Purchase The Culture of Make Believe
Read more

Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Lake Earl (p. 338)

From chapter "The Impossibility of Forgetting"

When I listed modalities under which atrocities are commonly committed—hate, contempt, greed, a sense of moral rightness—I left out an important one: Sometimes the atrocities are perpetrated and perpetuated due to a strange sense of amnesia, one that reveals while it conceals. The salad bowl metaphor is an acknowledgement that the newcomers will be consumed, no matter what dressing we put on the act of assimilation. But this acknowledgment is almost accidental.

Just tonight I attended a local meeting sponsored by the California Department of Fish and Game about the development of a management plan for Lake Earl (and the conjoined body of water, Lake Tolowa), the lake into which Tolowa Indians were chased by the founders of Crescent City, the water where they were shot when they came up to breathe.

Lakes Earl and Tolowa (for ease I’ll call it Lake Earl) is an extraordinarily interesting lake. Because it has no outlet—one dune separates it from the ocean—the water level varies dramatically, and, sometimes, quickly. All year-long, especially in the rainy season, water builds up until the lake stands ten or twelve feet above the ocean. Then, during a winter storm, on a spring tide, the waves might reach high enough to tear at the dune dividing salt water from fresh. The dune breaches, and the waters flow together. When the tide recedes, much of the lake recedes with it. Soon the breach closes, and water begins again to accumulate.

The creatures who live on the lake have long-since adapted themselves to this variation. The breach usually occurs in winter, well before the nests of marsh birds could be left dry by the falling lake. Because the birds normally move a little inland during heavy storms (and seem to know when some natural cataclysm is about to take place) and also because the breach occurs in the highest of high tides and pulls out slowly as the sea level falls, not many birds get sucked out to sea. Aquatic invertebrates love the variation in water level— “the wider the better,” I heard one fisheries biologist testify tonight—and because aquatic invertebrates are within shouting distance of the bottom of the food chain, then, if it’s good for invertebrates, it’s probably good for lots of other creatures.

At least that’s how it all worked, until the arrival of the dominant culture. After the whites killed many of the local Indians and took their land—the land was never ceded by treaty, but simply taken out right by the state of California and parceled out to ranchers for sometimes less than a dollar an acre; in the 1950s tribal members received one hundred and fifty dollars each in compensation—many began to raise dairy and beef cattle. Because the bottom of the lake made good pasture, and because it was inconvenient to have some of these pastures flooded part of each year, the county government authorized the lake to be breached whenever it went past the four foot level, that is, when the level of the lake was more than four feet above sea level. For decades the lake was breached with no consideration for its effect on the local critters, save cows and (some of the white) humans.

In the 1960s some people, looking to get rich—or more precisely, some rich people looking to get richer—put in roads for a subdivision by the lake, called Pacific Shores, and began to sell parcels, many of which would be underwater were the lake to rise to normal levels. This didn’t really matter, though, because even with the lake partially dewatered, the local geology makes the land unsuitable for building. Over the years the parcels have been sold and resold as ocean properties to unsuspecting owners all over the United States, in scenes perhaps reminiscent of the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. When the purchasers discover what they’ve bought, they often let the land go back to the county for taxes. The owners of Pacific Shores buy the land back from the county and start the process over.

Then, a few years ago, Fish and Game started making noise about restoring the lake to its natural variation. For the first time in a hundred years the water rose as high as it used to. The owners of Pacific Shores and the ranchers, with the full and eager support of a majority of the county commissioners, vigorously opposed this return to nature, some of them going so far as taking a bulldozer out at night to try surreptitiously to breach the dune. Local environmentalists started pulling all-night vigils to keep the vandals away.

What the ranchers were unable to accomplish illegally, however, they have been able to accomplish legally, getting Fish and Game, the Corps of Engineers, and other governmental organizations to grant interim permits for the dune to be breached until Fish and Game comes up with a long-term plan for how to deal with the lake. Thus the meeting.

