Alameda Native History Project visits the Martinez Historical Society, Brings American Indigenous History to Life for 40 Day-Campers

It was only supposed to be a visit. But I could not refuse the opportunity to stay, and answer questions about Native American stuff and History from a bunch of school children.

The lecturing part is kind of difficult, but Q & A is lit. The Alameda Native History Project supports alternative forms & modes of education, such as active, inquiry-based learning. As such, it is more natural to do something like introduce the exhibit and facilitate learning through the learner’s inquiry about specific objects, observations, scenarios, and problems.

In fact, the Alameda Native History Project is an example of the effectiveness of inquiry-based learning; and what a dedicated, resourceful learner can do on no budget, independently of any other organization or institution.

Overall, the aims and goals of this organization is to create a new, more accurate, and nuanced, narrative regarding the Indigenous History of the San Francisco Bay Area. And to do this by using science, and imagination, to re-capture something that is often referred to as “lost”, and “immemorial”.

To which I say: we haven’t even begun to interpret the artifacts left behind by our ancestors, and held in Universities, Museums, and private collections. Indigenous people are now, and have always been, the most well-qualified, and best suited to interpret our own history, and artifacts.

I recently spoke with someone from the Martinez Historical Society over the phone, and they invited me to come and see their museum, and talk about their collection, and what might be available and relevant to Native American History in the San Francisco Bay Area. Our conversation was nice; and it sounded like they had an archive which was well put together. So I decided to drop by sometime.

On a recent Tuesday (14 June 2022,) I found myself in the City of Martinez, with my contract work finished, and the Borland House (aka “Martinez Museum) about to open. This was fortuitous, because the museum is only open on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, from 11:00 am, to 3:00 pm–except holidays.

When I reached the door steps of the Borland House, I called out, and introduced myself, to Mary, (I think,) who was just entering the front door. I found out Mary works for the museum when we introduced ourselves, inside. Mary set me up with an explanation of the self guided tour; and I signed the guest book, then entered the first room.

The first room was dedicated to the “The Native Americans of Martinez”; and to the Ranching Period, right after the Rancheria Period. With a really interesting focus on the history of Alhambra, and Fernandez Valleys.

The room was well-lit, and had a lot of space, even though there were: three large exhibit cases; an old cash register; a side-saddle, on a big mount; a complete and bonafide cowboy get-up; two flags (50-star and California bear); branding irons; a hitching post; a flat-iron stove, with the english flat iron… and something else in the corner by the window between the case and the get-up I can’t recall….

Now that I think about it, there’s a Cowboys and Indians Theme here.

There’s an implication of us, and them; before and after.

“Native Americans used to be here; but then we came; they left; and we built ranches (agriculture), infrastructure, and industry.”

I think it’s really important for you to know, that–from an Indigenous Perspective: The Mexican Rancheria and California Ranch Periods can be seen as one long Ranch Period, punctuated by violent foreigners with cows, horses, guns, and hats.

In fact, one of the primary areas of conflict were cows on tribal territory, without permission or payment, eating the primary food stock of not just one tribal group, but the primary cereal stock of all of the tribal groups in the region. Nuances include: the plants weren’t even ready to eat yet; and–when we complained–the conquistadors would raid our villages.

The Spanish and Mexican Era in California History is often miss-understood, and poorly interpreted, when it comes to the Indigenous experience during this time. And questions like “Where did all the ‘Indians’ go?” are a by-product of this lack of knowledge, and perspective. Real Indigenous California History can explain what happened, and fill in the gaps of the vague generalizations found in most textbooks, and taught by most universities and institutions today.

The longer I stayed at the museum, and engaged in the exchange of knowledge and experience, the more I came to understand the nature of the misunderstanding and, therefore, misrepresentation of Native American History outside of institutions like Universities, and specialized Research Projects, like the Alameda Native History Project.

After all, local historical societies and museums are run by community members. The Borland House/Martinez Museum is an example of a local historical society which has very personal, and direct ties, to the living history of the community it serves. This is evidenced by Sandy’s family heirlooms, from the family ranch, in Fernandez Valley appearing in the Ranch Life Exhibit.

But these histories are not as dichotomous as one would assume.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, many Ohlone, Karkin, and Saclanes people became ranchers during what was largely considered the Ranch Period, inclusively. Because white people and white history–which is what is taught in schools, and most museums and other institutions–are unable to distinguish between different shades of brown: the movement of Indigenous people, through (and into) the Spanish and Mexican population went largely unnoticed. In the eyes of white history, we simply disappeared, ceased to be seen within the sea of brown faces laboring in fields, and breaking horses on ranches all throughout California. My great-grandpa was a Numu Cowboy.

