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Mojave River Valley Museum
Historical Sketch of the California Indians
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Historical Sketch of the California Indians >>
Contemporary Reservation life in its 150-year history, has never been a pleasant or secure existence. From beginning to end, reservations were plagued by Euro-American miners, loggers, cattlemen, and settlers who ignored reservation boundaries and profited from the impotence of the Bureau of Indian Affairs or anyone else to defend the reservations' sanctity. The fact of the matter is that, when non-allotted lands were sold to Whites, the Whites were usually already de facto residents. Beyond that, reservation land was usually poor land; in California, the official policy of Federal and State officials was to place Indians on the poorest and least desirable land available. With their cultures under outrageous attacks, under assimilationist policies, and without much basis for reconstructing any effective economy, most reservations sank into hopeless poverty. Alcoholism, lack of medical care, lack of educational facilities, crime, and suicide have often held sway.
Of course, non-reservation life is as important as reservation life, throughout the United States, but it is especially important in California since reservations came very late to California. Non-reservation Indians tended to remain in rural areas of the State but have increasingly migrated into the large urban centers. One of the biggest problems, here, is cultural isolation and lack of adequate support.
The question today, more than a century after California Indian populations reached their lowest level, is whether anything has happened to change the situation of their livelihood. And the answer is that many changes have occurred, though their situation often remains tense. While advocates of assimilation remain, the movement was significantly displaced, in the early part of this century, and there is a remarkable renaissance of Native American cultures, today. Some tribes have made huge strides in breaking into modern economic strategies and are investing in long-term tribal institutions for health care, education, and economic investment. Perhaps most remarkable of all, tribes are going into court and winning cases. (See, for instance, the Native American Rights Fund.) One of the most remarkable instances thus far was the litigation for and ultimate return of spiritually significant Blue Lake to the people of the pueblo at Taos.
How have these changes come about? One of the first factors and, ultimately, one of the most important nationally was rising unification of Native American tribes. By their very nature, the tribes had always been small, separate, and sometimes mutually competitive, even hostile. The common Euro-American strategy was to keep them divided and, thus, overwhelm them. The greatest American military disasters of the late 19th Century occurred when Indians achieved a higher degree of unification and mutual commitment. Californians, on the other hand, were never in the position of uniting in war and their tribes tended to be even more strongly entrenched in ecological niches of the state. While Native Americans from widely divergent backgrounds began to work together, in the beginning of the 20th Century, Californians have been somewhat slower in doing this.
Two of the earliest national media of unification were the Society of American Indians and the Native American Church. While several organizations, like the Indian Rights Association, had existed in the 19th Century, they were predominantly non-Native organizations motivated by social reform. The Society of American Indians, founded in 1911, was expressly organized as a Native American association motivated by the need to express a united voice and its offices were established in Washington, D.C., where they could monitor the operations of Congress and the BIA. The leadership of the Society was a group of well educated Native Americans and the general theme of its early annual conferences was development of tribal economies and self-help through better education. Nevertheless, the Society of American Indians ultimately fell victim to factionalism promoted on the double axes of peyote use and assimilation.
Developing at approximately the same time, the Native American Church was considerably more successful in remaining an effective long-term lobbying organization; it continues in existence today. The Native American Church grew out of the peyote cults which developed during the last quarter of the 19th Century, along with the Ghost Dance, the Dream Dance, and the Sun Dance, as reactions to the extremes of cultural stress. All were attempts to revitalize indigenous spiritualism; some, like the Ghost Dance, made exaggerated promises of salvation from European domination. While these movements were, needless to say, frightening to antagonists of the Native Americans, they were no more popular among Euro-American reformers, who saw them as counter-movements to assimilation and embarrassing indications of ineducability.
In 1965, Congress declared the religious use of peyote under the auspices of the Native American Church exempt from Federal drug enforcement. While it is a success story, the Native American Church was rather clearly successful for exceptional reasons, namely the narrow focus on the right to use peyote in spiritual practices, and never commanded the interest or support of the majority of Native Americans.
While the Supreme Court had ruled, in 1884, that the Fourteenth Amendment did not automatically make Indians citizens of the United States, many Indians had become citizens nevertheless. This was possible by marriage to U.S. citizens, by military service, by allotment, and by other means. The First World War had brought many Indians into citizenship through military service. In 1924, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act, granting all Native Americans citizenship in the United States. Indians automatically became citizens of the states they inhabited and this precipitated a variety of issues regarding jurisdiction over reservations. In a succession of litigations, it was established that Native American citizenship did not terminate Federal responsibility for Indians nor did it offer jurisdiction over reservations to the states.
