Revolution In Indian Country

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STRANGELY ENOUGH, THESE CON- flicts—widespread, often bitter, and with profound ramifications for American institutions—seemed to be happening beyond the ken of most Americans, for whom Indians largely remain a people of myth and fantasy. Like no other inhabitants of the United States, Indians have nourished our imagination, weaving in us a complex skein of guilt, envy, and contempt; yet when we imagine we see “the Indian,” we often see little more than the distorted reflection of our own fears, fancies, and unhappy longings. This was vividly brought home to me on a visit to the reservation of the two-hundred-member Campo Band of Mission Indians, in the arid hills an hour’s drive east of San Diego. This reservation landscape is a profoundly discouraging one. It offers nothing to comfort the eye, produces nothing of value, and provides almost nothing to sustain life as it is enjoyed by most Americans today. The single resource that the Campos possess is wasteland. In 1987 the band learned that the city of San Diego had named the reservation as one of several potential dump sites for the city’s refuse.

“We just need this one little thing to get us started,” the band’s chairman, Ralph Goff, told me as we walked through the redshank and yucca and ocher sand where the first trenches had been cut for the new landfill. “With it we can create our own destiny.” Goff, a formidably built man with little formal education, grew up in the 1940s, when the only work available was as a cowhand or day laborer for whites. When there was no work, people went hungry. “You just had to wait until there was some more food.” In the 1960s most of the unskilled jobs disappeared, and nearly every Campo family went on welfare. “We needed it, but it really wrecked us as people. It created idleness. People didn’t have to do anything in order to get money.”

If the Campos have their way, by the end of the decade daily freight trains will be carrying loads of municipal waste to a three-hundred-acre site on a hilltop at the southern end of the reservation. For the privilege of leasing the band’s land, a waste-management firm will pay the Campos between two and five million dollars a year. Goff argued that the dump would put an end to the band’s dependence on federal largess. It would create jobs for every adult Campo who is willing to work, provide long-term investment capital for the band, supply money for full college scholarships for every school-age member of the band, and finance new homes for the families that now live in substandard housing. The dump would, in short, give the Campos financial independence for the first time in their modern history.

 

THE LANDFILL WOULD BE ONE of the most technically advanced in the United States; to regulate it, the Campos enacted an environmental code more stringent than the State of California’s. Nevertheless, the dump generated fierce opposition in towns near the reservation, where thousands of non-Indians live. Geologists hired by the dump’s opponents have suggested, but not proved, that seepage from the dump might contaminate the water supply of ranches beyond the reservation boundary. Environmentalists accused the band of irresponsibility toward the earth and charged that the Campos had been targeted in an “assault” on reservations by “renegade” waste-dumping companies. A bill was even introduced in the California legislature that would have made it a crime to deliver waste to the Campo landfill. Goff shrugged away the protests. “It’s a sovereignty issue. It’s our land, and we’ll do what we want to with it.”

“How can you say that the economic development of two hundred people is more important than the health and welfare of all the people in the surrounding area?” an angry and frustrated rancher, whose land lay just off the reservation, asked me. “It’s hard making a living here. The fissures will carry that stuff right through here. We’ll have all that stuff in our water and blowing down on us off the hills. If our water is spoiled, then everything’s spoiled.”

There were predictable elements to her rage: the instinctive resistance of most Americans to any kind of waste dump anywhere near their homes and the distress of many white Americans when they realize the implications of tribal sovereignty for the first time and find themselves subject to the will of a government in which they have no say. But there was something more, a sort of moral perplexity at Indians’ having failed to behave according to expectation, an imputation that they were guilty of self-interest. Revealingly, I thought, on the wall of the rancher’s trailer there was a poster decorated with Indian motifs. Entitled “Chief Seattle Speaks,” it began, in words that are becoming as familiar to American schoolchildren as those of the Gettysburg Address once were: “How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land?” Here, in sight of the dump, the so-called testament of Chief Seattle was a reproach to the Campos, an argument rooted in what the rancher presumably believed to be Indians’ profoundest values. “Before all this I had this ideal about Indian people and all they’ve been through,” she told me. “I used to think they had this special feeling about the land.”