North America

NY Times The Geography of Government Benefits Map

GeoCurrents reader Brett Lucas recently brought to my attention a fascinating interactive New York Times map of “The Geography of Government Benefits,” which shows the share of income in each county that derives from government benefits (social security, medicare, medicaid, etc.). Brett also makes some interesting observations about the map. As he notes, “In the Pacific Northwest, the counties with some of the lowest percentages of government payments as defined on the map are counties with universities (i.e. Benton, County, OR; Whitman, County, WA; Latah County, ID; etc).  Kind of interesting, as these are all major land grant research universities.  How much other federal funding are these counties receiving?” (I have outlined these three counties in my reproduction of the map in blue.)

In general, poor counties receive the largest relative benefits, as would be expected. But there are some interesting exceptions, which are visible by comparing these two maps. The northern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula is not a wealthy area, but its intake seems out of line with its overall standing.

Bret also wonders, “how this data will play into the presidential election cycle.” I do as well.

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Religious Diversity in Northern California

Most detailed maps of religion in the United States depict the leading denomination of each country, as in the first map here. Here one can see a Baptist belt in the southeast, a Mormon region in the central part of the west, a Lutheran Zone in the center-north, and a vast area of Roman Catholicism spread over most of the rest of the country. California here appears solidly Catholic, with only its two most sparsely populated counties, Alpine and Sierra, having a different “leading church body.”

If Roman Catholics are removed from the picture and only Protestants are considered, a very different map emerges. Note that the Mormon region as well as the Catholic zone disappears from this map, as Mormons generally do not consider themselves to be Protestants. Although I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the map, the patterns that it shows are intriguing. Note that most of Southern California, along with most of the Southwest, joins the Southern Baptist region. Clear Methodist and United Church of Christ zones appear as well. But what is most striking is the area of pronounced county-level diversity, which stretches from Northern California through the Pacific Northwest, including Colorado as well. I find it striking that in this relatively secular area, the leading denomination of many counties is the Assemblies of God, a conservative Pentecostal sect noted for its practice of “speaking in tongues.” California’s Central Valley in particular shows a distinct concentration of Assemblies of God adherents.


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Rural Cosmopolitanism in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley

An earlier GeoCurrents post described the food culture of a certain segment of the San Francisco Bay Area as exhibiting “cosmopolitan localism.” Such attitudes are not unique to urban areas in Northern California. In Mendocino County, cosmopolitanism takes on distinctly rural cast. In some of the most seemingly isolated areas, one can find pronounced cultural sophistication and global engagement.

Consider, for example, Covelo (population 1,255) in remote Round Valley in northeastern Mendocino County. When I first visited Covelo as a child in the early 1960s, it was a dusty cow town, a seeming throwback to an earlier era. Today, readers might note the name “Covelo” in the front-matter of books from Island Press, probably the foremost environmental publisher in the world. Although the main offices of Island Press have been in Washington D.C. since 1984, the firm was founded in secluded Covelo, and publication information in its books has long read, “Washington D.C, London, Covelo.” Gardening enthusiast may have encountered the town’s name when searching for rare heirloom vegetable and flower seeds, as Covelo is also home to the Sustainable Seed Company, a leader in an expanding economic niche.

Nowhere is such “cosmopolitan ruralism” more evident than in Anderson Valley, a narrow and scenic fault-drop valley that cuts through the steep Coastal Range in southwestern Mendocino County. Anderson Valley’s historical isolation is evident in its development of a fairly well known “dialect” called Boontling, named after the valley’s main town, Boonville (population 1,035). Actually, as explained elsewhere by Asya Pereltsvaig, Boontling is not a dialect at all but rather a “jargon,” a purposefully developed form of speech meant “to ease in-group identification and prevent outsiders from understanding insiders.” Unlike true dialects, Boontling has no grammatical peculiarities. It does, however, have a sizable and colorful vocabulary that reflects the history of the region, with borrowings from Scottish Gaelic, Irish Gaelic, Spanish, and the region’s indigenous Pomoan language. The insider nature of Boontling is particularly clear from its extensive use of the so-called anthroponyms: common nouns and even verbs derived from proper names of its (former) inhabitants or visitors. For example, Bill Nunn is Boontling for “syrup,” after a man who put syrup on nearly everything he ate, and Jenny Beck is the local word for “a tattletale,” after some Jenny Beck who was a local gossiper. Favorite local drinks are known as Frati “wine,” after a Mr. Frati, local vineyardist, and zeesee “coffee,” after the initials of one Zachariah Clifton “Z.C.,” a local  character who liked his coffee strong. Competing words for “telephone” (or the corresponding verb) include Joe, Levi and Walter, as two contrasting legends give the name of the first man in Boonville to use a telephone as either “Joe” or “Walter Levi.” Boontling verbs that derive from proper names include to Charlie meaning “to embarrass,” after a Native American named Charlie Ball who was noted for his bashfulness, and to Otto meaning “to work hard,” after an industrious German settler whose given name was Otto. Although Boontling is no longer used extensively, it does retain a following and it remains a source of local pride.

Outsiders may occasionally encounter Boontling on the labels of beer produced by the Anderson Valley Brewing Company, a premier microbrewery located in Boonville. The firm’s labels intriguingly depict an imaginary deer-bear hybrid known as—what else?— a “beer.” The presence of such a brewery in the valley is significant. According to a number of writers (most recently, Charles Murray), beer consumption is a major class-marker in the United States; mass-market brews are favored by members of the working-class and more generally by those without cosmopolitan aspirations (or pretensions, as some might say), whereas micro-brews are supposedly embraced by the “cultural elite.” Such a distinction might be both simplistic and exaggerated, but it does capture something real. And throughout Mendocino County, local microbrews are big. Whether those produced by the Anderson Valley Brewing Company occupy top position, however, is an open question. Some experts prefer the North Coast Brewery in nearby Fort Bragg, whose Russian imperial stouts and Belgium-style ales in particular have gained a following among connoisseurs.

Premium beer may be a marker of Anderson Valley, but wine is much more important. Mendocino County is broadly noted for its wine production, and Anderson Valley is the premier locale. Pronounced micro-climatic differentiation in the valley allows wine diversification. As one travels northwestward toward the ocean during the summer, the temperature steadily drops. On any given July day, it could easily be 92°F (33 °C), in Boonville in the southern part of the valley and 76°F (24°C) in Navarro at the north end (on the cost, 12 miles down the road, it would probably be 64°F [17°C], windy and overcast). The cooler northern part of the Anderson Valley favors Pinot Noir and Alsatian wines, such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer. Sparkling wines are also produced in the area. Overall, Anderson Valley is noted for its warm summer days and cool nights, its “Indian summers” in October, and its long growing season, conditions ideal for many premium wines. Foreign firms, such as Louis Roederer of France, have invested heavily in local wineries.

