Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chief Marin

Marin County is named after a Coast Miwok whose story is movingly told by Betty Goerke.

Not so long ago, in a galaxy not very far away, the concrete and asphalt of Marin County did not exist. Animals roamed at will, the air was pure, and the seasons passed in regular succession without the threat of expiring into the maw of global industrialization. The county was dotted with people who wove baskets of grass, gathered mussels from the bay, wove feathers into their headbands, and told abundant stories from their past, and from their imaginations.

Local anthopologist and archeologist Betty Goerke recently gathered what evidence there is about these native Americans into her book "Chief Marin: Leader, Rebel, Legend". There isn't very much, since they spoke their stories rather than blogging them, but Goerke is judicious in setting the scene and reading as much as possible from what there is. I highly recommend it.

The principle horror she describes is the California mission system. Now curiosities and museums, the missions were outposts run by Catholic priests, first from Spain (1775 to 1821), then from Mexico (1821 to 1846). The priests had final say over all matters at the mission, including command over small military detachments assigned to them. They regarded baptism as a one-way street, cajoling natives into baptisms that they hardly understood, then sending military parties out to recover any "neophytes" who dared to go home again.

Once inducted into the mission system, neophytes were treated like slaves, worked under military guard in the fields, housed in segregated "dormatories" from which there was no escape, and paid only food and clothing enough to subsist. A fascinating contrast is presented by Fort Ross, a Russian outpost slightly to the north, whose clergy made no project of enslaving the natives, nor did the military harrass them most of the time, but let them trade with and work for the fort on relatively equitable terms. "Runaways" from the Spanish to the Russian establishment were thus a constant problem. Goerke writes "Father AmorĂ³s (of the San Rafael mission) sent out a force of a few soldiers and neophytes to retrieve and harass those who had fled to Colony Ross.", and quotes the Russian Achille Schabelski, who "saw several tents of unhappy fugitives from Mission San Rafael, who, taking me for a Spaniard, fled to the mountains.". One native chief said that the Spaniards "were bad men who took his kinsmen captive and make them work like cattle in the fields".

Eventually, the Spaniards (dragged down by their theocratic tendencies) were replaced by Mexicans, who, enacting the enlightenment ideals of the time and of their own liberation, decided to release the natives with shares of the land, abundant livestock and produce from the missions. Yet corruption carried the day, and the local authorities managed to leave the native Americans with virtually nothing at all. The land they fled to was not generally recorded and deeded, with dire future consequences as Mexico gave land grants to sundry soldiers and other well-connected non-natives. While settlement was sparse this problem was not immediately apparent, but as white settlers arrived and after the Bear flag revolt revisited all the deeds in California, the die was cast for total displacement and disenfranchisement (Native Americans were not granted citizenship until 1924).

In many ways the native conditions were even worse during this time of "freedom", since the native Americans were hunted for sport and impromtu slavery by both Mexican (by General Vallejo and his relations, among many others) and white settlers. Goerke writes "In the North Bay, according to most accounts by the settlers and the military, the Indians were pursued for capture rather than murder, because the rancho owners needed men to work as laborers. ... the outcome was the same: murder, rape, and enslavement."

The role of Chief Marin in all this is rather murky. He flits in and out of the scene as a sometime pillar of the San Franscisco and San Rafael missions, sometime rebel leader harrassing the missionaries and hiding out on islands in the Bay, sometime prisoner (escaping several times), and sometime ferryman and trusted pilot about the bay. At one point in prison, he fends off a priest as follows: ".. told him with the greatest sang-froid that if the priest would not bother him while he was alive he would give his permission to make a Christian of his dead body. With this statement he dismissed this tormentor." He was respected by his adversaries, which led General Vallejo to suggest his name for the County across the Golden Gate from San Francisco. But all Goerke has to work with are baptismal, wedding, and burial records in the mission archives, and the much later histories and recollections of Vallejo and other Californios (Mexicans), after they were themselves expropriated by the inrushing horde from the east. In the end, her book is most moving in evoking the life of the Coast Miwok before, during, and after the traumas of colonization.

I'll close with one last quote from the book, from the early mission period, referring to the Russian explorer Otto von Kotzebue:
Twice a year, some of the Indians received passes that allowed them to return to their native villages for a brief period. Kotzebue observed: 'This short time is the happiest period of their existence; and I myself have seen them going home in crowds, with loud rejoicings. The sick, who can not undertake the journey, at least accompany their happy countrymen to the shore where they embark, and there sit for days together, mournfully gazing on the distant summits of the mountains which surround their homes; they often sit in this situation for several days, without taking any food, so much does the sight of their lost home affect these new Christians.'

1 comment:

  1. My little sister is a direct decendent of chief marin by father Robert Charles Thomas.She has artifacts of chief marins ancesters and is interested in opening a museum with these.If interested in this endevor contact Marcus Smith at 615 889 8305 Thank you.