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History: Indians

Historical Sketch of the California Indians


In 1836, Texas revolted against the Republic of Mexico and declared its independence. While there was strong support for annexation into the United States, this was delayed by the growing antagonism between slave and non-slave states. Annexation came, however, in December 1845. At this point, the United States attempted to negotiate a purchase of New Mexico and California from Mexico; but this was unsuccessful. In 1846, the United States declared war with Mexico. While the war was controversial at home, the US proceeded vigorously and, by September 1847, United States troops entered Mexico City and occupied it. A peace settlement was finally secured in the form of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, on February 2, 1848. Mexico ceded all of its territories in the Southwest, including Alta California. An important condition of this treaty was that Mexican citizens who chose to remain in the ceded territories would become American citizens and their rights would be respected. Since Mexican citizenship had been granted indigenous people in the treaty with Spain, this included all indigenous people within these territories.

In point of fact, the United States military had already seized control of Alta California in 1846 and had established its base of operations in Monterey. After Mexico's cession of territories, Anglo-Europeans and Americans moved quickly to promote California statehood, which was officially granted by 1850. California entered the Union as a non-slave state but, as we will see, only Black Africans were considered relevant to the Union's slavery issue.

Gold was discovered at Sutter's mill, in Coloma, by James Marshall, in January 1848. Sutter and Marshall moved rapidly to secure their claim on the gold-bearing territories and they did this by attempting to negotiate a treaty with the local Indians, the Nisenan Maidu. This was one of the first treaties attempted with Indians in California. However, when Sutter filed this treaty with the new American military government, in Monterey, he was told that "the United States government did not recognize the right of Indians to lease, sell, or rent their lands."

By the time that California had become a state, in September 1850, the rush for gold had brought hundreds of thousands of people into the territory and California Indians, for the first time ever, had become a minority. Also, for the first time ever, the entire population of Indians was threatened. This was no infiltration from the Pacific Coast inland; it was a pervasive, aggressive appropriation of the entire territory and all of its resources. As easy gold strikes were depleted, people turned to farming, ranching, or logging. A multitude of projects blossomed.

The intruding population of gold-seeking miners was hostile toward the Indians, except where they could secure Indian labor for their mines. The wave of Gold-Rush immigration brought the usual burden of European diseases, to which the indigenous population had no immunity, but it also brought environmental degradation on an unprecedented scale. Rivers that had provided a clear entry to spawning salmon from eternity were becoming so choked with debris that the salmon were dying off without reproduction. Ranching and lumber operations soon added to the degradation. The environmental impact on the state was overwhelming.

While the pre-mission population of 310,000 indigenous people had dropped to 200,000 during the mission period and dropped to 150,000 or fewer by the end of the Mexican period, it plummeted to less than 30,000 in the twenty years of Gold-Rush California, to 1870. Meanwhile, the population of non-indigenous people, still a minority in 1848, had shot to 700,000 by 1870. In the aftermath, many California tribes were declared extinct and almost none had successfully preserved their cultural ways of life. For most, even the retention of a cultural memory, for traditional purposes and social order, was close to impossible. (Recall that these were oral histories, completely dependent upon survival of old masters and training of young people who would maintain the traditions.)

As constituted, the State of California made no recognition of Indians as citizens with civil rights; nor did the new state treat Indians in any way as sovereign people; indeed, a majority of Whites in the State hoped for the early removal of the Indian population. The attitude of California citizens and governors was shaped by a combination of early Spanish assumptions and American beliefs imported from the East, where the concept of "removal" had dominated policy for many decades. But "removal" had always before meant removal-to-the-west, to "Indian Territory." In California, there was nothing to the west!

To the State of California, there were really only two concerns regarding the indigenous people of the state --- protection of white settlers and miners from attack and loss of property and regulation of Indians as a labor force. In April of 1850, the State's first legislature passed An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. While the State carefully prohibited slavery of any form, it embraced a system in which any "able-bodied Indians were liable to arrest on the complaint of any resident if they could not support themselves or were found loitering or strolling about or were leading an immoral or profligate course of life. If it was determined by proper authority that an Indian was a vagrant, he or she could be hired out within twenty-four hours for the highest price for any term not exceeding four months." (Rawls, 86) In effect, all Indians, including (perhaps, especially) children, faced indentured servitude effected through a simple procedure of arrest and assignment through any local justice-of-the-peace. Once indentured, the term limitation was easily (and always) exceeded. The result was a profitable "slave trade" in able-bodied Indian men, women, and children throughout Northern California. Children were readily bought and sold, for household work; and women were purchased for both household work and sexual liaisons.

