Friday, August 13, 2004

At Lava Beds, the Site of the Modoc War

On my fourth trip to Burney in Shasta County in Northern California my friend Mary Lentz promised to take me to Lava Beds National Monument where the Modoc Indians had fought courageously against the U.S. Army in 1872-3. Because I had taught about the Modoc War to my English class the previous spring, I thought I should actually go see the battleground. It was June, 2003, during the Iraq War, after the U.S. had declared victory, but I wasn’t thinking about the war or my job but a vacation.

Mary and I started off early this June morning, loading up her SUV with sandwiches, water, and hard hats for the caves. She said she’d drive me not through the farm country on Highway 299 but the more picturesque route over the mountains, so she headed up Highway 89, past Burney Falls, drove on the bridge over the Pit River, then driving through miles of woods until she got to the cutoff road where she turned right. This very sunny June day the woods were thick on both sides of the two-lane road, and some logs had fallen down into the road, but Mary scooted around them as she drove. For miles our car was the only car on the car, and we hadn’t passed any cars at all.

We saw the first snow patches on the roadside, and then a snow patch in the middle of the road in front of us, but it had tire tracks where previous cars had driven through, so Mary just drove followed the tracks until we cleared the snow patch. Such a glorious day. Mary drove through tire tracks on another snow patch, a third snow patch, and a fourth snow patch. No problem. She had a SUV with high clearance. Ahead was a really big snow mound with the usual tire tracks through. Mary started driving her SUV on the tire tracks until she got stuck. The car wouldn’t move forward or back. Stuck we were. We both got out and stared at the car caught in the snow in June.

“Do you have a shovel?” I asked. “No,” she said. “I have a cell phone,” I said, taking it out of my purse and turning it on, but there was no signal. “No luck. Cingular Wireless doesn’t work.” We looked at each other, and then got to opposite sides of the car and started shoveling snow with our bare hands to free the car. After a couple of minutes my fingers started to feel numb. We alternated waiting and shoveling with our hands for half a hour when a car came down the opposite direction, stopping beside us. A man and two women got out, came over and looked at Mary’s SUV.

“I have AT&T cell phone,” the woman said, but her cell phone didn’t work either. The man tried hooking a rope between his car and Mary’s to pull her out, but the rope snapped. He had a small toy shovel, which he used to shovel snow out from underneath the car. Fifteen minutes later a motorcycle with an Australian couple stopped. More people took turns shoveling with the tiny shovel. Twenty minutes later a truck came from the opposite direction also stopped with two tall, husky young men hopping out. “We were stuck in the snow three days ago,” one man said. “It took two hours to shovel our truck out. We have shovels.” Hurrah, they got their full-size shovels.

Now we had both brawn and shovels. The men both shoveled, making mincemeat of the snow. Then all of us except Mary at the wheel pushed and pushed the car until finally Mary drove the SUV out of the snow patch. We thanked all our rescuers who drove on while Mary turned the car around, starting to drive back to Burney. Later we learned that the road we had gotten stuck on was closed during the winter, a season that could last through June.

“Let’s take the flat way,” she said. After the forty minutes drive back to Burney, she took Highway 299, entered the Fall River Valley, full of farms growing wild rice, and then we stopped for a short lunch in the small farm town of McArthur. Then at Bieber, she turned north at Hackamore/ Lookout Road driving through more small farm country to California Hwy 139, and then turned north on 139 until we saw the sign saying turnoff to Lava Beds National Park. Immediately we saw the acres and acres of lava fields, broken greybrown lava rocks which spread out across the horizon. I remember walking across Kilauea Volcano in Hawaii, carefull to stay on the trail because putting your foot on a short edged lava rock could be dangerous.

About twenty miles down the road we saw the turn off for the visitor’s center but we only stopped briefly for a map. Since we were so late getting there in the afternoon, we passed the turnoffs for all the various caves and other historical points, decided to go to Petroglyph Point on Tule Lake and then work our way back. Miles later we saw Tule Lake, home of wild rice growers, horseradish growers, and the town of Tulelake. Nearby was the site ofTulelake concentration camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. I thought Tule Lake as immensely isolated here in northeast California, a place of exile if you were from the coast as most Japanese-Americans were. As we drove by the side of the lake, we could see houses from the town of Tulelake across the lake.