Although Anderson Valley is noted in the San Francisco Bay Area for its beer and wine, its broader economy is based much more on marijuana. This artisanal industry is hardly hidden. The “Anderson Valley Home Page,” for example, informs its readers that, “The modern industry here is art, apples, beer, wine and of course we grow our own smoke.” Links on the same page give readers additional information on such topics as “retreats,” “camping,” “churches,” “marijuana,” and so on. The police blotter in the local newspaper once included an entry that read (if memory serves me correctly): “caller reports seeing marijuana being grown on Philo-Greenwood Road; dispatcher says to call back when he doesn’t see marijuana being grown on Philo-Greenwood Road.” In Anderson Valley, ripped-off cannabis growers will sometimes call local law enforcement officers to report the theft of their harvests. In one case reported in the valley’s newspaper,* local authorities coordinated with the Sonoma County sheriff’s office after such a call, set up a road-block at the intersection of U.S. Route 101 and California State Highway 128 in Cloverdale, and nabbed the thieves when they drove down (there are still few ways out of the Anderson Valley). The victims of the theft reportedly asked for the return of their stolen merchandise, but that request was denied.

The local newspaper in question is the Anderson Valley Advertiser (AVA), a phenomenon unto itself, its scope much belied by the “advertiser” label. As the Wikipedia notes, the paper has a “small national following,” which it has gained from its quirky left-wing editorializing, its detailed reporting, and its entertaining style. As the paper’s website shows, “marijuana defense” and other cannabis related themes figure prominently in its current advertising. The AVA gained a certain national renown in the 1980s after it published the erudite “letters of Wanda Tinasky,” which many believed had been penned by the novelist Thomas Pynchon, but which were actually written by beat-poet Tom Hawkins.

Anderson Valley and environs are also well noted for musical performances, which again have a cosmopolitan cast. Every June the valley plays host to the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, even though it is far from the Sierra Nevada (some would also object to the term “world,” as most of the music performed at the festival is of Caribbean origin). In July, the Mendocino Music Festival in the nearby coastal village of Mendocino (population 924) features musicians from the San Francisco Symphony, and San Francisco Opera Orchestra, and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. A few miles to the north, in the town of Fort Bragg (population 7,026), the Gloriana Musical Theatre regularly puts on Broadway shows, operas, and other forms of musical theater.

Anderson Valley Scene

The eclectic musical tastes of the Anderson Valley, as well as its political predilections, are evident in the radio programming of KZYX, a listener-supported community radio station based in the village of Philo (population 349). KZYX is “hybrid” operation, broadcasting professionally produced public radio shows but also relying on the efforts of over 100 local volunteer programmers. It is also one of the few radio stations in the U.S. to regularly run the Al Jazeera English news service.

The political inclinations of the “Anderson Valley cosmopolitan culture” sketched above run from the center-left to the far left, and the struggles between moderates and radicals can be intense; at KZYX, the more extreme members of the community have been known to disparage programming from NPR (National Public Radio) as actually reflecting the views of “National Petroleum Radio.”  But of course not everyone in the valley leans to the left, or partakes of the cultural offerings discussed here. The broader community is quite diverse, including many families rooted in the older ranching and logging industries, as well as a sizable Hispanic sector. The demographic characteristics of the valley, as well as its historical development, will be considered in a later post.

*I am again relying on memory here, as I cannot locate the article in question.

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Mapping Mormonism (and Religious Adherence)

Slate Magazine Map of Mormons in the US, modified

Slate Magazine Map of Mormons in the US, modifiedSlate Magazine recently published an excellent interactive map of “Mormons in America,” which shows “where the country’s largest homegrown religion thrives—and where it doesn’t.” By moving one’s cursor over the map on the Slate site, one can see how many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints reside in almost every U.S. county. My one criticism of the map is that its highest category is only 13.8 percent. In most counties in Utah and southeastern Idaho, the percentage of Mormons is much higher. As a result, I have outlined all of the counties in which church membership exceeds 40 percent of the population. In most of these counties, the figure is significantly higher still.

In the “religious adherents” map posted here, the Mormon belt stands out for its high overall level of religiosity. This map is surprising to many, as it shows relatively low levels of religious adherence in parts of the southeast, the so-called Bible Belt. Religiosity is shown as particularly low in the coal-mining counties of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, one of the poorest parts of the country. The northwest, urban and rural counties alike, is also low in this regard. Northern and southern California are also differentiated. Note as well the high level of religious adherence in the Lutheran zone of the north-central region of the U.S.

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The Indigenous Peoples of Mendocino County: From Genocide to Marijuana Cultivation

Wikipedia Trail of Tears MapPrevious GeoCurrents posts on historical instances of genocide have elicited critical comments from several readers, including one who took us to task for not mentioning genocidal events perpetuated by the United States. There is no denying that the U.S. government has been guilty of numerous genocidal assaults on indigenous communities. The United States engaged in wholesale “Indian removal,” often disregarding accommodations made by indigenous groups to American rule. The classic case was the Trail of Tears, the forced and deadly deportation of the so-called Five Civilized Tribes from the southeastern United States to what is now Oklahoma in the 1830s.

The struggles between indigenous peoples and the U.S. government and its citizens are now relatively well covered in the American school curriculum, which no longer ignores the atrocities committed by the victors. California, however, is often left out of the story. The only “Indian war” of note in the state was the Lava Beds Campaign of 1872-1873, during which Kintpuash (“Captain Jack”) and his fifty-three Modoc warriors kept the U.S. military at bay for almost a year. In standard histories of California, the bloody dispossession of the American Indian communities elsewhere in the state in the mid-1800s is given little attention. California’s native peoples have generally been construed as non-warlike, and the conflicts that ensued when their territories were overrun by white settlers deemed undramatic if not unimportant.

In actuality, the decimation of native Californians was plenty dramatic and shockingly cruel. Consider, for example, the almost forgotten Mendocino War of 1859. The Wikipedia article on the conflict amounts to three terse sentences, noting only that “several hundred American Indians were killed,” and that “many young Indians were sold into servitude in the white settlements.” It does, however, link to historical documents that outline the conflict in some detail. Some of these reports recount outrages committed against the Indians, specifying that the main cause of the conflict was simple cattle theft. The “majority legislative report of 1860” is worth quoting:

“Indians continue to kill cattle as a means of subsistence, and the settlers in retaliation punish with death. Many of the most respectable citizens of Mendocino County have testified before your committee that they kill Indians, found in what they consider the hostile districts, whenever they lose cattle or horses; nor do they attempt to conceal or deny this fact. … The testimony shows that … in one instance, an expedition was marked by the most horrid atrocity …”

           The report concluded with a simple question: “Shall the Indians be exterminated, or shall they be protected?” The decision went for protection, but by today’s standards, the “protection” afforded would itself be considered genocidal. In the end, most of the surviving native people of Mendocino were forced into the Round Valley Reservation in the remote northeastern corner of the county, one of the few large reservations in the state (36 sq mi [94 km²]). The Wikipedia’s description of the removal process is stark:

“Indians came to Round Valley as they did to other reservations — by force. The word “drive”, widely used at the time, is descriptive of the practice of “rounding up”       Indians and “driving” them like cattle to the reservation where they were “corralled” by high picket fences. Such drives took place in all weather and seasons, and the elderly and sick often did not survive.”

