Jack D. Forbes (Powhatan-Renape, Delaware-Lenape), 1934-2011


Jack D. Forbes (Powhatan-Renape, Delaware-Lenape), 1934-2011
El Aguila Vive![1]

A tribute from the Department of Native American Studies,
University of California, Davis

Dear community:

As I meditated on what to write about the passing of my colleague, Jack D. Forbes, some of my first thoughts were of his poetry and of something the late Sarah Hutchison, another of the founders of our program, used to say about him.  She mentioned to me several times, “You know, Inés, Jack really wants to be known as a poet.”  As I remembered her words, I thought about Jack’s joy, his gusto, at participating in poetry readings, at his enthusiasm for hearing other people’s work, at his urging of me to publish the pieces I was reading, “because they need to be out there,” he would say.  He created songs in his poetry, chants, rhythms, movements.  This elder, warrior, scholar-activist, incredible leader, was a poet.  So I would like to begin with an excerpt of a poem in which he talks about the Los Angeles neighborhood where he grew up:

Eagle Rock

            the spirit is still there


            in Mother Earth

            when you can see

            snow-covered Mt. Wilson

            on a clear day

            the spirit

            of the Eagle

            is still there

El Aguila vive![2]

Así es.  This is how it is.  The eagle lives.  El Aguila vive.  He is this eagle, and now we must look up high to the spirit world to know that he is still there.  But he is journeying and for now we must wish him Godspeed, which is what so many of us here and across the country are doing for him at this time. 

Jack was a remarkable human being.  I remember the first time I saw that he received his Ph.D. in 1959, which made my head spin.  In 1959 I was 12 years old and yet he never seemed that much older than me.  But when I learned that he was born in 1934, I understood that he achieved the doctorate at the age of 25, and I realized what a precocious child he must have been. His poetry tells us of a childhood growing up in the mixed-race “depression flats of / South El Monte” in a home his parents built with their own hands, his father “working so hard” to earn a living, “always trying / Something new.”[3]  Jack himself sold “salve from house to house / before [he] was eight” which earned him a telescope “to look at / things far away and near,”[4] a practice he carried into adulthood.  He grew up close to the earth, the smells, the feel, the expanse of sky and earth and all that lived in those worlds.  He writes, “I could lay in the grass / and have / Little baby ducks or geese / crawl under me / They followed me all around / thinking I was their mother.”[5]  He writes straight from the heart to tenderly sustain the memory of this cherished early life, in loving tribute to his parents, and to what they provided.  His refrain is “Earth-child I am / always free and wild.”[6]

This makes sense to all who knew him.  And he stayed consistent.  He was a man of learning who looked far and near, or to use the expression of his colleagues and students, he was a “walking library.”  He demonstrated unfailingly that his intellect held worlds of information from likely and unlikely sources, and that he delighted in pursuing inversions, uprooting contradictions, finding anomalies, subverting dogmas, and like his father “trying something new.”  One of the many significant works that represents his unswerving determination to uncover and recover is The American Discovery of Europe (University of Illinois Press, 2007).

As Jack wrote, “I suppose I am searching for practical things / And impractical things / Searching for meanings / For experience/ For answers to internal questions . . . / For more noble things . . . / To find myself I search / To find my soul I search.”[7]  Perhaps this search for himself led him to pursue one of his greatest legacies as a scholar.  We are known throughout the country and beyond for our hemispheric approach to Native American and Indigenous Studies.  To say that Jack is one of the beloved founders of our hemispheric program is not enough—this man of magnificent vision, with a poet’s heart, devoted his life’s work, passionately, brilliantly, as a true great spirit, with all the power of his words and actions, to finding indigenous peoples, recognizing them, celebrating their faces and hearts in all their colors.  For him, “indigenous” is everlastingly embracing, generous, loving.  This is the heart of his legacy.

