Listening for Modoc Ghosts and Other Ways of Deconstructing the

By Annie Rose,2014-08-12 13:49
15 views 0
Listening for Modoc Ghosts and Other Ways of Deconstructing the ...

    Boyd Cothran Very Much a Work in Progress 12.7.2007

Hi Everyone,

    First off, thank you all for taking the time to read this convoluted piece. It may not seem to be satisfactorily historical for some of you but consider that I‟m building off of Susan Buck-Morss‟s read

    of Walter Benjamin‟s Gesichtesphilosophie which she translates as “philosophical history” and argues

    that for Benjamin, the goal was “to construct, not philosophy of history, but a philosophy out of history,

    or to reconstruct historical material as philosophy.”

    To that end, in this piece, I am struggling with particular problems that have arisen from my initial work in the archives for my currently nebulous dissertation on the Modoc War (provisionally title Remembering the Lost River Affair: Power, Violence and Colonialism in the Modoc War”). I am not

    sure what to do with this thought-piece, and perhaps, I cannot do anything with the idea of considering non-events or silences as themselves events worthy of exploration and consideration, but I am eager to hear what you all have to say.

A few questions:

    1) What silences/ings have you encountered and what would incorporating them into your projects mean? Does considering not just testimonies which the archive registers but also those it did not (could not?) change anything?

    2) What other readings would you suggest I pursue? What other texts engage with these issues?

    3) What sections were completely incomprehensible or even contradictory?

    Also a few facts that might help to locate the events behind the nonevents here discussed:

    The Modoc War, 1872-1873, was an “armed conflict” (basically a suppressed breakout

    campaign intended to force the Modoc back onto the Klamath Reservation where they

    were starving) in southern Oregon and northern California, predominately in the volcanic

    lava beds of that region which were the site of Modoc creation. Following the violence,

    the Modoc leaders were hanged for the “murder” of General Canby and “hostile”

    members of the Modoc Tribes were forcible relocated to Oklahoma, where they remain a

    nation today. At its time, the Modoc War was an international event. Newspapers in

    Europe published weekly updates. Novels and lecture tours followed, Hubert H. Bancroft

    (famous Californian historian) dedicated virtually all of his history of Californian Indians

    to the events of the Modoc War. In the twentieth century, the site of the Modoc War

    became a national park, the subject of western movies in the 50s and a frequent topic of

    romance novels, children‟s books and popular histories. Today, the Modoc War is largely

    excised from the national narrative of “Indian Wars” of the West for complex reasons.

    Thanks a lot,

    Boyd Cothran


Boyd Cothran Very Much a Work in Progress 12.7.2007

    Listening for Modoc Ghosts and Other Ways of Deconstructing the Silence of


“Any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process…these

    silences crisscross or accumulate over time to produce a unique mixture.”

    Michel-Rolph Trouillot

    “Following the ghosts is about making a contact that changes you and refashions the social relations in which you are located. It is about putting life back in where only a vague memory or a bare trace was visible to those who bothered to look. It is sometimes about writing ghost stories, stories that not only repair representational mistakes, but also strive to understand the conditions under which a memory was produced in the first place, toward a countermemory, for the future.”

    Avery F. Gordon

    This essay began as a narrative. I sought to tell the story of how monuments and memorials to

    1the Modoc War changed over time. I began in the immediate aftermath of the war with the construction of Canby‟s Cross in 1873 and then moved through the twentieth century and the current manifestations of memory-markers to the Modoc War. Throughout my neatly constructed story, I planned to argue that monuments and memorials to the Modoc War were essential to the construction of a politically usable conception of the past and that both white pioneers and Modoc survivors participated in the (re)production of certain narratives in order to create their lived identities. I moved from event to event, thinking all the time that I was writing History. But

     1 The Modoc War has received uneven attention from academic historians. For example see Keith A. Murray, The

    Modocs and Their War (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1959); Rebecca Bales, ““You Will Be Bravest of

    All”: The Modoc Nation to 1909,” PhD, Arizona State University, 2001, esp. Ch. 6; Carol Lawall, “Journalism and the Modoc War, 1872-1873,” Thesis (B.A.), California Polytechnic State University, 2002; Mathew Jaeger, “A Prelude to War: The Breakdown of Modoc-White Relations Which Led to the Modoc War,” Thesis (Honor),

    University of Oregon, 1997; Gregory Reed, “An Historical Geography Analysis of the Modoc Indian War,” Thesis (M.A.), California State University, Chico, 1991. However, the Modoc War has received considerable attention from non-academic historians and novelists, such as, Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and

    the Technological Wild West (New York: Penguin Books, 2004); Larry Jay Martin, Rush to Destiny (New York:

    Wolfpack Publishing, 2003); Arthur Quinn, Hell With the Fire Out: A History of the Modoc War (Boston: Faber and

    Faber, 1997); Terry C. Johnston, Devil's Backbone (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991).


