On my last trip up along the Northern California coast to Eureka, CA, I stopped off at the Bayshore Mall to check out the placards they had on Fort Humboldt State Park. This specific placard was titled, “Prime Real Estate,” and presented facts and images related to the dismantling of Fort Humboldt in 1870. By 1890 the Fort had been totally deconstructed and the redwood used to construct the structures auctioned off to the highest bidder or kept as a souvenir. The reason? Ulysses S. Grant served as a quartermaster at the Fort for 4 months in the 1850s. He would leave the fort to serve in the US Civil War as a general, later becoming the United States’ 18th president. After he became famous, the redwood used to build the structures at the Fort became prey to “souvenir hunters” from around the state.
However, before all of this, before Humboldt Bay was settled by San Franciscans in 1850, the Wiyot people lived in the bay, and they called it “Wiki.” Because of fighting between the white, capitalist settlers and Wiyot tribe in the following decade, in 1862 the soldiers at Fort Humboldt constructed a wooden stockade to “protect” the Wiyot people from locals. In the months that followed, hundreds of Wiyot people lost their lives from malnutrition and disease inside the confines of the redwood structure.
This placard is made for only one type of people. It tells the narrative of the dominant ideology, of American militarism and capitalist colonization. It fails to tell the story of the people who lived in Wiki before and the genocide that would take place in the following decades. Furthermore, it has the stamp of the California State Parks, giving it historical validation. This presents the perpetual dilemma of representation in society. As a form of historical information the placard stands to keep the status quo, to create a sense of political identity through the fictitious narrative it tells. Using an old Western font and displaying an image of a statue of U.S. Grant next to a military cannon and a decrepit redwood log cabin, the placard re-articulates the past, forming pieces that continue to build a sense of placed-ness and identity for passing tourists and local residents.
Ironically, the eight placards are placed inside the lobby of the Bayshore Mall, a massive shopping center constructed on top of what was once the Holmes-Eureka lumber mill, and before that, the Wiyot village, Jaroujiji (meaning “where you sit and rest”). I find it so insane that today, on top of another peoples land, is the Bayshore Mall; a contemporary symbol of our historical capitalist exploitation of the bay and its people. And, to make matters even more ironic, the Bayshore Mall also sits on top of what was once the Holmes-Eureka lumber mill. In 1935, the Holmes-Eureka mill was the sight of violent clashes between National Guardsmen and lumber strikers. During the fighting, three lumber strikers were killed by strikebreakers outside the entrance of the mill. Accounts of the event in the Humboldt-Times, portrayed the strikers as outsiders and communists, distributing copies of the communist manifesto in hobo “jungles” outside of town. Again, representation by way of media outlets become an integral aspect in the creation of History, and the suppression and re-articulation of passing events.
So, the Bayshore Mall sits on a very historical spot, but yet, it only shares a very one-sided story. Although there is some mention of the Wiyot tribe in California State Park signage, not once did I see a placard, photo, statue, sign, memorializing the monumental strike that took place in 1935 on the spot of the mall. I think in a bigger conceptual way, this signs location in the Mall attempts to create a sense of place; circulating as a medium of exchange, a site of visual appropriation and a focus for the formation of national identities. To some however, including the Wiyot tribe, this sign represents historical, institutional oppression. So to some, I can imagine it serves as a traumatic reminder of their past. Also, “Prime Real Estate” is just a horrible title, promoting the idea that it was their “real estate” in the first place.
If you look closer at the image you’ll notice the bluff on top of where Fort Humboldt sits was completely deforested. Furthermore, in the photo are references to both the redwood timber and cattle-grazing industries (the log cabin and cow). Both industries promoted capitalist exploitation and geographic incursion into Native American land. After Eureka was settled in 1850, timber company towns proliferated throughout Northern California causing conflict with Native Americans. Often, cattle would be used as an excuse to incriminate and persecute the Wiyot people. Settler law required land acquisition to involve a legal commitment to cultivate the land, either by grazing, plowing, deforesting, or building on; the white settlers who came to the area embodied national expansion through their physical presence. In this way, capital culture within Humboldt Bay employed land and property rights as a national symbol of material action, and incited conflict with Native Americans that would lead to an overwhelming, future xenophobia in the community.
At a more meta-level, signs, like the one pictured, serve a ritual function. An article I read a couple years ago by a professor of mine, Claudio Fogu, captures this idea well; in his article, “Actualism and the Fascist Historic Imaginary,” Fogu explains, “the institutionalization of a historic mode of representation in both image and ritual politics [continues] reinforcing the consolidation of the collective historic imaginary it presupposed.” In this sense, signs act on the public semiotically, connoting a larger socio-political meaning.
On an even more meta-level, I could talk about the picture itself, the 1’s and 0’s that make up the data. Or the device I took the photograph on, the iPhone produced in a Chinese factory with poor labor conditions. I could question the material of the sign; was it made in the United States? Is it plastic? Does it produce chemical waste from its manufacturing? Who took the photos displayed on the sign? What else did they take photos of? The questions and implications that can be produced by looking at this photograph or viewing the sign in person, are endless…