- REMEMBERING THE MODOC WAR: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence by Boyd Cothran
There has been much written lately about past Indian wars, massacres, mass executions, and vigilante justice—from Sand Creek to Camp Grant to the Mankato hangings to the lynching of Louie Sam in the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, it is about time we sought a more critical understanding of these injustices on our landscapes of violence, and how these past events have been distilled through collective memory and the rewritings of Native and settler history. To this body of recent work—conducted in the shadow of 9/11, our own national trauma—we now add Boyd Cothran’s examination of the Modoc War of 1872–73 in the volcanic-contoured terrain of the Klamath Basin.
The author’s objective, in large part, is to dissect a violent episode in Indian-White relations and “interrogate the nature of innocence and its uses as well as its persistence and prevalence in American history” (7). Grounded in Judeo-Christian symbolism, and manifested early in the Puritan City on the Hill, innocence has been repeatedly invoked in nationalistic narratives and claims to destiny, exceptionalism, and the need for aggressive militancy. When Captain Jack and his Modoc followers resisted containment on a reservation and subsequently engaged U.S. troops, killing General Edward Canby during peace negotiations, he and three other Native men [End Page 166] were captured and executed, initiating a century-long process of historical knowledge production about the war in “marketplaces of remembering.” The author analyzes these marketplaces—newspapers, dramatic Indian show performances, books, reenactments, museums, local resource economies, petitions, tourism—as sites in which historical remembrances are made and remade, circulating in networks of exchange and commodification, “part of the commercialization of everyday life” (14). Non-Native dominance of these networks ensured that most Americans consumed remembrances of Modoc savagery and newcomer victimhood that justified violence in westward expansion, but obscured its underlying political and economic roots. The result has been a thickly mediated transformation of a single incident of “ethnic cleansing” into an enduring redemptive narrative of American innocence. Even recent remembrances—such as National Park Service commemorations—in which multiculturalism serves as vehicle for reconciliation, cannot escape perpetuating the theme of settler innocence, as the process of reparations obligates living Modoc to forgive those in the past and assume a shared blame for the historical violence, while continuing inequities are forgotten.
Cothran demonstrates an impressive command of sources, helping him to illustrate his argument persuasively, and he is bold in his critique of historians’ own role in selectively remembering the war. Perhaps most valuable is the author’s use of personal interviews, archival research, and close readings of Native-authored written records to emphasize the agency of individual Modocs in shaping marketplace remembrances past and present. His descriptions of Toby Riddle and her stage appearances in public lectures soon after the war as a type of “Pocahontas of the Lava Beds” and Jeff Riddle’s often ignored historical narrative on the war’s origin, published in 1914, provide wonderful insights to indigenous people’s intellectual engagement with the making of historical knowledge to challenge settler colonialism. These culturally complex discussions help make this book an excellent contribution to Native American Studies, as well as to any deliberations on the market value of memory and the rhetorical regeneration of American innocence.