The deportees faced further travails as they settled in their new home. Round Valley was the designated refuge for a half dozen or more separate ethnolinguistic groups, several of which had long been bitter enemies. Establishing concord was not easy. And despite its reservation status, Round Valley attracted white settlers as well—many of whom proceeded to attack the Indians, requiring intervention by the U.S. army.

In time, the various tribes forced into Round Valley amalgamated into a new hybrid group. Numbers were small, intermarriage was necessary, and hostility from outsiders enhanced internal cohesion. Today the reservation’s official website specifies that it covers the “Round Valley Indian Tribes: A Sovereign Nation of Confederated Tribes.” As of 2000, this nation’s total population was 300.

By most definitions of the term, the Round Valley nation is not sovereign, but it does possess a degree of legal autonomy. How far such autonomy extends is much disputed. As is true elsewhere in Mendocino County, the most contentious issue is marijuana. In 2007, the tribal council voted to allow the growing of up to thirty-three plants per household while restricting the practice to specific areas. Limiting cultivation to particular parts of the reservation was designed to reduce participation by Mexican cartels, which have a reputation for both violence and environmentally destructive growing techniques. A 2010 article claimed, however, that much of the cultivation on the reservation was still being carried out by “the Mexican mafia.” The article also quoted tribal police chief Carlos Rabano as saying that although federal law prohibits the planting of marijuana in “Indian Country,” he still “tries not to interfere with tribal member’s yards.”

Many of the other surviving Native American communities in the region have enacted anti-marijuana policies. Unlike their counterparts in Round Valley, whose homeland is too remote to attract gamblers, the tiny (40 acre [16 hectare]) Hopland Reservation in southern Mendocino County has a profitable casino to protect.  In February 2012, for example, the police chief of the Hopland Reservation told reporters, “Most people who visit the Sho Ka Wa Casino or elsewhere on the Hopland Reservation know better than to bring marijuana, even if they have a doctor’s recommendation to use it.” Another Hopland tribal leader put the policy in its broader context: “We could do something like Round Valley and … tell our officers not to enforce (federal marijuana prohibition), but the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] could revoke our federal deputization.”


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Regionalizing California

With thirty-eight million people spread over an area of 163,696 square miles (423,970 km2) and an economy that would rank between the eighth and eleventh largest in the world if it were an independent country, California makes an unwieldy state. Its different regions are so distinctive culturally, economically, and politically that numerous attempts have been made to divide California into two or more states. As a previous GeoCurrents post noted, earlier divisional movements wanted to split northern from southern California, whereas current-day campaigns want to hive off the more conservative interior from the coastal counties. “Coastal California,” however, is far from unified, as its north/south divide, focused on the metropolitan rivalry between Los Angeles and San Francisco, remains profound.

Northern California Map from Wikipedia Despite the political gap between the coast and the interior, the binary north/south scheme remains the most popular way to divide the state. “Central California” appears on many corporate and governmental maps, but it barely exists in the public consciousness. Hardly anyone would describe himself or herself as being from “Central California,” although many would specify the “Central Valley” or the “Central Coast.” Yet as fundamental as it is, the dividing line between the north and the south remains uncertain. The older scheme, which I learned in Elementary School, splits the state at the Tehachapi Mountains, giving northern California the entire Central Valley, including the culturally southern* city of Bakersfield at the far end of the San Joaquin Valley. The Wikipedia’s map of “Conventional Northern California,” which splits along county lines, gives only the southern extremity of the Central Valley to southern California. Many observers, however, put the boundary further to the north.

One intriguing way to assess such regional affiliation is through “fansheds,” areas in which most people cheer for a certain professional sports team, and hence identify with the city in which it is located. Major League Baseball has produced a map that approximates such cheering zones, based on “blackout zones” in which the television coverage of home teams is limited. Here the state’s north/south divide is approximately halfway down the San Joaquin Valley. Note here the northward extension of southern California to the east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, placing sparsely populated Inyo and Mono counties in the south.

Yet the terms “northern California” and “southern California” do not always refer to these primary divisions of the state. When California is divided into multiple regions, the same names can be attached to much smaller areas. As the collection of maps posted here shows, “northern California” sometimes means far northern California, in one form or another. One semi-official scheme delineates nine economic regions, one of which is called “northern California.” This particular region, however, is poorly conceived.  Mendocino County, its economy based on marijuana, wine, and high-end tourism, has precious little in common with Modoc County in the far northeast. Economically, culturally, and politically, Modoc is more closely linked to northern Nevada and eastern Oregon than it is to the rest of California, let alone Mendocino County. (The fitting motto of conservative Modoc County is, “Where the West Still Lives.”)

One way to more rigorously regionalize the state is through voting behavior. Although California is now considered hopeless for Republican presidential candidates, large areas of the state remain Republican strongholds. While the division here is sometimes depicted as one of the Democratic coast versus the Republican interior, the actual pattern is rather more complicated. The 2000 and 2004 presidential elections make particularly good examples, as that of 2008 skewed unusually far to the Democratic side. As these maps show, southern California still trends Republican at the county level, with the notable exceptions of highly Hispanic Imperial County, populous and multi-ethnic Los Angeles County, and up-scale Santa Barbara County. In Northern California, on the other hand, the coast/interior divide is stark; all coastal and Bay Area counties voted for the Democratic candidates in these elections except Del Norte in the extreme north, and almost all interior counties voted for Republican candidates, many by substantial margins. The only two Central Valley counties to lean left were Sacramento, site of the state capital, and Yolo, home of the University of California at Davis. (The city of Davis has been evocatively called “Berkeley in Ohio,” referencing the flat topography, hot summers, and the relatively conservative attitudes found in neighboring communities.)

Similar patterns are found on other electoral maps. Consider, for example, the returns from Proposition 8, which rejected same-sex marriage in 2008 (the results of which were recently overturned in court). Here a few northwestern counties drop from the liberal camp, including heavily Hispanic San Benito and Solano, the latter noted for a recent anti-gay backlash movement in the working-class city of Vallejo. Proposition 215, which legalized medicinal marijuana in 1996, had much broader support, virtually sweeping the coastal counties, north and south. The defeated initiative that would have fully legalized marijuana in 2009, on the other hand, gained the majority of votes only in the Bay Area and the Central Coast, along with sparsely populated Alpine (population 1,175) and Mono (population 14,202) counties in the east. Note that even Mendocino County rejected this initiative. But it did so, many argue, not from opposition to marijuana, but rather from fear that cannabis legalization would generate too much competition and thus undermine the local economy. San Luis Obispo County on the Central Coast is the real oddity here, as this usually conservative-voting county rejected medical marijuana in 1996 but supported full legalization in 2009.

