‘The story is not over’: Bauer discusses California Indigenous portrayal in ‘Know Your History’ talk

William Bauer speaks to audience from podium
On Nov. 7, at Pomona College, Professor William Bauer lead a discussion on California Indian thought and the role of land in California’s history. (Wendy Zhang • The Student Life)

This Tuesday, Professor William Bauer headlined a lecture exploring California’s Indigenous history at Pomona College’s Rose Hills Theatre. Bauer is a historian and program director for the American Indian and Indigenous Studies minor at the University of Nevada.

The Nov. 7  “Know Your History” talk was organized through a collaborative effort between the Institute for Inclusive Excellence and the Pomona History Department. The talk centered around discussions of California Indigenous portrayal throughout history as well as the role of Indigenous land in the state’s history as described in Bauer’s co-authored book, “We Are the Land: A Native History of California” (2021).

Joshua Thunder Little, associate director of Native American Initiatives at Pomona, opened the lecture with a land acknowledgment. He then set the stage for reflective discourse by calling the audience to action.

“What are you doing to better your relationship with the Gabrielino Tongva peoples, and what are you doing to connect and honor your relationship with the land?,” Thunder Little asked audience members.

Following Thunder Little’s opening remarks, Bauer took the stage and broke down the timeline of his book, which he explained was intended to combat the erasure of Indigenous American history.

“We tried to refute the notion that California Indian people and nations had disappeared from the land,” Bauer said. “The book is the resilience of them to maintain connections with land and with one another.”

Bauer asserted that the history of California — and, more broadly, of the United States— is incomplete without the stories of its Indigenous peoples, arguing that “you cannot understand U.S. history without understanding Indigenous California history.”

The Gabrielino Tongva people, whose story is a cornerstone of the book, were presented by Bauer not as a relic of the past, but rather as a people with a history and legacy that “does not end in 1860.” Bauer challenged depictions of California Indigeneity as vanishing peoples who had been completely erased; instead, he emphasized the persistence of the Tongva.

Bauer also critiqued the portrayal of Indigenous narratives in California history books, which he explained often emphasize stories like that of Jane McCrae, a white woman who was allegedly scalped and killed by Indigenous peoples during the American Revolution. According to Bauer, McCrae’s death became a symbol of American patriotism — yet most history books remain silent on the parallel tragedies that Indigenous women in California endured.

Bauer brought to life the diverse and resilient history of California’s Indigenous peoples, highlighting the over 100 languages spoken before the European invasion of California.

“California is really probably the most diverse linguistic place in North America,” he said. Bauer specifically highlighted Yuma, Rome, Sacramento, Ukiah, the East Bay, Riverside, Los Angeles, the Ishi Wilderness and San Diego as “prominent native spaces.”

Focusing on Ukiah, Bauer illustrated the resilience of the Pomo people in the 1870s. According to Bauer, the Pomo people pooled their wages to buy back their land: “Not the entire valley, but maybe ten to twenty acres at a time of rebuilding and reclaiming their connection.”

Bauer addressed the challenges in capturing such a rich history within “We Are the Land: A Native History of California.”

“It’s exciting and actually daunting … understanding that, at least we tried to address and keep the diversity [of California] in mind,” he said.

In his talk, Bauer sought to encourage the audience to rethink their understanding of California’s Indigenous landscape today.

Travis Brown, co-director of the Institute for Inclusive Excellence at Pomona, highlighted the institute’s initial efforts to launch a more inclusive curriculum at the 5Cs, emphasizing the importance of Indigenous perspectives.

Brown explained that the creation of the institute began with discussions on equity and inclusion. Some of the goals envisioned during these discussions, such as the mission to create inclusive classrooms, are reflected in Pomona’s Faculty Handbook. The faculty’s commitment to support this inclusivity is supported by an $800,000 Inclusive Excellence Grant from Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Brown said the “Know Your History” events were intended to address a gap in students’ historical knowledge and a need for the integration of California Indigenous history into campus discourse. He also outlined the Institute’s overall mission of nurturing an inclusive environment at Pomona, emphasizing the value of feeling a sense of belonging.

“If you feel that you belong some place, if you feel that you are a part of the community, you are more likely to flourish, you are more likely to do well,” he said.

Brown stressed the Institute’s role not as an enforcer but as an advocate for diversity in educational materials. He encouraged faculty to diversify the voices in their syllabi to include those historically marginalized, including Indigenous authors and scholars.

“Be as diverse and inclusive as possible,” Brown urged, proposing that the decolonization of curricula reflect a wide range of perspectives.

In the Q&A segment of the talk, a Pitzer College student asked Bauer about the isolating nature of predominantly white institutions for Indigenous students.

“That isolation continues, even if you continue on the path into academia,” Bauer answered, highlighting the lack of Indigenous presence in higher education and emphasizing the role students must play in transforming the academic landscape. “Finding the right community is always advice that I give, making sure to connect with other people.”

Addressing a Pomona student’s question about the role of universities in making sure the institution is committed to integrating more accurate historical teachings, Bauer cited a pattern of historical unawareness that he has encountered in his career.

Holding the institute accountable, according to Bauer, is essential in fostering a community that is not only aware of its history but also active in shaping an inclusive and educated campus. To him, change means creating an environment where everyone can flourish – where students are not just informed about history but know that “the story is not over.”

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