I have been to Lake Earl when the water is high, and have seen water covering asphalt layed down in the sixties and buckled by time. I’ve seen families of plovers—babies tiny as mice—swim zigzags through inundated weeds by the side of the road, and I’ve seen families of mergansers, grebes, pintails, coots, and teals. I’ve seen least bitterns standing stock-still, beaks pointed upward as they try to blend into reeds around them, and egrets standing still, too, then flashing their beaks down quickly to grab a frog or fish. I’ve seen thousands of tiny fish swimming in the shallows, and seen the aquatic invertebrates so beloved of that biologist.

I have seen, too, the lake after it has been artificially breached, and I have seen the carcasses of waterbirds sucked out to sea and beaten to death in the waves. I have seen thousands of them scattered just above the high-water mark, white bills, feathers brown and black, green scales on the skin of their feet, with seagulls feasting on the soft parts. So many coots—who need to run across the water in order to take off, and so have no chance once the lake begins to move—so many birds, that the seagulls grow fat and leave them to rot.

Some of the people who were there tonight went this year to the place of the breaching, to run into the waves to grab the birds before they died, to carry them to the sand and dry them off, then to carry them back to the lowered lake. As they were drying the stunned birds, a man drove his off-road vehicle up the beach. Even after they asked him to stop, he roared his machine close to the frightened and dying birds (showing why the existence of off-road vehicles is generally considered one of the strongest arguments one can make in favor of unregistered handguns) and they had to chase him away with curses I hope one day come true.

The meeting tonight was packed, with ranchers in button-down shirts and belts above blue jeans or dress pants, and environmentalists in, well, I didn’t notice what others were wearing, but I was wearing a sweater and blue jeans. The purpose of the meeting was for people to describe concerns they would like the management plan to consider. Predictably, environmentalists primarily expressed concern for wildlife. Although the concerns of the ranchers were just as predictable, there was something about them that startled me.

The first concern of the ranchers was that the sanctity—a word I heard thrown around a lot—of their private property rights should not be violated: To allow the lake to rise and fall diminishes the fiscal value of their land. The second concern was that respect for cultural traditions be maintained: Because the families of many of these ranchers have been in this spot for up to one hundred and fifty years, having taken the land directly from the Tolowa Indians (who were here before them for at least ten times that long), they’ve established a cultural tradition that needs to be respected. Their third concern was for the preservation of the tradition of Tolowa Nation (note the lack of the word the preceding Tolowa: that’s crucial to the story). The first person to testify tonight was a Tolowa woman who is, she said, of Tolowa Nation, which has land by the lake. She said the water level needs to be maintained at four feet—in agreement, coincidentally enough, with the ranchers and owners of Pacific Shores—because to allow the water level to rise would flood burial sites of her ancestors. The burial sites are at about the six-foot level, implying, if she is correct, that the Tolowa traditionally breached the lake, which means that it has been artificially breached not for a hundred years, but for either the two thousand years archaeologists suggest the Tolowa have been in the region, or, according to Tolowa creation stories, since the world began. She said she could not divulge the precise locations of these sites for fear that whites would desecrate them.

Here’s the scoop. The Tolowa are a federally recognized tribe of Indians. Sometimes tribes are called nations. But “Tolowa Nation” is a corporation. Some of the land by the lake owned by Tolowa Nation was donated by some of the people who’d bought land in Pacific Shores. They discovered they’d been ripped off, and then received a letter suggesting they do their part to right the wrongs of their ancestors and return the land to its rightful owners, the Tolowa, or, rather, in this case, Tolowa Nation. The woman who is the representative of Tolowa Nation works closely with the ranchers and the masterminds of Pacific Shores, and is supportive of their positions. So far as the burial sites are concerned, she refuses to disclose their location not only to whites, but to Tolowas. Loren Bommelyn, a former chair of the Tolowa tribe (not Tolowa Nation) said he would be glad to lend his support to her position if she would show him where the bodies were buried. “They’re my ancestors, too,” he said. “I don’t believe those sites exist,” he went on. “Our ancestors weren’t so stupid as to bury their dead underwater, and we can be pretty sure they never breached the lake: We know the lake wasn’t an anadromous fishery, the elders never described ceremonies surrounding breaching, and what would we have breached the lake with anyway, clam digging shovels?”

