Native North Americans of California

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Native North Americans of California

Before Europeans arrived, there were more than three hundred thousand people living in present-day California , making it one of the most populated native areas north of Mexico. More than one hundred tribes, speaking many languages and practicing many different customs, were scattered from the dense forests of the north to the arid deserts of the south.

California's diverse populations

Historians have identified six culture areas in early California. A culture area is a region in which several Native American groups lived and shared some ways of life, though not necessarily the same language or religion. California's culture areas are: northwest, northeast, central, Great Basin, southern, and Colorado River.

In the northwest part of California, the Yurok, Karok, Hupa, and other tribes fished for salmon, hunted, and gathered acorns and other plant products. They lived in long-established villages and built plank houses (houses covered with thick pieces of wood). Shrewd traders, California's northwest Indians accumulated wealth that was measured in shell beads and other precious items.

In northeastern California, which was much drier and had less vegetation than the northwest, the Pit River and Modoc Indians hunted and gathered seeds and roots and periodically moved their camps to take advantage of seasonally available resources.

The central California Indians hunted, fished, and gathered acorns that grew in abundance throughout the wet region. The central Indians were not as migratory (they settled into their homes all year, or most of the year). Their communities consisted of small round houses built of local materials, a large round house for meetings and rituals, and sweat lodges. The Miwok (pronounced MEE-wuk), Nisenan (nish-EE-non), Yokut, and Patwin were among the tribes that lived in the central area.

The southern California tribes included the Chumash, Cahuilla (pronounced kah-WEE-ah), Diegueño (dee-ay-GWAY-nyo), and others. Near the ocean, these people relied on fish, mollusks (shellfish like clams and mussels), and sea mammals for food, as well as acorns and other

plant products. In the interior deserts, they hunted rabbits, mountain sheep, and other small animals.

The Colorado River tribes—Yuma, Halchidhoma (pronounced hahl-chee-DOME-ah), and Mojave (moe-HAH-vay)—were the only California Native Americans who customarily farmed before the arrival of Europeans. They used the annual floods of the Colorado River to irrigate their fields of beans and corn.

The Native North Americans of the Great Basin , such as the Chemehuevi (pronounced chem-ah-WAY-vee) and Washo, lived in the blistering deserts east of the Sierra Nevada. They followed a seasonal round that enabled them to hunt and gather animals and plants as they became available in the sparse environment.

The Spanish missions

Native North Americans of California first encountered Europeans in the sixteenth century when Spanish expeditions sailed up the Pacific Coast from Mexico. Catholic missionaries began to found Spanish missions along the California coast in 1769 under the direction of Junípero Serra (1713–1784). Eventually there were twenty-one missions located from present-day San Diego to just north of the San Francisco Bay.

The missionaries gathered thousands of Indians into the missions, which raised cattle and agricultural crops on lands that Indians had recently depended on. The missions were intended to convert Indians to Catholicism and to educate them in European languages, culture, and skills so that they would become useful members of Spanish colonial society. But one of the most profound results of the missions was exposing the California Native Americans to diseases from Europe to which they had no resistance. Thousands perished. Between 1769 and 1848, the Native Californian population fell from about 300,000 to perhaps 175,000. Conditions varied in the missions, but there were many reports of abuse and enslavement of the Indians, which also contributed to the loss of life and population.

Not surprisingly, many Native Americans rejected the missions and resisted Spanish authority. In 1781, Quechan (pronounced KWUH-tsan) Indians killed priests, soldiers, and settlers and forced the missionaries to abandon two missions on the Colorado River. In 1824, California Native Americans rebelled at the missions near Santa Barbara. There were many other uprisings as well, but it is worthy to note that other Indians voluntarily entered the missions and remained loyal to the priests who instructed them.

Mexican California

After Mexico established its independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican government began to close down the California missions. The lawmakers in Mexico intended that Native Americans would receive individual parcels of land and stock from mission holdings, but California rancheros—wealthy Mexican ranchers—quickly took the mission lands for themselves. Most were forced to work on private ranches or move away from the settled areas.

Native Americans in the interior and northern parts of California had remained free of permanent non-Indian settlements until the early 1840s, when American settlers began to gather around Sutter's Fort in the Sacramento Valley, where gold had been discovered in 1848. The American ranchers relied on their labor.

The Gold Rush

In 1848, California became a part of the United States and experienced a gold rush on the American River in northern California that brought hundreds of thousands of newcomers to the area. The California gold rush proved to be a disaster for the Indians; miners took Indian land and killed Indians at will. By 1860, only about thirty thousand Indians remained in California.

In 1851 and 1852, federal agents negotiated eighteen treaties that provided for Indian reservations (lands set apart by the government for the use of specific tribes) throughout the state, but the U.S. Senate refused to approve the treaties and the reservations were never established. Instead, the government established a few temporary reservations, which were inadequate to maintain the Native American population. In the end, only the Round Valley, Hoopa Valley, and Tule River reservations remained to serve the Native American population. Most Native Americans lived elsewhere, either working for farmers and ranchers or eking out a meager existence on isolated lands that had not been claimed by white settlers.

Reform efforts

The harsh conditions of California Indian life attracted the attention of reformers such as writer Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885), who wrote the popular novel Ramona (1884) about the cruel treatment of southern California Indians, and activist Charles Fletcher Lummis (1859–1928), who lobbied Congress to obtain land for Native Americans. In the 1870s and 1890s, the federal government set aside about a dozen small reservations for southern California Native Americans. In the early twentieth century, Congress funded the purchase of land for northern California Native Americans so that there were more than one hundred small parcels in addition to the three large reservations left from the gold-rush era.

In 1944, after sixteen years of litigation, a federal court of claims awarded California Native Americans $17 million for the reservations that were called for by the treaties of 1851 and 1852 but never established. Of that award, the Indians received only $150 each. In 1964, after more legal battles, California Indians were awarded more than $29 million, which resulted in payments of $668 per person.

Meantime, in the 1950s, the federal government embarked on a policy of terminating federal responsibility for reservations and turning them over to the Native North Americans. Indians on more than forty small California reservations voted for termination. The federal government withdrew health, welfare, and educational services and left the Indians to rely on the state government and their own resources. They were worse off than they had been before.

Alcatraz and beyond

In 1969, California became a focal point for Indian political activism when a group called Indians of All Tribes occupied Alcatraz Island, a former U.S. penitentiary in the San Francisco Bay, in a highly public attempt to reclaim the island. The group, which numbered from fifteen to one thousand people at different times, occupied Alcatraz for the next nineteen months. The demonstration heightened public awareness of the Native American position.

More importantly, tribal councils systematically defended their rights in court, securing important civil, land, and water rights. Since the 1960s, many California colleges and universities have established Indian Studies programs to encourage Native American education and provide a source of information about Native Americans for all of the state's citizens.

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Native North Americans of California

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