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Education, Colonization And The Law: Native American History In San Diego

November 4, 2013 1:19 p.m.


Michael Connolly Miskwish, Kumeyaay Historian, and SDSU Professor

Bryan Wildenthal, Law Professor, Thomas Jefferson School of Law

Related Story: Education, Colonization And The Law: Native American History In San Diego


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is Native American heritage month. It is no coincidence it's the same month we celebrate Thanksgiving. That first peaceful gathering between colonists and Native Americans was one of the few bright spots in the history of whites and Indians in America. This week a discussion on the tortured history takes place in San Diego. It is based in part on this year's one book one San Diego selection Caleb's crossing. I'd like to introduce my guests. Michael Connelly Miskwish is a Kumeyay historian and professor at San Diego State University. Michael welcome to the program.

MICHAEL CONNOLLY MISKWISH: Thank you for having me here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Brian Wildenthal is a professor at Thomas Jefferson school of law. Brian, welcome,


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Michael, Caleb's Crossing is a story about early English settlers in Massachusetts. The Native Americans who found their world changing because of the new people and a man who became the first Native American to attend Harvard. Does it tell us anything about why relations between native Americans and whites became so hostile?

MICHAEL CONNOLLY MISKWISH: I think it gives a few clues and early relationships. I really found the book the Indian part of it was really a backdrop to the story of a young lady who was growing up in colonial America. And I think that, the Indian side of a you just get a little taste of it throughout the book and I think you want respect it is a good introduction if somebody wanted to, was interested in and it sparked a desire to find out her mission I think is a good starting point. The book itself for me gave me a lot more insight into what it was like to be a young lady growing up in. Society.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In other words what you are saying is that to an extent once again Indians are sort of co-stars to their own story.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now terms of the relationship between the Massachusetts tribe and the settlers that are described in detail it's crossing, is this a very different kind of: helix. Since San Diego tribes experience with settlers

MICHAEL CONNOLLY MISKWISH: If you look at the relationships you see many different permutation in how education was used as a tool, as a way to indoctrinate or subjugate and in some cases with the best of intentions to try to help. But I think it is important to understand when we talk about education we are missing the point there is a huge Board of Education that was already a part of the travel process. There are huge bodies of knowledge that were imparted from one generation to the next. Our songs were basically are encyclopedias and our instruction books and manuals. And through the songs using the words in the song says mnemonic device, it allowed the list of from previous generation to be imparted to the younger people people have a huge body of knowledge of pharmacology biology engineering science ecology, fire science, policy sinks that were part of the education process that a person went through growing up in Native American society

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Brian, this story is Caleb's Crossing takes place in the 1600s. When did the US start making laws restricting access to lead them to their culture. Does it go back to the very beginnings of US colonial history?

BRYAN WILDENTHAL: Yeah, it goes back into the colonial period. And right from the very beginning of the us government as an independent nation, so I think the Christians into land at military conflict and the devastating impact of disease and the cultural clash and tragically one-sided culture clash as professor Miskwish was mentioning, the tragedy was that there was no interest in the educational process in which the vast knowledge and learning of tribes could've been something that European settlers learned from. To some extent they did benefit. There are a lot of agriculture in the number of fields where they benefited greatly.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's what Thanksgiving is all about, right?

BRYAN WILDENTHAL: To some extent yes, but the attitude of European side was that it should be one-way street the other way, imposing culture. So education is one way to look at the process that occurred, like with the character in this novel who's loosely based on a true character, but it's basically a fictionalized story. And the way education was perceived was a way of kind of imposing and the European Christian religion and values. But, yeah, we've been very beginning of US independence, in fact precisely with the growth of the US as an independent nation, that is when the military and territorial threat to the native nations became a severe. And some of the worst impacts starting to occur actually around the time of our own, the American Revolution. It's no coincidence that many tribes in the eastern US sided with the British. Not that they had any great love for the British but they perceived that they have some vested interest in some stability with the British and they perceived accurately that the American colonists and Independence would be more of a long-term threat to some extent.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Michael I think most of us most Americans are familiar with the fact that land was continually taken from Native Americans as white settlers spread across the continent but I believe not as many people know how native culture and religion was suppressed. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

MICHAEL CONNOLLY MISKWISH: Well that would be a pretty long presentation. The, in the Spanish period the suppression of that if culture was something that had gone on for hundreds of years before the Spanish came to San Diego and they had the system pretty well laid out on what they would do when they came in and part of that was to take on religious leaders of the Indian people and try to show them as impotent. To with them, love them, denigrate them in front of everyone, show them is powerless to try to deprive them of any kind of influence he might have among their people and then there was the suppression of anything that could be even remotely tied to the religion that included the link which, the songs and dances and anything that was part of what was perceived as the Indian religion. And since the spiritual beliefs of the Indian people are needed everything in life and it was in the way that you are treated, in way that you build things, and the way you conducted yourself, so in order to completely rid the Indian stuff that it was necessary to make all of those things into evil things that cannot be done. And very few of the traditional Indian activities were allowed to persist under the Spanish system. The ultimate goal was to make the Indians into productive members of the Spanish Empire. And to do that, there was a certain level of conformity that they wanted to have within the Empire.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So from the days of the Spanish colonialists to almost our time this suppression continued. Tell us a little bit about Indian boarding schools because I don't think an awful lot of people are familiar with that happening up until the 1950s and 60s is that right, Michael?

