New Book Provides Insight into Conflict with Tribe over Tule Lake Site

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By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor

Some in the Nikkei community have wondered why the Tule Lake Committee is feuding with an Indigenous tribe. There have been comments that this looks bad for optics to have one community of color quarreling with another community of color.

“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 had taken place in 2014 in Modoc County, where the former Tule Lake Segregation Center is situated. The shooting incident drew little national attention since it had not exacted a huge death toll, had occurred in rural America, and involved mostly Indigenous-on-Indigenous killing.

March, however, uses this tragedy to put the incident in historical context and introduces non-Indigenous readers to the challenges facing this often overlooked community that white colonizers had attempted to wipe off the face of the earth as they took over the land we now call the United States of America.

Through the actions of Cherie Rhoades, the shooter, March shows the bigger picture of how systemic racism, generational trauma, blood quantum, tribal sovereign authority versus U.S. laws, continued dysfunction at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the controversial epidemic of disenrollment from the tribal registry had impacted 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 what has been designated as the Lava Beds National Monument. From 1872 to 1873, this was the site of the Modoc Wars, considered to be one of the costliest wars the U.S. government had waged against any tribe.

Once the Modocs were defeated, the U.S. Army hanged the leaders as criminals and forcibly removed the surviving tribal members to Oklahoma, which, at the time, was considered “Indian Territory” by the white establishment.

In 1909, the U.S. government officially 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 Modoc Tribe of Oklahoma, which March learned through word-of-mouth is derisively referred to as the “whitest tribe in America,” 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. Not only was James disenrolled but 15 of her family members were also disenrolled.

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

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

As an example, he writes of a progressive white teacher who was met with open hostility for daring to teach civil rights in the Modoc County school district. When this teacher met with the white mother of a student who had written an anti-Mexican American paper, she was surprised to be told by the mother that the teacher shouldn’t have students write about multiculturalism but should choose topics such as whether to allow guns in school.

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. But 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.

“Mass Murder in California’s Empty Quarter: Tale of Tribal Treachery at the Cedarville Rancheria” by Ray A. March, 240 pages, Bison Books, $27.95 hardback

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