California Indian History
Primary Sources and Information, 1846-1879
Did You Know?
Did you know that during California’s Gold Rush and for decades afterwards:
- Thousands of California Indians were killed by settlers?
- The State of California financially supported local militias that were formed for the purpose of “defense” and engaged in killing California Indians?
- Representatives of the United States federal government negotiated treaties with California tribes—but the U.S. Senate never ratified the treaties?
- California Indian children were captured and taken by settlers to work as domestic servants or slaves?
- California Indians, by law, could not testify against a white person in court?
See, Kimberly Johnston-Dodds, Early California Laws and Policies Related to California Indians, (California Research Bureau, September 2002) .
Purpose of this Website
The California Indian History website makes available online, in one place, primary sources from various archival and historical collections that were authored or reported by non-Indian witnesses, and oftentimes perpetrators, who documented Euro-American violence against California Indigenous people. The scope of the website is statewide from the Gold Rush period into the second half of the 19th century. The website also provides a growing body of educational resources, allowing anyone the ability to review, evaluate, and draw their own conclusions about the history experienced by California Indigenous people. Key documents and digital images include:
- Annotated timelines listing state and federal government documents chronologically
- Thousands of statewide California newspaper articles
- State and federal correspondence and reports
- Rosters that identify thousands of men on official muster rolls of militia units or independent companies kept by the State of California Adjutant General found in the State Archives
Who We Are and Why We Do This
We are a voluntary group of colleagues – historians, educators, archivists, librarians, and information technology experts – united in a common purpose to:
- bear witness to 19th century events that occurred in what is now known as California; and
- contribute to breaking a longstanding silence surrounding these events by providing free, online access (to anyone) to digitized 19th century primary sources of documentary evidence, the originals of which are housed in miles of cardboard boxes, on microfilm, and in vaults or on shelves of publicly-owned settler repositories in California and beyond.
We receive no remuneration, and do not seek to make a spectacle of these cataclysmic events. Our work strives to acknowledge and expose the acts, name the perpetrators, and provide access to the evidence in order to foster effective change in how the State of California acts toward Indigenous people.
From our perspective, we believe the telling of Indigenous histories of survival, resistance, revolution, revival and re-Indigenization belongs to California Native voices. We stand in support of their efforts, and Indigenous movements underway.
“A Dangerous Wildfire Forced Thousands of People to Flee Lake Tahoe, and Firefighters are Blaming Climate Change,” Stephanie K. Baer, at https://www.buzzfeednews.com/, accessed August 31, 2021.
“100 million dead trees in the Sierra are a massive risk for unpredictable wildfires,” Brett Israel, Berkeley News, UC Berkeley, January 18, 2018.
“Drought, Tree Mortality, and Wildfire in Forests Adapted to Frequent Fire,” Scott L Stephens, Brandon M Collins, Christopher J Fettig, Mark A Finney, Chad M Hoffman, Eric E Knapp, Malcolm P North, Hugh Safford, Rebecca B Wayman, BioScience, Volume 68, Issue 2, February 2018, Pages 77–88.
“Massive tree mortality has occurred rapidly in frequent-fire-adapted forests of the Sierra Nevada, California. This mortality is a product of acute drought compounded by the long-established removal of a key ecosystem process: frequent, low- to moderate-intensity fire. The recent tree mortality has many implications for the future of these forests and the ecological goods and services they provide to society. Future wildfire hazard following this mortality can be generally characterized by decreased crown fire potential and increased surface fire intensity in the short to intermediate term. The scale of present tree mortality is so large that greater potential for “mass fire” exists in the coming decades, driven by the amount and continuity of dry, combustible, large woody material that could produce large, severe fires. For long-term adaptation to climate change, we highlight the importance of moving beyond triage of dead and dying trees to making “green” (live) forests more resilient.”
“Why The South is Decades Ahead of the West in Wildfire Prevention,” Lauren Sommer, August 31, 2021, at https://www.npr.org/.
“As Western states contend with increasingly catastrophic wildfires, some are looking to the Southeastern U.S., where prescribed fire is widespread thanks to policies put in place decades ago. From 1998 to 2018, 70% of all controlled burning in the country was in the Southeast.
While a continent apart, both regions have a similar need for fire. For thousands of years, forests and woodlands experienced regular burning, both sparked by lightning and used by Native American tribes, which prevented the buildup of flammable growth. Without fire, the landscape is prone to intense, potentially devastating wildfires.”
Fire – Indigenous Cultural Burning and Empowerment
“‘The fire moved around it’: success story in Oregon fuels calls for prescribed burns,” Maanvi Singh, The Guardian, August 12, 2021.
“Oregon’s Bootleg fire has offered new evidence that Indigenous techniques can change how megafires behave.”