As a scholar and a creative writer, Jack remained steadfast to expanding the idea of “Who is an Indian?” With books like Aztecas del Norte: Chicanos de Aztlan (Fawcett Publications, 1973) and Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples (University of Illinois Press, 1993), he used all of his immense critical, scholarly skills to put in relief how racial/ethnic identities are formed, by whom and for what purpose, questioning, unlayering, untangling, asking us eloquently to see what he was seeing.  One of my first memories of him is hearing his important refrain about how the West, the United States in particular, always “finds African Americans and loses Indians,” referring, of course, to the way drops of blood have historically been manipulated to discriminate in such highly politicized and deliberate ways.  A major part of his life’s work was to expose these lies and prevent the ongoing erasure of indigenous peoples.  It is not by accident that Aztecas del Norte was published in 1973 during the period when our hemispheric program was taking shape and the DQU project was being articulated as a College of the Americas.  Jack was honored throughout his life for the inspiration he gave to so many Chicanas/os around the issue of their indigenous roots.  Africans and Native Americans was published in another landmark year of our program, the year that we achieved departmental status and established our Designated Emphasis as a step towards our graduate program.  At the start of Africans and Native Americans, Jack writes of the way the spirit-powers from Africa established relationships with the spirit-powers of the Americas, coming to mutual and respectful understandings.  In both of these studies, he turned his scholarly and heart’s eye to a radical reassessment of institutionalized formations of identity.

In his creative production as well, Jack collapsed contemporary borders in favor of recalling ancient landscapes and early trade, cultural, social, linguistic relations; he was often poignant and acutely direct in his narratives. The title short story in Only Approved Indians Made in the USA (University of Oklahoma Press, 1995) is about a basketball tournament in which the Tucson team is disqualified because the players, a Tarahumara from Mexico and a Yaqui, and some Papagos, don’t have BIA enrollment cards.  The officials decide that the Tucson team members “are not Indians within the meaning of the laws of the government of the United States.”[8]  The irony in Jack’s story is that the Tucson players are all dark young men with long black hair.  The opposing team from the Great Lakes are lighter-skinned but they “are all land-based and federally recognized Indians (although living in a big Midwestern city) and they had their cards to prove it.”[9]  They are the ones who start the rumor that the Tucson players are “really Chicanos,”[10] that is, not Indians. In his novel, Red Blood, however, he pursues more of the intricacies of these identity issues and the ways in which racial/ethnic formations were intentionally established, enforced, perpetuated by the state and very often internalized by indigenous peoples throughout the hemisphere.  His eagle eyes give witness, meticulously, to these dynamics in his writing.

Because of all that he has accomplished and the way in which his voice has gone beyond any imposed borders or categories, Jack belongs to the world.  His spirit will live on with innumerable people on this campus and beyond, from local to regional, national, and international communities.  Certainly in Hart Hall, the impact of his passing is profound.  Adalijiza Sosa-Riddell, professor emerita of Chicana/o Studies wrote a moving statement about Jack’s role in the community of scholar-activists who created the ethnic studies programs.  She concluded by saying, “I thank you, Jack, for always treating me as an equal partner in any struggle, for showing me respect, and for being a friend.  But most of all, I thank you for helping me understand that equality was not a gift to be awarded to me by those in power.  I must claim equality for myself.  I will keep a vigil for you on el Día de los muertos, for you are family.”  Isao Fujimoto, professor emeritus from Asian American Studies and Human and Community Development, also remembers the early years, saying, “To avoid getting hit by any ‘divide and conquer’ type approaches, he suggested that the financial support offered by the University to our ethnic studies programs be evenly divided. We could then build up from there, instead of wasting time on arguments like who was more deserving, etc.” Professor emerita of Women and Gender Studies, Judy Newton remembers Jack as “a force of nature,” writing, “I admired Jack for his incredible productivity, his willingness to speak out politically, and for the kindness and warmth that went into his admonitions and gestures of friendship and into his efforts to cross borders and to work with the collectivity that took shape.” 

Michael Smith, professor of American studies, writes of his first memories of Jack, of how in meetings, “he watched everything with a serene but knowing look.  Every now and then he'd say something -- irreverent, sometimes wickedly funny, always straight to the point.  In a couple of sentences he could cut to the chase, aiming everyone's attention at the Real Issue with the sheer clarity of his words. You could feel the room shifting, like a creaky old ship struggling to change course.  All because of this one guy.”  Moradewun Adejunmobi, professor of African American and African studies, wrote, “What I remember about Jack was his continued involvement with the business of protecting ethnic studies at UC Davis, even after he retired. I’m not sure how many of the younger faculty realized he was actually a professor emeritus since he was often around and appeared so well informed. His knowledge of the institutional history of ethnic studies at UC Davis will be greatly missed.”  

