scientific study. His body was cremated and buried with his personal belongings, as he wished, but his brain was placed in a Pueblo Indian pottery jar, wrapped in a deerskin, and sent to the Smithsonian Institution by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber in 1917.

In 1999, I had just started my career as a tribal attorney, when I heard about an effort to repatriate Ishi’s brain. I was at a meeting when I heard a tribal chairwoman talk about the plan and, although we were all intent on negotiating tribal gaming compacts at the time, many of us dropped everything to begin the effort to return Ishi’s brain. Ishi’s brain was a symbol for what Native people have lost through history: a piece of ourselves. On August 10, 2000, descendants of the Redding Rancheria and Pit River tribes received the brain and returned it to California where it was buried in his homeland in a place none will disclose. Ishi was the last Yahi, but not the last Yana, the larger group of his tribe. Unlike the California Native grizzly, the immigrants did not kill the last Yana. I know people who are Yana;, they still live among us.

In 2014, the US Fish and Wildlife Service received, and quickly rejected, a petition to reintroduce the California grizzly. In 2015 the Center for Biological Diversity launched another petition, this time aimed at the California state legislature, to reintroduce the grizzly bear into California. I watch these petitions and wonder if the introduced Cascade Grizzly would like it here. Would she be able to use those claws effectively in the untended soils of Sierra meadows? Humans fear those massive paws, with the long, sharp nails, as if they would hunt humans for food. Native people know the grizzly bear. We know that the claws are perfectly designed to dig, to till, and to work the land. Grizzly bear paws are like giant mole paws. The grizzly bear paw is made for digging, scraping, and gouging. There are other predators that are better designed for murdering humans, such as the panther and the cougar, but none of the animal predators really want to eat humans, because we probably taste bad.

I assume that most California Indians would have a hard time recalling when America was great, for us. America has not been kind to us, but there is one belief that is common in Indian Country—that we are the caretakers. We may not have been able to stop the murder of our relatives, or the capture of our children, or the paving of our lands, but we are still here, in our homelands. We know it better than most ever will, because the understanding of it has been passed down for generations, for millennia, since before we were called diggers.


Image credits: feature image, image 1, image 2 courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library Photograph Collection, image 3.

Michelle L. LaPena is a member of the Pit River Tribe and a mother of three. She is an Indian law attorney, and has owned and operated an Indian law practice since 2006. She has lectured at primary, secondary, and university levels on topics related to California Indians and federal Indian law for over two decades. In addition, she has published a number of law review articles, essays, and non-fiction articles on topics relative to her work with California Indian tribes. She received her BA in 1993 and her JD in 1998, both from the University of California, Davis. She was recently graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts with an MFA in Creative Writing, and is a recipient of the 2015 Truman Capote Creative Writing Fellowship and a Full Circle Scholarship from the American Indian College Fund. More from this author →