As someone who was born and raised in America; who was adopted out of my tribe, and raised by white people; I understand the concept of, and experience multiple forms of otherness, in a very unique way. And I can recognize we have all been indoctrinated into believing the white excellence narrative of the founding of America at some time or another. And the belief that success only comes from dominance, and exploitation. This is the class structure that was created by these foreigners. People who aren’t even from here. These old, dead, christian, white supremacist, terrorist, European war criminals–on boats. Who are called heroes, pioneers, and innovators, today.

In reality, these people were riding the high of a religious fervor, following the heretical concept that God promised white people heaven on earth; a Zion in wait–in the form of “The Americas”–and that it was God’s will to purge this land of anyone but white christian fundamentalists (aka “God’s children”.)

The concept is called “Manifest Destiny”, and it was first heard in 1845. But these were just words used to name a belief that made it possible to justify so much harm, so quickly, to so many people; and to relieve white people of their individual guilt, and responsibility. After all, their God told them to massacre women, and children; spread disease through contaminated blankets; and destroy the Buffalo, and every other living creature on Earth. Why should they be responsible for their actions, when it was God’s Will to kill every heathen who couldn’t be saved, and every savage who couldn’t be tamed?

The true cost, and horrors of the Indian Wars have been largely unaccounted for; and such barbaric concerns were certainly not spoken of in a civilised Victorian society. The newspaper articles concerning “Injun”, “Indian”, “Red Man”, “Savage” are just as offending as you think they would be. Except, the articles about military engagements and victories never mention the war crimes. Which is strange, considering how much shit they were talking about everything else.

But this is still a narrative that centers colonization, and the colonizer. Any time you de-center the colonizer from Indigenous History, you only have Indigenous History.

The problem with white history is that it’s narcissistic. White history only wants to see itself reflected in the story of other people. White history does not want to learn the story of those people. Because the story of those people ended when white people conquered them.

In the first room, Mary was talking with another woman, who I would find out is named Sandy. Sandy is a volunteer docent. She also has some pretty cool family heirlooms in the ranch displays. However, she is not very familiar with the Native American Exhibit. So, Mary and Sandy were going over the names on the maps, and the artifacts.

Unbeknownst to me, Mary, Sandy–and Maris, who I will meet in a minute–are all getting ready to host 40 school children for guided tours through the Borland House.

So, instead of trying to crowd around the Native American exhibit, I shunt off to the kitchenware, and the (very nice) bobcat fur. I look at the pictures of the men on the wall, and the wine press and grapes, and nice under-stairwell niche, that’s been turned into an exhibit about the “First Lady of Martinez”.

But I can still hear someone trying to work out the names on the maps. “Car-kwee-in? Yeah….” The not-so-sure voice said from behind.

“It’s Car-ken, like K-A-R-K-I-N.” I said, “That’s the name of the people who lived here.”

They apologized; and switched to the proper pronunciation. Which was cool. And then they started working identifying the objects in the case.

Most of the items were found in the hills behind the John Muir House. Beautiful arrowheads of all forms, shell necklace jewelry I’ve only seen in archaeological texts, in very good condition, right in front of me. Close enough to wonder at the adhesives developed to construct complex objects that require durability, like rattles, fans, and regalia.

There were strands of heishi beads in clamshells, and abalone pendants that look like they’re straight out of the book.

Someone asked if these beads and shells were treated as cash. And I just saw the opportunity to shift the paradigm a little. I know, I totally butt in, and man-splained. But, I was actually there specifically for the purpose of visiting local Bay Area Historical Societies, and seeing how they chose to curate Native American History, to find new sources of information, and creative methods and examples of curation and exhibit design.

And I thought what a shame it would be to have such a nice exhibit without the proper interpretation.

Plus, despite having the visual aids and information provided by the East Bay Regional Park District’s Ohlone Curriculum, these people were still having problems putting it all together. And I realized, maybe for the first time: that this isn’t their fault. That these people actually wanted to know more, and had taken the time, and done the work to find the best information available today.

It was clear the amount of care and reverence that was paid to Native History; and the importance these docents placed on actually learning about all of the exhibits in the local museum they helped curate. They were humble, honest, and willing to learn. And, despite none of us having planned any of this, we found ourselves sharing our mutual understanding of California’s history.

