November 29, 2012

Jackson and the condition of the Mission Indians

Though mostly recognized for her short stories, Helen Hunt Jackson turned her writing to concerns over the affairs of Native Americans (culminating in a novel). In late 1882, she traveled to Southern California specifically to witness, as she wrote, "the condition of the Mission Indians" there as an official agent of the Department of the Interior. "I shall visit every Indian village in the Southern counties," she promised, "and make an exhaustive examination of their condition."

Her intention was to reveal to the public how impoverished Native Americans had become. To accomplish this, she proposed a series of six articles to the New York Independent; the series was so important to her, she sold all six in advance for the usual price she received for a single article. The final in the series, "The Temecula Exiles," was published on November 29, 1883.

Jackson was shocked almost immediately after her arrival in California. She found right away that one of the villages she intended to visit was in the process of being forcibly removed by the government, despite the people having tilled the land there for generations, and having already been previously displaced.

For her work with the Interior Department, as well as for her articles, Jackson demanded and examined various legal documents, land deeds, and other records. At least one colleague in the Bureau of Indian Affairs questioned if Jackson overstepped her role, or if she had the appropriate background for such work. Undaunted, she sought legal representation on behalf of Native Americans who wanted to defend their claims against the government, made official recommendations to remove white trespassers, reassert land rights, and fund better schools and welfare programs. Versions of a bill inspired by her reports was finally passed, after several controversial failures, in 1891 — six years after Jackson's death. Towards the end of her life, Jackson referred to the majority of her writing as merely a woman's hobby but noted, "nothing looks to me of any value, except the words I have spoken for the Indians."

*For information in this post, I turned to The Indian Reform Letters of Helen Hunt Jackson, 1879-1885 (1998), edited by Valerie Sherer Mathes.

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