The Federal government, however, had a long-standing relationship with Indians throughout the growing United States, and it accepted some degree of responsibility for their safety and well being. Since the Mexican administration of Alta California had at least technically extended citizenship to all Indians, this placed the Federal government in a position of opposition to State policy. In consequence, State and Federal relationships with Indians were always at odds, and the Federal role of protection was always difficult to realize across the great distance separating California from Washington.

Several Indian sub-agencies had already been created through the military administration of California prior to statehood. However, in 1851, new Federal agents were sent to make treaties with the Indians. Three agents were selected for California; these were Redick McKee, George W. Barbour, and O. M. Wozencraft. Unfortunately, there was no appreciation, in the East, for the number of tribes and tribelets resident in California or for the multitude of languages spoken there; little of the previous Federal experience with Indians was relevant to making treaties in California. And furthermore, the treaties attempted an innovation in Federal Indian policy. Rather than being "peace treaties" that attempted to guarantee safe and non-hostile removal to other lands, these treaties attempted to locate reservations of land within the State itself.

While the three agents "successfully" negotiated eighteen treaties with groups of California Indians, including substantial reservation lands for their occupation and more substantial surrender of traditional lands for white settlement, later studies have shown that their lack of experience with California Indians was telling. Heizer and Kroeber, a century later, reported that of the 139 signatory groups, 67 are identifiable as tribelets, 45 are merely village names, 14 are duplicates of names heard and spelled somewhat differently without the commissioners being aware of the fact, and 13 are either unidentifiable or personal names.

Completed early in 1852, the treaties went to the United States Senate for ratification in July and ratification was denied, based on the overwhelming strength of opposition coming from the State of California itself. The treaties had set aside eighteen reserves of land for the exclusive use of the Indian groups (a total of 11,700 square miles) and had promised various kinds of Federal aid (school, farming instruction and equipment, seed, cloth, etc.) as well as specific rights to maintain traditional hunting and fishing practices. In proportion, the amount of land surrendered to White occupation and use was huge; but Californians were quick to argue that the land reserved was too much and too good for use of indigenous people. The persistent view of Californians was that indigenous people possessed no culture worthy of any claim to habitable land and that they should be disposed of in any convenient way.

The Indian tribes were never informed of the Senate's decision against ratification and an unusual injunction of secrecy kept the treaty documents out of public scrutiny until 1905. With no legal treaties, however, the Federal government was still left with the problem of protecting the indigenous population of California; and it was becoming extremely clear that the Indians would be exterminated if nothing was done. The Federal solution, taken by Congress in 1853 and 1855, was to establish seven military reservations where Indians could be placed, isolated from contact with Whites, fed, and trained to become farmers and stock growers. The first of these was located at Tejon Pass in 1853, and the last was located in San Diego County as the Mission Indian reservation, in 1887. Among these was a reservation in Hoopa Valley, established in 1864, under the guise of a "treaty of peace and friendship between the United States Government and the Hoopa, South Fork, Redwood, and Grouse Creek Indians." But the Hoopa military reservation was actually established as a part of the same Congressional program and was not respected by the Federal government as a treatied reservation granting sovereignty to the Hupa people.

No treaties were ever successfully negotiated and ratified between the Federal government and the indigenous people of California, though the Federal government continued to struggle with the problem of protecting Indian rights. In 1928, after the failed treaties had finally been uncovered, an act of Congress allowed Indians to sue the Federal government for the lost compensation involved in the 18 unratified treaties. The basis of compensation would be the reservation lands promised, not the vast amount of lands surrendered. The suit was prosecuted by the Attorney General for the State of California and was settled in 1944 with a total award of $17,053,941. However, the Federal government claimed to have spent $12,029,099 for the protection of California Indians and deducted this amount from the award. In 1950 Congress authorized a payment of $150 to each person "on the corrected and updated roster of California Indians prepared under the original provisions of the act."