Bill Tripp, Deputy Director of Eco-Cultural Revitalization, Department of Natural Resources, Karuk Tribe:
“Fire is that which renews life. A lot of people have been conditioned to look at it as a threat and something that’s scary, something to avoid, whereas in my worldview, that’s not necessarily the case. If you can’t learn to live with fire and learn how to work with what it is and what it does to help maintain all the things needed for survival in a place like this, then basically you’re working against it, and if enough time goes by, it will work against you. Things in nature have a tendency to win.
…And if you ask me, there are some gray areas in the law. I’d like someone to show me on the books right now today where it’s illegal for Indigenous Peoples to implement cultural burning practices. I don’t think that intent is anywhere in the law. Maybe there was in the Act for the Governance and Protection of the Indians back in 1850, which was blatantly tied to racist origins. I’m sure people today would question the relevance of that law.
People assumed cultural burning was illegal, but continuous use and occupancy is a real thing. We still use fire. We still occupy our original homelands. We still utilize the resources that are out here in our aboriginal homelands and we simply wouldn’t survive out here if we didn’t, but these days the laws would make it pretty much impossible to do it.”
“The great hypocrisy of California using Indigenous practices to curb wildfires,” Rory Taylor, www.vox.com, October 19, 2020.
“The causes of today’s wildfires are complex. There is no doubt that global climate change is changing the intensity, size, and duration of wildfires in California. But the fires have ties to the historical and social injustices done to Indigenous peoples — genocide, slavery, the destroying of cultural rites — which have led to the mismanagement and overdevelopment of California lands.”
“Facilitating Prescribed Fire in Northern California through Indigenous Governance and Interagency Partnerships,” Tony Marks and William Tripp, Fire, July 2021.
“Prescribed burning by Indigenous people was once ubiquitous throughout California. Settler colonialism brought immense investments in fire suppression by the United States Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CAL FIRE) to protect timber and structures, effectively limiting prescribed burning in California. Despite this, fire-dependent American Indian communities such as the Karuk and Yurok peoples, stalwartly advocate for expanding prescribed burning as a part of their efforts to revitalize their culture and sovereignty.”
The discussion was sponsored by Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, Cal State East Bay A2E2, and C. E. Smith Museum of Anthropology, Cal State East Bay.
“Indigenous Californians have used cultural burns to mitigate wildfire spread, improve species abundance, and enhance resource quality since time immemorial. However, colonial fire exclusion policies and native land dispossession has hindered the application of cultural fire. As a result, California is experiencing wildfires of abnormal size and severity, and Indigenous communities are struggling to access fire-dependent foods, materials, and medicines critical to their livelihood and spiritual practice.”
Link to recording here
Amah Mutsun Land Trust Fire Symposium, November 19, 2020.
“The AMLT Fire Symposium brought together tribal leaders, fire researchers, archaeologists, and over 750 viewers. The aim of the webinar was to share traditional knowledge and results of research about how Native people used fire to steward landscapes locally and throughout California for thousands of years.”
Topics included: Eco-Archaeological Research on Indigenous Prescribed Burning; Indigenous Fire Stewardship in Central California; and the Amah Mutsun Land Trust’s Work to Revitalize Indigenous Fire Stewardship.
Entire Symposium proceedings link here, starting around 1:40.
This Land is Their Land: A Future for Indigenous Fire in Southern California, Jared Dahl Aldern, KCET, March 18, 2021.
Cultural Fire on the Mountain: An Introduction to Native Cultural Burning, Jared Dahl Aldern, KCET, October 3, 2016.
“’Tending the Wild’ shines light on the environmental knowledge of indigenous peoples across California by exploring how they have actively shaped and tended the land for millennia, in the process developing a deep understanding of plant and animal life. This series examines how humans are necessary to live in balance with nature and how traditional practices can inspire a new generation of Californians to tend their environment. Co-produced by KCET and the Autry Museum…”
Tending the Wild – Cultural Burning Episode here
Good Fire Podcast – Amy Cardinal Christianson and Matthew Kristoff, September – October 2019.
“In this podcast we explore the concept of fire as a tool for ecological health and cultural empowerment by indigenous people around the globe. Good Fire is a term used to describe fire that is lit intentionally to achieve specific ecological and cultural goals. Good fire is about balance.”
World Indigenous Peoples Day – August 9, 2021
“Working to Realize Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in the U.S.” Native American Rights Fund, August 9, 2021.
“Since 1995, the United Nations has designated August 9 as the annual International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The day marks an occasion to celebrate the achievements of Indigenous Peoples and to highlight the continued work necessary to protect and promote the rights of Indigenous Peoples throughout the world.”
“The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted by the General Assembly on Thursday, 13 September 2007, by a majority of 144 states in favour, 4 votes against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and 11 abstentions (Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Samoa and Ukraine).
Years later the four countries that voted against have reversed their position and now support the UN Declaration. Today the Declaration is the most comprehensive international instrument on the rights of indigenous peoples. It establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world and it elaborates on existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms as they apply to the specific situation of indigenous peoples.”