Of all the current administrators, Barbara Horwitz, vice-provost of academic personnel, knew him the longest, and she writes, “I was saddened to see that Jack had died.  I always felt that Jack was a man of great integrity and I know that his commitment to the importance of research/teaching the history and culture of indigenous people has had a major impact on our campus as well as others.  There is no question that he will be missed.”  Griselda Castro, assistant vice chancellor of student affairs, also someone who knew Jack for many years, wrote, “I first read Jack’s work when I was in high school during the sixties and greatly enjoyed working with him as a colleague at UC Davis.  He was and always will be a great spirit.”

At the national level, Jeani O’Brien, president of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), and professor of history at the University of Minnesota, says, “Indigenous studies scholars in so many places are mourning the loss of a towering figure, an intellectual, a leader in building indigenous studies in ways that have benefitted all of us in the indigenous world.  I think of him as such as bold thinker, courageous in his work, selfless, generous in building the infrastructure that we’re still working with.”  Lee Francis IV, national director and president of the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, says, “The Wordcraft family is saddened by the news of Jack's passing.  He was a great supporter of Wordcraft Circle and he served on our National Caucus for many years.  He was a tremendous writer and mentor and we will always remember his talent, his wisdom, and his generosity. Blessings on his next journey!”  These are but two of the many voices, nationally and internationally, who we know are mourning his passing and remembering his tremendous contributions.

In speaking of our program, it is good to remember how Jack considered David Risling, Jr., another of our founders, his elder brother.  Their relationship spanned forty years, and Jack always credited Dave with bringing him to Davis.  Barbara Risling, Dave’s widow, says the two had “a very good partnership on everything—Jack was the idea man, ideas way beyond what most people believed.”  She says that Jack was “kind, conscientious, and he stood up for people’s rights, he wasn’t afraid of anything.”  Jack considered Dave a tenacious fighter and warrior for the people, so the two were a match.  Add to the mix, Sarah Hutchison, herself a fierce woman warrior, and George Longfish, a passionate artist, and we have a formidable combination of elders who were the pillars of our program for decades.  Professor Emeritus Longfish is the last of these four, still practicing his art full-time in retirement.  What he remembers about Jack is his humanity, and that “in his heart he was always for the people.”  On a lighter side, one of George’s first memories of Jack is that when he first came to Davis, Jack took him on a trip to visit a reservation in the Southwest, which is when he learned of Jack’s love of the blues, because he would sing for what seemed like eight hours a day while they were on the road.   

Several faculty sent me comments for this tribute.  Martha Macri, professor, former chair of the department, and the Yocha Dehe Chair in California Indian Studies, who will remember Jack as a dear friend and dinner companion, says, “He was an inspiration to so many of us.  I particularly appreciate his understanding that the story of Native Americans did not begin with European contact. Instead of ignoring the work of archaeologists, he used archaeological knowledge along with oral tradition to present a vibrant image of creative and intelligent Native populations throughout the Americas.” Zoila Mendoza, professor, says: “One of the things I will most remember from Jack is his belief that change can be made and things can be done if we have a strong commitment to what we do. He inspired me to look at things differently using the perspective of indigenous people and their struggle to maintain and re-vitalize their world.  His encouragement was crucial in my decision to create a Quechua language and culture series.”

Victor Montejo, Professor and former chair of the department wrote:

I arrived around 3PM [on Feb. 23] and stood at the side of his bed for three hours.  Carolyn was there with him and she said that he was on his way to the spiritual world.  I was so sad to see a great man, an extraordinary poet, writer and academic laying there with no more strength and breathing with difficulties ready to leave the material world behind.  I approached his bed and touched his forehead talking to him as a friend and colleague, a person that I admired and respect because of his contribution to the field and department in which I was hired.  Jack Forbes was a genuine warrior whose action and legacy are palpable for Native American colleagues and students here at UC Davis.

Victor met Jack at the first Returning the Gift, the first North American Native Writer’s Festival held in 1992 in Norman, Oklahoma.  Jack and Stefano Varese were the ones who invited Victor to apply for the UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship, which is how Victor became a member of the faculty.

