Last night, I watched a fascinating PBS documentary, Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust. We all know, or think we know about Manzanar. It was the “flagship” incarceration camp for interned Japanese Americans during World War II (there were others in Arizona and Idaho). The World War II iInternment decreed by Pres. Rooselvelt, was the third worst human rights travesty in the history of the Republic (slavery and Native American genocide being the others). Manzanar was such a blight that it has become enshrined in our nation’s history as a supreme symbol of injustice.
This documentary expands our view of the camp and its place in a broader history of ethnic cleansing and genocide. While Japanese citizens were rounded up from their homes throughout California and forcibly removed to what were, in effect “benign” concentration camps, there was a much longer and equally troubling injustice surrounding Manzanar.
Namely, Native American Paiute and Shoshone tribes lived in the Owens Valley, and around its signature geographic feature, Owens Lake. The Lake was a huge saline sea, which captured all the water flowing down the eastern Sierras to the valley below. For 3,000 years, the tribes fished, hunted, and grew crops in the fertile soil and plentiful water resources available.
But in the 1860s conflict and trouble arose between the natives and white settlers:
[The] discovery of gold and silver in the Sierra Nevada and Inyo Mountains attracted a flood of prospectors. Ranchers and farmers followed, often utilizing Paiute irrigation systems and grasslands. A harsh winter and scarce food in 1861-1862 forced the Paiute and settlers into open conflict. The military intervened and, in 1863, forcibly removed 1,000 Paiute to Fort Tejon in the mountains south of Bakersfield.
The entire national history of relations between indigenous people and whites has entailed conflict over the land and its bounty. Whether the land had gold, silver, water, or other resources, once the white men came, they took it. If the native inhabitants resented or resisted, they were removed either by violence, trickery or outright theft. As but one example, nearly 1,000 tribal members met with US army officers and agreed to end hostilities in 1863. The army then forced them to march 200 miles south to Ft Tejon. Some died on the way and others escaped and returned to their ancestral home. Once they were dumped there they were provided little to sustain themselves. The food offered was little more than starvation rations.
In both the cases of the Paiute tribe and Japanese Americans, they were deemed a danger and menace to white people. In the case of the Paiute, the army response to raids by the Native Americans against settlers was either to kill or expel them. The Japanese Americans, on the other hand, put up no such resistance. Thus, they were treated somewhat better. Their internment lasted only three years. While the Paiute continue their battles with the government to this day.
Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink
In 1913, a new calamity befell the tribes. Los Angeles to the south, had become a burgeoning metropolis. With its mild climate and fertile agricultural lands, it became a beacon to Americans from the east and midwest. The population grew by leaps and bounds. The city fathers/power brokers determined that the one resource lacking for the growth they envisioned was water. There simply wasn’t enough.
For that, they looked north to the Owens Valley and its Lake, which encompassed over 100 square miles of pure mountain runoff. The water engineers in Los Angeles, led by the infamous, William Mulholland immortalized in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, coveted the resource and devised a method to divert it to Los Angeles, 200 miles south. The city water engineer led the effort to build the California aqueduct, which stole the water from the Valley and shipped it to the City of Angels.
Mulholland handled the engineering and left the issue of securing water rights to the city’s power brokers, land agents, and lawyers. By legal means, if possible and by subterfuge if necessary, they secretly bought up the water rights held by all the farmers in the Valley. Most of them left after they no longer had access to the water needed for their farming operations.
But the tribes posed a more difficult obstacle. As indigenous inhabitants, they not only lived in the Valley for thousands of years, they had a primary right to the water that had nourished them over that whole period. Eventually, some of the tribal members agreed to a population transfer, which offered them land to resettle within the Los Angeles city limits. In return for the land, the tribes gave up most of their water rights in the Valley. Thus, the infamous Department of Water and Power assumed control of the Owens Valley water, enabling the creation of the sprawling urban monster Los Angeles eventually became.
Intersectionality: Japanese internment and Native American expulsion
By linking the Japanese internment in Manzanar to the Native American displacement, the PBS documentary offered a completely new perspective on these phenomena. California and the US trampled the rights of both the internees and the indigenous peoples. For the former, the injustice lasted three years. For the latter, it stretched all the way back to the 1860s, when the Native Americans were first ethnically-cleansed from the Valley.
