On its surface, Ray A. March’s Mass Murder in California’s Empty Quarter tells the story of a violent attack that took place in the far northeast of California, at the offices of the Cedarville Rancheria, a small, federally recognized Northern Paiute tribe. In February of 2014, Cheri Rhoades, an enrolled member of the tribe, opened fire during a meeting of the tribe’s executive committee. Over the course of nine minutes, she killed four people and injured two others. Three of the four killed were Rhoades’s blood relatives. After her arrest, trial, and conviction, she became the first woman in U.S. history to be sentenced to death for committing mass murder. While noting that mass shootings have become a nearly constant fixture in contemporary American life, March recognizes that the Cedarville murders must be understood and analyzed within the broader context of Native American history. Aiming to uncover the “systemic events” that led to the attack, March’s analytical scope reaches far beyond a simple accounting of the murders themselves. In his introductory author’s note, March argues that, in order for the material conditions of contemporary tribal communities to improve, “there must be a broad cross-cultural understanding of the challenges they face as they govern themselves under the rules of sovereignty” (ix).
The book begins with an account of the day of the murders at the tribal offices in Alturas, California. The tribal executive committee was holding a hearing on the eviction of Rhoades. Rhoades herself had recently been voted out of office as the chairperson, replaced by her half-brother Rurik Davis, who presided over the hearing. Several of the other committee members, and most of the people present in the meeting, were also blood relatives. When she entered the meeting, Rhoades argued with the tribal judge and claimed that she held the right to appeal the committee’s eviction decision. When the judge questioned where this was allowed within the tribal constitution, Rhoades opened fire. As March explains, however, this hearing itself was the culmination of years of intense intra-familial and intra-tribal tensions regarding the governance of the tribe.
In March’s analysis, the Cedarville murders should be understood within the context of the broader “disenrollment epidemic” that has swept through California in recent years (39). As sovereign entities, federally recognized tribes set their own requirements for tribal membership. Usually these requirements are based on ancestral descent from another member of the tribe, or on a specific degree of Native blood, known as a “blood-quantum requirement.” If an enrolled member of a tribe is found not to meet these legal requirements, they can be “disenrolled” by the tribe. Those disenrolled lose tribal citizenship, along with access to tribal healthcare, housing, scholarships, and other programs. As March adds, however, the most painful loss is the “loss of identity” and separation from the fabric of the community (39). In the decade before the murders at Cedarville, as many as twenty-five hundred Native people in California were removed from their tribe’s membership rolls. According to March, Cedarville’s tribal government moved to evict Rhoades from the tribe only after an earlier, failed attempt to disenroll her.
The structure of the book follows a somewhat episodic narrative divided into thirty-nine short chapters, in which March deftly interweaves the story of the Cedarville murders and the subsequent criminal trial with discussions of local history and contemporary Native issues. One early chapter, for example, uncovers with impressive detail the ineffective attempts by several governmental and nonprofit organizations to provide the tribe with adequate, culturally sensitive crisis counseling and response in the aftermath of the murders. Much of March’s analysis also focuses on issues of tribal sovereignty, as he follows Cedarville’s process of adopting a new constitution, establishing a tribal court, and navigating relationships with federal, state, and local governments.
While the book’s structure can sometimes read as disjointed, a number of central questions and themes unify March’s analysis. For example, March considers the ways that California’s far northeast has been shaped by its violent and racist histories. In 1872–1873, a band of Modoc people resisted the U.S. government’s attempts to remove them from their homelands, leading to the “Modoc War.” After being forced into surrender, the chief, “Captain Jack,” and four other Modocs were executed. Decades after these bloody events, white vigilante violence against Native people remained commonplace. During World War II, Japanese Americans were incarcerated at Camp Tulelake, close to the sites of the Modoc War and to Cedarville Rancheria. Little of this history, however, seems to figure into the memory of the region’s non-Native communities. March poignantly refers to Modoc County as the place “where whites refuse to remember and Natives cannot forget” (98).
Over the course of the book, March also critically engages with the question of who defines Native identity in twenty-first-century America. Considering the issues of legal enrollment in a federally recognized tribe, ancestral descent, blood-quantum, and connection to a tribe’s cultural traditions, March asks: “Who gets to keep their story?” (33). In relating these questions to Rhoades herself, however, March sometimes allows her story to imply broader generalizations. March suggests, for example, that Rhoades had “no connection” to her tribe’s historical or spiritual traditions primarily because she grew up as “an urban Native American” with no meaningful knowledge of her heritage or contact with the reservation community (42). Rhoades herself told March in an interview that she did not view herself “as Native” (122). As March acknowledges, however, even for those born and raised on a reservation, maintaining cultural traditions can be extremely difficult for any tribal community that lacks the presence and guidance of knowledgeable elders, or tribal leaders who actively prioritize cultural education. Further, the particular focus on Rhoades’s individual experience may run the risk of obscuring the important present-day cultural revitalization efforts being led by Native activists and community members in urban settings, in tribes lacking federal recognition, and in other non-reservation settings, especially in other parts of California.
Overall, March has compiled an important work that draws on his impressive journalistic research, which incorporates his own interviews along with archival research and engagement with the historical literature. March’s thoughtful and sensitive investigation of the systemic issues leading to the violence at Cedarville Rancheria effectively illustrates the complex challenges facing tribal communities as they navigate the processes of self-determination, all while dealing with the residual effects of generational trauma. This study will be of great value to readers interested in contemporary Native affairs, regional histories, histories of racism and violence, and the issues of gun violence in the United States.