Stefano Varese, professor emeritus and former chair of the department, wrote:

Querido and dear Jack,

Otra vez me ganaste la mano! Once more your trickster spirit won the race! Remember that in 1981 at the Russell Tribunal in Rotterdam we had compared ages and stages of life and agreed that our undertaking, although not difficult in essence, required immortality and that your commitment to unpopular causes and to justice and peace could be helped, like poetry, by the touch of love. You did it Jack, like the Blackfoot say: “Life is not separate from death. It only looks that way”. You are immortal, you were immortal already when we were young and you are teaching us, like Plato did many centuries ago, that “Death is not the worst that can happen to humanity”.  So long, Jack, hasta siempre. Stefano
Oaxaca, February 27, 2011

I myself am deeply grateful to Carolyn Forbes for allowing me to say good-bye to Jack over the phone on the evening of February 23.  I had been ill so I didn’t want to visit the hospital, but I called and Carolyn said she was going to put the phone to Jack’s ear—she said, “He’ll hear you.”  I believe this way, too, so thank you again, Carolyn.

There are countless students, at the undergraduate and graduate levels, that Jack impacted in his decades-long career.  When I think of him working with students I not only think of the knowledge he imparted, but of his humor, his wit, his ability, as Michael Smith said, “to cut to the chase.”  This humble tribute must simply say that there will be more to come from the ones whose paths he counseled, from the ones who received his learning.

In reference to a new edition of Columbus and Other Cannibals, Jack wrote, in July 2008,

Wherever one is, one must be on a good path, a spiritually beautiful path, if one is to avoid being an exploiter or a beneficiary of aggression. This is not, however, a matter of dogma or adherence to a restrictive philosophy, but is simply a recipe for a good life where mistakes can and will be made, but can also be overcome by the discovery of a better path.[11]

In the preface to the 1992 edition of this book, Jack honors and credits those who helped him find his good path, beginning with a loving tribute to his parents—his father who gave him “a legacy of authenticity which [he] hope[s] to pass on to [his] children” and his mother who gifted him with the love of “plants and growing things.”[12]  He also credits his Native American, Celtic, and Swiss ancestors for the inspiration they gave him, especially their examples of courage in the struggles for justice.  He voices his thanks and respect to all the animals in his life, “authors” themselves who taught him “a great deal about the joy and spontaneity of authentic life free from the pettiness or evilness sometimes found in the human world.”[13]  He thanks the trees and plants who have been “his great friends”, as well as his adopted uncle Antonio del Buono, for “his honesty, frankness, optimisim, and absolute immunity from pettiness or corruption”.[14]  And, he thanks Carolyn for her “spirituality, vigorous sense of justice, and deep understanding of pain and suffering [that] had a lasting impact upon [his] consciousness.”[15] He considers her co-author of the book.  In this preface, Jack speaks to the near in his life, what has made it possible for him to look far and wide, what gave him his roots, his grounding, his certainty, throughout his life.

At the conclusion of Red Blood, Jack writes, “The time had come.  A woman had given birth to him.  Now it was the time to return to another mother-woman, the Earth, for the lessons that she and the other spirit-powers might bring, away from the people.”[16]  He writes this in relation to his character, Jesse, seeking a vision.  But it is a good to recognize that Jack himself is now on another good path of learning that has to do with the immensity of Spirit, his own and the Creator’s.  Dear Jack, as you walk in radiance, sing to your heart’s content, to your place of peace and grace.  Ometeotl.

-          Ines Hernández-Avila, chair and professor, Native American studies, UC Davis

[1] The Eagle Lives!

[2] From the poem “Memorias de Eagle Rock” by Jack D. Forbes, in the collection, El-Lay riots: Memorias de Ya-Town and Home Boy Poems (Bandon, Oregon: Kahonkok Press, 1992, p.29.

[3] From the poem, “Earth Child Remembers,” ibid., pp. 10-11.

[4] Ibid., p. 10.

[5] Ibid., p. 9.

[6] Ibid., p. 11.

[7] From the poem, “The Search,” ibid, p. 16.

[8] “Only Approved Indians Made in the USA,” in Only Approved Indians Made in the USA, p. 4.

[9] Ibid., pp. 3-4.

[10] Ibid., p. 3.

[11] http://nas.ucdavis.edu/Forbes/CANNIBALS.html

[12] Columbus and Other Cannibals, Autonomedia Press, 1992, p. 7.

[13] Ibid., p. 8.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Red Blood (Penticton BC: Theytus Books, 1997), p. 212.

Donations to the Jack D. Forbes Memorial Fund in Native American Studies may be sent to College Relations and Development, College of Letters and Science, UC Davis, One Shields Ave., Davis CA 95616. Checks should be made payable to the UC Regents. More information about the fund may be obtained by calling (530) 752-3429.

To make a gift online to the Jack D. Forbes Memorial Fund in Native American Studies, go to the online gift page

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