The American writer Helen Hunt Jackson was a far-sighted woman, who fought against racism and discrimination long before these terms actually came into use. She became an activist for the Native Americans, or the so-called Mission Indians in California as early as the second half of the nineteenth century and, at the same time, she began writing for their cause, attempting to militate trough her essays and novels for their rights as human beings.
Her writing, even when it takes the form of a romance, can be defined as political because Jackson actively endeavored to put a stop to the Indian genocide and to awaken the American consciousness to the terrible encroachment of human rights that they were carrying out in their expansionist policy. Helen Hunt Jackson’s main attack was against the United States policy of expansion which was adopted by the democrats around the middle of the nineteenth century and which was summarized with the famous phrase “Manifest Destiny”.
According to this expansionist theory, the Americans’ gradual expansion towards the South and the constant pushing of the frontier farther into the Indian lands was something at once “manifest” ,that is evident, and fated or pre-established. The right of the Indians over the land of which they were the first inhabitants was never taken into consideration by this policy. Thus, with an unwonted insight for that time, Jackson essayed to persuade the Americans of the injustice of their actions through her books. As such, the novels of the American author go beyond the dramatic truth and acquire a significant historical value.
As Jackson herself states, “Every word of the Indian history in Ramona is literally true,” that is, although she contextualized the historical facts in a romance, the basic story line, regarding the destruction of the Indian villages and murder of the Indians, is true. As Jackson herself retaliated at her husband’s remark that she was a woman, and consequently could not be a good judge of the United States policy, the injustice against the Indians was more than obvious through the many broken treatises and through the massacres ordered by the American government: “[…]because I am not able – as I most certainly am not, – to outline’ .
. . a detailed system for the management of 220,000 Indians – is there any reason why I should not be qualified to protest against broken treaties – cruel massacres – & unjust laws. A woman does not need to be a statesman to know that it is base to break promises – to oppress the helpless! ” Before writing Ramona, Jackson had written an essay entitled A Century of Dishonour in which she tried to unmask the Americans’ aggressiveness against the Indians, deftly repeating the words of the United States Constitution which spoke of the essential human rights ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.
The author demonstrated that, in the treatment of the Indians, the constitution was not respected: “Cheating, robbing, breaking promises-these three are clearly things which must cease to be done. One more thing, also, and that is the refusal of the protection of the law to the Indian’s rights of property, ‘of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. ’” However, Jackson’s efforts remained without an echo, and then she tried to capture the public’s attention through a historical romance, that would be more attractive and more circulated since it was a “sugarcoated message” as Yolanda Venegas argues:
“Helen Hunt Jackson was clear about her strategy in Ramona. Before writing her novel, she had served as Indian commissioner in California and had tried to influence national sentiment about the plight of Native Americans by writing A Century of Dishonor (1881), a controversial history of U. S. treatment of Native people. This effort to affect the American people’s conscience failed, so Jackson turned to writing a sugarcoated vehicle for her message and appropriated the increasingly popular genre of historical romance to do so.
” Thus, in Ramona the writer sets out before us a very significant plot, which merges historical facts about the lives of the colonized Indians, with a romantic love story and the outline of the Indians’ character and traditions. At once, Jackson achieves a double mending of historical wrongs: the family that she places in the center of her novel-the Moreno family- is of Mexican descending, and her writing points to California’s Hispanic heritage as well.
The Mexicans suffer almost the same treatment from the expanding Americans, and we find out that senora Moreno, the head of the family, has lost one by one all of her lands to the occupiers, until she remained poor. The novel thus blends more forms of historical racism and discrimination: it becomes obvious from the events and the relationships between characters that the Americans discriminate both against Mexicans and Indians, and that Mexicans in their turn discriminate, although not so much, against Indians as well.
The Mexican’s racism is founded on the same presumption as the Americans’ – the fact that the Indians are uncivilized and almost savage. Jackson’s main Indian character, Alessandro is constructed so as to fight this prejudice, as a distinguished and educated man, whose reserve and deportment can be easily paired with those of the white gentlemen’s. Alessandro is able to read and write, although these are deemed as unnecessary for an Indian, by the Americans: “The Americans would not let an Indian do anything but plough and sow and herd cattle. A man need not read and write, to do that.
” He is also the main hero in the romance that the novel tells, as he will marry Ramona is the beautiful and exotic foster child of senora Moreno. Ramona is herself of mixed descending, with her father a Scotchman and her mother an Indian, but she seems to a great extent assimilated into the Hispanic culture. Alessandro, as a captain of the sheep shearers, is employed by senora Moreno every year to help her son Felipe with the shearing. Eventually, the senora asks Alessandro should remain with her family for good, and he readily accepts since he had already fallen in love with Ramona.
Although Alessandro sees his love as hopeless in the beginning, Juan Canito inadvertently tells him her story during one of their chats, and thus he finds out that she has Indian blood. Eventually they become lovers, but of course, the obstacles begin. Alessandro’s village Temecula is destroyed by the Americans and his father is killed, and thus he has to hide. Ramona accompanies them, and they flee to Pasquale and marry. However, the permanent terror and fear of the Americans drive Alessandro mad, and one day, not knowing what he is doing anymore, he comes back with a different horse than his own.
He is killed shortly after, without a trial, being accused of having stolen the horse. The story ends with Felipe and Ramona embarking on a ship heading for Mexico City. The plot itself is very significant, as it describes the impact of the Americans’ inhuman persecutions in the form of Alessandro’s madness. It is in a way, also the impact of civilization on the innocent and mild Indians, who not lost everything they had, but lost also their culture and their way of looking at the world. Aside from the plot, the episodes in the book, even when taken separately are very suggestive.
