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When Indians dare not rise

The Trial of "Indian Joe": Race and Justice in the Nineteenth-Century West; Clare V. McKanna Jr.; University of Nebraska Press: 160 pp., $35 The World's Richest Indian: The Scandal over Jackson Barnett's Oil Fortune; Tanis C. Thorne; Oxford University Press: 292 pp., $35

November 16, 2003|Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to the Book Review, is the author of the forthcoming "God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism."

Among the sorriest excesses in the recent gubernatorial campaign in California was the vilifying of candidates who were supported by Native Americans. After several centuries of what scholars sometimes call "marginalization" -- including appropriation of native lands, banishment to remote and barren reservations and wars of conquest that sometimes approached genocide -- the native peoples of California were denounced for participating in the democratic process by using money from tribal casinos to make contributions to candidates of their choice.

Marginalization is given an intimate human face in two new books that show how two Native American men fared at the hands of the courts in an earlier era of the American West. "The Trial of 'Indian Joe' " is a study of the San Diego murder trial of Jose Gabriel, a Native American handyman, for the bludgeoning deaths of John and Wilhelmina Geyser at their Otay Mesa farm in 1892. "The World's Richest Indian" is the story of Jackson Barnett, a member of the Creek Nation whose tribal allotment in Oklahoma was the site of a fabulously rich oil strike in 1912 and whose wealth was taken from him by paternalistic and corrupt government authorities.

"The Trial of 'Indian Joe' " is a scholarly monograph that reads sometimes like a whodunit and sometimes like a courtroom thriller. Gabriel was found at the crime scene, taken into custody and put on trial for his life. His ordeal as a criminal defendant reveals exactly how profoundly native Californians were victimized by the new Anglo majority: "California Indians, who could neither vote nor serve on juries, lived virtually unprotected in a white world," writes Clare V. McKanna Jr., a lecturer in American Indian studies at San Diego State University. "By labeling him 'Indian Joe' white members of the local community rhetorically distanced Gabriel from themselves and marginalized him, making it more difficult to identify and sympathize with the defendant during the trial."

In fact, Gabriel was the object of brutal hatred among the white population of Otay Mesa from the moment he was found in a bedroom of the Geyser farmhouse on the night the old couple was killed. He was badly beaten as he was taken into custody and was very nearly lynched before he could be put on trial. The local constable saved his life only by making a remarkable promise to the lynch mob: "I pledge my word that if the courts fail to convict this man I will resign my commission and head a crowd to hang him."

McKanna insists that the case against Gabriel was strong, if only circumstantial. Even his own attorneys could not explain away the fact that he was found at the murder scene. Yet, by book's end, the author has aroused our sympathies for Gabriel, noting that the very name bestowed upon him, "Indian Joe," conveyed the stereotypes of "unrelenting savagery and inept passivity" that afflicted Native Americans in California. "He presented a pitiful sight, sitting there all alone," wrote one newspaper reporter at the time of the trial. And his final words to the judge after hearing the verdict pronounced against him are deeply poignant: "Tell him," Gabriel instructed the interpreter at his side, "I want to be hanged in the day time, not at night."

Barnett, by contrast, can be seen as a victim of his own good fortune. Newspaper headline writers dubbed him the "World's Richest Indian" after the wells on his property began pumping at a rate that ultimately produced about $24 million worth of oil. But the racism and greed that permeated the federal, state and county bureaucracies in the former Indian Territory of Oklahoma prompted the authorities to seize Barnett's oil wealth and dole it out to him at the rate of a few hundred dollars a year.

"The World's Richest Indian was locked into this state of genteel poverty," explains UC Irvine lecturer Tanis C. Thorne, "when he eloped with a woman he had just met." The 64-year-old Barnett's new wife was 39-year-old Anna Laura Lowe, a white woman, "femme fatale and gold digger" whose motives in prompting him to go to court to secure control of his fortune were hardly high-minded. Indeed, she succeeded in snagging a chunk of his money for herself and later sought to place her husband under a guardianship, demonstrating that Barnett was obviously in urgent need of protection from just about everyone because he was so rich. But the Barnett litigation, as Thorne explains in scholarly detail, became "[t]he symbol of a diseased national Indian policy" and thus "added impetus to the reform movement that led to the Indian New Deal," a thoroughgoing overhaul of the Bureau of Indian Affairs beginning in 1933.

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