The Language of Silence

Why America’s oldest lake is in so much trouble

Recently during a lunchtime conversation with a well-read, well-traveled friend, I mentioned Clear Lake.

“Where’s that?” she asked.

“California’s largest lake?” I responded, doing a quick calculation of how much contextual information I needed to share. “It’s in Lake County, a few hours from here. I guess because it’s located in one of California’s poorest and remote counties, most people don’t know much (or anything) about it. “

I then proceeded to give her the highlights, all of which are covered in a narrative essay published after years of meticulous research and discussions with tribal representatives living and working around the lake.

Map of Clear Lake and surrounding watersheds showing multiple overlapping wildfire burn areas, tribal lands and disadvantaged communities.

Clear Lake is located in Lake County, a county that has seen around 60% of its landmass burn in one catastrophic wildfire after another in less than ten years (see the map below, prepared by my colleagues over at FlowWest). California’s largest wildfire (at the time), the August/Mendocino Complex Fire, rampaged the western part of the county and touched the edge of the densely populated rancheria of the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians and destroyed half of Middletown, the ancestral lands of the Middletown Pomo tribe.

Clear Lake has been subjected to toxic mercury mining, DDD/DDT applications that inspired Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, overstocking of predatory invasive fish resulting in the extinction of four native fish species (with a fifth on the brink), and excessive nutrient loads causing ongoing cultural eutrophication and toxic algal blooms.

Clear Lake is also the site of one of the most heinous massacres – during a century of massacres and state-sanctioned bounty hunting of California Natives – that remains relatively unknown to this day (despite dozens of varied accounts across the internet). Hundreds of men, women, children, and infants were slaughtered by volunteer militias and army personnel from the Bay Area in following the murder of two settler-abusers known as “some of California’s most brutal slave owners,” Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone.

Named the Bloody Island Massacre, the killings of the Badonnapoti people, the Yokayo people, and many other local lakeside bands, took place in 1851. It was a typical response to any perceived Native threat or pushback – violent or not – following the invasion and destruction of their ancestral lands and abuse of their peoples.

“By the end of the day, according to the most conservative estimates, close to 200 Indians were dead. Pomo historians believe the number may be closer to 400. Two white soldiers were injured..”

— Summarized from historical accounts of the May 14, 1850 massacre of Native communities around Clear Lake

California tribal bands were repeatedly and systematically massacred if they escaped enslavement, stole cattle or horses, or killed their oppressors. In hundreds of instances, documented in numerous historical accounts, the Achomawi, Ahwahnechee, Chowchilla, Karuk, Luiseño, Maidu, Paiute, Patwin, Pit River, Pomo, Wintu/Wintun, Tolowa, Tübatulabal, Wiyot, Yana, Yahi, Yuki, and Yurok (and many, many more, these are the tribes listed in a Wikipedia table of California genocides between 1846-1871) were slaughtered by White vigilantes and posses during tribal meetings and prayer ceremonies.

Lake County historical John Parker has completed a dense report on Kelsey and Stone, which remains the most thorough record of the two miscreants to date. In today’s society, they would have been arrested, indicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Yet in 2022 they still share a plaque, California Historical Marker Number 426, and the lakeside town Kelseyville is named after one of them. (No hint of the town’s is mentioned on the Visit Kelseyville website; although the Wikipedia entry does.)

The men gained such a reputation that even their white contemporaries frowned upon their behavior. They became famous for a “game” they’d play for visiting friends: shooting at their slaves “just for the fun” of seeing them jump in terror. Sometimes they’d put on whipping demonstrations. 

KAtie Dowd, SFGate, june 14, 2020

Choosing to name a town after a criminal, and continuing to retain the name despite public outcry, comes at a moral cost.

Attempts to rename Kelseyville as “Konocti,” a name honoring the sacred mountain, Mt. Konocti, overlooking Clear Lake, are gaining traction, as part of any effort led by a local group, Citizens for Healing. In association with a series of monthly meetings held around Clear Lake, on Sunday, August 14th, a panel discussion headed by Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians elder and THPO Director Ron Montez, Sr. provided hours of testimony by Natives of the pervasive, multigenerational trauma elicited by the town’s name.

“It’s still an open wound that’s not been healed. We are a hurting people. We’ve wanted to change the name way before [anyone non-Native] thought of it,” explained Ron.

Jesse Gonzalez (Scotts Valley tribe), a descendant of Shuk, a chief who witnessed the Bloody Island massacre, says he doesn’t understand why a town would choose such a name. “I’m hoping we don’t have to plead our case – why would anyone want to back the name of a person who has committed such atrocities?” he asked during the discussion. “It’s not in the past for us; it’s not been swept under the rug for us – we’ve always known. I’ve known since I was ten years old.

Clayton Duncan, the great-great-grandson of a little girl who survived the massacre by hiding underwater in the tule reeds (while using a reed as a makeshift snorkel), after listing a number of federal policies (e.g., the 1830 Indian Removal Act, the 1887 Dawes Act, ) depriving Natives of homelands, identities, and rights, described the retention of the Kelsey name as “honoring a man who stole the souls of little girls.”