One of the great reformers of the 1920s and '30s was John Collier who became Commissioner of Indian Affairs, in 1933, under Roosevelt. Collier had emerged as a leader in the protection of Indian rights in the early 1920s when there was a resurgence of attacks on Indian land holdings. Under President Warren Harding's administration there was a significant move to appropriate Indian lands and convey them to non-Indians who might use them more effectively for the benefits of modern technological society. This was especially dramatic in the case of attempts to alienate a substantial portion of pueblo lands in New Mexico. The movement was accompanied by familiar attempts to suppress participation in tribal customs "unacceptable to the standards of European American society." Fortunately, public opinion was effectively amassed against the forces of the Harding Administration, and the worst offenses were thwarted. John Collier was one of those responsible. He organized the American Indian Defense Association in 1923 with an ambitious agenda, "the end of land allotments in severalty, improvement of educational and health services, legislation allowing Native Americans to participate in decisions affecting their welfare, establishment of tribal governments, and recognition of tribal customs."
Under Roosevelt's Administration, Collier was the author of the Indians' version of New Deal social policy. Throughout his first year of office, he worked to reform the Bureau of Indian Affairs, especially by moving it more toward an advisory, rather than supervisory, agency. He furthered Native American participation in Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps and also established the Indian Emergency Conservation Work program. Collier promoted education through public and reservation schools and discouraged the assimilationist boarding schools. But the real heart of the Indian New Deal was the Indian Reorganization Act, which passed in 1934, a testimony to Collier's patience and skill as a negotiator.
The Indian Reorganization Act strongly reflected Collier's belief that Native Americans should decide assimilation on their own terms and that they should retrieve their communal wisdom and authority. As submitted to Congress, the IRA included four sections. First, it allowed Native Americans on reservations to establish local tribal governments and tribal corporations for economic development. Second, it provided training in education, public health, law enforcement, and resource management, so that reservations could be improved. Third, it terminated the Dawes Act and provided a path through which allotted lands could merge with community land to re-form communally owned and administered reservations. And fourth, it established a Court of Indian Affairs, which would hold jurisdiction over crimes committed on reservation and issues relating to any Native American.
Collier faced enormous odds in gaining approval of this Act. Within the Euro-American population there were rigidly divided sides, including those harboring economic self-interests, who were always opposed to stabilizing the reservations, and reformers and assimilationists who were not ready to admit that these policies had failed. Within the Native American population there were equally strong divisions, including well assimilated Indians, those who feared for their own self-interests, and many who saw specific aspects of the Act as inconsistent with their own tribal aims or values. Like most Federal programs, as viewed through Native American eyes, the IRA was either short of being effective or way overbearing. For some suspicious Euro-Americans of the '30s, Collier was running dangerously close to Communism in his enthusiasm over Native American communalism.
Nevertheless, with only partial support from both communities, the Indian Reorganization Act was passed, though heavily amended. The existence of an Indian Affairs Court was lost outright and various budgetary cuts were suffered, having some impact on securing and developing reservation lands. The largest areas of loss lay in specific regulations relating to the consolidation of tribal land and in provision for tribe-by-tribe ratification of the act. The latter suffered from extreme ambiguities since tribal organization and authority was diverse. Oddly enough, Native Americans living in Alaska and Oklahoma (former "Indian Territory") were not considered under the provisions of the IRA and had to be brought under it separately, within the following year. For all of Collier's hard work and in the end, "less than 40 percent of all Native Americans were eligible for IRA benefits from the beginning." (Olson and Wilson, 1984; 122) Many Native Americans did not live on reservations; many tribes or tribelets were not recognized by the BIA (a condition of IRA benefits); and many recognized tribes with reservations still did not see ratification of the IRA as advantageous to them. Symbolic of the diversity of dissent was the Act's rejection by the Navajo, America's largest tribe.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the IRA lay in the fact that Collier arranged to protect it through a legal opinion written by Felix Cohen, which anchored an understanding of relations with Indian tribes in Chief Justice John Marshall's words of 1830-2. Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester vs. Georgia were two crucial cases in developing the legal foundation of Native American rights. Not only was the legal relationship of the Cherokees and the State of Georgia at issue, but perforce so was the legal relationship of any Indian nation and the United States, since this had to be decided in order to proceed with litigation. It was within these opinions that Marshall described Indian tribes as "domestic dependent nations," meaning that they were separate sovereignties with respect to the United States yet dependent and domestic to the United States, hence, falling short of being international entities. In reaching back to Marshall, Cohen ignored the 1871 move to terminate Indian sovereignty; this opinion has been the basis of virtually all tribal litigation with the Federal government since 1934.
