Unravelling the Layers: Contemplating Institutionalized Stealing
As you read this, I’m looking out over the coast of California at the ocean, just south of Half Moon Bay, considering all the layers of history that allow me to be here. This location, like all of California, was first American Indian—Ohlone-Costanoan territory to be specific. In the late 18th century, The Spanish began their occupation of California with the building of missions and introduction of European invasive plant species and non-native diseases. During the 19th century, Native Californian communities were reduced by as much as 90% due to war and diseases. Control over California shifted to Mexico in 1834, then was ceded to a belligerent United States in 1848.
Indians, robbed of their lands, were forced to become wage labor on local ranches. After the US-Mexico war, throughout the former Mexican territories, poor and working-class Mexicans were also forced into wage labor, while land-owning Mexicans were often separated from their titles by Anglo-American laws and illegal squatters.
If you were educated in the United States, you’ve probably heard of Manifest Destiny, the 19th century belief that the US was destined to expand across North America to the Pacific Ocean. This ideology was used by the Democratic Party to justify the invasion of Mexico (1846-48), which led to Mexico ceding the present-day areas of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming to the United States. Combined with annexation of Texas prior to the war, the US was able to grab enough territory to double its size and expand its claim from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.
Once the US reached the west coast, it became greedy for what lay in and beyond the Pacific—Hawaii, Guam, Japan, the Philippines, and beyond. Asian immigration to California was often encouraged because it provided cheap labor and a way to pit different racial and ethnic groups against each other—divide and conquer.
My own family arrived in the US after World War II, after newly passed, preferential immigration laws began favoring the immigration of educated professionals. I grew up in occupied Lenape territory in a small city named after Thomas Edison, a donut city whose center is another, smaller town named Metuchen, after a local Lenape chief. The official histories mention this chief in passing, and don’t discuss his fate or that of his descendants. We settled in a relatively new suburban development just down the street from a historically Black neighborhood and the local railroad tracks, starting the neighborhood’s transition from Southern and Eastern European settlers. The last cross burnings in the area took place only a decade or so before our arrival.
Thomas Edison is credited for the electric light bulb, though there are many who point out that he only capitalized on the work of others and characterize him as an unethical man. Edison and Metuchen is the perfect representation of the United States—a city named after a man of rapacious ambitions, associated with an ultimate symbol of civilized life and capitalist productivity, completely encircling a smaller town named after an Indian chief we know almost nothing about.
In California, signs of its colonial past are still present in its geography. The missions and other colonial buildings are relatively preserved, Indian reservations exist throughout the state, and Spanish-language place names are all over the map. Asian American history is present too, for example, in the former internment camp sites, the railroads, or in the fertile farmlands, created through the sweat and blood of various Asian immigrant groups. All of these histories and many more have made California, and therefore the United States, into a major world capitalist power.
Yet these things are not immediately obvious—it takes some effort to really learn about the details, to reach past the Anglo-centric nationalism of “from sea to shining sea,” of “English-only” reactionaries, and “from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”
Here on the land I’m writing from, there’s a faux state historic marker created by an artist that tells of a white man who found the largest gold nugget ever recorded. Instead of selling the gigantic nugget, he buried it in the woods somewhere near the marker, saying he just wanted the fame. Many have searched for it since, but it remains hidden. I know this marker is fake, but as I sit here considering all the layers of history that lead to this present moment, it evokes for me a perhaps naive hopefulness. On the verge of great wealth, maybe there are people who perceive emptiness on the other side, and step back. This is the great potential in all of us at any given moment—to wake up. And in that instant, maybe we’ll look at all our institutionalized dukkha, see it for what it is—a stupid piece of rock—and resolve to act.