*Bakersfield’s, and, more generally, Kern County’s, “southern” affiliation links the region not so much to southern California as to the American South (which is actually the southeastern quadrant of the country). Oil-rich Kern County was settled heavily by migrants from Oklahoma and Arkansas in the 1930s, it has some Southern linguistic markers (such as pronouncing pen the same as pin, see map), and its popular musical tradition—“the Bakersfield sound”—is Southern as well.


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An Innovative, Inaccurate Baseball Fan Map

It is not often that I would go out of my way to praise a map that advertises itself as “highly inaccurate,” but I will do so in the case of the Common Census Major League Baseball Fan map. The map was constructed from crowd-sourced data, relying on responders to specify where they live and what team they support. Unfortunately, the response-base was not adequate to generate an accurate map. The map that was produced, however, is suggestive, and the technique is promising. As far as northern California is concerned, I find it highly unlikely that Sonoma County, located north of San Francisco, would support the Oakland Athletics more than the San Francisco Giants. In my experience, Giants territory extends north of San Francisco, through Sonoma and Mendocino counties. The map’s portrayal of areas without MLB teams, such as Utah, is intriguing.

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Saskatchewan’s Oil-Driven Population Boom

Canadian news sources have been proudly announcing the fact that the province of Saskatchewan posted a population growth rate of 6.7 percent over the past five years, after having declined by a 1.1 percent rate between 2001 and 2006. Reports emphasize the international origin of many of Saskatchewan’s new residents, with China, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines figuring prominently. The province, boosters claim, “is becoming increasingly diverse, dynamic and cosmopolitan.” Many newcomers do, however, report difficulties adjusting to the winter climate.

Saskatchewan’s recent growth represents a major departure from historical patterns. As can be seen in the paired graphs, the province has experienced relative demographic stability for decades, much in contrast to neighboring, oil-rich Alberta. But Saskatchewan is now riding the energy boom as well. Although Alberta’s famous (or infamous) oil sands do not extend into the province, the Bakken Formation, usually associated with North Dakota, does. Until recently, the massive oil deposits in the Bakken were not economically recoverable. Now they are, thanks the environmentally problematic fracking techniques more commonly associated with natural gas.

  It will be interesting to see what the oil boom does to the political culture of Saskatchewan. The province has a long heritage of social democracy, rooted in agrarian populism, although its voting patterns have been trending in a more conservative direction in recent year. But Saskatchewan still has a very different political culture from that of neighboring Alberta, as can be seen on the map. Alberta is by far the most conservative Canadian province, as reflected in its nickname, “the Texas of Canada.” An increasingly energy-based economy in Saskatchewan may generate more conservative attitudes there as well, although such tendencies may be counteracted by the province’s increasing cosmopolitanism.

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Introduction: Cultural Diversity and Political Division in Northern California

For the next several weeks, GeoCurrents will examine California, particularly the northwestern quarter of the state.  Our interest in California derives from several sources. First, GeoCurrents strives for global coverage, and as a quick glance at the Master Map reveals, North America has received relatively little attention. Second, northern California is the home base of the website, and as such we can delve into certain issues in greater depth than is possible elsewhere. Third, and most important, California—like the Caucasus— exhibits marked linguistic and cultural diversity, and it is also the site of some intriguing geopolitical issues.

The linguistic complexity of California exists in two forms: the first a ghostly aura of vanished and moribund indigenous languages, the second a cosmopolitan imprint of assorted immigrant tongues. Anthropologists have long noted the diversity of the native languages of California, which they divided into at least seven linguistic families. Many linguists, however, now doubt the validity of several of these groupings, arguing that California might have been home to as many as two dozen families, most of them limited to the state. If so, pre-contact California could have rivaled the highlands of New Guinea as the most linguistically intricate place on earth. The research necessary to validate such claims, however, is difficult if not impossible to carry out, as most of these languages are extinct and many were incompletely recorded, if at all.

The disappearance of most Californian languages resulted from the spread of European diseases starting in the late 1700s, followed first by the genocidal campaigns of settlers and the state in the mid-1800s and then by a long period of gradual cultural loss. But not all local languages died out, and conservation and revival efforts are now underway. Except in the northwest, few sizable American Indian reservations were established; instead, survivors largely persisted in urban areas or in tiny “rancherias” scattered over much of the state. Today, the intricacies of residual native sovereignty allow many of these rancherias to prosper as gambling refuges. In many cases, controversies over tribal membership have intensified, as many persons of vaguely indigenous background claim affiliation in order to profit from the casino economy.

Whereas California’s original linguistic diversity was intensively local yet broadly spread across the entire state, that of today is intensely global yet highly focused in particular areas. Over most of California, English is dominant and Spanish secondary, although in one county (Imperial), more people speak Spanish than English at home. In the state’s major metropolitan areas, in contrast, immigrants from numerous countries have introduced a large array of languages. Such diversity reaches its height in the high-tech core of the state—if not of the world. In Northern California’s so-called Silicon Valley, English may dominate public life, but it shares the private sphere with many other languages. At Hoover Elementary School in Palo Alto—where cheap 1950s tract houses sell for well over a million dollars—more than half of all students do not speak English at home. Language instruction in Palo Alto is often controversial, as local activists demand immersion programs in Mandarin Chinese and other languages, provoking strong opposition from other interested parties.

At first glance, geopolitical issues in California appear insignificant, especially when compared with a place as intricately divided and intensely disputed as the Caucasus. But although geopolitical clashes in the state may seem trivial, they illuminate foundational disputes about the structure of the United States. Such disagreements hinge on where the authority of the federal government ends and where that of the constituent states begins, a hoary debate that once went under the name of “states’ rights.” Over time, the U.S. has gradually moved from a fully federal system toward that of a more unitary state; before the Civil War, it was common to regard the country as a plural entity (“The United States are…”). Today such usage seems quaint if not merely illiterate, yet whenever the laws and policies of individual states come into conflict with those of the federal government, states’ rights issues once again gain prominence.

Northern California map, showing Silicon Valley, Oakland, and Mendocino CountyWhereas state’s rights battles in the mid-twentieth century usually focused on racial discrimination in the U.S. South, those of today more often turn to such legal issues as the legalization of marijuana (Cannabis). At present, the U.S. federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug, which supposedly have no legitimate uses, and as a result the sale and possession of cannabis is banned across the country. California, however, along with a number of other states, allows the consumption of cannabis for medical purposes, which are defined so broadly that virtually any adult can easily obtain a license. As a consequence, medicinal marijuana outlets have proliferated across much of the state.

For several years, the legal environment surrounding cannabis in California remained deeply ambiguous if not simply contradictory. Although proscribed by federal law, medical marijuana dispensaries remained unmolested by federal authorities. President Barak Obama, moreover, had pledged to respect California’s marijuana laws. The situation changed drastically, however, in October 2011, harvest season for the state’s cannabis cultivators. At that time, federal agents began raiding licensed dispensaries and growing cooperatives, threatening the owners of the buildings used for such purposes with real-estate expropriation. Medical marijuana advertisers received similar threats. But after a flurry of activity, calm returned as court cases slowly proceeded. Most marijuana outlets remain open, and Oakland’s “Oaksterdam University”—which provides “quality training for the cannabis industry”—is still thriving. Just last week, the city of Oakland moved to double the number of dispensaries within its boundaries. Oakland, reeling from the costs of the disruptive “occupy Wall Street/Oakland” movement, desperately wants the tax revenues that come from marijuana shops.

