Native American documentary a small, powerful effort

By Matthew Artz Special to The Daily Planet
Tuesday July 02, 2002

Native American prophesy holds that in every seventh generation the young will lead people to spiritual renewal. 

This is a heavy burden to place on high school and college students, but Ras K’dee, a Pomo Indian attending San Francisco State University, said an increasing number of his peers are determined to turn an ambiguous legend into concrete achievement. 

On Friday night, K’dee and several Northern California indigenous leaders presented the documentary film “Gold Greed and Genocide” to approximately 90 people at Pusod, a Berkeley Phillipino community center. 

The screening is part of a larger effort by the International Indian Treaty Council to change California’s school curriculum to reflect what they insist is the true history of indigenous people during the Gold Rush. 

The film was produced by Pratab Chaterjee of Project Underground, a nonprofit group that supports communities exploited by mineral, oil and gas mining. Lasting 28 minutes, the film provides indigenous elders a quick opportunity to tell their histories. 

Although most schools no longer teach that settlers and indigenous people cooperated during their earliest encounters, the film’s accusations of bribery and murder of Native Americans by Gold Rush pioneers and California authorities have not received mainstream attention. 

According to the film, the California government gave cash rewards for the murder of indigenous people. California officials participated in several massacres, including a 1850 attack at Bloody Island in which a village of Pomo Indians was murdered except for one six year-old girl who survived by hiding submerged in a lake and breathing through a hollowed-out reed. 

After Native Americans had been defeated, the film says, populations were marched out of their ancestral lands, and in some cases boys and girls were taken from their parents to be socialized in boarding schools or sold to pioneers as slaves. 

In addition to wanton murder and humiliation, the film states that the Gold Rush pioneers’ unregulated use of poison mercury, which was used to mine gold from iron ore, polluted the indigenous peoples’ land and water to a point that they could no longer subsist from traditional hunting and gathering.  

According to the film, state-sponsored violence and pioneer-carried diseases such as small pox decimated Northern California’s indigenous population from 300,000 in 1850 to less than 10,000 in 1900. 

Now that the documentary is complete, the treaty council is mounting a youth-based initiative, led by college-aged interns, to introduce the film and a corresponding middle school curriculum to California schools. 

According to Samuel Heredia, the treaty council’s youth Program Coordinator, youth involvement in the project is essential “so that native youth and students can see the relevance of learning their own history.” 

The film was shown to the California Indian Educators Conference. In addition, Heredia estimates that students in more than 20 California schools have seen the film, and approximately 80 state teachers pledged on a petition to incorporate the film and curriculum into their lesson plans.  

For indigenous leaders such as Clayton Duncan, a Pomo Indian who participated in the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969, sharing history with indigenous children is vital to the preservation of their culture. 

“I have lost confidence in my generation,” he told the audience, citing a recent survey that found just a slight majority of Pomo Indians claim to not care about the Bloody Island Massacre. 

K’dee attributed the survey results to a generational split in which previous generations of indigenous people decided to be better off ignoring their history than embracing it. 

He says that his generation is marked by a paradox: Increased media exposure, such as the Disney movie Pocahantas, has fostered a sense of pride and identity among his peers yet has brainwashed them into believing a falsely benign version of history. 

But, he says, that misconception is changing. “When I go into schools and show the film, teachers and students can’t believe that the California state government funded over a million dollars for the murder of indigenous peoples,” he said. 

K’dee and others affiliated with the treaty council hope that teachers can be swayed. 

“Education is the first step,” said K’dee. “We don’t want this to happen again.”