The Genocide of the Shasta People

Click here to order this book from Amazon.

Click here to order this book from Amazon.

Paperback: 128 pages
Publisher: Arcadia Publishing (November 24, 2004)
ISBN-10: 0738529575
ISBN-13: 978-0738529578

Part of Arcadia Publishing’s “Images of America” series, Shasta Nation by Betty Lou Hall and Monica Jae Hall is a sweet little introduction to the Shasta people who lived for thousands of years in the shadow of Mount Shasta (“Waiika”) in Northwestern California and Southwestern Oregon.

While thin on historic and ethnographic detail of the academic variety, the Halls’ Shasta Nation is rich in images and the family lore of many generations of people who identify themselves as Shasta, in spite of what can only be described as the U.S. government’s de facto policy of genocide towards First Nations in the 1800s.

I use the loaded word “genocide” cautiously, but it’s just about the only one, it seems to me, that fits the series of events that culminated in a catastrophic decline in the population of the once numerous Shasta people in a single decade, the 1850s. Once the predominant tribe in what is now Siskiyou County, California and Jackson County, Oregon (with an estimated population of 6,000 people), war, disease, and the forced Trail of Tears-like removal of Shasta survivors to coastal reservations all took their toll. But while there were enough survivors of other native nations to stick together and eventually gain federally recognized tribal status (such as the Karuk, Yurok, Wintu, and Klamath), Shasta survivors were so thin on the ground that other than a minority presence in other confederated tribal reservations, they have never enjoyed official recognition of their tribal existence or territorial sovereignty.
Shasta oral history has an explanation for the sudden and catastrophic decline: a story, passed from one generation to the next, of the U.S. military’s poisoning of some 3000 Shasta (including women and children) with strychnine-laced beef at a treaty signing ceremony near Fort Jones, California, on November 4, 1851. The latter event is “controversial,” given that the perpetrators failed to keep a historic record of it, but oral history of this kind is continually proven true, so it would be unwise to dismiss it out of hand.
For example, the coastal tribes’ seemingly wild tales of great waves that covered the land and drowned the people were eventually confirmed by geologists, uncovering evidence of the tsunamis that periodically devastate the coast from subduction zone earthquakes. Similarly, the Klamath tribe’s seven-millenia-old tale of the eruption of Mt. Mazama that created Crater Lake was only confirmed by science in the last half of the twentieth century. Historians thought the Trojan War was a myth until Schliemann discovered Troy by following clues left by Homer.
But I digress.
Shasta Nation is like a family album of the descendants of the thirty or so Shasta women who escaped death and relocation to the Coast by virtue of the fact that they were married to white men, mostly miners. It’s a testament to the grit of these women that their great-great (etc.) grandchildren are holding fast to their traditions as best they can. By all accounts it’s an uphill battle, but the dream of eventual federal recognition refuses to die. I wish them the best of success.
I also wish there was a similar book telling the stories of the Shasta diaspora who ended up at Siletz and Grand Ronde in Oregon, or scattered among the Karuk and other California tribal communities. But many thanks to the Halls for sharing their stories.
Categories: Pacific Northwest and Mythical State of Jefferson.

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