As the Oakland example shows, the cannabis dispute involves local jurisdictions alongside state and federal authorities. In several cases, slippage along the different levels of government generates heightened ambiguity. Nowhere are such issues as intensive as in Mendocino County, located in California’s northern coastal region. Like the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, Mendocino relies on the cannabis crop. Marijuana is so central to the local economy that the county initiated its own licensing system in early 2011. In exchange for hefty county fees and periodic inspections, cultivators would be allowed to grow up to 99 plants, a sum that can easily net half a million dollars. Such a program, needless to say, contravened both federal and state laws. The experiment did not last long. In early 2012, higher authorities arrived in the county to shut it down, much to the consternation of the local public.

Over the next several weeks, GeoCurrents will dig into these issues and more, as we explore the diversity and intricacy of northern California.

Introduction: Cultural Diversity and Political Division in Northern California Read More »

Same-Sex Couples and Native American Communities

US Census Map of Same-Sex Couples by CountyOn October 10, 2011, Andrew Sullivan’s blog ran a corrected U.S. Census map showing the proportion of same-sex couples in American counties. (An interactive version of the same map was posted on the National Public Radio website.) The Census had originally claimed that there were 901,997 self-reported same-sex couples in the United States. Evidently, a number of respondents had initially misrepresented the sex of their partners. As a result, the new report claimed that same sex-couples numbered 646,464.

Sullivan’s commentary on the map was limited, noting only the prevalence of same-sex couples in the Northeast. Yet much more interesting—and perplexing—patterns appear on the map. Gay and lesbian partnerships are shown to be concentrated in urban areas, although not to the extent that one might have predicted. According to the census returns, a numbers of rural counties show a higher percentage of same-sex couples that do many urban counties. Not surprisingly, smaller metropolitan areas with major universities tend to rank higher than larger ones lacking such establishments. Compare, for example, Dane County, Wisconsin (Madison) with Milwaukee County, or Washtenaw County, Michigan (Ann Arbor) with Wayne County (Detroit). By the same token, the greater Austin, Texas metro area has a significantly higher percentage of same-sex couples than the much more populous Houston metro area. Another expected feature of the map is the paucity of gay and lesbian partnerships in most counties across the Great Plains. The fact that the Southeast is almost indistinguishable from the Mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes regions, on the other hand, is much more surprising.

Map of Native Americans by CountyThe map’s most unexpected and intriguing revelation, however, is the high proportion of same-sex couples in counties dominated by Native Americans across the “greater Northwest.” As can be seen by comparing the two maps, rural counties in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana that have significant numbers of same-sex partnerships are almost invariably sites of major American Indian reservations. The same pattern is also evident in neighboring states. Benewah country in northern Idaho, for example, is the home of the Coeur d’Alene people, Mahnomen County Minnesota lies entirely within the White Earth Reservation (Anishinaabe or Chippewa people), and Menominee County, Wisconsin is home to the Menominee people. The patterns found in Arizona and New Mexico are similar but more complicated. Both states are characterized by relatively high rates of same-sex partnership as well by large numbers of Native Americans, but at the county level the correlation is not particularly strong. In New Mexico, the highest rates of same-sex coupling are found in the so-called Hispano Homeland in the north-central part of the state, an area that has been heavily Spanish-speaking since the 1600s.

The prevalence of same-sex partnerships in Native American communities over a broad swath of the United States has been little noted in the media. The Suquamish Tribe of western Washington did receive national attention when it recently approved same-sex marriages, but otherwise commentary has been sparse. It should be noted, however, that many American Indian nations have traditionally reserved an honored place for transsexuals—or “two-spirit people”—whose ambiguous gender position has been associated with spiritual power.

Other rural counties with high levels of same-sex households are more perplexing. It seems odd indeed that Foard County in west Texas and Trigg County in western Kentucky would be classified in the highest category on the map.  In some cases, such seeming discrepancies could result from random distributional patterns. Foard County, for example, contains only 664 households; as a result, it would take only a few gay or lesbian pairings to place it in the “above 0.69 percent” high-end category.  Trigg County, on the other hand, has more than 5,000 households, and thus evidently has quite a few same-sex couples. It would be interesting to see how many of them are male-male and how many are female-female. As academics are wont to say, more research is clearly needed.

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The Geography of the Death Penalty in the United States

Map of Executions in the US by State, Per Capita The death penalty has featured prominently in news editorials over the past several weeks. Depending on the context, assessments of the punishment vary tremendously, as seen in two recent New York Times opinion pieces. On October 5, 2011, the paper opined that an Alabama case “should leave no doubt why the death penalty should be abolished,” describing capital punishment as “barbaric.” Two days earlier, the same paper had described a death sentence in Pakistan as a “rare glimmer of hope” for the embattled country.

Wikipedia Map of Capital Punishments Law in the USCritiques of the death penalty often focus on the United States, one of few democratic countries to impose it. Yet the U.S. government has little to do with the issue, as it is largely a state rather than a federal matter.* Broadly speaking, the northeast and the upper Midwest have essentially eliminated the practice, while the Southeast and parts of the Southwest impose it regularly. The pattern is of long standing. Wisconsin eliminated the death penalty in 1853, and before that it had only executed a single person, whereas Alabama executed a man convicted merely of robbery as recently as 1964.

As is widely known, Texas is the largest executioner. Since 1976, it has put 475 persons to death, more than four times as many as the second-place state. In per capita** terms, however, the story is different. Here, Oklahoma leads the list, followed by Virginia and Delaware—although Texas is not far behind. As can be seen by comparing the execution map with that of the legal status of the death penalty, some states that retain capital punishment do not practice it (Kansas), whereas others that have executed convicts within the past several decades have more recently abolished the penalty (Illinois).

Map of Per Capita Death Row Figures by State, USACurrent death-row figures are similar yet by no means identical to the pattern of past executions. Here the core area of capital punishment is found in the central part of the Southeast, with Alabama forming a pronounced outlier. A secondary center emerges in the Southwest, including Arizona, California, and Nevada. Several northeastern states—Ohio, Pennsylvania— also maintain sizable death rows. Virginia, on the other hand, has conducted numerous executions, yet currently holds few prisoners so condemned.

Map of Per Capita Murder Rate by State, USA The regional patterns of the death penalty mesh only partially with those of violent crime. The murder rate is lowest in the death-penalty-imposing greater Northwest, rather than in the execution-shunning greater Northeast. On the other side of the coin, a few states with fairly high murder rates avoid executions. Michigan, with a per capita murder rate of 5.7 per 100,000 people in 2010 and one of 7.8 as recently as 1997, has only killed one person in its entire history. New Mexico currently has one of the country’s highest homicide rates, yet it has recently moved to eliminate capital punishment.

