In an emotional conference in West Sacramento, California on June 18, attended by several Indigenous tribal leaders, the state’s Governor Gavin Newsom formally apologized to California Indians for a century of genocide, oppression and other atrocities.
Gov. Newsom also issued an executive order that, in addition to the apology, establishes the Trust and Healing Council that will meet to determine next steps in what’s expected to be a slow process in clarifying the historical relationship between the state and “California Native Americans.” Christina Snider, Newsom’s tribal advisor and a citizen of the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, will head the new council.
“Where have we been for decades?” Newsom asked. He related one particularly gruesome incident that he read in a “chronicle” where entire Native communities in Trinity County were wiped out, including women and children, for the bounty money. Newsom tells of one incident where one vigilante said he couldn’t bear to shoot four Indian children cowering in a cave with his .56 caliber Spencer rifle because “after all, it tore them up so bad,” so he shot them with a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. “It goes on and on...it’s not what we learned in our fourth-grade history class.”
In a statement released by Newsom’s office, the governor says, “The State of California and California Native Americans have never jointly or formally examined or documented their relationship for the express purpose of acknowledging and accounting for historical wrongs committed by the State of California against California Native Americans – and the state has never formally apologized for these atrocious actions.”
During his talk, held on the land designated for the future California Indian Heritage Center, Newsom referred to the “systematic slaughter” of California Indians after the establishment of U.S. statehood.
“It’s humbling for me, having believed I was educated, to be so ignorant of our past,” said Newsom, a fifth-generation California resident.
California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, spoke in 1851 about the “war of extermination” against Indians, said Newsom. Burnett and his successor funded more than $1.5 million to pay for vigilantes, militiamen and military who worked in concert to erase Native people from the state.
Burnett and other state leaders also advocated against ratification of 18 treaties negotiated by more than 500 Native leaders throughout California; in response, the U.S. Senate not only turned down the treaties but ordered them sealed for 50 years.
“It’s called genocide,” Newsom said. ”There’s no other way to describe it.”
Watch Newsom’s full apology here:
Subsequent state and federal laws have not been kind to the Indigenous peoples of California, to include the Act for the Protection and Governance of Indians, which was a thinly disguised slavery law.
In the 1950s, the federal government exacerbated the situation with the California Rancheria Act, which removed 44 California tribes from federal status, and P.L. 83-280, which placed California tribes under state jurisdiction for law enforcement and other purposes. This law has never been repealed, although a provision of the Tribal Law and Order Act allows a tribe to seek concurrent federal jurisdiction for prosecutions. Only one California tribe has obtained this status.
Newsom referred to the 109 federally recognized tribes in the state and the “many more” tribes that are pursuing federal recognition as being covered by the executive order.
California State Assemblyman James Ramos, D-Highland, offered Cahuilla and Serrano bird songs at the start of the ceremony. “Coming here today and having the acknowledgement from the governor of a lot of things our people have known, the atrocities that have happened to us but finally having it recognized by the state of California means a lot,” said Ramos, a citizen of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians and the first Indigenous California Indian elected to the legislature.
Ramos also released a statement regarding the order: “This is a history of genocide and oppression that so many Native American tribes share – under attack, families separated, culture stolen or destroyed, displaced from land.”
Other tribal leaders present at the event offered thanks and recounted their own experiences. Hoopa Valley Tribal Council Member Vivienna Orcutt, who brought her teenage daughter to observe the event, recounted the devastating impacts of gold mining on their lands. “Our resources – the Trinity River – are often assaulted by Westlands Water District to grow their almonds,” said Orcutt. “Our rivers are diverted, and we’re left without access to drinking water and food.”
Karuk Tribal Chairman Russell Attebury stated that he is hopeful that the order will allow his and other tribes to have a seat at the table to get Indigenous land and water stewardship protocols placed into state policymaking. “We need to work together to combine Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge with modern science,” he said. “We should take advantage of thousands of years of managing the forests.”
Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria spokesman Lawrence Stafford read a statement from Graton Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris. “We’d like to dedicate this important moment to further ensure the life of California Indian peoples’ history and culture. We need to remember the shared history of our shared past and learn from its lessons, and find a path to a healthy, sustainable future for all.” The Graton Rancheria was one of the tribes that were terminated; its status was restored through an act of Congress in 2000.
Some tribes express apprehension
Other California Indians aren’t so sure about the apology or the council. “His apology is just words... actions mean much more to us,” Kristen Calderon, who is a Kumeyaay from the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians and an enrolled member of the non-federally recognized Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation, told Indian Country Today. “The government has shown time and again that their words cannot be trusted. Action, not words!”
Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation Chairwoman Louise Miranda Ramirez says she didn’t receive an invitation to be at the ceremony. Ramirez suggested that the governor make the executive order “stronger by acknowledging and granting state recognition to California tribes.” She also called for the return of Catholic Mission lands that were promised to her and other Mission Indian tribes but were never given. “The apology should be more than the paper and his signature,” she said.
Mishewal Wappo Chairman Scott Gabaldon wasn’t invited either, but he wasn’t able to attend: He’s home recovering from a 12-foot fall off a roof while working at his contracting business that left him with a broken neck.
The Mishewal were also terminated but were turned down for restoration when the government said they had waited too long to ask for their recognition returned. “It’s a nice gesture but unless the state can do what the feds do – enact youth suicide prevention programs and drug treatment programs – it’s just a nice gesture,” he said.
Artist L. Frank Manriquez, Acjachemen, had the last word about the governor’s apology: “He could de-extinct us.”
Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell, Los Angeles City Council
In an emailed statement to Indian Country Today, Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell, Los Angeles City Council, 13th District, is a member of the Wyandotte Native American Tribe, who was sworn into office by Wyandotte Nation Chief Billy Friend along the LA River on June 29th, 2013. He responded to the Governor’s apology.
“The genocide of Native Americans in California began with the establishment of the Spanish Mission system that carried through to statehood. I am thankful we have a Governor who understands the magnitude of the atrocity and sees the need for truth and healing. Logical next steps would be to remove all symbols of oppression and violence that are still officially recognized by the state of California. We could start with finally eliminating Columbus Day and replacing it with Indigenous People Day on the second Monday in October. We accomplished this in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Fresno, and Long Beach to name a few large cities."
"We also need to make sure that our education system no longer glorifies the Spanish Mission system or the 'Discovery of America' as a benign precursor of manifest destiny. We need to understand our true history and not be taught and be beholden to a false narrative. I look forward to working with my friends in the State Legislature to set us on a course for change, and I thank Governor Newsom for exhibiting the kind of courage we have needed to hear from someone in his position for a long time.”
Debra Utacia Krol, Xolon Salinan Tribe, is an independent journalist who reports on a variety of Native issues, including from her Native California. Find her at @debkrol.