Boyd Cothran Very Much a Work in Progress 12.7.2007

as I wrote, I discovered that for a narrative of the Modoc War there were precious few Modoc

    voices in my account. In fact, as I forged ahead, building my narrative from facts dutifully gathered during a summer spent in cold reading rooms and among dusty file cabinets, I slowly came to realize that I was depending too much upon an archive that had already expunged Modoc voices, forgotten their testimonies, silenced their pasts. As I wrote, I was frustrated to discover that I had reproduced the archive‟s silence, that I had done violence to a people‟s past. The lack of Modoc voices began to haunt me. They demanded to be heard but I could not hear them. So I abandoned narrative. Like Benjamin‟s historian, I stopped “telling the sequence of

    2events like the beads of a rosary.”

     This essay is a meditation on the limits and challenges of studying the historical memory of Indian genocide on the American frontier. By considering the possibility of enforced silence as a form of testimony, this essay wrestles with the idea of incorporating the unknowable or what

    3Ray Fogelson has termed the nonevent into our accounts of the past. As historians, how are our

    efforts to reconstruct an event shaped by the archives that contain that past? What is lost when Indian voices are silenced by those present at the moment of utterance? And how are they twice-silenced when we, as historians, pass over and reproduce those silences? Ultimately, I argue that the silences haunting the history of the Modoc War are not the product of attrition or happenstance; rather, they are the result of colonialism and its continuing acts of violence. The stories I seek to tell were rendered impossible not because did they not happen, quite the

     2 Walter Benjamin, “Thesis on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt (New York:

    Schocken, 1969), 263.

    3 In many ways, I am building upon Ray Fogelson‟s conception of nonevents as a subject for Ethnohistorians. See Raymond D Fogelson, “The Ethnohistory of Events and Nonevents,” Ethnohistory 36 (Spring 1989), 133-147


Boyd Cothran Very Much a Work in Progress 12.7.2007

    opposite they emphatically did occur. However, the structures of power that surrounded the production of memories at the time of their occurrence forestalled remembering. Thus, I argue that the historical memories of the Modoc War are very much a part of the colonial project that is the American West and our failure to incorporate the forgotten into that story has obscured the continuation of violence. After the war, the death, the starvation, the deportation and concentration, after all the acts of violence that we recognize as part of colonialism seem to have ended, the colonization of historical memory proceeds.

     * * *

This thought-piece began as an exploration of what Michel-Rolph Trouillot‟s conception of

    silencing might reveal when applied to the Modoc War. In Silencing the Past: Power and the

    Production of History, Trouillot contemplates the process through which societies produce

    narratives of the past. His concern is not with evaluating the validity of any particular narrative, with how accurately a narrative captures the event it recounts. Rather, Trouillot‟s concern is to explore the ways in which narratives of the past are dependent upon the present. “The past does not exist independent of the present,” Trouillot reminds us. “Indeed, the past is only past because

    there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing

    4is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content.” Thus, for Trouillot time

    is not linear, the past is not hermetically sealed from the present nor is the past separate from the present in the sense of over here and over there. Time and pastness are contingent upon the positionality of the present with respect to that past. In this way, the present shapes narrative understandings of the past.

     4 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 15.


Boyd Cothran Very Much a Work in Progress 12.7.2007

     But Trouillot is not a constructivist. He does not believe that because the present shapes our narratives of the past that the past is contingent, irrelevant or nonexistent. Rather, for Trouillot, the past, or at least the historical processes that create the past, must exist separate from the present or the future and that this separation is apparent in the contested nature of the meanings assigned to the past. “To admit the possibility of [a] second narrative is, in turn, to

    admit that the historical process has some autonomy vis-à-vis the narrative. It is to admit that as ambiguous and contingent as it is, the boundary between what happened and that which is said to have happened is necessary.” Thus, Trouillot‟s project is concerned with explicating “not what history is…but how history works.” His focus is on articulating the process of narrative production to uncover “the differential exercise of power that makes some narratives possible

    and silences others.” Ultimately, Trouillot concludes that “any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences, the result of a unique process…these silences crisscross or accumulate over

    5time to produce a unique mixture.”