In many ways, it would seem that the Indians' plight was given up to fate by the early 1860s and the Federal system of establishing reservations withdrew into a skeleton operation that was mainly aimed at merely incarcerating Indians "for their own good." By the 1870s, the Indian population of California had almost hit bottom and the majority of Anglo-European Californians no longer viewed Indians as a problem. Indians had very largely disappeared from view. Ironically, the great Indian Wars of the Plains were just beginning and would continue until 1890. The Rush to California had left the majority of American Indians isolated on the Prairies and Plains, in the old "Indian Territory." The dissection of land west of the Mississippi was triggered by the Homestead Act of 1865 and was further accelerated by gold discoveries in South Dakota and Colorado. As the reserves of Indian land in the West were concentrated and carved apart and as Indians were moved from one place to another to meet the convenience of American farmers and cattlemen, the American public finally began to take note of the Indians' fate. On the eve of the beginnings of serious anthropological study and reconstruction of indigeous cultures, a new social and political era began for American Indians. It was the era of reform movements.

Reformers accepted reservation life as a fact and, equally, accepted the fact that only reservations in relatively desolate areas and on useless land would be tolerable to the majority of White settlers. It was becoming obvious that American Indians would not be able to survive in their traditional lifeways. Environmental degradation in California had proceeded so far that hunting and gathering had become impossible in most areas of the state. Reformers naturally assumed that the only route to long-term survival of Native Americans was through cultural assimilation and, in their minds, this meant the destruction of tribal authority and culture. This position remained the official policy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs well into the Twentieth Century.

Cultural assimilation meant teaching Indians to embrace Christianity and to become farmers who could raise more than needed for subsistence and could, consequently, sell their over-production on the open market for a profit. Ultimately, this meant destruction of tribal authority and sovereignty; Indians were to become individual citizens of the United States. Christian missionaries moved into Indian enclaves and onto the reservations; indeed, the Christian denominations competed with each other to win Native American souls to their own beliefs. At the same time and very much in the understanding that assimilation was possible only for the very young, the BIA oversaw creation of Indian schools. Most of these were boarding schools which provided separation of Indian children from their families. Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded in 1879 by Richard Pratt, a staunch advocate of immediate assimilation, set the process in motion. Carlisle was followed by boarding schools at Santa Fe, Carson, and Phoenix, all in 1890, as well as others, later on. Calling these institutions "reforms" remains ironic since, for a society whose own Constitution provided for freedom of speech and religion, the BIA was actually overseeing a massive experiment in brain washing in which Native American religions were deemed illegal and in which little children were forbidden to speak their own languages. The boarding school project became a scandalous incarceration of at least one-fourth of the Indian children who grew up from the 1890s to the 1930s, depriving them of family relationships and warmth as well as access to their cultural heritage.

Others conceived of the route to assimilation as a political process that would inevitably require termination of tribal sovereignty and deliverance of Native Americans to the laws of the United States. As early as 1871, an amendment to the annual Indian Appropriations Bill legally revoked tribal sovereignty and placed Native Americans under jurisdiction of the United States, blocking further treatment as independent nations. Federal government could now simply legislate for Native American communities; and the implicit message was that Indians must make swift progress toward participating in this process by becoming citizens.

It is within this framework that one must view the General Allotment Act of 1887, also called the Dawes Severalty Act after its sponsor Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts. While the Dawes Act allowed the President to move slowly in selecting Native American reservations that were ripe for allotment, its practical implications were ominous. Each adult head of family was allotted 160 acres; single adults were allotted 80 acres; and single minors were allotted 40 acres. While Indians could choose their own land, the President had the right to assign it within four years. Individuals who accepted allotment became citizens and fell under the laws of the state in which they resided. The allotment was given within a twenty-five year trust which prevented sale.

While the Dawes Act seemed to provide exactly the conveyance from tribalism to citizenship that reformers had wanted, it also provided the legal key to acquisition of Indian land that White settlers wanted. The final provision of the Dawes Act was that "surplus land," all remaining reservation land that had not been allotted to individual Indians living on the reservation, could be sold to settlers. In 1881, Indians had owned 155,632,312 acres of land on reservations. As allotment proceeded and surplus land was sold out to non-Indians, this figure was reduced to 104,319,349 acres, in 1890, and 77,865,373 acres, in 1900.

