Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ramona and the Dawes Act

When you think of novels that had an affect on American political movements of the19th Century, the first two books that come to mind are Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Twain's Huckleberry Finn.  These two books affects on the abolitionists movements are undeniable.  A book that is much lesser known today had an equally large affect on a different political movement, on Indian affairs, Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson.

Ramona was published in 1884 in serialized form in the Christian Union magazine.  It chronicles the life of a fictionalized Scottish-Native American orphan woman and her husband, Allesandra in what is now Southern California in the days following the Mexican-American War.  It is almost an unknown novel today, but it was one of the most popular books of the 19th century.  The racial discrimination and hardships that Ramona and Allesandro face created much empathy in its readers and may have been the first time white readers saw natives portrayed as being human ... as exhibiting love, ambition and charity. One of the recurring themes of the book is how easily white Americans can legally take land from the natives.  You could say that the affect that the book had on politics was so strong that you could possibly draw a direct line from the novel's publication to the passing of the Dawes Act.

The Dawes Act was passed in 1887 with good intentions to help protect Native American land rights.  The act took tribally owned land and split it up to be owned by individual natives.  Another selling point of the bill was that it promoted assimilation by forcing them into tradition European style living situations.  The end result was disruption of the traditional communal life of the tribes and provided an easier way of taking Indian land for it was now split up and speculators could now deal with (aka philander or steal from) individuals rather than large tribes and tracts of land.  In the 47 years of the Dawes Act about two-thirds of their land base were lost to the white man.  Helen Hunt Jackson was opposed to it from the beginning.  She wrote some famous letters to Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow expressing the problems with the act.

Among other things, Ramona had a positive affect on commerce in the region. The place names in the book were fictitious and Jackson died before she could set everyone straight as to where they actually represented.  So many places in Southern California claimed to be the "home of Ramona" to attract wealthy tourists.  The railroad was connecting California to the rest of the world so these were hot destinations.  The place of her wedding and her grave were also other popular attractions. Today there is a town named Ramona and the Ramona Pageant has been held in Helmut, California annually since 1923.   The San Bernardino Freeway was once named the Ramona Freeway.

Like so many Hollywood adaptations, the most famous adaption by D. W. Griffith in 1910 was an extremely  watered down version of the novel.  This silent film, starring the wonderful Mary Pickford, concentrated strictly on the romance between Ramona and Allesandro so the social commentary was lost.  I can't help but think of Hollywood's butchering of some of my favorite books like Will Smith's I, Robot or Disney's take on Huckleberry Finn.  It seems that somethings just don't change.

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