MICHAEL CONNOLLY MISKWISH: Yeah, the boarding schools originally, they originated out of the Indian allotment act which was a misguided attempt in the 1880s to assimilate Indians within society by going in and taking and then selling off large portions of Indian land and and interspersing white settlers in Indian communities in order to set an example for Indian people. The idea was, once Indians saw white people, white people living nearby and the uses they were putting the land to, they would drop whatever was left of language and culture and try to imitate the white people as best as they could. This idea was the assimilation of Indian people into the population. But that is not what happened. The end result was that most of the land that was under Indian authority went out of Indian authority and in many reservations so had a checkerboard distribution which is land interspersed with tribal trust language creates a huge regulatory nightmare

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Bryan, when we are talking about the boarding schools I think that some of the motivation is incorrect as it was, was actually trying to do Native Americans some sort of favor. Taking them out of what was considered a primitive culture and inculcating into a European heritage is that right?

BRYAN WILDENTHAL: Yeah well the boarding schools definitely, there was the assault on a land base of the Indians and as my colleague said, that is the important part of the allotment story and the use of boarding schools was the cultural assault and it was an effort to displace native culture and religion where literally they've taken the children. To seize the next generation of Indian children and remake them in a European image. When I teach the course on Indian law where we covered the legal rights to property but also the freedom of religion aspect in the way that boarding schools coming to a was largely an effort to suppress Native American religion and establish and promote Christianity strikingly since the history of the US was all about colonists fleeing Europe to escape religious persecution, and established the state of separation of church and state, about the principles went out the window when it came to the effort forcibly assimilating Native American tribes. It was all about suppressing Native American religion and actively governmentally promoting Christianity.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How long did the schools go on, the boarding schools?

BRYAN WILDENTHAL: They still exist. Now the modern form they are largely run by native communities. And try to play a more positive role. But some of the historical institutions have changed and evolved over the years and still exist. I think the era of the boarding school as this kind of brutal system of forcible assimilation, I think that started on a wide scale as Prof. Connelly was saying kind of in 1870s and 1880s with allotment I believe it persisted into the mid-20th century as a really kind of negative force basically so many Indians today would remember I think stories from parents and relatives about your ancestors who went through the boarding school process. It's just a traumatic and incredibly important part of the cultural experience of many American Indians.


MICHAEL CONNOLLY MISKWISH: One of the philosophies they had an exquisitely sums up the attitude from the time period, the brutal time. Was to save the child you have to kill the Indians and that was the philosophy that was practice.

BRYAN WILDENTHAL: Ironically by a military American general who was the headmaster of one of the boarding schools who uttered the famous line, yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now you know, I come from the East Coast and while I know that there are Indian cultures in reservations small ones on the East Coast I think a lot of Americans actually, Michael, might still be surprised that native Americans have a separate culture with their own lands and their own laws. Considering the history between Native Americans and the dominant culture on this continent, now, is there some resistance to assimilation now with some native tribes?

MICHAEL CONNOLLY MISKWISH: It depends on what you are talking about with assimilation. When we interacted with the United States we negotiated for us, my tribe, the Kumeyay, we negotiated the Treaty of St. Isabel which reserved about 20% of San Diego County to the Indian people in return for dropping any claim to the rest of the and people think that this was all under Spain or Mexico at one time and it wasn't, even during the height of the Mexican. Most of the California was under control of Indian people. In fact Indians had retaken the lead of San Diego County so by the 1840s they were launching attacks against the city of San Diego itself. So there's considerable reason to doubt the legal claim that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo transferred over to the US when in fact very little left of the territory was under the control of the Mexicans. When the tree was associated we reserved our portion in order to give up claim to the rest, but then treaty was ratified and so, there was cerebral debate for many years over whether we were under the US at all. Since we had never, since the arrested to ratified the treaty we should be under the BIA, we should be independent and eventually reservations were created we have executive board of reservations that were created they were scattered in the much smaller than what the original treaty was but I always go back to the original agreement. You know we give the claimant to the coast and into the farmland sine. County and return for our reservation which then were not granted as part of the agreement. Instead we got the scattered little reservations that we end up with that we were promised, that we have our own jurisdiction over. And if the deal is unfair people think the US got about in the video we would be happy to trade.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you really quickly closing because I don't have a lot of time a lot of people think that the gaming surprises on the and when let's say in San Diego County sort of turned the tables and assess, has even the playing field when it comes to County the plants are doing well for your prompt prosperous etc. etc. what is your take on that?

MICHAEL CONNOLLY MISKWISH: There are some tribes are very fortunate to live in locations where they can have gaining and it provided a huge amount of resources and in many ways it spills over into the other tribal communities, two. There are other tribes who is just not economically feasible for them to have meaning. Some of them it is only marginal. My tribe, Campo the ethical acorn Casino and it provides a little bit of revenue to the tribe but that is not a huge amount and that;s not going to make anybody rich. It need theories throughout, if you think some of the tribes have been fortunate to have but if you look at the tribes of will, what happens if it goes away, what happens if the state of the for gaining wider what happened types of entertainment he, you really need that the casinos become obsolete and there are some the things that can happen in the future without having to define economic base where the tribe is going to go and I think we really need to tackle something ridiculously huge amount of discrimination as far as taxation policy and economic development capacity beyond casinos.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me tell everyone a panel discussion about Native American history and that will take place this Wednesday at the Thomas Jefferson school of law and that starts at 6 PM. I've been speaking with Michael Connelly Miskwish is a history professor at SDSU and Bryan Wildenthal is law professor at Thomas Jefferson school of law thank you both so much for coming in and speaking with us.


BRYAN WILDENTHAL: Thank you for inviting us.