There is really no question today about Indians choosing their own natural economic basis, whether on or off the reservation, for the American culture and political regime leaves no opportunity for anything but submission to American economic realities. The question, then, is how to remain "Indian" in a world whose political and economic determinants all belong to a non-Indian regime. While there are clearly differences from one group to another, and from individual-to-individual, what we are witnessing today is the survival of Indian spirit, that is, the survival of a need to be Indian and to preserve, therefore, at least the social culture and, perhaps, some portion of the political culture.
While no treaties negotiated with California Indians were ever approved, the treaty-relationships, Congressional acts, and court opinions established between the Federal government and Native Americans elsewhere are naturally extended into California as the legal basis of Native American rights and relationships in this state. Also, the suit for damages stemming from the loss of the treaties of 1851, implicitly accepted the treaty rights of California Indians. As Native Americans throughout the United States have learned to employ the legal system with increasing effectiveness, this legal status, as a "domestic dependent sovereignty," has proved to be strong. The greatest remaining problems with respect to the legal status of Indians in California are, first of all, documentation for all of the tribes and tribelets, qualifying for the Federal Registry, and consequently being in a position to assert full rights as Native tribal organizations. Beyond problems of legal status, there are several more critical issues. One of these is an urgent need to mount an active fight to rescue Native languages (the keys to cultural integrity) which are perilously close to extinction. Another is an ongoing need to provide education, health care, employment counselling, and other social services to a highly dispersed Native population. And finally, California's reservations and rancherias need to negotiate successfully to protect their environments.
The issue of tribal government is complicated in California. Political organization in California's indigenous cultures was often rather informal and, even where formal, it was usually not an organization that demanded conformity to a central authority. The chief was more nearly a cultural icon than legislator. On the other hand, American political philosophy is based on institutionalization of authority and power; and America anticipates the same basic political structure in any sovereign society with which it has relations. This anticipation has always placed a burden on Indian tribes to conform politically just as they have been forced to conform economically. For most tribes in California, this is a very difficult burden that flies in the face of tradition. In California's northwest, for instance, there were long-standing problems because the Federal government simply placed a land-grant for the Yurok into the overall jurisdiction of the Hupa reservation. While the Hupa had met the Federal standard for tribal organization, the Yurok had not. Only a decade ago, did the Yurok finally satisfy the Federal standards so that the two reservations could be separated and self-governed; but throughout this time, the Yurok were prevented from pursuing Federally available benefits and defending themselves in legal cases.
Reservation economy, as noted earlier, is deprived of the natural resources that traditional cultures could count upon. Consequently, Native Americans find themselves in a desperate situation where simply feeding themselves is difficult; many remain dependent upon Federal aid for food, health care, and education. But it is clear to all Native American groups that breaking the cycle of dependency is essential to long-term survival. The question, then, is what resources are actually available on reservations and rancherias to provide a basis for economic development --- employment, purchasing power, self-financed education, and development of comprehensive community health care. The traditional resources attached to any body of land, of course, are forests, minerals, water, fish, game, and perhaps tourism; but each of these presents problems when looking toward economic development in today's world.
Logging and mining both require substantial capital outlays for which Native American tribes are not prepared. Thus, it becomes tempting to develop these resources by inviting outside companies to come onto Indian land. This, of course, opens up huge possibilities for fraud and there is no adequate regulation of how the profits paid to tribes will be distributed or used for the benefit of the community. In addition, both logging and mining usually involve environmental degradation.
Since water, fish, and game are all resources that transcend specific boundaries, they all come under state and Federal jurisdiction. California tribes tend to lose water resources to external diversions rather than being in a position to develop them or even defend their own water-use rights. While game may provide some small and diminishing level of individual sustenance, it is not available for commercial development. Nor has fishing been an easy resource to develop. Fish and Game authorities, while willing to allow fishing for individual sustenance and cultural continuity, have continued to block commercial use of fishing as an economic opportunity for Native Americans. Then, too, the major fish resource of California natives was the salmon which has been so badly threatened by interior land development --- mining, logging, cattle grazing, and damming of the rivers --- that their availability even for individual sustenance is questionable. Since most Indian property in the State is not located on prime land, tourism will probably have a minimal impact. (What if Miwoks had been left in possession of Yosemite Valley?!)