Map of 2000 Election, USAPartisan voting behavior, not surprisingly, correlates more closely with the geography of the death penalty. The 2000 presidential election map provides a particularly good match. In general, strongly Democratic-voting states tend not to impose capital punishment, whereas strongly Republican-voting ones tend to use it frequently. Oklahoma and Alabama, the execution and death row leaders, are two of the most strongly Republican-leaning states. Yet there are some interesting exceptions even to this pattern. Republican Kansas, for example, has not used capital punishment in decades. Democratic California, on the other hand, has the largest number of condemned criminals in the country, with 721 persons facing execution.

*The federal government does impose the penalty as well, having executed three persons since 1976.

**Per capita execution rates are difficult to calculate over a several decade period, as the populations of the various states have grown at different rates during the time span, As a result, approximate per capita rates  have been calculated here by using population data from 2000.





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Glimpses of Inequality in the United States

Inequality in the United States is a surprisingly complex issue. Although most Americans are aware at some level that major inequalities exist in their country, a substantial gap separates believed comprehension and the actual facts. This entry will explore inequality in the United States primarily through three lenses: regional differences, the rural-urban divide, and inequality within urban areas. Although these lenses are not all-inclusive, they do provide insight into the complexity of inequality in the United States.

Compared to other countries, the United States has relatively high—and growing—levels of inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient. Although surpassed by the notoriously unequal developing countries of Brazil and South Africa (indexes of 56 and 65 respectively), America’s Gini index is significantly higher than that of most other countries at similar levels of economic development. For example, the Nordic countries have very low Gini indexes, with Sweden as low as 23, but the European Union as a whole is more reflective of developing countries with a coefficient of 31. Historically, the US has had high but fluctuating Gini measurements. In 1929 it was estimated to be 45, but it had declined to 38.6 in 1968, during the height of the Great Society. Since the 1980s it has again increased, reaching 46.8 in 2009.

On the map of GDP per capita by U.S. state, several overarching regional trends are noticeable. The greater Northeast, extending from New Hampshire to Virginia, makes up the wealthiest part of the country. In contrast, the Southeast tends to be much worse off, especially Arkansas and Mississippi. Most states in the Midwest rank near the middle, while the interior West tends to be slightly poorer. The Pacific coastal region, like the northeast, is economically above average. Such generalizations are, of course, very broad, and thus need to be qualified. A close examination of inequality in the United States reveals that the phenomenon is too complex to be considered merely on a state-by-state basis.

More specific patterns are visible in the map of household income by county, at the top of the page. Here Appalachia stands out clearly. The region from West Virginia through the eastern half of Kentucky into Tennessee is one of the poorest areas in the United States. And as can be clearly differentiated in the map to the right, eastern Kentucky clearly stands out as the poorest section of Appalachia.

The county-based map reveals other patterns hidden by the state-level map. Although the Northeast corridor stands out for its prosperity, not all of its counties share equally in the wealth. Marked differences within states are clearly visible, especially the distinction between eastern and western Pennsylvania and upstate versus downstate New York. Also notable is the fact that many areas in the generally poor South, such as Atlanta, do quite well.

Several additional patterns are evident in the map indicating counties of “persistent poverty” (defined as having over 20% of the population under the poverty line for the last four censuses). In particular, as can be explored with these interactive New York Times maps, all of these regions have clear racial correlations. Eastern Kentucky is noteworthy for being the main zone of persistent poverty with a White majority. More striking is the Southern “Black Belt,” which stretches from the Mississippi River to South Carolina. Not only is it the largest area of entrenched poverty, but it is also the only large area in the United States with an African-American majority. Similarly, Latinos heavily populate the persistent poverty areas of southern Texas. Finally, most of the other counties of persistent poverty contain Native American reservations. The largest of these areas is the Four Corners region, especially northwest New Mexico, but scattered reservations in North and South Dakota as well as Alaska also stand out.

The rural-urban divide is also clearly seen on the county-by-county map. Metropolitan regions such as Chicago, Houston, and Denver are substantially richer than their rural peripheries. In general, cities and their suburbs have many more economic opportunities than rural areas. Although not all cities are equally prosperous, and not all stand out clearly from their environs, the rural-urban divide in the United States is plainly evident.

Even though metropolitan areas tend to be more affluent than surrounding areas, cities themselves contain high levels of inequality. Such complexities can be appreciated by examining more localized household income maps of metropolitan Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland:

In all three cities, significant income differences are found at the neighborhood level. Downtown areas generally have significantly lower income levels than peripheral neighborhoods, which is the general pattern in American cities. These maps also undermine several stereotypes, such as the notion that San Francisco is wealthy and Oakland poor. Although the average San Franciscan is indeed better off than the average resident of Oakland, tremendous spatial variation is found in both cities. San Francisco contains a number of poor areas, including much of the central business district. The so-called Tenderloin in particular is infamous for its poverty and homelessness. In contrast,  the eastern Oakland hills are roughly as affluent as the wealthiest neighborhoods of San Francisco. As all three maps demonstrate, geographic economic disparities are most extreme within cities. The broader and more generalized maps are, the more they tend to oversimplify.

The Theil index calculates how much various counties add to or subtract from the overall level of inequality in the United States. As can be seen on the map, the Theil index shows that urban areas tend to add the most inequality, whereas poor rural areas, especially those discussed previously, lower overall inequality. The general similarities between this map and the one at the top of the post are notable, especially as more prosperous counties tend to contribute much more to higher level of inequality than poorer countries.  Taken together, these maps indicate some of the challenges of measuring inequality.

In general, the three geographic lenses discussed – regional differences, the rural-urban divide, and inequality within urban areas –provide insight into the complexity of inequality in the United States, but they do not give the full picture. For example, issues of immigration and race, only briefly touched upon, also play an important role in determining levels of inequality.

Americans are generally aware of inequality in their country, but they tend to vastly underestimate it, as shown in the chart to the right. As the recent study of attitudes about inequalities demonstrates, most Americans significantly under-estimate the actual level of inequality found in their country.  Moreover, they would prefer to see levels of equality even greater than their generous over-estimate. Indeed, many pundits discuss the effects of an economically uneven society, but with looming budget deficits, there is little serious consideration of reversing the tide of increasing inequality.

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Unnoticed Unrest in Turks and Caicos and the Canadian Connection

turks and caicos political map

turks and caicos political mapturks and caicos islandsMassive unrest across much of the Middle East, coupled with the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan, have tended to crowd other important international stories out of the news, such as the on-going debacle in Ivory Coast. While the emphasis on Japan and the Arab world is understandable, other topics deserve attention as well. In keeping with this week’s Geocurrents focus on the Caribbean, today’s post turns to the largely ignored unrest in the British overseas territory of Turks and Caicos, a group of some 40 islands covering 193 square miles (430 square kilometers) of land and containing roughly 36,000 inhabitants.

