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The “Golden State’s” Brutal Past Through Native Eyes

For indigenous people in California, the most basic hurdle in self-determination – federal recognition – is blocked.

Like the rest of the country, California has two separate histories – one that’s sterilized, disemboweled and taught to children in grade school, and the truths that Native Americans know on a visceral level. But if the state’s native past is especially brutal, it also has been hidden particularly well.

“It’s kind of a buried past,” said Dave Singleton, program analyst for the California Native American Heritage Commission. “It’s an untold history.”

Maybe that’s why the past constantly resurfaces in the present.

Throughout North America, the struggles of First Nations peoples continue. The Elsipogtog people of New Brunswick have been using their bodies to blockade at a fracking project on sacred land by Houston-based Southwestern Energy Company. Their efforts resulted in a paramilitary-style raid on their encampment in October by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. But their action continues.

Meanwhile, as Native Americans nationwide are pushing to change the name of an NFL team from a racial slur, Lakota Indians are petitioning the United Nations with complaints against the US government of genocide. The Kizh-Gabrieleño of Los Angeles and Orange counties filed a grievance with The Hague over desecration of Indian burials in Downtown L.A., an issue that continually plagues them in a region beset by high land values and relentless development.

Environmental destruction and cultural desecration of sacred sites and burials have driven Native Americans to initiate broad indigenous-led movements like Idle No More and the Dakota Unity Ride, demanding protection of the Earth, natural resources, sacred ancestral lands and grave sites.

But while those battles rage on the national and even global level, in California, many indigenous find themselves blocked from achieving the most basic hurdle in self-determination – federal recognition. Specifics of California history make it impossible for many to meet federal criteria as they battle misperceptions that no California Indians are left.

“How many people think all California Indians are dead? But we are still here,” said Ann Marie Sayers, Ohlone storyteller and tribal chairwoman of Indian Canyon, an ancestral ceremonial ground in Hollister. “My mother was an extremely proud native person, and I was raised thinking we were the only native people in San Benito County.”

In the layered history of Spanish missions, Mexican and American rule meant tribes were dispersed genetically and geographically, many brought to the brink of extinction. In the mid-1800s, 18 treaties setting aside 7.5 million acres of land were negotiated with Indian communities, but thanks to powerful political lobbying, none of the treaties was ratified.

“People assume no reservation means no Indians, but that’s backward,” said Mel Vernon of the San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians, or Luiseño.

As settlers spread west at the commencement of American rule, discovery of gold and high-value real estate created a zeal to take land and rid it of its original inhabitants, resulting in unquenchable bloodlust, with the government paying people to kill California Indians.

“In 1854 alone, the federal government paid in excess of $1.4 million (to kill Indians) at $5 a head, 50 cents a scalp,” Sayers said. “In the 1850s and 1860s, to say you were Indian was suicidal with the amount of money paid to professional Indian killers.”

Furthermore, the need for free human labor prompted the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, known to critics as the Indian Slave Act, which allowed whites to basically kidnap Indians and force them to work against their will.

Sayers pointed to the 1992 documentary “Ishi: the Last Yahi” as an example of a typical tragedy befalling California Indians. The Yahi, like many pre-European contact California tribes, numbered only a few hundred to begin with. California Indian communities were characterized by highly diverse, numerous but relatively small groups – with evidence of civilizations reaching back at least 10,000 years. Ishi survived systematic massacres of Yahi by “Indian killers” until he was the sole survivor. He died in 1916.

California’s mission past set it apart

While Californians are generally familiar with large out-of-state tribes like the Iroquois, Cherokee, Navajo and Sioux, few have heard about the Ohlone, Kizh, Esselen or Kumeyaay. The three-layered history of colonial conquest in California was so ruthless that destruction of the state’s native peoples seemed inevitable. Throughout California, there are little-known or unrecognized sites of Indian massacres – Las Flores Canyon, McCain Valley, Mendocino and Modoc counties, just to name a few.

“All those massacres around the gold country, California has not owned up to the genocide,” Singleton said.

While entire family units fleeing Europe were landing on the East Coast, the Spanish were intent on protecting geopolitical interests by creating a physical buffer zone with native converts and colonial subjects. The task of Franciscan padres and accompanying soldiers was to subjugate Indians, not wipe them out.

