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Irenia: Interview, 1999

Jim Barilla

I don't know if you've heard of Bloody Island. It's about a mile from here, up the road on Highway 20. That's the island where they massacred a lot of local Indians. If you drive up there you can read the historical marker. The story was that way back in the 1800s, a man named Kelsey—the same man they named Kelseyville after—and his partner used the Indians basically as slaves to do their labor on the cattle ranches. These two men starved the Indians to death. They killed them and brutalized them. When the Indians got sick of it and couldn't take it anymore they revolted and killed those two men. In return the US government sent out the US Army. The Indians were hiding on Bloody Island and the army killed nearly all of them there. There were a few survivors, some from the Robinson tribe from around here.

Basically everyone here is a descendant of the survivors. My mom is a full-blooded Pomo from here, but she doesn't really talk a lot about it. There is actually a woman here whose mother was a little baby when it happened. But there aren't that many elders left; there's only a handful from our tribe who tell stories of Bloody Island.

Robinson Rancheria isn't its true name. Robinson was just a local farmer; and the place just happened to get his name. Rancheria comes from the Spanish and it means just the same thing as a reservation, but they gave the name rancheria to land bases that were less than forty acres. When you hear rancheria it means it's a really small, mini reservation. We used to have less than forty acres, but now it's up to about 500.

We want to change our name. We want to name ourselves after the village that used to be here, Shigom, an old Indian village name; we actually uncovered a burial site here, right there where the sign says Robinson Rancheria Gas Station and Community Store. Changing the name is a big process; you have to go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and it takes an act of Congress to do it.

Out there we have a big tule patch where we go and gather tules with the kids. We make demonstration tule boats and houses. We use a tule to tie around the bundles and we carry them out. It takes a lot of tules to make something. You wonder how those poor women gathered them! They're heavy and they're awkward and you're walking in that wetland and you get very muddy and the water is up to your knees. You reach down to cut the tules, and you don't know what you're going to be touching down there. But it's fun in the summertime because it's so cool. It's really nice.

We get the elders, not just from this tribe but from other tribes too, to share their knowledge with whoever is capable of learning from the younger generation, my generation and younger; who will pass that knowledge on to the next.

They found a big mortar out there when they were excavating before development, near the gas station. It was huge, and beautiful. The Indians used it for grinding acorns. When the acorns fall off the tree, just about now, they collect them. They season them for a while until they get dried out, and then they just crack them. They grind them until they get a fine powder; and then they leach it. They cover it over and over with water until it changes color. It turns into a paste, but they have to leach it over and over to get the toxins out. That's when it turns a different color and it's ready. And then they eat it.

Here we use it as a mush, but you can also make it into bread. It's a taste you have to acquire. It's one of those things, like greens; you feel good when you eat the fiber—lots of fiber. It's a little bit bitter—like a grain, maybe like bran. It looks like Cream of Wheat—but it doesn't taste that good! But it's very rich and full of vitamins. You eat it enough and it starts to taste good. We make it on big occasions and we eat seaweed along with it that we gather from the ocean.

There's not that many natural foods left that the tribes used to eat. The acorns are pretty much the last of them. In the history books of California Indians they always call the eastern Pomo "berry and nut gatherers." I always get a laugh out of that! We like to pick berries and we like to eat nuts, but that's not all we like to do!

They sent the Indian kids to boarding school. My mom was at a school down in Riverside until she was a teenager. She came home in the summers, but at school they didn't allow the kids to speak their language. Every time my mom would say an Indian word she'd get reprimanded for it. So she slowly lost her language. She remembers some words, but, through no fault of hers, she lost most of it. That's what the school was designed for—assimilation. Now we're starting a language program here in Eastern Pomo.

My mom moved away, down to the Delta near Stockton, because there were no jobs here. There was really nothing here. In the Delta she met my dad, who was a migrant farm worker from the Philippines. My dad really identified with his culture and so did my mom, so my family is very rich in both cultures.

We grew up between Tracy and Stockton—a place called Union Island. Right along the old river. It's beautiful out there. I really miss it; I've always wanted to go back to the Delta. I love it because of the landscape, because it's open. You grow up so that you are used to looking way beyond the horizon and then you get put in front of a mountain and you can't see anything. That's one thing I didn't like about Washington when I lived there—it was so confining, except when you looked at Puget Sound. Here on the rancheria it is a little bit like the Delta, but I still miss the fields, big and open with all the different crops. I always thought about moving back down there but now it's polluted with pesticides and smog.

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