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California and the West | Capitol Journal

After 150 Years, Indians Are Still Facing Long Odds

September 21, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

UPPER LAKE, Calif. — One old Pomo woman looked on in horror as two whites impaled a little girl on the bayonets of their guns and tossed the body in the water. [She] saw a little boy, and a mother and baby, put to death in similar fashion. One man was strung up by a noose and a large fire built under him. . . .

--The Indians of California, Time-Life Books

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Bloody Island no longer is an island. It is now an innocuous-looking hill surrounded by land reclaimed from Clear Lake, 90 miles north of San Francisco. But a historical marker a quarter-mile away on California 20 sums up its infamy: "On this island in 1850, U.S. soldiers nearly annihilated all its inhabitants for the murder of two white men. Doubt exists of these Indians' guilt."

There is no doubt that the two white ranchers were murdered by Indians, but only by a handful. The Army's retaliation was gross overkill. The commander wrote back to his general: "The number killed I confidently report at not less than 60, and doubt little that it extended to 100 and upwards."

There's also little doubt that the ranchers, Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone, had pushed their luck with the local tribe. They had virtually enslaved and starved the Indians, torturing many for discipline or for sport. (Hanging them by the thumbs, shooting at them to watch them jump.) One boy was shot dead while begging for an extra cup of wheat for his aunt.

There were two final straws: The ranchers were planning to force-march the surplus Indians--those unfit or unneeded for ranch work--over to Sutter's Fort in the Sacramento Valley. Also, they seized the young wife of Chief Augustine, their lead cattle driver, and forced her to live with them.

One night, Augustine's wife poured water down the barrels of her captors' guns. The next morning, the chief and some pals poured arrows and spears into their white tormentors.

Four months later, the U.S. Army arrived and chased the Indians onto the island. It soon became Bloody Island.

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Some of those Indians survived the massacre, hiding in the tule. And today, what's left of the tribe is running--you probably guessed it--a profitable gambling casino.

Robinson Rancheria has 258 adult members--and 380 video slot machines, a dozen card tables and 750 bingo seats. The casino grossed "around $8 million" last year, according to tribal Chairman Curtis Anderson. The profit, typical of gaming tribes, went into health benefits, housing subsidies, school tutoring, college scholarships, tribal investments and cash payments to members--roughly $500 per month.

"Some tribal members wouldn't have jobs without the casino," asserts Vice Chairman Wilbur Augustine, the great-great grandson of the chief. Wilbur's grandson, Edward Augustine, is the night casino manager.

The head housekeeper's grandmother was 6 during the massacre and escaped off Bloody Island in her mother's arms. "My grandmother told us about how the soldiers would throw babies up in the air and catch them with their bayonets," recalls Freeda Krukoff, 71.

Afterward, the soldiers marched west to the Russian River and trapped another tribe on an island. There, they killed at least 75, maybe twice that. Wrote the commander: "The island soon became a perfect slaughter pen."

Today nearby, just off U.S. 101, there is a big Indian tent. Inside is a casino operated by the Coyote Valley band. "Our tribe tried all kinds of economic development for years, but we never had any money," says Priscilla Hunter, the chairwoman. "Then gaming came along."

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These are just two of the abused Indian tribes that have picked themselves up and now are making big money off gambling.

But they've done it the wrong way, argue their political opponents, who are backed by Nevada casinos. These Indians--like others in 40 tribes--are operating illegally and essentially are unregulated, their enemies protest.

The real fear, however, is competition for the gambling dollar. That's why these foes are fighting Proposition 5, the Indians' attempt to legalize their gaming before they again get knocked down by the government, egged on by white entrepreneurs.

Opponents counter that Indians don't need Prop. 5, that they can negotiate gambling compacts with the governor. Indeed, 11 tribes have and three oppose the ballot measure. But 85 tribes support it, contending the compacts allow only rinky-dink gambling and infringe on Indian sovereignty.

How much sovereignty are the Indians entitled to? Unfortunately for them, history indicates it's whatever suits the purposes of white people.

Prop. 5 is ahead in the polls now. But the smart bet is that it will lose in the end. Indians usually do.

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