Gelya Frank

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


Repatriating a Story: The Case of U.S. v. Whaley

Salt Lake Pete, a member of the Yaudanchi tribe of Yokuts Indians in late 19th century California, was appointed by a tribal council to execute a shaman who had spiritually poisoned and killed Hunter Jim, a well-liked tribal leader. This process was not unusual as a traditional remedy against shamans who abused their power. In an unfortunate clash of cultures, however, Salt Lake Pete and the three men who assisted him were accused of murder under a newly enacted federal law, then convicted of manslaughter and imprisoned for carrying out this task for the tribe. Months earlier, the matter would have been outside federal jurisdiction because the conflict was between Indians only and on Indian land.

In Repatriating a Story: The Case of U.S. v Whaley, Gelya Frank delves into this incident to uncover the motives among the Tule River Indians and their U.S. Indian agent who reported the crime. Her reconstruction illuminates tribal identity and tribal sovereignty among Native Californians during a period when traditional institutions were actively suppressed by the federal government. “The Yokuts and Western Mono in this case were among the tiny percentage of California Indians who survived the most rapid disruption and devastation experienced by any native people in North America,” Frank observes. She has been associated for over thirty years with the Tule River Indian tribe, many members of which are descended from principals in this case. Frank notes, however, that not even direct descendants of Salt Lake Pete have knowledge today of the compelling events of the Whaley case.

Using intertextual analysis and a range of narrative and critical approaches, Frank is piecing together the case from federal court records, unpublished field notes of anthropologist A. L. Kroeber and his student A. H. Gayton, census records, and published sources about the Yokuts and Western Mono tribes. “From a native point of view,” says Frank, “the Whaley incident involved a challenge to chiefly authority by an out-of-control shaman. Federal repression of traditional institutions made it also a crisis of order and succession.”

Frank, an anthropologist who helped found the new academic discipline of Occupational Science, considers her work with the Tule River tribe a model for what she terms direct cultural interventions. “Anthropologists and other scholars now have the ability and even the duty,” she observes, “to restore past cultural information to the communities of origin. The process of returning an American Indian history of survivance to collective memory is central to this story.”

Affiliation at time of award:
Professor, Departments of Occupational Science, Occupational Therapy, and Anthropology, University of Southern California

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