Finally, the huge greystone hulking hill of Petroglyph Point loomed in the distance past the flat green fields. We parked by Point, which was created when a cinder cone exploded from the bottom of ancient Tule Lake to form an island. We learned long ago natives paddled out in boats to the island to carve the glyphs in rocks. People have lived here for at least 10,000 years, yet the oldest petroglyphs here are only 4,000 years old—they’re still some of the oldest human traces in California. As the waters of the lake receded, the island became a butte, jutting out, pocked with holes in which owls, hawks, and prairie falcons nested. The glyphs were circles, triangles, groups of straight lines, and two diagonals with one on top of each other—a secret language I couldn’t read. What was so important that the ancient people would canoe all the way across the water to cut pictures into rock? What were their messages?

We turned to the car, stopping once to look out over the mudwet slick of Tule Lake, half swamp and half lake at this point, and then drove on to stop at General Canby’s white cross—at this site he was murdered at a peace parley. He was the only U.S. general ever murdered in a hundred years of U.S- Indian wars. Looking at the cross, I thought of American historian Limerick's idea that the Modoc War had started with a misunderstanding.

In 1864, the U.S. government negotiated two treaties with the Modocs: the Steele Treaty, which was never ratified by the U.S. Senate, said that perhaps the Modocs could remain in their home at the Lost River while the Huntington treaty told the Modocs to leave their homeland on Lost River and go live on the Klamath Reservation with the unfriendly Klamaths in Oregon. As the U.S. was split, so were the Modocs: one half accepted the Huntington treaty, settling on the Klamath Reservation, while a second group, led by Kientpoos or Captain Jack, held fast to the Steele Treaty. In 1870 Captain Jack led his group to leave the Klamath Reservation to return to their homeland on the Lost River, upsetting local white settlers.

The war still could have been avoided if the U.S. would have let the Modoc remain in their homeland, but instead the Oregon Indian superintendent Thomas B. Odeneal sent Major James Jackson with thirty-eight soldiers and some armed civilians to arrest Captain Jack and to force the Modocs back to the Klamath Reservation. After the soldiers and their armed civilians forcibly entered the two Modocs’ camps, the Modocs—men, women and children; old and young-- fled and crossed over Tule Lake in boats, taking refuge in the Lava Beds. A small band under Hooker Jim’s leadership broke off, stopping at the white settler’s ranches where they killed fourteen men and boys. Limerick says that at this point the whites, who had settled on lands lived for centuries by the Modocs, felt themselves to be the victims because of the killing of the fourteen white men and boys.

In Washington, General Sherman, the one who burned through Georgia during the Civil War, put General E.R.S. Canby in charge of subduing the Modocs; Canby replied, “I do not think the operations will be protracted.” In the second battle on January 1873, Colonel Wheaton led 300 men into the lava beds through a dense fog. The sixty Indians who knew the terrain fired and fired at the hapless soldiers who couldn’t tell where the bullets were coming from in the fog and amidst the huge rocks. The U.S. army retreated, leaving their thirty-five dead, their wounded, their firearms and their ammunition. The Modocs had no casualties.

At this point General Sherman in Washington ordered Canby to try to negotiate a peace. Captain Jack, who had never wanted the war, was pressured by Hooker Jim and the other Modoc militants into a plot. On April 11, 1873, at a peace parley with Captain Jack, the Modocs murdered two peace commissioners, General Canby and Reverend Eleazer, and wounded the third commissioner Albert Meachum. In 2003, looking at Canby’s white cross, I thought of how Canby had died in this whole senseless war and how Captain Jack had been forced into a war he didn’t want.

We got back into the car, driving past Gillems Camp where 600 U.S. soldiers camped from April 1-June 1, 1873, outnumbering the Modocs 10 to 1. The soldiers’ woolen uniforms and floorless tents didn’t protect them from the piercing winter winds; a little cemetery has the graves of soldiers who died here. At Captain Jack’s stronghold we parked, headed up the path through the huge boulders on our right as we entered the stronghold. Boulders upon boulders gave the Modocs good hiding places during the two battles. The path ascended through two rock walls on each side higher and higher. It’s strange walking through a battlefield where men died—almost as if ghosts of the dead haunt the land.

