Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Haunted Place: The Land Where a People Lost Their Culture

When you've been to a place a few times, it becomes possible to concentrate on the subtle changes that can happen at different parts of the day and under changing weather conditions. We arrived at Lava Beds National Monument on our recent field studies journey to the Cascades volcanoes of northern California ahead of the first storm of the season. I wandered out into the lava flows and took in the scene. I was remembering the events here that led to the destruction of a culture more than 140 years ago.
The gathering clouds could have been worrisome since we were camping out, but the park staff had generously allowed us to make use of the research center, so we had a warm dry place to retreat to at the end of the day. The rain fell all night, and when the morning arrived, the valley was filled with an ethereal mist. The land was barren and lonely. It was hard to imagine this valley as a home, but for centuries it was indeed home for bands of Native Americans, including the Modoc people.
Their presence could be felt in many ways. Our first stop was at Petroglyph Point in an outlier of the Park near the town of Tulelake. The lake once filled most of the valley, and waves used to break at the base of the cliff. The unusual looking rocks are the insides of a tuff cone, a volcanic edifice that formed during a mildly explosive eruption about 270,000 years ago.

Several thousand years ago, the people who lived here took canoes and made their way to what was then an island in the midst of the large lake. There they carved numerous petroglyphs, more than 5,000 of them, making this outcrop one of the largest petroglyph panels in the United States
The soft tuff was easy to carve, but the softness will be the undoing of these precious marks of the past. The water that filled the lake 140 years ago has been diverted and most of the lake has dried up. Wind now carries sand that blasts against the edge of the cliff, slowly eating away the enigmatic symbols.

And there is an even more horrible problem. Fifty of the petroglyphs were vandalized last year, leading to a closure of part of the panel. These are sick people who would do such things.
After leaving Petroglyph Point, we arrived at the epicenter of the battleground where the Modoc People lost their homeland and much of  their culture. They put up a hell of a fight against impossible odds.

The following is an excerpt of an earlier post I wrote about the saga of the Modoc People:

The Modoc people had lived in the Klamath Falls-Tule Lake region from time unremembered, and made first contact with Europeans in the 1840's as settlers arrived on the Oregon Trail. Relations between the cultures were rocky and sometimes violent, and eventually the Modoc people were forced to move to the reservation of their ancestral enemies, the Klamath people. After several years of intolerable conditions of neglect, some of the Modocs left the reservation and returned to their homeland on the Lost River near Lava Beds, led by Kientpuash, known to the settlers as Captain Jack.
The hostilities began on November 29, 1872. On that day, the U.S. Army tried to round up the Modocs at their Lost River encampment, north of Lava Beds, in order to return them to a reservation in southern Oregon. Shots were fired, both sides suffered injuries, and the Modoc people fled south, led by Kientpuash. A separate party, led by Hooker Jim, went on a rampage, killing 14 settlers. The bands made their way by canoe and horse to the site that came to be known as Captain Jack’s Stronghold. The band included 53 men of fighting age, and about a hundred women, children and aged Modocs.

The Stronghold was the site of two major battles and a long siege by U.S. troops and militia of the small band of Modoc peoples during the long winter.

The conflicts that took place on this barren surface reveal much about the need to take into account the geology and geography of the battlefield. Although outnumbered at least ten to one, the Modoc warriors were able to take advantage of the landscape to execute their defense, and in the two major battles that took place, they inflicted many casualties on their opponents while suffering very few among themselves. During the January 17, 1873 conflict, the attacking army did not kill or injure a single Modoc warrior while suffering 37 casualties, including 9 dead.

The Modocs could hardly have chosen a better spot to make their stand. The trail through the stronghold reveals a series of schollendomes (pressure ridges) and scarps that almost completely encircled the Modoc encampment. The fractures and fissures along the tops of the schollendomes were natural trenches that allowed quick access to any point along the defensive perimeter, and the Modocs had an excellent view of the flat open landscape that the U.S. Army had to cross in order to attack. In addition to defensibility, the stronghold included access to water and food along the shoreline of Tule Lake, a natural corral where cattle could be kept, and lava tube openings that provided shelter for the Modoc families.

Another advantage of the site was the presence of an escape route. After suffering a long siege and cold winter, the Modoc people prepared for another assault by the Army, now numbering more than 700. On April 11, during a peace parley, the Modocs shot and killed General E.R.S. Canby, in the hopes that by killing the Army’s leader, the soldiers would go away. The opposite occurred, and on April 15 the Army forces began bombarding the stronghold and advancing past the outer perimeter of the Modoc lines. After two days of attack, with 6 dead and 17 wounded, the Army poured into the stronghold to find…no one. On the night of April 16, the entire Modoc party, 160 men, women and children, along with dogs and horses, had deserted the stronghold, moving south along a smooth area of the lava flow, only a few hundred meters from some of the Army encampments.

Despite their successful escape, the Modoc people were now caught in the open, and it was only a matter of time before they were captured. Within a few weeks, Hooker Jim betrayed Captain Jack’s location in return for amnesty. Ultimately the Modoc people were moved to Oklahoma, and Captain Jack, along with three others, was hanged. The last major conflict in California between the U.S. Army and the aboriginal peoples was over. As the park brochure notes: “The cultural identity of an entire people was lost here…so settlers could graze a few cows”

About 200 Modocs remain in Oklahoma, descendants of seven of the survivors of the war, and about 500 Modocs still live in Oregon. The Modoc people returned to Lava Beds in 1990 for the first time in 117 years to perform ceremonies on their ancestral lands, and now do so yearly.

1 comment:

Celia Lewis said...

Sometimes history shows us at our worst, and hurts my heart. graze a few cows, First Nations people were considered disposable and irrelevant. Thank you for a very thoughtful post, and your photos as well, Garry.