     According to Trouillot, there exist two forms of historicity, which he labels historicity 1 and historicity 2. The first form of historicity is that which happened the event if you will. We

    have no access to this first form of historicity, it happens and then passes. We cannot stop time and replay the event. We cannot walk around it, observing the event from different angles. We cannot poke or prod the event. We cannot interrogate the event. We cannot dissect the event or divide the event into its constituent parts. Nor can we slow the event down or speed it up. Historicity 1, then, is beyond our grasp. “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be

     5 Ibid., 13; 25; 27.


Boyd Cothran Very Much a Work in Progress 12.7.2007

    seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never

    6seen again.”

     On the other hand, historicity 2 is not the event but the memory of the event. It is an “image” of the event but not the event itself. It is both a relic of a past and a product of a present. Yet Trouillot is careful not to suggest that we can separate historicity 1 and historicity 2. The distinction historians attempt to make between the event and what is said of the event is not itself “a mere accident of vernacular parlance to be corrected by theory.” Rather, historicity 1 and historicity 2 are dialogical processes that conspire to create the very silences of the past which are Trouillot‟s bundles. When a document or source is produced, when an archive is assembled, when a narrative is constructed or when significance is assigned to an event, in all these

    7moments, “silences enter the process of historical production.” Thus, every historical narrative

    must contain silences. They are the inescapable and undeniable reality of historical narrative (re)production, for all narratives come from a position of power. The pernicious and persistent denials of the existence of Trouillot‟s “bundles of silence” by both academic and public historians are what Avery Gordon has termed the “bloodless categories” of academic empiricism. They are the “barely speakable fears of losing the footing that enables us to speak authoritatively

    8and with greater value than anyone else who might.” To acknowledge Trouillot‟s bundles of

    silence would be to deny the historian‟s hegemonic claim over the past.

     6 Benjamin, “Thesis on the Philosophy of History,” 255.

    7 Trouillot, Silencing the Past, 4; 26.

    8Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of

    Minnesota Press, 1997), 21.


Boyd Cothran Very Much a Work in Progress 12.7.2007

     To aid in deconstructing the bundle of silences that haunt Modoc history, I propose an unusual exercise for historians. I propose that we listen for Modoc Ghosts. By that, I do not refer

    to communing with restless Indian spirits or performing séances in the woods, though such activities may indeed be useful to discovering new forms of historical knowing. Nor by ghosts do I refer only to the now dead or their incorporeal remains, though in some ways, these matters are a part of this project, too. Indeed, by ghosts, I am not even referring to the culturally specific customs people use to honor the dead in everyday life. Rather, when I write of following or listening for Modoc Ghosts, I am referring to the ways in which subjects have a tendency to disappear when we most expect them to be there, the way a phrase stands in contradiction, how individuals materialize or vanish without reason, how a profound silence can speak louder than a thousand voices. Gordon has referred to the process of unremembering, the way in which an individual is silenced by “the register of history,” as “a particular kind of social alchemy that eludes us as often as it makes us look for it.” The project of listening for ghosts is, at its core, one of recovering silenced voices or, at the very least, imagining the possibility of hearing them. It is about confronting “the paradox of tracking through time and across all those forces that which makes its mark by being there and not there at the same time.” Thus, the intellectual odyssey of listening for Modoc Ghosts is about turning to the past to “mak[e] a contact that changes you and

    refashions the social relations in which you are located. It is about putting life back in where only

    9a vague memory or a bare trace was visible to those who bothered to look.” The project of

    listening for Modoc Ghosts is about exploring the moment of forgetting, when a memory of the past was obliterated. Then again, perhaps it is more about manufacturing new memories to

     9 Gordon, Ghostly Matters, 6, 22.


Boyd Cothran Very Much a Work in Progress 12.7.2007

    screen out the old and produce a new future. The Modoc Ghost is the trace of the violence that produces silence. They are the evidence of colonialism‟s ongoing presence in both public memory and professional historiography. Ultimately, the act of listening for Modoc Ghosts is the quixotic search for the presence of absence.