In early March 2011, protests targeting pay cuts to civil servants and increased utilities rates broke out on Providenciales Island, the territory’s commercial and tourism center. Protestors blocked the road to the airport, some chaining themselves to roadside railings, threatening the vital vacation industry. Talks between the demonstrators and the British officials in charge of the dependency were soon arranged. On March 16, Britain announced that that it would deliver a “bail-out package” for the islands worth $417 million, a sizable figure considering the fact that territory’s entire GDP in 2006 was an estimated $722 million. Although the British government insisted that the “rescue package will not be used … to reverse current cuts,” it did reduce tensions, at least temporarily.

Unrest in Turks and Caicos has deeper roots than those of pay levels and utilities rates. The current crisis dates to 2009, when Britain dissolved the local government and reinstituted direct colonial rule. That action was taken in response to allegations of widespread corruption, as well as “clear signs of political amorality and general administrative incompetence.” A few years earlier, the chief minister of Turks and Caicos had announced that his party’s ultimate goal was full independence; his opponents had countered that he did so only to forestall a commission of inquiry set up to investigate corruption in his administration. Britain’s assumption of direct rule came with assurances that the change would be temporary, as well as a pledge that it would not affect offshore financial operations, a major business in Turks and Caicos, as in many other Caribbean locales. Top local officials were not mollified; one accused British authorities of “dismantling a duly elected government and legislature and replacing it with a one man dictatorship.” Evidence for financial malfeasance, however, was solid, including one instance in which 239 acres of crown land were leased for $1 an acre. Major courts cases to reclaim plundered assets are pending.

Turks and Caicos has long been geopolitically anomalous. The archipelago was annexed by Britain in 1799 and initially ruled as part of the Bahamas. It became a separate colony in 1848, but in 1873 it was assigned to the British island of Jamaica. In 1959 it was again made a colony in its own right, but it remained under the authority of the governor of Jamaica. In 1965, however, it was placed under the power of the British administrator of the Bahamas, even though it remained administratively distinct. When the Bahamas gained independence in 1973, Turks and Caicos finally got its own governor. Although independence has often been discussed, a more widely mooted alternative has been, oddly enough, union with Canada. Many Canadians evidently fancy the idea of a tropical outpost for their country, while many residents of Turks and Caicos believe that membership in the vastly larger and more powerful but distant and accommodating country would bring substantial benefits.

The idea of annexing Turks and Caicos to Canada has a long history. It was first proposed by Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden in 1917, but was shot down by the British government. A 1974 annexation bill failed to pass the Canadian House of Commons. In 1982, the local government of the islands, having soured on the idea of eventual independence, made renewed inquiries in Ottawa about a possible union. One sticking point was size, as Turks and Caicos was considered too small and lightly populated to form a Canadian province in its own right. In 2004, however, the legislature of Nova Scotia offered membership in its own provincial body, potentially bypassing such objections. As one Nova Scotian leader opined, such a merger would be “natural, given historical trade connections and a sea-going culture.” Public opinion polling in 2003 indicated that 60 percent of the people of Turks and Caicos supported merger with Canada.

Many Canadians also champion the incorporation Turks and Caicos. Some 16,000 Canadians visit the archipelago annually, and citizens of Canada reportedly own thirty percent of local hotels and resorts. Enthusiasts highlight the economic advantages that Canada would gain from possessing a deep-water port within a regional free trade zone. Geopolitical leverage is also emphasized. As one Canadian blogger recently framed the issue:

Suppose the port [in Turks and Caicos] doubled as a Canadian military operations base for countries wanting help to patrol their waters and to interdict the Caribbean’s robust trade in smuggled arms, drugs and people. … Suppose Canada fills a vacuum of influence where China, Cuba and — bolstered by Iran — Venezuela have stepped in with medical aid, cheap petroleum, schools and factory construction.

But as the author of the blog also notes, concerns have been raised that “winter-weary” Canadians, especially retirees, would overwhelm the small archipelago. From the Canadian perspective, the biggest draw of Turks and Caicos may well be its tropical location.

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Delusional Mapping and the Invisible Comanche Empire

Historical maps of colonial North and South America are often misleading. Many cartographers portray vague claims to sovereignty by European powers as if they constituted actual control, while downplaying or flat-out ignoring potent indigenous polities. At its worst the result can be a cartographic caricature, revealing more about fantasies spun in London, Paris, or Madrid than about power on the ground in the Americas.

Consider the first two maps posted above, excerpted from the innovative and comprehensive DKAtlas of World History. “The World in 1800” depicts a solid swath of Spanish “possessions” extending approximately to the current U.S.-Canada border. Most of North America is cleanly divided between the United States and the Spanish, British, and Russian empires. In the uncolonized northwestern zone, only one indigenous polity is labeled – that of the Tlingits – and it is misplaced (too far to the south). Three additional tribes are shown, of which two are likewise misplaced: the Utes (too far to the north) and the western Inuits (too far inland). The second DK map, “The Colonization of North America to 1750,” is better, not least because grandiose Spanish claims beyond New Mexico are simply left off the map. A sizable number of native groups are shown, with those in the south depicted as falling under Spanish control. Note that the Comanche territory is shown as lying wholly within the zone of Spanish power, rendering the Comanches (in cartographic code) as a subdued or client people.

In actuality, Spanish power in 1800s was perilously thin north of the Rio Grande. Feeble Spanish authority was exercised in north-central New Mexico, southern and central coastal California, and the area around San Antonio in Texas. Spain also exerted some authority over the modest former French outposts in the Mississippi Valley. But most of the northern area colored red on the map had not even been explored by Spaniards, much less settled or subdued. What is mapped as an empire here was little more than a conceit.

Spain’s delusions of imperial authority are exposed in one of the more remarkable books of American history to appear in recent decades, Pekka Hämäläinen’s Comanche Empire (Yale University Press, 2008). Winner of four book awards (including the Bancroft Prize for the best work in American History), Comanche Empire forces us to reconceptualize the geography of power in central North America during this period. In Hämäläinen’s gripping account, the Comanches ran a powerful political and economic organization that was more than able to hold its own against European settlers and soldiers. By the late 1700s, the outposts of Spanish sovereignty in New Mexico and Texas were forced to deal with Comanche chieftains as diplomatic equals, and were in some ways allowed to exist at all only at the sufferance of the local warlords. The Comanche language was emerging as a lingua franca of a broad region, and was increasingly spoken by Hispanic settlers in Taos. From the mid 1700s through the mid 1800s, the tribe’s vast realm, “Comancheria,” extended from the Arkansas Valley in southeastern Colorado to the Balcones Escarpment in central Texas.

