Guns, gold and genocide. Politicians like to flatter Californians by speaking of our state as the land of boundless opportunity, but these were the grim pillars upon which early California was built. We goldwash our history with tales of brave exceptionalism, but California’s tragic past is bathed in the blood of innocent California Native Americans.
The conquering of this land of dreams transformed it into a hellscape of nightmares for those who lived here for thousands of years before the miners, settlers and dreamers arrived.
Political leaders normally gloss over this ugly part of our history, but not Gov. Gavin Newsom. Last week, the fifth-generation Californian issued a formal apology to the native people of California for the genocide that marked the birth of the state.
“It’s called a genocide,” said Newsom. “That’s what it was. A genocide. No other way to describe it and that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books. And so I’m here to say the following: I’m sorry on behalf of the state of California.”
The apology was long overdue, yet it likely took many Californians by surprise. While many of us learned about Native Americans in elementary school and probably know the name of a local tribe, we generally don’t learn about the systematic massacres that unfolded on the ground beneath our feet.
“Many people believe that when the Gold Rush happened, it was an empty landscape,” said Shelly Covert, spokesperson for the Nevada City Rancheria Nisenan. “And it’s not true. California was heavily populated with many, many autonomous different tribes, with their own languages and their own cultures and very old and sophisticated societies ... and that was almost completely erased.”
In the 20 years following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, 80% of California’s Native American population had been wiped out. Disease and displacement killed many, but state militias, the U.S. Army and vigilante groups murdered up to 16,000 California Indians in cold blood. Men, women, children — it didn’t really matter.
Consider this scene, the massacre of a Nisenan village along the American River witnessed by a Mexican miner named Antonio Coronel near Sacramento in 1849 and recounted in “An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe” by UCLA historian Benjamin Madley:
“At first light they surrounded the village and opened fire. What followed was a scene of utter horror. Out came old men, women, children, everyone ... running in every direction, even throwing themselves in the river. They were all rounded up and shot down.”
Prospector Theodore T. Johnson, who was “heading east across the broad Sacramento River Valley in 1849,” described the official policy of the time: “The late emigrants across the mountains, and some Oregon trappers and mountaineers, had commenced a war of extermination upon them, shooting them down like wolves, men, women and children, wherever they could find them.”
“War of extermination” was the term preferred by John Sutter, who enslaved hundreds of Native Americans and participated in massacres. Today, we honor his memory with schools, streets and a popular tourist attraction.
Peter Burnett, who served as California’s first governor from 1849-1851, made killing California Native Americans the state’s official policy, saying “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected.”
“It is not an exaggeration to say that California legislators also established a state-sponsored killing machine. California governors called out or authorized no fewer than 24 state militia expeditions between 1850 and 1861, which killed at least 1,340 California Indians,” wrote Madley in an essay for the Los Angeles Times. “State legislators also passed three bills in the 1850s that raised up to $1.51 million to fund these operations — a great deal of money at the time — for past and future anti-Indian militia operations.”
Madley estimates that California’s Indian population fell from 150,000 to 30,000 between 1846 and 1870.
Nothing can change this bloody history, but Gov. Newsom’s apology — delivered in the form of an executive order — is an important first step toward healing the trauma of this genocide.
Newsom’s executive order acknowledges the “historical wrongs” carried out against California Native Americans by the state and commends them for “carrying on cultural and linguistic traditions, and stewarding and protecting this land that we now share.” It formally apologizes for these wrongs and establishes a Truth and Healing Council to “clarify the historical record ... in the spirit of truth and healing.”
What difference can such a late apology make?
“To hear our governor come out and make an apology was very significant,” said Covert. “It was significant because it felt like the government itself was taking accountability. And we have record of our first California Governor calling for the extinction of the ‘red race,’ and a lot of Indians grow up with that history being part of their identity.”
“It says a lot to me personally, and a lot to my mom. I showed her a clip on Facebook last night and she actually teared up,” she added.
Covert said it remains to be seen whether the apology becomes an empty gesture, or whether it will be backed up with actions to make amends for the past. Madley suggested that some form of reparations may be in order to restore the devastating losses suffered by California Native Americans.
Until then, there are other steps California can take to set the record straight.
For one, we can teach our children about what happened.
“Will the genocide against California Indians join the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust in California’s public school curriculum?” asks Madley.
Then there’s the issue of names like Sutter, Burnett, Fremont, Stanford, Hastings and Carson. These men directly engaged in, or supported, genocide against California Native Americans. We don’t have many Confederate statues in California, yet the names of genocidal killers adorn our streets, schools and cherished institutions.
It’s time to cancel these purveyors of genocide. Sacramento can lead the way by stripping the shameful Sutter and Burnett names from its public places. We can replace them with names that honor those whose lives and land were stolen to make this place our home.