- Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence by Boyd Cothran
Examining historical memory connected to the Modoc War, historian Boyd Cothran discovers that settler colonial violence related to the event has been reduced to a perceived conflict between the criminality of Native people and the victimhood of white Americans. In the autumn of 1872, Modoc headman Captain Jack led a group of followers off of the Klamath Reservation. In response, the United States Army sent a detachment to capture them. After holding out in caves along Tule Lake for nearly a year, Captain Jack and his followers ambushed a peace commission, killing two American officers. In October of 1873, Captain Jack and three other Modoc leaders met their fates at the gallows. Who was to blame for the circumstances that led to the attack? Who were the victims of the Modoc War? How have we come to remember the events? Cothran adeptly positions the construction of historical memories about the Modoc War within the broader context of economic, political, and racialized forces, which he dubs “marketplaces of remembering” (p. 8). Ultimately, he concludes, narratives about nineteenth-century American violence, particularly as they relate to western settlement, have been reduced to tales of American innocence that are meant to underplay the brutality of colonization.
Cothran chronicles a long history of making and remaking the Modoc War. Even before an end to the so-called Modoc War, reporters began [End Page 564] molding the story and shaping how subsequent Americans would understand the event. Early reports centred on the intrepid adventurer-journalists who interviewed Captain Jack, rather than Jack’s explanation of resistance as the product of failed American Indian policies. While interviewers acknowledged the role that American Indian policy played in exacerbating tensions in the West, their stories along with images that depicted the event and its surroundings, ultimately focused on something different. Engravings that appeared in newspapers reinforced the image of Native people as violent aggressors, as well as cast them into exotic and harsh landscapes that emphasized an underdeveloped West (and by extension an underdeveloped people). “Far from presenting an unbiased version of events,” Cothran argues, “the Gilded Age press imposed cultural concepts of progress and modernity onto racialized representations of the Modocs and in the process turned actual American Indians into ideological, symbolical, and disposable caricatures” (p. 75).
Subsequent chapters in Remembering the Modoc War explore gendered discourses, including one chapter that explores how the Modoc woman Toby Riddle emerged as a star in Alfred Meacham’s touring lecture company, as well as another chapter that chronicles attempts by regional boosters to shape the story of the Modoc War. The story of Meacham, a survivor of the attack on the peace commission, and Toby Riddle is particularly compelling. Through a series of public performances, which incorporated Modoc and Klamath people, Meacham helped transform Riddle into a Pocahontas-like figure by telling how Riddle purportedly threw herself upon Meacham to save his life. Through an examination of Riddle’s role in crafting her own story, Cothran expertly examines the difficult decisions that Native people faced when deciding whether to participate in such activities. While traveling lecture companies and Wild West-type shows permitted Native people a means for telling their accounts of events, they did so within a limited framework. Historical tourism, sparked by increased automobile access, provided additional spaces for Native people to craft narratives, particularly as visitors requested Indigenous guides to lead them on their journeys through the area. Cothran’s deft analysis includes the examination of American, Modoc, and Klamath attempts to mark the landscape by venerating those who died during the events of 1872 and 1873.
Remembering the Modoc War differs from standard accounts about how history and memory interplay in the reconstruction of a single event. In three codas, which are sandwiched between sections of the book, Cothran draws ties to more recent issues. For example, the first coda links court cases involving Modoc leaders...