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‘Strangers In a Stolen Land,’ by Richard Carrico

When I was growing up in the southern California elementary school system, I remember painting, with the rest of the kids, a huge mural depicting California history.

My job was the Mission Indian in the far right corner of the painting. I wondered if our education about the first peoples of California was going to extend beyond the corner of this paper mural.

It didn’t.

It was with this memory in mind that I opened the book “Strangers in a Stolen Land, Indians of San Diego County from Prehistory to the New Deal” by Richard Carrico.

Carrico, a professor of American Indian Studies at San Diego State University, published the first edition of this book in 1987. That edition covered the three decades of San Diego County Indian history from 1850 to 1880, from the beginning of the Anglo-American period to the establishment of federal reservations.

This edition, among the top 10 approved history books on the Kumeyaay tribal Web site, expands the period covered to include the beginnings of California Indian history up until 1938. Culled from Carrico’s research into historical documents as well as conversations with Native people of the region, it fleshes out the history of San Diego Indians with extensive detail and anecdote.

The early days of the Kumeyaay, Luiseño, Cahuilla and Cupeno peoples of the area are explored, from what they ate and how they hunted to the importance of the sky and earth they lived with.

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It also chronicles the land management techniques of those early days, techniques often completely misunderstood by the Spanish who arrived in the mid-18th century, and viewed the Indians only as heathens to be converted or potential labor for the missions.

Carrico doesn’t shy away from discussing the devastating effects of the missions, from interference with Kumeyaay food production to epidemics to whippings and other cruel treatment of the Mission Indians. Resistance included organized revolt as well as attacks on individual Spaniards. After Mexican independence and Mexico’s loss of California to the United States, when Anglos began to arrive in the 1840s, the region’s Indian population had dropped from 20,000 to around 5,000. Many were impoverished and ill.

The Anglos, fueled by the 1849 Gold Rush, arrived in droves and busily went about ensuring that Indians would be further dispossessed of what few rights they had. Vagrancy laws made it easy for whites to buy convicted Indians as indentured servants, and nearby Los Angeles County held Sunday auctions on a regular basis throughout the 1850s and 60s. The Anglos also brought rape, prostitution, land grabs, sport-killing of Indians, public lynching, and unequal laws that ensured that an Indian’s testimony was worth little against a white man’s.

The last chapters deal with the establishment of reservations, and the efforts of powerful leaders like Panto, Olegario Calac, Manuel Cota, and Hatam to bring their people through the difficult last decades of the 19th century. In the early 20th century, Indians faced new challenges when San Diego decided it needed the water on Native land, Native festivals and dances were banned, allotments continued, and the sometimes controversial Native-run Mission Indian Federation arose to challenge the BIA and the government-run Mission Indian Association’s efforts to control Indian life.

The author has obviously done exhaustive research to tell the story of San Diego County’s first peoples, and I hope his book will find its way into the hands of high school and college history instructors throughout Southern California, in addition to Native studies programs.

Carrico explains in his introduction that the book is an effort not only to expand the original edition, but to include more of the Indian voice. For me he is only partially successful in this. Though each chapter begins with a quote from a Native person about that era, the bulk of the material, and most of the quotes within the text, still draw heavily from writings of Spanish, Mexican and Anglos. Granted, history is told by the conquerors, and there may be fewer texts to draw on which include a Native voice, but Carrico mentions in the introduction that he had some wonderful conversations with San Diego Indians when writing the book: I would like to have read more of what they had to say.

Though the beautifully written introduction emphasizes the triumph of survival of California’s first peoples, the book ends on an abrupt and downbeat tone. We are left with a bleak picture of Indian life in the early and mid-20th century, then jumped in the epilogue to the current period of revitalization. Hopefully, Carrico will fill in the gaps in his next book on the intervening period.

Overall, with its extensive and well-documented research, its unflinching eye on struggle and perseverance, and its fast-paced narrative style, the book is a tremendous contribution to the much needed telling of the rich and complex history of Southern California Indian tribes.