TRIBAL IMPLEMENTATION TOOLKIT: UNITED NATIONS DECLARATION ON THE RIGHTS OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLES (UNDRIP), April 2021
“The ‘Tribal Implementation Toolkit,’ produced in collaboration between the Native American Rights Fund, the University of Colorado Law School, and UCLA Law’s Tribal Legal Development Clinic, considers how tribes can support and implement the Declaration through tribal lawmaking.”
Digital edition here
Text version for those using screen readers or other accessibility aids here
Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change
United Nations Secretary-General’s Statement on the IPCC Working Group 1 Report on the Physical Science Basis of the Sixth Assessment. August 9, 2021.
“Today’s IPCC Working Group 1 Report is a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk. Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible.”
“Indigenous Peoples Increasingly Engaging in Climate Action,” UN Climate Change News, August 9, 2021.
“’Indigenous peoples must be part of the solution to climate change. This is because they have the traditional knowledge of their ancestors. The important value of that knowledge simply cannot — and must not — be understated,’ said UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa.”
“Values of Indigenous Peoples Can Be a Key Component of Climate Resilience,” UN Climate Change News, September 6, 2019.
“Although indigenous peoples constitute less than 5% of the world’s population, they safeguard 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity, thereby playing a key role in climate protection. Indigenous peoples often have a spiritual connection to nature, which ensures that they take the protection of their habitat seriously.”
Indigenous Land Acknowledgement Resources grounded in responsibility, reciprocity, and respect.
- Land Acknowledgement: You’re on California Indian Land, Now What? Acknowledging Relationships to Space & Place Toolkit – California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center/American Indian Studies at Cal State San Marcos
- “Are you planning to do a Land Acknowledgement?” at American Indians in Children’s Literature, March 9, 2019 blog post
- Honor Native Land: A Guide and Call to Acknowledgment – U.S. Department of Arts and Culture
- Guide to Indigenous Land and Territorial Acknowledgements for Cultural Institutions
- A Guide to Indigenous Land Acknowledgment – Native Governance Center, St. Paul, MN
Indigenous Land Trusts and Alliances located in what is currently known as California. Please consider supporting their efforts.
- Amah Mutsun Land Trust – an initiative of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band to access, protect and steward ancestral territories of the Amah Mutsun ranging from Año Nuevo to the greater Monterey Bay area.
- Project Juristac – Mutsun Sacred Grounds Protection
- InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council – Consortium of 10 federally recognized tribes in northern California
- Kumeyaay-Diegueño Land Conservancy – protects and preserves environmentally and culturally sensitive lands within Kumeyaay aboriginal territory in Southern California and Mexico
- Maidu Summit Consortium – preserves, protects, promotes Mountain Maidu Homeland in northeastern California
- Native American Land Conservancy – focuses on aboriginal territory of tribes in present-day southern California
- Sogorea Te Land Trust – an urban Indigenous women-led land trust based in the San Francisco Bay Area
- Tuluwat Island Restoration Project – cultural and environmental restoration of the Wiyot ceremonial site of of Tuluwat Island located in Humboldt Bay. “The Islands’s Return: The unprecedented repatriation of the center of the Wiyot universe,” North Coast Journal, October 24, 2019
Thadeus Greenson, “Dishgamu Humboldt: A groundbreaking, Wiyot-led effort to heal and rebuild while putting land back in Native hands takes root,” North Coast Journal, July 8, 2021.
Jessica Douglas, “Students and faculty urge deeper look at land-grant legacy,” High Country News, December 22, 2020.
Megan Red Shirt-Shaw, University of Minnesota, Beyond the Land Acknowledgement: College “LAND BACK” or Free Tuition for Native Students, August 2020.
Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone, “Land-grab universities: Expropriated Indigenous land is the foundation of the land-grant university system,” High Country News, March 30, 2020.
- Tips for Teachers: Developing Instructional Materials about American Indians, prepared by Debbie Reese, (Nambé Owingeh) and Jean Mendoza (White)
- American Indians in Children’s Literature’s Best Books of 2020
California Indian Education For All – “California Indian Education for All (CIEFA) is a nonprofit that exists to help teachers and schools educate children and youth about the diverse histories, cultures and contributions of California Native peoples. CIEFA’s goals are to create culturally responsive resources that improve representations and classroom climates for teaching and learning about California’s first people.”
October 12 is Indigenous Peoples Day – For Our Future: An Advocate’s Guide to Supporting Indigenous Peoples’ Day
National Congress of American Indians (2019). Becoming Visible: A Landscape Analysis of State Efforts to Provide Native American Education for All. Washington, DC. September 2019.
Who Should Use This Website?
Policy makers, students, researchers and educators will find these resources useful for documenting this important history. What happened in California deserves to be included in the knowledge of United States history shared by all Americans and taught in our schools and universities.
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