Ishi in Three Centuries

By Karl Kroeber; Clifton Kroeber | Go to book overview

18
The Power of Names

JUSTICE GARY STRANKMAN

Naming – the act of giving a verbal symbol to that which existed before and which will exist after the act – expresses dominance. A symbol or name identifies without description; the complex becomes manageable; individuals become units; Apache and Creek become the generic Indian; Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims are Yugoslavians or even Eastern Europeans. He is a plumber. She is a lesbian. You are a student. I am a judge. The namer obliterates by the power of his label all differences, all distinctions. The named is left powerless, as a named object to be manipulated, caught in a narrative not of his making. Naming is an act of power. In Genesis, Adam’s first recorded act of domination is naming, assigning the symbol, the act of an I-am-he-who-tells-you-what-or-who-you-are. It is the ultimate gesture of paternalism. The infant child is named. Similarly, the first response to the other, to the outsider, is to assign the name. The one who assigns is the insider, the decider, the winner.

In early California there was little question who were the winners, who were the namers and who were the named. In 1854, George W. Hall was named by the California Supreme Court as “… a free white citizen of this State, [who] was convicted of murder upon the testimony of Chinese witnesses.” Notice the naming: the murderer is a citizen, but the innocent Chinese bystanders are labeled witnesses. There was a problem, however. California law provided that “No Black, or Mulatto person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against a white man.” Who, or better what, were the unmentioned Chinese? How were they to be named? I quote from the court’s opinion: “When Columbus [an infamous namer] first landed upon the shores of this continent… he imagined that he had accomplished the object of his expedition, and that the Island of San Salvador was one of those Islands of the Chinese Sea,… near… India…. Acting upon this hypothesis, and also perhaps from the similarity of features and physical conformation, he gave to the Islanders the name of In-

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