My adopted family, the Tado (a Kempo Manggarai clan) practice an apology ritual. I’ve been both the initiator and recipient of these rituals, whereby a symbolic gift and ritual speech are exchanged in order to repair a broken relationship. A similar ritual exists here – Ron Montez emphasized that when local authorities step forward to acknowledge history of atrocities and present an appropriate gift (such as the renaming of Kelseyville to Konocti) to be received ritually by tribal elders, reparations and reconciliation can begin in Lake County.

Genocides and ecocides are intrinsically intertwined throughout California’s history.

I describe how these successive waves of culturally and ecologically disastrous practices impacted the lake in a video I produced for the California Fish and Game Commission during the meeting they voted to list the Clear Lake hitch as a threatened species, and in an thoroughly-researched essay, “The Language of Silence,” which traces the aftermath of 170 years of overlapping genocides and ecocides on Clear Lake.

We all know that climate change is turning up the volume of extreme weather patterns driving heat waves, drought, floods, wildfires, glacial melts. A climate of pervasive racism drives ignorance, intergenerational trauma, and cultural misunderstanding. Climate change and the ongoing effects of historical racism are only two cultural/environmental problems faced by the communities that I work with; problems that were decades – or generations – in the making. Problems involving countless decisions by everyone involved to remain silent, to look the other way, to continue business-as-usual (“BAU” in Indonesian translates to “stinks”), or to throw a few, inadequate resources at the issue for a short while before giving up.

I get it. I’ve done it. I’m a human, too.

This is why the Goldman Environmental Prize, the “Green Nobel Prize,” the most prestigious environmental prize in the world, is only awarded to people “who take extraordinary actions to protect the planet.”

Fully addressing an environmental problem – whether we’re talking threats to flora and fauna (habitat loss, extinction), threats to human health (pollution, toxins), or to the entire planet (ocean acidification, global temperature rise), typically requires blood, sweat, and tears plus hundreds of hours spent in public testimony in planning meetings, and thousands of human hours in cleanup, mitigation, or restoration work; equivalent to or far beyond the amount of time it took for us to create the mess in the first place.

Tule reeds near Clear Lake State Park.

My personal “Green Noble Prize” goes to my colleague Sarah Ryan, the environmental director for the Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians, who has devoted her life to addressing this sh*t storm of water quality issues on Clear Lake. In concert with countless local, tribal, state, regional, and federal agencies, she juggles around sixteen projects every year (in addition to her regular duties) that include water and tissue sampling, addressing compromised drinking water systems, holding tribal training workshops, establishing tribal data stations, replanting tule stands, running tule festivals, and reporting on algal blooms, illegal water diversions, and fish kills.

Educating Ourselves

On the second Saturday of each month, Sarah brings her unparalleled expertise on water quality issues facing Clear Lake, its tributaries, and associated watersheds to Lake County public broadcasting. This month, my essay will be part of her show.

The Language of Silence and a conversation between myself and Sarah Ryan will be featured on at Saturday August 13th at 10AM Pacific time and again on Monday August 15th at 10AM on the Water and Environment Hour on KPFZ 88.1 FM in Lake County.

If you’re in Lake County, you can tune it in on the radio. Outside of Lake County, you can stream the show over the internet.

The show begins with a summary of current issues facing Clear Lake (including a detailed run-down of the harmful algal blooms present on the lake and how to protect yourself if you have a private intake system for your household drinking water), followed by my interview and reading of the essay.

Screenshot of KPFZ’s Water and Environment Hour details and station contact info.

The show makes for a sobering listen; yet forewarned is forearmed, as harmful algal blooms are on the rise throughout California and elsewhere, and depending on the species and extent of the harmful algal bloom, can cause skin rashes, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, and other nasty symptoms. Pets and livestock can die if they ingest too much. Cultural ignorance is also an illness, causing heartache, nausea, and moral toxicity.

The obscuring of painful historical events in favor of occupiers and oppressors is not new. As E.J. Crandall, Lake County Supervisor and enrolled member of the Robinson Rancheria, testified at the Citizens for Healing event: “I know what it means to relearn history.”

What is new, is our capacity to peel back layers of mistruth and right historical wrongs. Federal and local efforts to rename areas using an epithet (“squaw”) from pioneer days are ongoing. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is leading the effort to rename 650 federal land units containing the offensive term. Last year, Squaw Valley Resort, a site of the 1960 Winter Olympics changed its name to Palisades Tahoe. Squaw Mountain in Colorado is now Mestaa’ehehe Mountain.

Tribal people are united on the need for changing place names that evoke deep trauma. In the case of the town which – I trust will be formerly known as “Kelseyville” – we have identified a straightforward solution with the potential for revitalizing the area. “If we can get this [name change] passed, we’ll be in newspapers all over the state – and it will be positive. It’ll become part of the vernacular of tourism agencies promoting Lake County,” suggested an attendee at the meeting.

Even my waitress at a locally popular restaurant, who hopes to set up a new home in the area, can’t wait to get the name changed.

For now, Citizens for Healing will continue sponsoring educational events, in the hopes of filing for a petition in early Winter 2023, collecting signatures, and bringing the petition before the Lake County Board of Supervisors for a vote. You can join their mailing list here.

Listen to The Language of Silence on my Substack podcast here.

Read The Language of Silence in two parts on my Substack BioDiverse Culture channel here.

Listen to my interview with Sarah Ryan on the making of The Language of Silence here.

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