Systemic racism, generational trauma and familial conflicts collide


By Ray A. March (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2020, 240 pp., $27.95, hard cover)

Some in the Nikkei community have wondered why the Tule Lake Committee is feuding with an Indigenous tribe. Some have commented that it looks bad to have one community of color quarreling with another.

“Mass Murder in California’s Empty Quarter: A Tale of Tribal Treachery at the Cedarville Rancheria” by Ray A. March devotes a chapter to this issue.

March opens the book with a mass shooting that occurred in 2014 in Modoc County, where the former Tule Lake Segregation Center is situated.

Through the actions of shooter Cherie Rhoades, March shows the bigger picture of how systemic racism, generational trauma, blood quantum, tribal sovereign authority versus U.S. laws, dysfunction at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the epidemic of disenrollment from the tribal registry impacted both Rhoades and the larger Indigenous community.

By the time the Tule Lake Committee’s entanglement with the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma is brought up in the middle of the book, readers will have a better understanding as to why this tribe had no interest in helping to preserve the former World War II concentration camp site, and preferred to support the local white community in promoting economic expansion of the area, which included the purchase of an airport sitting in middle of the former Tule Lake camp site.

Adjoining the former Tule Lake Segregation Center is the Lava Beds National Monument. From 1872 to 1873, this was the site of the Modoc Wars.

Once the Modocs were defeated, the U.S. Army hung the leaders and forcibly removed the survivors to Oklahoma, which, the white establishment considered “Indian Territory” at the time.

In 1909, the U.S. government allowed the Modocs to return to their ancestral homes in Oregon and Northern California. A split occurred when some returned while others remained in Oklahoma, hence the origin of the Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma, which renamed itself as the Modoc Nation in 2019.

In recent years, the tribe has been fined more than $4 million for being involved in a payday loan scheme and opposed the designation of the Lava Beds National Monument to national park status.

Tribal members such as Cheewa James, who have questioned the tribe’s actions, have been disenrolled, along with 15 of her family members.

This retaliatory nature of disenrolling outspoken tribal members has led to an increase in disenrollment-related violence, as in the case of Rhoades, since this action usually means a loss of income, housing, health care, jobs and identity.

In addition to interviewing Indigenous tribal members, March interviewed surrounding white residents, giving readers a feel for how people of color are viewed and treated in this conservative part of California.

Much of this book is in narrative format, which is both refreshing, but at times, confusing, since the narratives sometimes go on for paragraphs so readers might forget who is speaking. Despite this minor distraction, the book gives a glimpse into the familial and political conflicts that Indigenous individuals face as they attempt to deal with trauma passed down from generation to generation, while simultaneously try to govern themselves under a flawed U.S. system.

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