Tuesday, February 15, 2011

When (Balano)Cultures Collide

Great story, wrong tree.

I have been meaning to write this post for months.  The person who introduced me to the story and who knew I planned to write about it was probably starting to wonder if I'd ever get around to it.  (Now that I finally have he can skip straight from anticipation to disappointment with the result.)

For background material I am working primarily from a Wiki page, which is always a bit iffy, but is even more so in the case because the entry on this topic is written with the tortured syntax and creative comma use of a 6th grade book report (actually that's an insult to 6th grade book reporters everywhere, including in my house)... so my apologies for any inaccuracies.  But here goes...

In about 1798-1800 a boy named Sem-Yeto was born into the Suisunes tribe, near Suisun Bay, California.  He would grow into a giant of a man - 6'7" tall by all accounts - and would live through times of tectonic changes for his people - and appalling tragedy. 
In 1810, two months after most of the adult males of his tribe were wiped out in a raid by Moraga, ten or twelve year old Sem-Yeto was baptized at the San Francisco Mission and was re-christened Francisco Solano.  We don't know if he was taken as a prisoner in the raid, or if the survivors of the raid brought him to the mission to live.  The raid had demoralized the tribe and many chose to move to the mission in surrender.  However, the surviving members of the tribe didn't move to the mission permanently until a year after Solano's baptism, giving credence to the theory that he had indeed been taken captive in the raid.

In 1823 he moved to present day Sonoma to help build the Mission San Francisco de Solano, the final Spanish mission north of San Francisco.  Many of his fellow Suisunes joined him, a move which brought them closer to their homeland.  By this time Sem-Yeto was known as Chief Solano.  He was not a chief in the true hereditary sense, but he became a leader of his decimated people.

In 1835 General Mariano Guadulupe Vallejo was dispatched to secularize the Sonoma Mission, disperse the mission's properties (mostly to himself), and maintain military control over the area.  Solano became Vallejo's ally in the effort to pacify the tribes of the area; in some cases he led raids in cooperation with the Spanish, but more often his role was that of an emissary between the Spanish and the native people in hopes of maintaining peace.
Born into a time of war and turbulence, having lost dozens of loved ones to a seemingly unbeatable foe, possibly having been taken hostage, and attaining a position of responsibility for the welfare of his people, I can only imagine the crushing weight Sem-Yeto had to carry, and the difficult decisions and trade offs he was forced to make in their interest.

Sem-Yeto faced the tragic no-win decisions faced by so many Native American leaders before and since.  The arrival of these strangers from overseas brought diseases which ravaged indigenous populations, shook their traditional beliefs and shifted the fragile balances of power betweening neighboring tribes.  Their arrival also brought new technologies that offered the promise of an easier life, but the curse of the loss of cultural identity and ancient tradition that formed the basis of their self image. 

One aspect of the Suisunes' cultural identity, of course, was his people's reliance on acorns for nourishment.  Converting indigenous people from an acorn-based diet - a balanoculture - to reliance on farmed grain crops was a means of pacifying them.  People who are forced to live in one place and constantly tend their fields are a whole lot easier to keep an eye on and control than people who roam freely over the land to exploit the seasonal bounty of different habitats.

And so it still is today.

And of course, the arrival of the Spanish brought a new religion, impressive in its pagentry and ritual splendor and no doubt enormously appealing with its promise of eternal life.

A small pox outbreak in 1837 decimated the Indian population north of San Francisco.  Solano, one of the few Native Americans to be vaccinated, survived the epidemic.  He was one of only two Native Americans to be given a land grant by Vallejo - four square leagues.  One source says that as he neared death he sold the land to Vallejo for $1,000.  In the end the land ended up in the possession of Archibald A. Ritchie and J.H. Fine - forever out of indigenous hands.

Last fall I was visiting a reader, friend, and producer of gourmet acorn-fed pork in Solano County and he told me a bit of the story and mentioned that Sem-Yeto had been buried beneath a massive oak tree on the campus of Solano Community College.  I followed his directions and saw this magnificent tree, a valley oak (I think - I'm still learning my California oaks):

(click to enlarge)

Incredible.  Beneath the tree is a plaque:

Here's a closer look:

(Click to enlarge & read)

Oops.  A little more research when I got back home revealed to me that this is not Sem-Yeto's burial site at all, but that of one of his brethren.  There is a different marker somewhere else on campus:

(Click to enlarge)

 This history, however, claims the exact location of Sem-Yeto's grave remains unknown.  I will have to visit again the next time I'm in that area... and like Paul Harvey I'll give you The Rest of the Story.

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