Salinan tribal justice
November 28, 2012
Salinan tribal justice
OPINION By JOSE FREEMAN and GREGG CASTRO
This is to comment on an article published in Cal Coast News by Karen Velie on June 26, 2012. The article was entitled Tribe Losing Permission to Climb Morro Rock After News of Reburials of Unidentified Remains. According to this article John Burch, a member of one of the four existing Salinan tribal organizations, allegedly buried human remains on Morro Rock without authorization. Before we share our thoughts about this matter, we wish to provide historical information about the California native people known today as “Salinan.”
There are currently at least four Salinan tribal communities representing interests of the Salinan People in our homeland. Traditional knowledge and anthropological evidence tell us that our ancestral homeland on the south-central coast of California ran from Morro Rock northward to Dolan Rock. Inland, Salinan villages were found throughout the Salinas Valley from Soledad southward to the Cuesta Grade summit. Into the interior, a line running from east of the Pinnacles to the Carrizo Plains differentiated us from Yokuts and Chumash. Morro Rock is known as Le’saamo in our language.
The four currently existing communities include the Salinan-Chumash Nation, the Salinan Tribe of Monterey & San Luis Obispo Counties, the Xolon Salinan Tribe and our own which is called Salinan T’rowt’raahl. The latter three were at one time affiliated in a larger group called the Salinan Nation which no longer exists. There are many Salinan individuals and families who choose not to affiliate with any organized group. John Burch is affiliated with the Salinan Tribe of Monterey & San Luis Obispo Counties.
The Salinan language is one of the oldest in California. The late linguist Dr. Katherine Turner studied our language in the 1980’s. She concluded “Taken as a whole, the evidence suggests Salinan as the oldest population in this area of California with, possibly, a more eastern and southern extent than historically.”
We often hear comments from people reflecting a wish that all Salinans work together to achieve common goals for the greater good of all of our people. Many of us wish for the same thing. There are several elements in our history that influence this possibility.
First of all, as far as we know from the time before the mission era, we did not have a single political entity that governed the whole. What we likely had was a confederation of sovereign villages and districts who governed themselves independently. As needed, representatives from the villages and districts would gather, confer and resolve issues that involved the common welfare of all. For example, annually, all of our people came together in certain places as an extended community. These annual events provided opportunities to visit, gossip, engage in shared ceremonies and find marriage partners. They were also occasions to resolve problems that crossed village or district lines. So, while the modern idea of a single, overarching political entity such as a “nation” is foreign to us, there is an ancient cultural precedent for our people coming together as a whole community in a good way to work things out.
This traditional social/political structure was shattered by genocide during the Spanish mission era. A conservative estimate suggests that approximately 4,000 Salinans died in Missions San Antonio and San Miguel over the course of sixty-four years; many of them children. Our total population at the time of contact is estimated to have been 3,500 to 4,000. In effect, there was a near complete annihilation of our population over the course of sixty-four years. Given this recent history, it feels miraculous to us that a degree of our knowledge, language and traditional ways of being in the world has nonetheless continued to this day.
What came to mind as we read the story of what might have happened on Morro Rock was how genocide or cultural trauma from two centuries ago still continues to haunt Salinans to this day. We were stunned by the story of John Burch because we may be looking at the face of genocide in terms of his alleged behavior. This is not to condone behavior that violates legal and/or cultural standards. If the allegations are proven to be correct, Mr. Burch was acting in a profoundly disrespectful manner outside the bounds of cultural traditions and practices as we understand them.
Our traditional “justice” system required individuals to accept and acknowledge responsibility when they acted in ways that harmed others and the community. This was followed by the individual taking action to make things right or whole again. The overall goal from a traditional perspective was for the individual to come back into balance mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Doing so enabled them to rejoin the community and resume making a contribution to the overall good.
In serious matters, such as the handling of ancestral remains, there are certain traditional practices one should normally follow before taking any action. This includes first calming one’s spirit by going to special places that are known for that purpose. One also does their homework by ensuring that they understand pertinent law as well as traditional values. At this point, one is generally prepared to consult with elders for their input and guidance on the right thing to do. Then, a community based decision is made and enacted.
When someone went beyond acceptable cultural norms subtle but clear messages were conveyed to the individual. They were given opportunities to recognize the problem they had caused, acknowledge responsibility and make things whole through reparations. If an individual consistently refused to do this, they were banned or, in extreme cases, poisoned. Of course, this was in traditional times.
John Burch is not a member of the Salinan Trowtraahl. Nevertheless, he is a part of the larger Salinan community as are all Salinan individuals regardless of affiliation. Unfortunately, the broader community has not yet fully regained the traditional cohesiveness it once held. If it had, elders might guide a process that would attempt to determine the facts of what actually happened, what the thinking was and what must be done to resolve the matter so that the necessary amends and healing could take place.
Our hope for the overall Salinan community is for us to work through the layers of pain, sadness, anger and hatred that resulted from our community/cultural trauma and have carried through to the present day. This would include working through things honestly and openly so that we might come to terms with ourselves and our history. This might help us to eventually find some peace and resume an appropriate place in the world as it is today. Engaging in this challenge allows the community to come back to the critically important work of reawakening and continuing our songs, language, stories, ceremonies and traditional values for the generations who are yet to come. This would empower the broader Salinan community to properly resolve serious matters such as the one involving Le’saamo in collaboration with appropriate governmental agencies.
Yaxap’ (That’s all)
Jose’ Freeman is the president secretary/treasurer Salinan Nation Cultural Preservation Association.