I went to Napa schools only in first and third grades and now live in the East Bay, but I’m no “outsider.” The Napa Valley is in my blood. My father played football for Napa High (graduating in 1928) and sang school songs throughout my childhood. His three brothers and six of my cousins went to Napa schools, and our Coombs family roots go back to the founding of the city.
When I look at images of the Napa Indian mascot, I feel a deep nostalgia for an earlier, less complicated time. I, too, once “loved” and thought I respected such Indians—but that was before I knew any real ones, heard their stories or learned our true history.
Now I’m a writer working on a history of my family roots in Napa and looking for a deeper meaning of “respect.” Since the Minority Report mentions my ancestor, Nathan Coombs, I feel responsible for setting the record straight on what it says about his era. It’s hard in a debate format to come up with a solution everyone can support but I think I may have one.
Those early times when the city of Napa was named were not — as the report imagines — times of “respect for the natives in this valley.” 1847, when the early map of Napa was drawn, was just one year after the war that made California part of the United States and one year into what two new history books call “the California genocide.”
These were times when Napa Valley was a fulcrum of hateful, murderous activity against the Indian population, which these authors claim set the pattern for what became an all-out genocide. I encourage all Californians to read Prof. Brendan Lindsay’s “Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846-1873” and Prof. Benjamin Madley’s “An American Genocide.”Napa shows up very often in these books.
It is heartbreaking to read the accounts of massacres by state-sponsored vigilantes when none of us were taught this history in school. But there is another ugly piece of those founding times that we did not learn. Both authors show that Indian captives, especially children, were sold as slaves, to become laborers and household servants in early settler homes.
In Napa’s founding period, enslavement, hateful media depictions, and intent to exterminate shaped the mindset of white Californians, making anything we could honestly call “respect” very difficult to imagine.
By 1897 (the founding of the high school) and the 1910s when the committee’s research shows the mascot may have originated, historical circumstances had changed and a different mindset had taken hold. Few Patwin or Wappo lived openly in the Valley; the census of 1910 (the year my father was born) showed only six.
And around the country, an attitude romanticizing “vanished” Indians had set in. (The best coverage of this I’ve seen is in Jill Lepore’s book, “The Name of War.”) While appearing more respectful, and less murderous, this attitude then and now is also insulting and belittling to the Native Americans I am friends with. It does not acknowledge or respect who they are, while being an ironic reminder of historical harms. Perhaps it is a step forward, but it is only the second stage in moving toward true respect and equality.
Looking honestly at this history would bring shame to most Napans nowadays, but what makes it bearable is our effort to learn and change. I have seen in my own family how changes in attitude can happen down the generations. What if we could stop debating and join forces to come up with a joint vision we can all support? The generations now alive are breaking free from the old genocidal attitudes of the founders, and we can now address that second stage of misunderstanding — the idea that we majority white people can “have” or “be” an Indian and still be respectful. One committee member says she began the process supporting the mascot but realized, as she learned more history and more about Native people’s feelings, that it was time for change. This is learning worthy of a good school system and a good community process. But response to the committee’s report shows that the learning is not complete.
Could the School Board design a second educational process that reaches out more widely — to people who honestly love the mascot (including those current students who signed a petition with only a “yes” or “no” option, confirming their original opinions rather than learning anything new about the controversy)? A series of films, speakers, and activities would help the wider community see the real history in all its complexity.
Moving beyond debate, we could face the truth together with open hearts. Including the feelings of the alums who have been so vocal and also how Native Americans themselves would like to be honored and respected.