While, initially, Indians were prohibited from selling or leasing their allotted lands, these prohibitions eroded away rapidly. They had been put in place in order to guarantee that allotted Indians would move toward self-sufficiency through agriculture or cattle grazing. However, much of the land was useless or Indians were poorly prepared. It was in their own immediate interest and definitely the interests of White farmers, ranchers, or settlers to lease or sell their land. Hence, even more Indian land disappeared, in the interests of immediate survival. By 1907, even the Five Civilized Tribes, initially exempted from allotment, had passed through the process, lost most of their promised Indian Territory, and become citizens of the newly created State of Oklahoma.

In California, allotment had a far smaller effect since the number of reservations was small, in the 1880s. In fact, the problem was quite the opposite; California Indians lacked treaties and reservations and, for that matter, much attention from the Federal government. Many of California's Indians, especially in the southern portion of the state, were living in small bands, attempting to survive through agriculture, residing on public or private lands either by permission, habit, or neglect. When Americans took an interest in the land, the Indians were simply evicted, usually with force and ignoring any improvements they had made.

No single person is more important to Indian reform in California than Helen Hunt Jackson. Born in 1830 to an academic family at Amherst College, Massachusetts, and only recently remarried to a Colorado banker, William Jackson, Helen Hunt Jackson became a passionate advocate for the Indians, in 1879, when she learned about the plight of the Ponca Indians in South Dakota. In 1881, her book A Century of Dishonor told the sad story of the Ponca, and Jackson used it to lobby actively for reformed Federal Indian policies. With the successful completion of these efforts and an invitation to write about California in Century Magazine, Jackson arrived in Los Angeles in 1881. She traveled widely in Southern California and what she found there was the wreckage of the Mission Indians, remnants of all the Southern California tribes who had been missionized, secularized, and then abandoned to mere survival. In 1882, Helen Hunt Jackson and Abbot Kinney were appointed special Federal agents and were assigned the task of visiting Mission Indians with the purpose of locating lands in the public domain that could be designated as reservations for them. It was during this period that Jackson wrote her protest novel, Ramona, dramatizing the tragic treatment of the Mission Indians.

Jackson and Kinney filed a powerful report with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. This represented a detailed study of Indians in the three southern most counties and especially undertook an appraisal of the dismal condition of their claims to the lands that they had pastured and farmed since the era of Mexican desecularization. Their final report and recommendations were submitted to U. S. Indian Commissioner Hiram Price in January 1884; however, legislation based on their recommendations failed to pass Congress. While Helen Hunt Jackson died, in 1885, her efforts were carried onward by a collection of reform groups, including the Women's National Indian Association, the Indian Rights Association, and the Lake Mohonk Conference. Thanks to their persistence and the long process of re-initiating legislation, annually, the Act for the Relief of the Mission Indians in the State of California was finally passed in January 1891. Congress passed enabling legislation early in 1892. The actual tasks of surveying and exchanging land and the granting of legal titles lingered on into the Twentieth Century.

One final twist of White-Indian relations throughout the period lies in a movement of the 1920s to transfer authority and responsibility out of Federal hands and into State hands. The movement became focused and intensified after passage of the California Indian Jurisdiction Act in 1928 and the transfer from Federal trust status to State jurisdiction became know, ironically, as "termination." Over the thirty years, from 1928 to 1958, there were aggressive attempts made by both Federal and State agencies to terminate California Indian reservations and rancherias. In 1958, Congress passed the California Indian "rancheria bill" which allowed forty-one rancherias to voluntarily leave Federal trust status and enter the status of "fee patent lands" under state jurisdiction. Only about five other rancherias have voluntarily terminated since 1958. In all, about half of Californias reservations and rancherias remain under Federal trusts.

Suggested Readings:

Rawls, James J. Indians of California: The Changing Image (University of Oklahoma Press, 1984)
Hurtado, Albert L. Indian Survival on the California Frontier (Yale University Press, 1988)
Forbes, Jack Native Americans of California and Nevada (Naturegraph Publishers, 1982)
Heizer, Robert F.(ed) Federal Concern about Conditions of California Indians, 1853-1913 (Ballena Press, 1979
Prucha, Francis Paul Documents of United States Indian Policy (University of Nebraska Press, 1990)

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