Sacramento State student Chiitaanibah Johnson has always been passionate about her American Indian heritage and what she sees as attempts to erase that history. A Maidu and Navajo born in an Indian hospital in Arizona, the 19-year-old has now sparked a national debate about how the history should be remembered and taught.
Johnson became an online sensation after speaking out about her confrontation earlier this month with Sacramento State history professor Maury Wiseman on whether the word “genocide” is appropriate to describe what happened to American Indians. Johnson told that story to the national outlet Indian Country Today Media Network, including claims that Wiseman accused her of “hijacking” the class and disenrolled her. That piece has since collected more than 159,000 likes on Facebook.
In an exclusive interview with The Sacramento Bee on Saturday, Johnson defended what she said was her correcting the record on her people’s history. Wiseman has declined to comment to The Bee while the matter is under investigation.
“America is for the truth, and what he said isn’t the truth,” Johnson said. “How many students have gone through his class and not questioned that? Indian kids all over the country get shut down for questioning things like this.”
She added that she is no longer attending Wiseman’s class. “There was a courteous and respectful way to handle this disagreement,” she said.
The author of the Indian Country Today story, Vince Schilling of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe, said the controversy “has triggered a debate over what Indian people have been talking about for generations. Native people have been treated as less than citizens and disregarded as a race, and we’ve been told time and time again that our opinions don’t matter.
“But I can tell you this: The nation is beginning to listen because we’re not going to take it anymore. Thanks to social media and the ability to come together, native people are able to discuss and bring attention to problems and be recognized instead of suffering in silence.”
California Indian groups are prepared to mobilize behind Johnson, said Sacramento American Indian activist Susan Reece.
“California Indian history is not taught the way it should be taught, and it’s not by accident,” Reece said.
The controversy began in American History 17A on Sept. 2 when, Johnson said, Wiseman “said he didn’t like to use the word ‘genocide’ because he thought it was too strong for what had happened to American Indians; genocide implied it was on purpose, and most native people were wiped out by European diseases.”
Johnson, an English major who runs an open-mic night at the public library near her home in Antelope, said she wanted to speak out then, but was too emotional and instead spent the next two days researching the massacres of native people at Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1890, Sand Creek, Colo., in 1864 and other locations including Northern California.
Johnson said she brought her research to class, which she characterized as devoted to the “brave, courageous Portuguese explorers” who discovered and populated the new world without discussing slavery or giving equal time to what’s considered the Americas’ first democracy, the Iroquois Confederacy.
Johnson said she raised her hand and questioned the emphasis on the Portuguese accomplishments rather than their treatment of slaves and indigenous people, and then asked Wiseman to explain what he’d said about the word “genocide” and how it doesn’t apply to Indians.
“A lot of people are saying I did disrupt and take away from the lesson, and I understand that criticism. But I felt what he was teaching wasn’t entirely truthful or balanced,” she said. “I didn’t understand his historical proof.”
She said Wiseman suggested she talk to him after class, “and I said, ‘Well, no, I don’t think that’s acceptable because this is a very heavy statement you’ve made to your students publicly, and you need to justify it publicly.’
“He said, ‘I’m really starting to resent you because you are hijacking my class,’ ” Johnson said.
Johnson said the professor told her he was expelling her from the course, an account disputed by the university’s history department, which said professors can’t expel students unilaterally.
Johnson met with Robert S. Nelsen, the president of California State University, Sacramento, for more than an hour Thursday along with one of her mentors, Cindy La Marr, executive director of Capitol Area Indian Resources Inc.
Nelsen said in a statement that he would also be meeting with Wiseman but otherwise couldn’t comment on “an ongoing personnel matter,” other than to reiterate his message that “we at the university believe in academic freedom, and we also believe in civility and rigorous academic research. Our standards must be high, and we must follow the processes that we have put in place to ensure that the rights of students and faculty are protected.”
La Marr, a nationally known Indian educator from California’s Pitt River and Paiute nations, said several academic works based on newspaper articles and letters document attempts to exterminate California Indians, including “Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846-1873” by Sacramento State professor Brendan C. Lindsay, which reported that California’s native population dropped from an estimated 150,000 in 1848 to 15,377 in the 1900 census.
For Johnson, her people’s history is very much still alive.
“My Maidu people in Northern California were treated very badly,” she said. “Johnson is not the name my tribe had for centuries – that was the name that was given to us by the U.S. government agents who rode into our village to take the census and said our true names are too hard to pronounce.”