In the second battle of the lava beds on April 26, 1873, Captain Evan Thomas led soldiers on a reconnaissance and then sat down for lunch when the Modocs ambushed. Twenty-three soldiers died and nineteen were wounded. More would have died except Modoc Leader Scarefaced Charley yelled, “All you fellows that ain’t dead had better go home. We don’t want to kill you all in one day.” Again the Modocs had no casualties. The relief party to rescue the remaining soldiers got lost in the lava beds as did the doctor who came next. Finally, the relief party found the wounded but got lost trying to escape the lava beds. It was a debacle for the U.S. army who then proceeded to destroy most of the Modocs’ water sources within the lava beds.

We were now in the heart of the lava stronghold looking down at the caves where the Indians—men, women and children--lived. They had little food and water; the winter went on for months. One cave was Captain Jack’s. At another spot the Modocs held talks about what to do. These caves were the inner sanctum, the last refuge, the place of the Modocs’ last stand. Sacred space, haunted space. It was here they had decided, after the army cut off most of their water, to flee the lava beds in April.

After the Modoc men, women and children vanished into the night, the army marched into the inner sanctum of rock and caves, finding three old men and one old woman. Soldiers shot two of the old men and the woman dead while a Warm Springs Indian stoned the third Modoc man to death, but our guidebook didn’t tell us which spot.

Now Mary and I left the inner sanctum, following the path round and round through more rocks and then circling back to where we could see the highway. At the junction of two paths was a prayer tree hung with prayer ribbons and sage offerings. Canby had his white cross; the Modocs have the prayer tree. A prayer tree wasn’t enough for the destruction of a culture and a people. We headed out past the irregular boulders to the car.

As w e drove back through the miles and miles of jagged shards of lava beds, I thought of how Hooker Jim and his war party left Captain Jack’s group, surrendered to the Americans in May, and helped the army track Captain Jack down and captured him. We stopped briefly to look at one of the largest caves and then stopped again to eat snacks and drink water at the picnic tables by the visitor’s center, and I thought about this history of misunderstanding, betrayal and vengeance.

Yes, it ended in vengeance. The U.S. army didn’t try Hooker Jim and his men for the Lost River killings but let them go, wanting to encourage other Indians to change sides. Instead the U.S. tried Captain Jack and five other Modocs for the murder of the two peace commissioners. At his trial Captain Jack said none of his people “had killed any of the whites, and I had never told Hooker Jim and his party to murder any settlers; and I did not want them to stay with me. [Hooker Jim] was the one that always wanted to fight, and commenced killing and murdering.” Captain Jack and two other Modoc men were hanged October 3, 1873. The remaining Modocs—thirty-nine men, fifty-four women, and sixty children—were sent first to Fort McPherson, Nebraska; then to Baxter Springs, Kansas; and then to Seneca Springs, Oklahoma. Thirty-six years later in 1909 they were allowed to return, not to Lost River but to the Klamath Reservation, home of the Klamaths. The punishment of the Modocs seemed like a ruthless vengeance.

After I visited Captain Jack’s stronghold and the Lava Beds, I didn’t really think again about them until a year later. Now it’s June, 2004. For the last ten months the war in Iraq has raged hotter, a war I opposed from the beginning. The Mahdi army, led by mullah Sadar, is holed on in the holy city of Najaf in the shrine of Iman Ali, one of the holiest spots in Islam. The Channel 7 news today talked about how both the wounded and armed fighters of the Mahdi army have taken refuge in the sanctuary. I’m thinking of why people need to take refuge in a sanctuary. What does it mean to invade a holy place, a place of refuge, as some but not all generals in the U.S. army want to do? Some generals want to respect the sacred space.

We are now making new historical sites: a place in Iraq like Gillems Camp where our soldiers don’t suffer the terrible cold but the broiling heat; a new cemetery with white crosses like the one in Gillems camp and the white cross that decorates where General Canby died; new battlegrounds like Najaf this week where two armies fight for control. Last year’s vacation trip to the Lava Beds was no escape trip but a journey that carried me back into the reality of the bloody events of another war our country is in.

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