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50 Years, 135,000 Dead : INDIAN SURVIVAL ON THE CALIFORNIA FRONTIER by Albert L. Hurtado (Yale Western Americana Series, 35; Yale University Press: $25; 256 pp., illustrated)

October 09, 1988|William Bright | Bright has been writing on the languages and cultures of Native California since 1952; he is editor in chief of the "Oxford International Encyclopedia of Linguistics." and

Most present-day residents of California are scarcely aware of the aboriginal inhabitants of our state. Children in school hear something about the Mission Indians who once lived under the care of the Spanish padres, but they learn very little about the native peoples of the interior and northern areas.

Some of us have read Theodora Kroeber's book "Ishi," about the last "wild" Indian who was discovered in Northern California in 1911; yet our average citizen knows more about the Sioux or the Navajo than he does about the Native Californian peoples. Where are the bloody legends of Indian wars, the film epics, or for that matter the souvenir stands? Until the recent controversies over bingo parlors on Indian reservations, most California motorists drove past surviving Indian communities in total unawareness of their existence.

This is all the more remarkable because, before Father Serra arrived, the population of California was the densest in North America: 300,000 native people enjoyed the temperate climate and the abundant natural resources of the area. In spite of the intentions of the Spanish to turn the Indians into good Christians and productive subjects of the king, the mission system brought with it social dislocation, cultural breakdown and epidemic disease.

The result was lethal for the Indians, whose numbers dropped to about 150,000 by 1848. In our own day, the missionized coast of Central and Southern California is the area in which Indian population and culture have been most catastrophically reduced. The next time you visit San Gabriel or San Fernando missions, ask what happened to the Indians.

This new book by Albert Hurtado--a historian trained at University of California, Santa Barbara, and now teaching at Arizona State University--concentrates on the tribes of inland and Northern California, who remained relatively untouched before 1848. In that year, of course, gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill; and the immediate consequence was an overwhelming invasion of gold-seekers.

As Hurtado describes in vivid terms, John Sutter himself was a very effective exploiter of Indian forced labor and a pioneer of the "company store" in California: "It took approximately two weeks of labor to purchase a plain muslin shirt." On a more cheerful note, he also set up an army of 200 Indian men; "the troops wore Russian green-and-blue uniforms with red trim that came from Fort Ross, which Sutter purchased from the Russians in 1841," and the white officers commanded the Indian soldiers in German.

Sutter was furthermore reputed to have a large number of Indian women "constantly at his beck and call," including "girls as young as 10, who became ill and died of neglect after he banished them from the fort."

But Sutter's outlook was benevolent compared with that of the forty-niners--who, if they survived attacks by hostile tribes while crossing the continent, believed that "The only good Indian was a dead Indian." By 1860, the aboriginal population of the state dropped from 150,000 to a mere 30,000; by 1900, it was down to 15,000.

During the second half of the 19th Century, the new state of California established what amounted to the legalized slavery of the native people, and subsidized scores of military campaigns which carried out "the brutal murder of thousands of California Indians." The history of this period records many "Indian massacres"--not of the whites by Indians, but of the Indians by whites.

White settlers and soldiers systematically exterminated entire native villages, and strung up Indian scalps for display. It was in this period that Mark Twain reported a settler as saying that he preferred to kill Indian babies with his pistol rather than his shotgun, because the latter weapon "tore them up so bad." Considering the additional effects of social disruption and disease, it is not surprising that some recent historians have spoken of "genocide" in California.

What is novel about Hurtado's book is that, while not minimizing the outrages, he emphasizes another side of the story: the fact that, as his title indicates, a certain number of California Indians survived-- although in declining numbers, with weakened tribal identity, and with increasing loss of the aboriginal languages and cultures.

Repeatedly, Hurtado refers to the Indians' "ability to persist in a hostile world" and their "integration with white society," and how "Indians participated . . . in the fundamental reordering" of American economy.

The conclusion of the book tells how a 100-year-old Indian of the Muquelumne (Miwok) tribe visited John Sutter's grave in 1885: "The Sutters were all gone, but there were still Muquelumnes. . . ." Hurtado continues: "That any Indians survived is testimony that abhorrent conditions can produce courage and strength in people, a tribute to the persistence of humankind."

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