of the Colfax Rancheria

Sierra Nevada history as it pertains to CA Native Americans

Taken from the Sierra Nevada Virtual Museum: Cultural History- Shadows on the Land

 A journey in the Sierra Nevada region is eternally lovely.  The landscape is varied and invigorating -- bumpy hollows dressed with waving grass and the occasional prancing horse greet the eye, tree-lined lanes scoot through glittering farmland with mountainous vistas in the background, and around the bend awaits one wonderful surprise after another.  It is hard to believe that anything bad could happen in this splendid spot.

But, throughout the Sierra Nevada and Gold Country, evil once took root. It is the gloomy story of the native history of the region, the grievous toll of a shiny golden dream, and the promise of renewal.

Ironically, the problems began with James Marshall.  In 1847, an Indian escorted Marshall to the Maidu village of Collumah.  It was there, at the renamed settlement of Coloma that Marshall decided to build his sawmill in partnership with John Sutter. Sutter’s Mill changed the direction of California and American history and forever altered the lives of the native population.

In 1848, when gold was discovered, the Indian population was estimated at roughly 200,000.  One of these was “Indian Jim,” a Maidu whom some claim was the actual discoverer of the gold for which Marshall gets credit. Gold was considered useless to most American Indian cultures, who saw much greater value in other minerals, such as obsidian, flint, and slate. But the yellow flake that drives men crazy would become a virtual death warrant for the California Indians.

The influx of argonauts would mean disease and destruction for the region’s original inhabitants.   Within a few years, more than half of California’s native population was dead from violence, epidemic, or starvation.

In the flush early Gold Rush days, Indian miners outnumbered white argonauts, but, by 1850, El Dorado had become Hell for the natives.  Thousands of gold seekers swept across the foothills like an ill wind.  The results for the Indians were devastating.

From 1850 to 1863, Indians and other non-whites could not testify against the dominant culture in court.  This led to continually abusive and savage treatment at the hands of unscrupulous usurpers.  It was open season on the legal rights of Indians.

Three thousand Indian children were sold into slavery at $50 to $200 apiece.  California's sanctioned “apprentice system” allowed white settlers to keep homeless or dispossessed Indians in a form of indentured servitude until the age of thirty.  Jailed natives were auctioned to the highest white bidder.  The Indians would then be compelled to work off their bail.  When the indenture neared completion, it was not uncommon for the “master” to ply the Indians with alcohol, have them arrested for public drunkenness, bail them out, and start the cycle anew.  Young Indian girls would be kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery.

The natives knew that the gold had value to the argonauts, and many mined to purchase commodities for their families.  Some mined, but were cheated.  James Savage made $500,000 in 1851 by trading for goods with the Indians.  His condition was that the items be paid for in their weight in gold -- five pounds of flour, five pounds of gold.

In 1851, Congress ordered federal agents to negotiate treaties of “peace and friendship” with 402 California tribal leaders.  Eighteen treaties were written and signed.  They promised 8.5 million acres on ten protected reservations in exchange for the remainder of California’s territory.  Tragically, the treaties were a gilded promise of security built on an underlying foundation of racism and exploitation.  Shasta and Wintu Indian oral histories recount the aftermath of one treaty ceremony -- hundreds of natives were poisoned at a banquet “celebrating” a November 1851 signing.

In July 1852, under pressure from the California legislature, Congress failed to ratify the treaties in executive session.   An injunction of secrecy was placed upon the deliberations so that the public would never know the reasons for rejection. 

Also in 1852, the California Assembly issued a proposal to move the native population “beyond the limits of the state in which they are found with all practicable dispatch.”

Simple removal was not enough for some.  State Senator J.J. Warner insisted, “there is no place within the territory of the United States in which to locate them.  [It is] ... better, far better, to drive them at once into the ocean, or bury them in the land of their birth.”

A contemporary newspaper editorial was even more blunt:  “There is only one kind of treaty that is effective -- cold lead.”

Opinion leaders throughout the 1850s agreed, and called for immediate extermination.  A statewide cash bounty was placed on the heads of dead Indians.  The California legislature reimbursed volunteer militias for successful completion of the bloody task of annihilation.

Some tribes were slaughtered wholesale.  A few were able to resist for decades, but most suffered immediate and irreversible losses.  An entire culture was on the verge of extinction.  The general sentiment among the ascendant Anglo-American culture was that eradication of what were considered savage obstacles to progress was not only acceptable, but also praiseworthy. Many echoed the notion of an 1866 Chico Courant comment that “It is a mercy to the red devils to exterminate them, and a saving of many white lives.”

By 1900, fewer than 20,000 Indians remained in California.  None were prosperous.  Often they struggled for mere survival, sifting through garbage for food or crafting makeshift shelters.  Many were arrested for vagrancy or trespassing.

Of all of the western United States, California came the closest to a full-fledged genocide policy.  Without question, California was the most consistently discriminatory state toward the Indian culture.   Natives became exiles in their own land, strangers in their own backyard.

And it did not end with the dawn of a new century.

Without federal recognition of their tribal status, California Indians were in legal limbo.  In the early part of the 20th century, reformers petitioned Congress to provide land for this homeless population.  Congress responded with an appropriation to purchase a total of 9000 acres to be distributed over fifty separate “Rancherias,” or minute plots of government-controlled land.  These were not to be reservations for tribal governments, but simply charitable land allotments for needy Indians.  Tribes were splintered and jammed onto often unbelievably small patches of ground.  Indians bands were mixed and cultural identities were jumbled and weakened.

In 1958, the California Rancheria Act provided for termination of federal trusteeship of Indians.  Sweetened with elaborate guarantees to provide vastly improved infrastructure, tribal members were encouraged to accept this plan.  Following passage, thirty-eight tribes, twenty-three rancherias, and thousands of acres of Indian land were officially eliminated.  Federal health and educational services were abruptly halted.  Promises were not kept and the social, economic, and physical condition of California Indians deteriorated even further.  High unemployment, low educational achievement, poor health, and widespread cultural disruptions were common.  Without tribal recognition, Indians had no standing in federal court.  They had few, if any, friends, in state government.  Indians only had the prospect of a bleak and hopeless future.

In 1973, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act permitted tribes and Rancherias to regain federal recognition.  Today over 100 tribes are legally acknowledged in California.  More than 50% have Rancherias.  A small measure of self-government and sovereignty has returned.

Present-day California has the largest Indian population of any state.  With a population of about 320,000, nearly 17% of all Native Americans reside in California.  For most, the desperate circumstances remain, however. 

In 1992, a Congressional report concluded that the governmental policies toward California Indians had been a disaster.  The results are “a continuing social and economic crisis, characterized by ... alcoholism and substance abuse, critical health problems, family violence and child abuse, lack of educational and employment opportunities, and significant barriers to tribal economic development.”

In 1987, a potential panacea was unleashed.  The Cabazon Band in Southern California prevailed in the United States Supreme Court in a case legalizing Indian gambling, or, to use the accepted euphemism, “gaming.”  The Court ruled that as long as a form of legalized gambling exists in the state, the government was powerless to prohibit gaming on Indian Territory.  Since California already had card rooms, bingo, and off-track betting, this avenue was no longer barricaded.  California Indians widely nicknamed gaming as “The New Buffalo.”

California now has more than forty Indian casinos -- more than any other state -- with several additional facilities planned.  Gross revenues are in the billions annually. But it is not a cure-all.  Only 5% of California Indians belong to gaming tribes.


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