Thus the predominant question for any group of Native Americans is how to use their land and unique rights to create an economic basis from which to provide education, health care, and social development on reservations. It is ironic that all of the new economic opportunities being tested by Native Americans, today, capitalize on the two most obvious cultural traits of Euro-Americans, greed and waste. It was the Euro-American thirst for fast riches through gold, more than any other factor, that led Americans to violate Indian land and Indian lives. And, today, Native American communities are beginning to capitalize on the same basic greed by offering high-stakes gambling on reservation land. Several tribes have moved from 80% unemployment to 100% employment, with additional moneys available for development of social institutions and long-term investment. Of course, while state and Federal governments ought to be delighted by the fact that Native Americans are freeing themselves from the cycle of dependency, they are also jealous of Indian profit-taking in any form. Foresighted Native American leaders are not planning on the gambling boom being available to them as a permanent economic opportunity.
It is also the case, as we have long seen, that Euro-American society is the most wasteful society in the world, in stark contrast to the conservative indigenous societies that they replaced. America is rapidly turning itself into a landfill and this has been dramatized by several emergency situations where Eastern cities have found themselves temporarily without any place to put daily mountains of garbage. But beyond garbage production, there is a frightening accumulation, in America, of toxic materials --- partially used or completely unused excesses --- that need to be disposed of and that threaten air, land, and water if not disposed of properly. And beyond the merely toxic materials, lie the truly horrifying supply of nuclear wastes, lethal materials that we continue to be lethal for thousands of years. Given the state of panic that American society is now facing with regard to its problem of wastes, it is tempting for Native Americans to offer reservation lands, at a price, for American dumping grounds. It is even more tempting to offer certain deviations from strict control under Environmental Protection Agency rules, which do not presently have jurisdiction on reservation lands. But the cultural contradictions involved for Native Americans are obvious and strong.
There is, of course, the ever-present possibility of capitalizing on Native American culture itself through its artistic development and evolution. Individual artists, like Peter Calnimptewa, a Hopi kachina carver, have achieved such recognition for their excellence and inventiveness that they can demand a very high price for their works. But tribal organizations have also been able to promote their arts collectively, rather than just individually; an example, perhaps, is the collective promotion and sale of Zuni stone carvings, or fetiches. The weakness of the arts as a basis for economic development is, of course, its complete dependence on the promotion of individuals and, also, its complete vulnerability to the support --- aesthetic and financial --- of Euro-American patrons. While all Native American cultures were rich in artistic sensitivity, not all of these arts were expressed in areas that Euro-Americans are ready to appreciate. Baskets, ceramics, woven rugs, silver jewelry, and carvings (in wood and stone) from the Southwest continue to offer economic opportunities to these people. Carved masks and beautifully ornamented boxes from the Northwest are also viable products. But California arts suffer from lack of patronage, as do most Indian arts in the residue of the country. California's most impressive art --- basketry --- almost died out from lack of transfer to the young, a situation now being rectified by some enthusiastic individuals as well as the California Indian Basketweavers Association.
One way for the individual to approach the choices for economic development is, of course, to leave the reservation, seek higher education, and secure a Euro-American-style career. While for the individual, this may be a path to survival, we must ask whether it represents a viable collective opportunity. Individuals living off of the reservation find themselves increasingly distanced from their indigenous cultures. They can return to the reservation for visits and they can attend the growing number of Pow Wows and festivals around the country, but is this enough cultural reinforcement to maintain their heritage as Indians? Indeed, when a couple begins to bring up children outside the reservation, how can they maintain and pass onward any real sense of their culture? Interestingly enough, the stress on cultural survival is so strongly felt that Indians of all tribal affiliations have begun to share their concerns and have created networks for communication. There is a vital presence of Native Americans on the World Wide Web and in electronic mail distribution lists and news groups. In California, today, the revival of indigenous cultures is in full swing and one can find a wide variety of exhibitions and gatherings through which both Native people and non-Native people can learn dances, stories, songs, language, and technology. The calendar of events published quarterly in News from Native Califronia is a powerful testimony to this.
Interestingly, as Native Americans continue to become dispersed through the country and as they strive to keep themselves in communication, they are becoming a political force that questions the Euro-American power dominance. Tribal separatism was a weakness that allowed Euro-Americans to trample over one tribe after another as well as to sets tribes against each other. But tribal communication and unity are forces to be reckoned with. Native Americans, over the years, have learned how to use the American system of courts; and precedent-setting cases have created a sound basis for Indian rights claims. But Indians are also finding themselves united and vocal in political conventions and at polling places.
Prucha, Francis Paul Documents of United States Indian Policy (University of Nebraska Press, 1990)
Parman, Donald L. Indians and the American West in the Twentieth Century (Indiana University Press, 1994)
Olson, James S. And Raymond Wilson Native Americans in the Twentieth Century (University of Illinois Press, 1984)