Jackson accurately describes the way in which the Indians were treated no better than animals by the Americans: “Father Peyri, before he left the country, had said to him: “Pablo, your people will be driven like sheep to the slaughter, unless you keep them together. Knit firm bonds between them; band them into pueblos; make them work; and above all, keep peace with the whites. It is your only chance. ” The Native Americans were thus forced to give up everything and not even ask for their rights, but instead endeavor to maintain the peace with the whites in an effort to survive:
“Juan’s invidious emphasis on the word ‘Mexicans’ did not escape Alessandro. “And we Indians also,” he answered, good-naturedly, betraying no annoyance; “but as for these Americans, I saw one at work the other day, that man Lomax,[…] and upon my faith, Juan Can, I thought it was a slaughter-pen, and not a shearing. ” Alessandro’s dialogue with father Salvierderra towards the beginning of the novel is also very important. His voice is obviously that of Jackson herself who indirectly inquires into the rights that the Americans could have to drive the Indians away “like dogs” from the lands the latter have owned for ever:
“They say the Americans, when they buy the Mexicans’ lands, drive the Indians away as if they were dogs; they say we have no right to our lands. Do you think that can be so, Father, when we have always lived on them, and the owners promised them to us forever? ” The innocent remark of Alessandro that the Indians had no papers for the land, but instead their ownership was marked on a map is telling- the map itself is the token of propriety more than any documents drafted, as it is a symbol of the occupation of the territory based on their living on the continent for centuries before the immigrants:
“’But, Father,’ persisted Alessandro, ‘how could there be a law to take away from us the land which the Senor Valdez gave us forever? ’ ‘Gave he to you any paper, any writing to show it? ’ ‘No, no paper; but it is marked in red lines on the map. ’” Thus, Jackson makes the Indian’s plight into both an unconstitutional and unchristian act: “It cannot be God’s will that one man should steal from another all he has. That would make God no better than a thief, it looks to me.
But how can it happen, if it is not God’s will? ” Juan’s thoughts about Alessandro are also a very pertinent description of racism. Although Juan seems to feel kindly towards the Indian, it is precisely because he sees him as an inferior being, that can not harm him in any way: “But the gentle Alessandro, only an Indian,– and of course the Senora would never think of putting an Indian permanently in so responsible a position on the estate[…]”
Jackson’s voice is again heard against that of Juan Canito, advocating Alessandro’s perfect equality with Felipe for example, or any other white man, since he held a similar leading position among his people, and was as gently educated by his father: “Neither did he realize that Alessandro, as Chief Pablo’s son, had a position of his own not without dignity and authority. To Juan, an Indian was an Indian, and that was the end of it. The gentle courteousness of Alessandro’s manner, his quiet behavior, were all set down in Juan’s mind to the score of the boy’s native amiability and sweetness.
If Juan had been told that the Senor Felipe himself had not been more carefully trained in all precepts of kindliness, honorable dealing, and polite usage, by the Senora, his mother, than had Alessandro by his father, he would have opened his eyes wide. ” This view on the different races and on the blindness that caused the discriminations was indeed revolutionary for the period in which Jackson wrote her novels. Ramona, for example up to a certain point feels distinctly that Alessandro was an Indian, whenever she converses with him or thinks about him, although the signs were barely seen in his skin.
The description of racism is here very suggestive, as the author shows it to be a pre-established thought or a permanent prejudice:“For the first time, she looked at him with no thought of his being an Indian,– a thought there had surely been no need of her having, since his skin was not a shade darker than Felipe’s; but so strong was the race feeling, that never till that moment had she forgotten it. ” As opposed to the prejudices, the Indians are depicted as generous and upright men, able to share their property in obvious contrast with the conquering Americans:
”[…]’but one reason is, they share everything with each other. Old Pablo feeds and supports half his village, they say. So long as he has anything, he will never see one of his Indians hungry. ” ‘How generous! ’ warmly exclaimed Ramona; ‘I think they are better than we are, Felipe! ’” Thus, in turn, the author voices the general way of thinking of the whites about the Indians, and tries to deconstruct it by constructing her characters so as to do justice to the Natives.
The strongest discrimination against them, is that they are seen as mere savages, who are not entitled to the same rights as the civilized men: “Of what is it that these noble lords of villages are so proud? their ancestors,– naked savages less than a hundred years ago? Naked savages they themselves too, to-day, if we had not come here to teach and civilize them. The race was never meant for anything but servants. ” Jackson’s Ramona, makes thus a very strong historical point, as well as an ethical one.
It plainly tries to fight against the discrimination between races, and points to a solution- mere acceptance of otherness, in the way in which one accepts one’s own origin:“[…] she [Ramona] had ceased to think of him as an Indian any more than when she thought of Felipe, she thought of him as a Mexican. ” Venegas observes in her study of Jackson’s work, that although her achievement is impressive for the time she wrote, Jackson still preserves her traditionalism and a sense of hierarchy in Ramona, since the Indians are seen as victims but still “othered”:
“Throughout the novel, he remains ‘the gentle Alessandro, only an Indian. ’ Although the reader is compelled to feel sympathy for Alessandro, he is clearly “othered. ” Significantly, in the end, Alessandro and his father go insane and die. In an ideologically constructed world of progress the two Native characters are depicted as unfit for the modern world, inevitable victims of Manifest Destiny. ”
Venegas argues that Jackson was for assimilation of the Indians, and that although this was a progressive view at the time, is still preserved the racial hierarchy: “At a time when the idea that the solution to ‘the Indian problem’ was extermination, her call for assimilation was progressive. By hispanicizing Ramona and placing civilized ways above those of California’s indigenous women, the novel reasserts a racial hierarchy that once again naturalizes the effects of Manifest Destiny–in particular, the Native genocide the “settlement” of California required. ”