“I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are.”Theodore Roosevelt, January 1886
When I come home to visit Santa Barbara, I am left with two emotions: happiness and sadness. Happy because I experience the lustrous beauty and tranquil essence of Santa Barbara’s beaches, mountains, and hidden water holes like Red Rock, Montecito hot springs, or waterfalls in the mountains. Sad when I leave because I unavoidably pass the street sign Indio Muerto — translated as Dead Indian Street.
I do a double take in disbelief, asking myself, “Wait a minute, was that real? Did that sign literally say Dead Indian?” It is quite obvious that the sign blatantly glorifies a time in American history where the cultural norms and beliefs toward Indians were degrading, destructive, overtly dehumanizing, and essentially genocidal.
The crazy part is, in my youth, I crossed that street thousands of times and the blatant message of the street sign never registered in my mind. I had no context, no understanding. But as I’ve matured and received more education, I see it clearly.
I’ve learned vital information through my ethnic-studies education that has served as an antidote to the all-too-common historical amnesia that attempts to erase a people of their memory, destroying their culture, their history).
Let me summarize what culture is to me: It is the customs, behaviors, and norms found in a society. Historically, we know that the Spanish culture had profound, adverse impacts on the local indigenous population, the Chumash. It is a historical fact that when the Americans first settled in Santa Barbara the Chumash had been killed and enslaved by the Spanish invasion.
During the foundation of the United States, the dominant cultural beliefs about Indians were expressed in the Declaration of Independence, in which Indians were called the “merciless Indian Savages.” They were seen in the 13 colonial states’ society as uncivilized, with backward spiritual practices that colluded with the devil, pagans ready to be conquered and the land claimed (stolen under the authority of Papal Bulls centuries earlier) as theirs.
This dehumanizing language, exemplified in one of the United States’ most treasured documents, reflected the cultural norms of the founding “fathers” and the lengths to which they would go to ensure the new nation believed that “Indians” were “savages.” When the new settlers could consider “Indians” as savages, as sub-human, it allowed them to justify the violence used against them during the new nation’s growth and expansion westward. In 1845, a philosophy known as Manifest Destiny was coined to give the United States a God-given right to expand its domain and spread capitalism and democracy throughout North America.
The problem with this doctrine was that hundreds of Indian nations already lived throughout North America. Manifest Destiny not only indoctrinated new European American immigrants on “white supremacy” but assuaged their guilt for the violence against Indians: murder, execution, rape, enslavement, starvation, being fed to dogs, hung in massive numbers, or scalps taken and held for bounty — boys and girls, men and women, in California and elsewhere. It allowed European Americans to be rid of their guilt, shame, and cognitive dissonance, or discomfort, over the rampant barbarism.
In 1851, California Governor Peter Burnett’s State of the State Address set the stage for legally sanctioned genocidal crimes against Indians when he stated, “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected.” Sadly, his words supported and influenced a killing machine of U.S. military forces — federal and state, militias and vigilantes that were on a mission to slaughter Indians.
When we look at the historical date of when Indio Muerto Street was established we find that “the city of Santa Barbara was laid out into streets and blocks in 1851, when the town council directed Captain Salisbury Haley to make a survey and map of the town.” We juxtapose this with the political and racist rhetoric in the Manifest Destiny philosophy and Governor Burnett’s statements. The concept of a “dead Indian” was not pulled out of thin air; it was part of the dominant popular culture beliefs. When Captain Haley literally found a dead Indian during his survey, the culture was already in place that objectified and made it completely normal to arrogantly name a street in Santa Barbara “Indio Muerto.”
In closing, I would like to share a provocative analogy. If a Jewish person was found dead and then the city decided to name a street “Dead Jew” because “it commemorates a historical fact” (something the S.B. City Planning staffers were quoted as saying in 1992 regarding Indio Muerto), the local community would not, and should not, condone such a street name. The uproar to change the name would include the knowledge regarding the Jewish Holocaust.
The American aphorism “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” which was coined in 1869 by General Phillip Sheridan, represents an era that veers more to a barbaric society than a civilized one. It was an ideology deeply rooted in edicts from Popes — who blessed European expeditions — and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, which produced fear, racism, and the genocide of Indian Peoples across America.
Given the era we are now in, isn’t it time to truly honor and dignify, and bring justice, at least symbolically, to the Chumash and Indians nationwide? A name that dignifies the Chumash culture would illustrate respect for the Chumash. Potential names have already begun to be discussed with local organizers, such as Tomol (Canoe), Paxat (whale), or my favorite Hutash (The Earth Mother).
In the name of our shared humanity, I ask you, Santa Barbara, to do the right thing. I ask you to change the name of a racist and objectifying street and provide an empathetic gesture for Indians everywhere. Be an example of how America can heal from our wounds of the past.
Fidel Rodriguez was born and raised in Santa Barbara and works with youth and adults affected by childhood trauma and the criminal and juvenile justice system.