The disingenuous use of a “friendly” Indian purporting to represent a whole people forms an interesting bit of historical continuity, but I’m more interested in the ranchers’ other two concerns: property rights and cultural traditions….

* * *

I found it ironic—and, in a strange sense, exciting and hopeful— that the ranchers, who live on land that is stolen property, rely on, as the cornerstone of their argument the sanctity of property rights: What’s mine is mine, and not only can you not take it outright, but you can’t “take” any (fiscal) value from it. I found it even more ironic—and even more exciting and hopeful—that those whose wealth is directly based on genocidal (culture-destroying) actions speak of the importance of cultural preservation.

Why did they choose those specific arguments? Part of that can be explained by simple effectiveness: They are using arguments they believe work best. But the overwhelming cheekiness of it makes me think there’s something else at play here.

The ranchers are impelled to talk about the crimes on which their wealth is founded, and they are bound to forget about them. As is true for survivors of trauma, their bodies know the truth, and want the story to be told. Try as the ranchers might, they won’t be able to force their bodies to forget entirely. It was not by magic that Lestor Luborsky’s experimental subjects avoided seeing the threatening images. They had known where to not look because they had seen the images. The images had first to be taken inside for their minds to be able to obtund them, and tell them to forget. The images cannot be completely forgotten. And like the beating of the telltale heart, they make their truths known.

What is true for ranchers is true for all of us. Although we pretend we don’t know, we know, and because we know we try all the harder not to know, and to eradicate all of those who do, cursing and enslaving those who see us as we are, and who dare to speak of our nakedness, and cursing and enslaving especially those parts of ourselves which attempt to speak. But speak they will. And because we cannot normally allow them to directly speak these stories we do not want to hear, the stories must emerge roundabout, as in these ranchers accusing Fish and Game of committing their own crimes, as in Nazis accusing Jews of being a culture-destroying people, as in decent white men calling blacks lazy at the same time as they gain comforts and elegancies from their labor.

All of this—the selective blindness, perps claiming to be victims, the strange amnesiac dance of revealing and concealing—causes what passes for discourse to quickly become absurd, frantically so, as people say everything but the obvious. When the obvious is spoken, it is almost certain that no one will hear, and certain also that if anyone does hear, no one will be able to think, and if anyone does think, surely no one will be able to talk about it. And if anyone does talk, no one will listen. But if somebody does talk, and somebody else does listen, we can always kill them both. And then we won’t talk about that killing, except when we do, and then we will be certain that no one will hear. And so on.

We were not meant for this. We were meant to live and love and play and work and even hate more simply and directly. It is only through outrageous violence that we come to see this absurdity as normal, or to not see it at all. Each new child has his eyes torn out so he will not see, his ears removed so he will not hear, his tongue ripped out so he will not speak, his mind juiced so he will not think, and his nerves scraped so he will not feel. Then he is released into a world broken in two: others, like himself, and those to be used. He will never realize that he still has all of his senses, if only he will use them. If you mention to him that he has ears, he will not hear you. If he hears, he will not think. Perhaps most dangerously of all, if he thinks he will not feel. And so on, again.

To maintain and propagate these nested systems of lies is expensive. We must fight our humanity at every step of the way—denying our senses, our thought processes, our emotions, our nature as social creatures. But it’s worse than this. Not only must we keep our bodies and memories in check, we must convince others not to remind us, nor to notice when we remind them. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, the dominant culture allocates resources sufficient to convince at least many of those it does not kill that it is not killing those it does, to convince those who benefit from exploitation that they are assisting those they enslave, and to convince those they enslave that they are being liberated.