The land that we know today as Point Reyes got its name from Spanish explorer and soldier Sebastián Vizcaíno, a man who gave many of the geographical features of coastal California their modern names.
But while the name Punto de los Reyes remains today in its Americanized form, it is important in 2020, as America at long last opens its eyes to an indisputable history of racial injustice, to acknowledge that it was not Vizcaíno who first discovered this land. Point Reyes was not his to name.
At the time of the Spanish “discovery” of Point Reyes, it was already the home of the Coast Miwok tribe, who had been living on the peninsula for over a thousand years. Places that the Coast Miwok knew for centuries – and knew more intimately than even the most seasoned Park Ranger here today – have largely lost that history. For example, a place that was called Tamál-Húye since long before any European had even dreamed of a “New World” is now labelled as Drake’s Bay on every map available.
All of this is not to suggest that no progress has been made to acknowledge the pre-colonial history of Point Reyes. A recreated village in Point Reyes National Seashore named Kule Loklo now allows visitors to witness an authentic festival, and the Coast Miwok people are officially recognized by the US Government.
But even these small tidbits of progress did not come easily or without setbacks. Kule Loklo may be a pretty token, but the ethics of using the homes of a people nearly erased by Spanish missionaries as a tourist attraction seem dubious at best. In the words of Greg Sarris, a tribal chairman representing the Coast Miwok, “When we had no political clout, a group of non-Indian people decided they wanted to play Indians or be Indians and tried to recreate a historical setting.” To many, the attraction is seen as an artifact of a people who once lived at Point Reyes, rather than a tribute to a people who still do.
Mr. Sarris’ references to a time before his people had “political clout” also ring sadly true. The native peoples of the region were granted sovereignty in 1920, when they were given just 15 acres of land, of which only three were at all habitable. Even this scant gesture proved to be too much for the United States government. In 1958, Congress revoked their sovereignty under the Rancheria Termination Act, selling their lands to private interests without consent and providing only thirty days’ notice.
This injustice isn’t just historical or governmental, it is also baked in a very unlikely way into American popular culture. Very few Americans have ever heard the word “Miwok.” However, nearly 50% of Americans have seen a film depicting a race of simpleminded creatures characterized by a laundry list of indigenous stereotypes – “Ewoks.” Star Wars writer George Lucas has confirmed that this was a conscious reference to the Miwok peoples; the Ewok scenes in Return of the Jedi were filmed in forests where Miwok once lived. Whether this portrayal can be described as racist is a matter of debate (certainly, the Star Wars franchise is no stranger to racial controversies surrounding its alien characters), but it is, at the very least, poor and insensitive representation for a group that otherwise gets very little representation in Hollywood.
The example of Point Reyes and the Coast Miwok serves as a microcosm of the systemic injustice that haunts every corner of America. It’s in the names of places on our maps, in the decisions of our government that were left out of our history textbooks, and in our favorite Hollywood movies. The truth that simply cannot be ignored is that American history is a history of racial injustice.
In 2000, more than four decades after the Rancheria Termination Act, President Clinton signed legislation once again granting federal recognition to the Coast Miwok, who – along with the Southern Pomo – have formed the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, a tribe of more than 1,000 members. Now, with the "political clout" that Mr. Sarris spoke of, dialogue between Point Reyes National Seashore and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria is underway to ensure that the future of Point Reyes is cooperative with, rather than dismissive of, the Coast Miwok.
The mere fact that this dialogue exists hardly redresses the offences of history – without actions to follow them, the words spoken in this dialogue will be lost in the fog that blankets this place – but it is progress. And If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that it is long past time for progress in America.