The two groups have united over the past decade, both to preserve the Manzanar national monument which the federal government dedicated; and to defend the rights of the remaining indigenous residents of the Valley. Together, they’ve lobbied the DWP to restore some of the diverted water back to the Lake, though the amounts are limited (the dry lakebed remains the greatest source of dust pollution in the country). It’s moving to see the 2019 Manzanar ceremony in which scores of survivors returned, joined by the Native Americans and even hijab-wearing Muslim Americans. It is a dramatic example of the power of intersectionality.
Slavery and ethnic cleansing–‘American as apple pie’
The state-sponsored crimes committed in the Owens Valley are not one-off events. One could even say, with H. Rap Brown, that ethnic cleansing is as American as apple pie. American plantation owners were instrumental in the African slave trade, in which victims were kidnapped from their homes and forcibly transported across the sea to work as slaves. Later, when the abolition movement began, many liberal white Americans believed the best way of dealing with the “race problem” was by shipping the freed slaves back to Africa, since they couldn’t possibly be integrated into civilized society. This would have entailed yet another displacement from America. Ironically, the main driver of this project was the American Colonization Society. By its very name, it declared that the freed slaves would themsevles be part of a new colonization effort to bring enlightenment and civiliazation to the African “natives” via this new state, Liberia.
Over the course of human history, tribes have slaughtered, expelled, or in less traumatic instances intermingled with rivals. There have been huge migrations of populations around the globe based on economic or climate-related dislocations. Many of these disruptions also resulted from invasions, conquest, and pillage. We are a (human) race prone to mass violence and genocide.
In the 19th century, Europeans excelled at such rape and pillage of the resources and human capital of their colonies. In the Congo alone, Belgium’s King Leopold was responsible for the death by disease and murder of 4-million indigenous inhabitants. In Latin America, Spain devastated the Natives with European diseases and worked the rest to death mining gold and silver, which was shipped back to the motherland.
European colonialism offered Zionists a model for ethnic cleansing
Which brings us to Israel-Palestine: Herzl and the early Zionists saw their enterprise very much in a similar light. They saw themselves as Europeans bringing the values of western civilization to the “natives,” the indigenous Arabs in Palestine. They adopted the colonial attitude of “uplift” which persuaded them of the righteousness of their cause. But when push came to shove, when the Arabs stood in the way of Progress, they would later be tossed aside in much the same way the California tribes were.
From 1937, if not earlier, Ben Gurion wrote in a letter to his son, that the Palestinians would be swept away by the Zionist enterprise. Yes, there were other passages in which he slightly softened his rhetoric. But the message remained clear: Zionism demanded a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. To obtain this there was a two-pronged strategy: bringing Jewish immigrants as pioneers to the Zionist state to populate it with Jews; and suppressing the Arab population.
In 1948, Ben Gurion took advantage of the War he provoked, to implement a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing, the Nakba. As a result, nearly 1-million indigenous Arabs were forcibly expelled from their homeland. Only 250,000 remained after the 1948 War. Those who were expelled were prohibited from return, on pain of death. This was how he implemented his earlier vision of maintaining a Jewish majority. To this day, the Palestinian refugees and their descendants languish in camps spread throughout the Middle East. Nor have they assimilated into their host countries. They remain stateless after their homeland deprived them of their identity.
Like the Paiute in the 1880s, the Palestinians fled and resettled in many neighboring Arab states (primarily Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon). The camps are not unlike the reservations to which Native Americans were confined during westward expansion. and white settlement. But unlike the experience of indigenous American Natives, who enjoy special status, rights, and obligations from the federal government, Israel has adamantly refused any obligation to those it expelled. It refuses to even recognize that they are refugees. Nor has it attempted to normalize relations with the remaining Palestinians. Thus Nakba remains, like slavery for America, the Original Sin of the State of Israel. A blot and a stain on its nationhood. One which cannot be redeemed without Israeli recognition and repentance for the great affront it committed against the dignity of the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants of this land.
It’s also important to note that Israel’s siege on Gaza is a form of reverse ethnic cleansing. Instead of forcing a people to abandon their land in order to repopulate it with another people, the Gaza blockade punishes a people by imprisoning them in their own territory; smothering them and preventing them from free access to the outside world. This is a slightly subtler form of control than outright ethnic cleansing.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.