"I write so that my handful of pebbles, cast into still waters, will create a ripple."

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Salinan Tribe of Maria Inés

The Salinan Tribe of California’s Central Coast was determined to have gone extinct by the Census of 1930. But descendants of the tribe survived and are now in the process of applying for tribal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Hundreds of pounds of documentary information was shipped to Washington DC, arriving at a critical period of federal budget slashing. They are still awaiting Federal recognition.

The Salinan Tribe is recognized by the State of California. It is one of the tribes included in the writing at the bottom of a California State Park Commemorative Seal

Sociologists estimate that 3,000 Salinans inhabited land in the Salinas River Valley in 1770 when Junipero Serra and the first Catholic padres, Spanish military and immigrant families arrived by edict of the Bourbon king Charles III. Today the Salinan Tribal Council  has 371 certified baseroll members with 400 more waiting to be added after Federal recognition, with 80% still living in their traditional territory.

How can a tribe disappear? Genocide, killed off by the Catholic Church? Yes, the Catholic Church must claim partial responsibility. But the truth is more complicated. My novel, Maria Inés attempts to shed light in a way that will remain in the heart after the last page.   

The past stretches in surprising ways. It fills the present and it forms the future, changing the way that we interpret events of the past. In my research of early California, In the process of creating a new state, California legislators had to consider the lawlessness of disgruntled 49’ers who, having abandoned the hope of hitting a rich strike in the gold country, had spread out across California to steal, burn, loot and rape the native Indian population as well as the descendants of citizens who had lived in California for generations. In their deliberations, the lawmakers created laws that made it illegal to kill these citizens. But they did not include Indians in the early laws that prohibited killing of Spanish or Mexican residents of California. A law prohibiting the killing of Indians was not passed until 1948.

The political climate was poisonous to the native peoples. A belief in the God-given right of whites to claim the riches of California led to a blind eye on the part of Yanqui lawmakers and eventually an informal policy of eradication of the native people. Those who survived did so by passing as Mexicans, Chileans, even Hawaiians.

On a personal note

My husband’s uncle, John Roza, is the son of an Azorean dairy farmer who managed ranches in the ’20s and ’30s for Louis Sinsheimer, the mayor of San Luis Obispo. John was in his late 80s when he told me a story that underscores the attitudes that lingered far into the 20th century.

Many years earlier he had met an old man who claimed that when he was 12 and his brother was 10, they used to take their rifle out in the sagebrush in San Miguel and shoot running Indians for target practice. He didn’t remember how many they killed, maybe 5 or 6. He wasn’t proud of it. John was born in 1918; he thought the man had been born in the mid 1880s. Which meant that before the turn of the century, people were still shooting Indians for target practice.

A woman I met at Mission San Miguel remembers her mother and a neighbor sitting at the kitchen table, quietly discussing an Indian couple who had lived naked in the tules of the Salinas River, in 1901. 

My interest in the Salinans began when I moved into a small community, in 1959. One of my new classmates looked to be Indian. I was curious, so I asked. He claimed that he was Mexican, but his tone was nervous and I knew he was hiding something. It wasn’t until I began to understand the nuances, as an adult, that I understood that he had been told to hide his heritage. Coincidentally, it was during this time that I first heard the work “digger.” Members called themselves Mission Indians, but for years outsiders called them “Diggers.”

Salinans married Mexicans and whites, and assumed the identity of their spouse. They hid their Indian heritage to protect their families, at first from death, later from bias and taunting. It was small wonder they didn’t fill in the little box on the 1930 Census card marked, “Indian.”  

Now they are reclaiming their heritage. There are three groups of Salinan: San Antonio, San Miguel and Playano. The first two are associated with the Missions that were built on their tribal lands. The Playanos lived on the west side of the Santa Lucia Range, along the narrow shelf of the Pacific Ocean. Twice each year, on June 21 and December 21, they celebrate the Solstices at Le Sa Mo, Morro Rock, where they believe their ancestors swam to shore as fish, grew legs and walked onto the land.

Maria Inés, my historical western novel (Five Star Publishing, a division of Gale/Cengage Learning) follows a Salinan girl born at Mission San Miguel through the political intrigues and greed of the Spanish, Mexican and Yanqui conquests of California. She struggles for survival while she reclaims her family, her faith and her ancestral identity. Fans call it "a moving must-read for fans of the Old West and of Native American history." Read the first chapter at Maria Ines .