Written in 1884, the novel, Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson tells the story of a Native American orphan living in Southern California following the Mexican-American War. Because of this unique narrative and glimpse into the hardship and discrimination faced by Native Americans, this novel sheds light onto the unsavory side of California history while drawing readers into the story and appealing to their emotions. While this information is valuable to everyone and should be made readily available, this novel may be especially helpful in teaching high school or college students about the struggles faced by Native people and their descendants. While people are quick to praise California history in light of the famous Gold Rush and the uniquely Californian identity developed as a result, often times the dark reality of colonization and the erasure of Native American culture is simply glossed over or even ignored. However, as responsible students and historians, people have a moral and intellectual obligation to critically examine all aspects of history, even the ones which do not portray colonizers favorably. Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson does just this by illuminating the unique struggles and discrimination faced by individuals of Native American descent, and revealing that the California Dream was not truly available to all.
From the beginning, it is apparent that Ramona faces struggles due to her Native American heritage, as she is raised by Senora Gonzaga Moreno, who does not love her simply because of her race. This is made evident by the way she treats Ramona throughout the novel, especially in contrast to her attitude and actions towards her son, Felipe. For example, Senora Moreno remarks, “Unworthy! Yes, that was a mild word to apply to Ramona now…when the girl was out of the house she would breathe easier…Ramona would be forgotten” (126, Jackson). Here Senora Moreno reveals how she is proud of her son, and anxious for him to marry, but even more anxious for Ramona to leave the house as she dislikes her so. This prejudice against Native Americans is made even more apparent as Senora Moreno does not want Ramona to marry Alessandro because of his race, although she already treats Ramona unfairly because she is half Native American. This racist and prejudiced sentiment is evident as Senora Moreno refers to Alessandro as “…a beggarly Indian, on whom my servants will set the dogs if I bid them” (130, Jackson). In saying this, it is clear that Senora Moreno does not regard Alessandro, and consequently Ramona, as equals in their humanity, foreshadowing the discrimination that the two will face later on in the novel.
Furthermore, one can see how Senora Moreno views herself and her religion as superior to that of the Natives, as she idealizes the Catholic priest, Father Salvierderra, and pushes for the sheep-shearers to participate in worship and confess their sins to the priest. This religious overtone present throughout Senora Moreno’s actions is representative of the mindset of many Californians at the time, as made evident by Father Junipero Serra and the mission system. Colonizers often referred to Native Americans as “backwards” and felt that they needed to save of “civilize” them by converting them to Catholicism and essentially erasing their Native American heritage. Additionally, Jackson’s work further brings to light the discrimination faced by many Native Americans as Ramona and Alessandro struggle to find a place to settle after running off together. They are forced to leave several homesteads due to American settlers who feel they have a right to the land, and have an immensely difficult time finding place to live without fear of being forced to leave. Even more tragically, their youngest daughter, Eyes of the Sky, dies because a white doctor refuses to treat her in a display of blatant racism and prejudice which was all too common at the time.
Similarly Alessandro is shot by an American, illustrating how American settlers literally killed Native Americans while pursuing the famous California Dream of a fresh start and new opportunities. Author John M. Gonzalez examines the underlying messages of Ramona in his journal article, The Warp of Whiteness: Domesticity and Empire in Helen Hunt Jackson’s ‘Ramona’, by analyzing how nationalism can contribute to discrimination against minorities. He writes that “Indian reform novels such as Ramona challenge not only the binary configuration of separate spheres but also our understanding of the role of civil society in imperial states” (440, Gonzalez). In saying this, Gonzalez highlights the important point that the lives of Native Americans and settlers could not remain separate, as they inhabited the same land, most often in close capacity. Thus it is essential to recognize that there were complex motivations on both a governmental and societal level for the treatment of Native Americans, as Californians believed it was their “Manifest Destiny” to inhabit the land. However, although the settlers had complex motivations regarding their treatment of Native Americans, the fact remains that settlement led to the erasure of Native American culture and discrimination against Native American people. Gonzalez writes that settlers felt the need to either assimilate or kill Native Americans because “Indians represented the nation’s incompleteness by virtue of their distinct political and cultural existence even in defeat” (439, Gonzalez). Despite this, the fact remains that the settlers longed to take over a land which was not theirs to begin with, and ruined the lives of many of the existing people in the process.
For this reason it is vital to examine and make individuals aware of this aspect of California history, just as Ramona does. Author Rosemary Evans further discusses the implications and message of Ramona in her critique, Helen Hunt Jackson’s Sympathetic Attitude Toward Indians Was Reflected In Her Popular Ramona, by examining Jackson’s motivations for writing the novel. Interestingly, Ramona was Jackson’s second novel highlighting the plight of Native Americans, following the ill-received Century of Dishonor. The reaction to Jackson’s first novel, especially on a governmental level, revealed that people did not want to face the reality of the struggles facing Native Americans. Evans writes “Voters who had read her book and articles were demanding that Congress either deny what she was saying or else tell her to keep her mouth shut. Politicians were in an uproar. They could not deny the facts presented in her writing. And they could not deny the U.S. Constitution” (Evans). As a result of the discordant reception of Century of Dishonor, Jackson was asked to travel to California in order to write about the missions there. It was this journey, and her experiences with the native peoples of California which prompted her to craft Ramona, which was better received by the public as it was less shocking, yet still prompted discussion about the treatment of Native Americans. Prior to writing Ramona, Jackson remarked “”I had not got the background, now I have, and sooner or later, I shall write the story….If I could write a story that would do for the Indian a thousandth part of what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the Negro, I would be thankful the rest of my life” (Evans). Although the novel never quite reached the same level of fame a Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it helped spark a continuing dialogue regarding the treatment of Native Americans, and still remains relevant to readers today as it provides insight to the challenges faced by Native Americans and does not sugarcoat the prejudice they faced.
Overall, Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson provides readers with insight into the struggles faced by Native Americans by appealing to the emotions of readers and drawing upon experiences witnessed by Jackson herself. The novel does an excellent job of bringing to light the dark side of California’s history and reveals that the California Dream was not readily available to all, as sugarcoated history may lead one to believe. Scholarly examination on the history surrounding the novel as well as the criticisms of Jackson’s work reveal that although the time period was filled with complex motivations and rapid change, it is important to discuss the negative effects of settlement on Native Americans as well as the prejudice that they faced. Thus Ramona remains a novel still relevant to scholars today by providing a different perspective on California History.
Evans, Rosemary. “Helen Hunt Jackson’s Sympathetic Attitude toward Indians Was Reflected in Her Popular Ramona.” Wild West, vol. 12, no. 1, June 1999, p. 18. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.cui.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ulh& AN=1950656&site=ehost-live.
Gonzalez, John M. “The Warp of Whiteness: Domesticity and Empire in Helen Hunt Jackson’s ‘Ramona.’” American Literary History, vol. 16, no. 3, 2004, pp. 437–465. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3568059.
Irwin, Robert Mckee. “Ramona and Postnationalist American Studies: On “Our America” and the Mexican Borderlands.” American Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 4, Dec. 2003, pp. 539-567. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.cui.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tr ue&db=a9h&AN=11898211&site=ehost-live.
Jackson, Helen Hunt. Ramona. CreateSpace Independent Publ. Platform, 2013.