According to Hämäläinen, Comanche power figured prominently in the expansion of the United States into the Southwest. Spanish-speaking settlements in Texas had been so devastated by Comanche raids that the Mexican government felt compelled to open the struggling colony to Anglo settlers. The newcomers subsequently rebelled and established the short-lived Texas Republic. Under the leadership of Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, the Texans vowed to remove or exterminate the Comanches in 1838, but the resulting war proved mutually destructive. When Sam Houston regained the presidency in 1841, Texas and Comancheria reached a settlement. Henceforth the Comanches would turn their pillaging energies on northern Mexico, while trading peacefully with Texas. Comanche raiders eventually penetrated deep into central Mexico, returning with vast herds of stolen livestock. Horses and mules were in high demand in the United States, ensuring profits for the Native suppliers and providing American farmers with cheap stock. But the Comanche forays devastated much of northern and central Mexico, clearing the way for an easy U..S victory in the Mexican-American War of 1946-1848. As Hämäläinen puts it:

The US take-over of the Southwest was significantly assisted by the fact that the Comanches and the Apaches had already destabilized Mexico’s Far North. Apaches had devastated vast stretches of northwestern Mexico, but Comanches left the deepest imprint. In each major stage of its expansion, the United States absorbed lands that had been made ripe for conquest by Comanches, who themselves were not interested in direct political control over foreign territories. (p. 233)

Comanche Empire has been faulted for conceptualizing the Comanche realm as an empire. The Comanches did not build a conventional state apparatus; they had no bureaucracy or permanent governmental institutions. Nor did they rule directly over subject peoples, as empires are wont to do. But they did extract tribute, and they did conduct sophisticated diplomatic maneuvers. Comancheria was reminiscent in many ways of the early nomadic polities that arose on the great grasslands of Eurasia, “tribal confederations” that raided, traded with, and often held power over the sedentary peoples living in adjacent areas. Over time, many of these pastoral aggregations developed into genuine states and empires, the Mongols being the prime example. One can only imagine what might have happened in North America if European immigration and technological development had come to a halt around 1800. Under the right conditions, the evolution of a full-fledged nomadic Comanche Empire seems entirely plausible—a scenario worth exploring in counterfactual history.


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Anna Eshoo and the Ignored Plight of the Assyrians

In looking over the sample ballot for the 2010 November election, my mind turned to the Assyrians as I came to the name of Anna Eshoo, their champion in the U.S. Congress. By “Assyrians” I mean not the ancient empire-builders, but rather the modern community, several million strong globally, that claims to be their descendents. The main Christian group of Iraq and neighboring countries, the Assyrians have suffered grievously of late. In 2005, Eshoo authored an amendment to the Foreign Relations Authorization Act requesting that, “special attention should be paid to the welfare of Chaldo-Assyrians and other indigenous Christians in Iraq.” Of Assyrian (and Armenian) background herself, Eshoo is better known in Congress for advocating Silicon Valley interests, as befits the representative of California’s 14th district, home to such firms as Google, Hewlett Packard, and Facebook.

Eshoo has had scant company in upholding Assyrian rights. The community is almost unknown in the United States; out of a class of 181 Stanford University students polled this morning, no one could identify the group. The general plight of the Christian population of Iraq may be more widely recognized, but hardly any of my students were aware of the issue, one that is considered pressing by few pundits or politicians. Yet the magnitude of anti-Christian violence and ethnic cleansing in Iraq is considerable. Since 2003, more than forty-six Assyrian churches and monasteries have been bombed, several priests have been beheaded, and entire communities have been displaced. In January 2010 alone, 12,000 Christians in the northern city of Mosul were forced out of their homes. As reported recently in Deutsche Welle:

The Christian minority in Iraq has been reduced to a shadow of its former self …. Up to two-thirds of the pre-war community has been displaced or forced to flee the country… There’s a real possibility that 2,000 years of settlement by Christian communities in Iraq is in danger of near-total extinction.

The Assyrians once received global attention. Their cause was fairly well known in the early 20th century, when an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 members of their community were slaughtered by Ottoman and Ottoman-allied forces during World War I, in a series of events known as the Sayfo, or Assyrian Genocide.* Renewed massacres of Assyrians in the early 1930s led Raphael Lemkin to begin thinking about the mass extermination of entire peoples; he later coined the term “genocide” to describe such processes. But over time the memory of the assaults receded from view, and the more extensive massacres of Armenians during the same period came to overshadow those of the Assyrians. But the repeated attacks devastated the community, as large numbers of people had to seek refuge in other lands. Deprived of their homeland, the Assyrians, unlike the Armenians, lost their place on the map. Even in their core territory, the so-called Assyrian Triangle in what is now northern Iraq, Christians were reduced to a clearly minority status. Before long they were largely forgotten by the outside world.

The Assyrians are a distinctive people not just in the religious sense. In their scattered communities in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, many if not most continue to speak Aramaic dialects – Aramaic having been a lingua franca of the ancient Near East, perhaps best known as the mother-tongue of Jesus. The modern Neo-Aramaic of the Assyrians has evolved far from the old language, but the relationship remains obvious. Both language and religion, however, divide as well as unite the indigenous Christians of the region. Neo-Aramaic itself is split into three dialects that some linguists classify as separate languages. Five separate Christian sects, moreover, are found within the larger community, two of which fall under the umbrella of Roman Catholicism (the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Syriac Catholic Church), and three of which are independent (the Assyrian Church of the East, the Ancient Church of the East, and the Syriac Orthodox Church). Not all of these groups are always classified as Assyrian, hence the use of such terms as “Chaldo-Assyrian.” But under intense persecution, Christians in northern Iraq today tend to stress their commonalities, not their differences.

Considering the magnitude of the Assyrian crisis, its escape from general notice is remarkable. One reason is probably that of limited public attention. The media, it often seems, regard the three-fold division of Iraq among the Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, and Sunni Kurds as complex enough, as if extended discussion of smaller groups would generate information overload. A weariness of world horrors – “humanitarian disaster fatigue ” – might also play a role. Short-lived natural disasters, even if inconsequential, garner mass attention, but more slowly unfolding and more intractable human-caused calamities seem too depressing and lack dramatic appeal. As a result, horrific campaigns of ethnic cleansing, such as those faced by the Rohingyas, a Muslim people of western Burma, proceed with little outside notice (discussed in Geocurrents on January 2, 2010).

I suspect, however, that another dynamic applies in the case of the Assyrians, a group too large and historically significant to be so easily relegated into obscurity. It would also seem that the United States and its allies have a special responsibility both to acknowledge and to address the issue, as the current assaults on the Assyrians are an indirect result of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But therein, I think, lies the rub. In the United States, conservatives may be reluctant to pay much attention to the issue because doing so highlights the unsuccessful nature of the Iraqi regime-change gambit, putting blame for a humanitarian disaster in part on their own shoulders. Liberals, I suspect, turn a blind eye to the Assyrian predicament because they do not want to draw additional attention to the actions of Muslim extremists, fearing that doing so would intensify an anti-Islamic backlash in the West, and thus enhance the power of the right-wing. Meanwhile, the carnage continues. On October 31, 2010, fifty-two people were killed after militants with suspected ties to Al Qaeda attacked a Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad.

Geocurrents will continue examining the Assyrian community and its plight through this week, with the next post focusing on the complex relations among the Assyrians, the Syrians, and the Kurds.

*Controversy persists as to whether the early 20th century attacks on the Assyrians constituted an episode of genocide; I follow the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS), which in 2007 passed a resolution declaring that the term is indeed appropriate.

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