     Essential to deconstructing the silence that surrounds historical memories of the Modoc War is a realization that generations of historians have reproduced them, building silences upon silences and performing again the colonizing act of forgetting. Dispesh Chakrabarty reminds us of the fundamental colonialism of academic intellectual discourse. Minority histories and so-called subaltern groups enter into historiographical discussions only when narratable from a “rationally defensible” position. For example, in discussing the Santal, Chakrabarty suggests that

    historical explanations of a peasant uprising which reference the intervention of a god, such as Thakur, are often recast in alternative terms in order for the event to fit within rational

    10parameters. Likewise, historians of the early America have long sought to recast events such as the Salem Witchcraft trials within the “rationally defensible” discourse of class conflict, patriarchal anxiety or even the unlikely digestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms all the time

    11rejecting, often forcefully, a consideration of the supernatural as a legitimate explanation. By

    rejecting the possibility of considering divine or the supernatural intervention, do historians sabotage their understanding of the past? Following Chakrabarty, I contend that history‟s

    exclusion of testimonies, forms of knowing or events which are not “rationally defensible”, is not

     10 Dipesh Chakrabarty, “Minority Histories, Subaltern Pasts,” Postcolonial Studies 1 (April 1998), 16, 22.

    11 For example, see “The Visible and Invisible Worlds of Salem,” in James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle, After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection (3rd ed., McGraw-Hill, 1992), 22-46; Carol Karlsen, Devil in

    the Shape of a Woman (New York: Norton, 1987, 1998). Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, Salem Possessed:

    The Social Origins of Witchcraft (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976);


Boyd Cothran Very Much a Work in Progress 12.7.2007

    necessary but ultimately epistemological. Historians compulsively seek to fill silence, disturbing the grave of the past, but if respected, silence itself can be a powerful form of testimony.

     This essay, then, is an attempt to deconstruct a few exclusions, a few silences that surround historical memories of the Modoc War and in the process accomplish two objectives. First, it is my hope that by exposing these silences, I can, in someway, rendering them a little less silent, thereby undoing perhaps some of the violence. Second, I will argue that these silences are a product of colonialism. In fact, they are, to borrow Giorgio Agamben‟s term, the “remnants” of

    12colonialism. These silences are the space between the colonizer, the colonized and the act of violence that is colonization. And by failing to acknowledge the silencing of these subjects, historians themselves have unwittingly become agents of a continuing colonial/imperial project. In part one, “Modoc Storyteller,” I explore three moments in which Modoc people enabled white writers to visit the Lava Beds and experience the meaningful sites of the Modoc War. However, in writing of their visits, these authors rendered their Modoc guides silent. By allowing those guides to remain silent, historians of the Modoc War have repeated the same act of violence as first performed by the likes of John Hamilton and John Muir. In part two, “Peter Schonchin‟s

    Speech,” I explore the silencing of Peter Schonchin and our failure to remember what he said during a commemoration of the Modoc War. Ultimately, I conclude that Schonchin was silenced by the same process of colonialism as the Modoc guides. However, even in their silence, Schonchin, like the Modoc guides, are total witnesses to the ongoing colonial process that is the Modoc War. If their testimonies could be recalled today, they would not represent the complete testimony to the totalizing colonial act of desubjectification. In this way, through their silence,

     12 Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (New York: Zone Books, 2005), passim;

    op ct. 164.


Boyd Cothran Very Much a Work in Progress 12.7.2007

    Schonchin and his fellow Modoc testify to the power and violence of American imperialism and the process of colonialism a testimony that would be impossible if we could recall their speech.

     In meditating on these moments of absence, I pose a number of questions. They are questions I cannot necessarily answer. But in asking them, I hope to recognize and respect the presence of the Modoc Ghosts that have haunted the history of the Modoc War. Ultimately, these silences are part of the Modoc War and the product of American colonialism. I believe as Benjamin believed that “only the historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the

    13past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”

    * * *

Modoc Storytellers

    Today, Canby‟s Cross soars twelve feet into the air above the purple sage brush that abounds in Lava Beds National Monument. On a warm summer day, as the sun sets behind Gillem‟s Bluff

    the cross seems to burst into flames, casting long sulfuric shadows over the basalt. Throughout its numerous manifestations, Canby‟s Cross has purported to mark, variously, either the exact

    location of the Peace Commissioner‟s Tent or the site where, on April 11, 1873, General Edward

    R. S. Canby and Dr. Elazer Thomas died. Shortly thereafter, a soldier, perhaps more than one, erected a small cross or placed a board on the site. Nearly a century later, a local miller, mechanic and general hermit would remember that, according to legend, the initial cross was

    14held in place by a base of stones covered in Canby‟s own blood.

     13 Benjamin, “Thesis on the Philosophy of History,” 255.

    14 J.D. Howard interview, May 15, 1961, interviewed by Ben Schwartz [cassette tape]. LBNMRL.


Report this document

For any questions or suggestions please email