But Spanish imperial rule set off a disastrous chain of events so destructive that between 1769 and 1900, the California Indian population declined by a catastrophic 95 percent.

“There really is a very specific California story that comes out of these missions,” said Leslie Dunton-Downer, writer for the California Mission Ride, a documentary film team that rode 600 miles on horseback through all 21 missions. “There is the universal colonial story, but what happened here was a very particular thing.”

Even though the goal wasn’t outright genocide during the 64 years of Spanish rule, the missions, stretching from the San Diego border to Sonoma, were characterized by forced conversions, dehumanizing corporeal punishment, slave labor, deadly disease outbreaks and widespread rape and abuse by Spanish soldiers.

“This mission here, to my people, was a concentration camp,” said Andy Tautimez Salas, chair of the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, while giving an October tour of Mission San Gabriel Arcangel in Los Angeles County.

Tautimez Salas’ ancestor, a converted Gabrieleño given the Catholic name Nicolas Jose, was the instigator of the 1785 mission rebellion, along with Toypurina, a young but influential female shaman. Throughout Alta California from San Diego to San Gabriel to Santa Barbara, California Mission Indians were revolting against the Spanish for their brutal treatment.

But when the Spanish era ended in the early 1820s, Mexico secularized the missions. And for the Gabrieleño, this resulted in a massacre at Las Flores Canyon near what is now the Rose Bowl. According to the eyewitness account of a Californian named Philippe Lugo stored at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Mexican forces destroyed “the greater part of them.”

The few survivors lived in fear and hid with Mexican families, changed their names and identities, gave up their native language and learned Spanish, Salas said.

Or tribe members were terrorized and physically separated from each other.

Sayers’ property, hidden in mountainous landscape, served as a historical haven for escaped mission Indians and is testimony to the bloodshed they were running from.

“Many of the native peoples would go back to their village that was no longer, and they were rounded up. Usually, one or two were killed to set an example for runaways,” she said. “In Indian Canyon, you were right in the center of the mountain range. You have to be very familiar with the terrain to find Indian Canyon, and that’s the case today.”

Toypurina’s mother was raped by the Spanish. And when her father, a chief, retaliated, he was executed and decapitated, his head raised on a pole, according to her descendant Ray Williams.

For her leadership role in a 1785 uprising against the Spanish, Toypurina was given what Williams calls a show trial then imprisoned and exiled to present-day Carmel. After completing her prison term, she married a Spanish soldier. Although Williams is a Gabrieleño descendant, he lives hundreds of miles from the rest of the community.

“Here you have a family line historically known as tribal leadership that has been exiled and separated,” Williams said.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Federal Recognition criteria require that native tribes applying for recognition demonstrate a semblance of cohesion from “historical times” to the present period, something rendered impossible for many California Indians.

“About 50 percent of California Indians are not recognized tribally,” Sayers said. “The criteria for recognition, for anyone that’s affiliated with a mission, there’s no way in hell they can make the requirements. So consequently, it leaves the un-federally recognized tribes in a very horrible situation.”

For example, she said, federal law makes it impossible for the Ohlone to claim about 12,000 burials sitting in a basement of an old gymnasium at UC Berkeley. They are prevented from burying their kin according Ohlone beliefs and customs.

“Because the Ohlone people are not recognized tribally, all the burials are considered culturally unidentifiable,” she said. “We cannot take them and put them back into the ground where they belong so they can go back to the spirit world.”

Despite the overall lack of awareness and education, Sayers sees signs of hope under her own roof. Her daughter, Kanyon, an artist and activist, has taken it upon herself to learn her native language, songs and culture along with other young indigenous people in her community.

Salas teaches his children the lessons he learned from his own father and tribal chief, Ernest Tautimez Salas, to ensure the tribe’s legacy and heritage aren’t lost. Williams said his teenage daughter displays uncanny leadership qualities and a strong sense of justice, reminding her family of her extraordinary ancestor. The family sometimes calls her “Little Toypurina,” Williams said.

“I pretty much maintain contact with all the native youth, and I definitely go to as many events as I possibly can, even though finances are rarely available,” said Sayers’ daughter, Kanyon Sayers-Roods in a videotaped interview on her web site. “I maintain a cultural presence, and I also just pretty much like to educate people about me being native, me being Costanoan Ohlone and Chumash, and me still being here.”

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