It started with an explanation of the economics of trade in the San Francisco Bay Area; and our (California Natives’) connection to each other all over the state. I outlined some of the more valuable things people traded with, and mentioned that scarcity and distance also played a role in something’s value. We didn’t simply trade shellbeads as money. We traded dug-out canoes, marriage regalia, houses, ceremonial items … and the components to make those items. Sometimes the components were equally as valuable as the finished item itself. I introduced the nuance that not everyone made regalia, or canoes, or arrows, or grew food; that these were specialized objects, created by artisans, and so trade with these artisans was different than trade for subsistence, or goods.

I mentioned the difference between the Tule Canoes, and the Dug-Out Miwok Canoes. We talked about the different language regions, and I helped compare and contrast the information provided by all of the East Bay Regional Park District’s Ohlone Curriculum Maps, providing annotation on the changes in research, and narrative, visualized in each one.

I told them that Miwok was the primary language spoken in Missions, so that’s why everyone thought all the Natives here were Miwok. That, when the Spanish came, we had a difficult choice to make, that we could have either stayed, and capitulated; or we could leave, and try and live our lives in the ways we knew how.

I told them how the people who stayed formed their own groups, and that the struggle became more politicized than a simple struggle of resistance. Because there were indigenous people who had converted and joined the missions, or worked for the conquistadors, or the white “Californios”, who were beginning to trickle in later on. And then there were the indigenous people who still chose to fight, and stay in the valleys and on the shorelines of their ancestors. These people were not united. And all of these groups became locked in a struggle against each other, and against the colonizing population. They were all struggling for power, and influence, and survival, ultimately.

In between there was the Spanish-Mexican War, and then the Mexican-American War; and during all of this, indigenous people slipped through the cracks. No one was really worried about the what Native Americans were doing, until California had been firmly placed in American control; because Indigenous people had effectively been removed from the crusade for land and gold. Colonization. Conquest.

Once the Americans had wrested California from Mexico, any indigenous people who could pass for Mexican or Spanish did; to avoid being rounded up and put into concentration camps called “reservations”. And we continued to live and labor here, virtually unnoticed, dormant, for the next seven or eight generations. Surviving numerous attempts at erasure, genocide, family separations, and government neglect.

I said we are becoming more visible. Like the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area. But it’s not a “comeback”, because we never left.

Then we talked about the fact that there’s not a lot of information on what happened to Native Americans after. But I explained that there is. That the only reason we don’t fully understand these items and their significance is because of a lack of imagination and grasp of metaphor on the part of early archaeologists who thought they were the expert in someone else’s culture.

I told them that people assume Native Americans weren’t engineers, or scientists because they don’t have the ecological background to (a) recognize, or (b) appreciate the fact that Native American civil engineering projects were academic exercises in recreating natural systems with such expertise that white people can’t tell the difference between rivers and creeks, and indigenous designed and constructed regional irrigation systems. That our systems were designed, essentially, to dissolve into the natural world without much as an oil slick on the surface. Because we are not colonizers and we do not attempt to conquer the natural world because we realize we are an integral part of it.

That Native Americans can tell you what happened to us; it’s just that no one listened to us ever, and we honestly still feel some type of way about what happened. [Is happening.] So that’s why we just don’t want to talk about our history so much.

But, if Native Americans were consulted, we would be able to fill in the holes, and be able to identify all of the items in their collections, as well as explain their uses and significance. Just as Mary, Sandy, Marvis, and I did.

And that was when Mary asked if I would mind staying to talk to some school children about everything I just said about the objects in the case, and the fact that Native American People are still here, and alive today.

Honestly, I was really interested in learning what the kids thought about these objects, and what they wanted to know about. This would be a great opportunity to create a kid-friendly narrative for some of my work that other educators can use or build on. Or… at the very least, help me figure out what kinds of labs, workshops or demos would be the most entertaining and the best for generating an organic, student-led discussion, guided by their inquiry.

I was this many years old when I found that’s called “de-centering” the teacher.

Anyway, it was hella fun. And It was really awesome to see these kids get excited to learn about these objects. And I was really happy that someone said something like “we have one have of those at home”, when I was showing them the mortar and pestle, because I got say, “That’s great! What do you make with it at home?” And explain how lots of people use metates, or mortar and pestles, to make their food, and stress how awesome it is that we have something in common. (And it’s even more awesome because it’s food!)

I learned a lot, myself, with the help of the day campers. And I was really just happy to help. It’s been a long time since I stood in front of an interpretive station to make a presentation. And, yeah. This was the beginning of an unofficial collaboration and partnership with the Martinez Historical Society.

Over the next month, I would work with the Martinez Historical Society to give them some foam-mounted maps to address their historical and cartographic needs and wants. So, that’s where we’ll pick up in the next article.

Stay tuned.