Robert Aquinas McNally is the author of The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America’s Gilded Age (Bison Books, 2017), which won a 2018 Commonwealth Club of California’s gold medal for the year’s best book on California.
In the third week of June it looked as if the cosmic social-justice calendar had aligned. On the day before a U. S. House of Representatives panel listened to testimony on reparations for African American slavery, California Gov. Gavin Newsom stood before a gathering of tribal leaders to admit to and apologize for state-sponsored genocide against their ancestors. He committed as well to taking the first steps toward repairing the devastation that still affects the state’s Native people.
“California must reckon with our dark history,” an emotional Newsom said, adding that he felt ashamed at his prior ignorance of the atrocity in the second half of the 19th century. With the genocide out in the open and responsibility admitted, the state and its tribal nations can “work together to build bridges, tell the truth about our past, and begin to heal deep wounds.”
In addition to his public apology at a ceremony to dedicate a West Sacramento building site for the California Indian Heritage Center, Newsom issued an executive order that apologizes officially for the genocide, praises the state’s Native peoples for demonstrating resilience against extermination, and establishes a Truth and Healing Council. Headed by the governor’s Tribal Advisor Christina Snider (Dry Creek Rancheria of Pomo Indians), the council will clarify the genocide’s historical record as an initial step toward justice.
Newsom’s apology stands out for the unprecedented breadth of responsibility California is taking. In 2013, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback apologized officially for the Potawatomi Trail of Death when that tribal nation was forced out of Indiana and into Kansas in 1838. On the 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre in 2014, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper apologized to descendants of the victims. Last year, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker offered an apology to his state’s Natives for a variety of wrongs, including the forced removal of children to boarding schools. Never before, though, has a state owned up to a systematic, publicly-funded, decades-long effort to wipe out its Indigenous inhabitants.
Violence marked European behavior toward California Indians from first contact. Spanish soldiers in the early 1770s in San Diego spent their spare time chasing and raping Kumeyaay women and killing any men who got in the way. Still, the Spaniards and later the Mexicans wanted to retain an Indigenous population as a colonial labor pool for the mission system, even after Native peoples were manumitted from the missions during the Mexican Republic beginning in 1833. They sought dominance, not extermination. But, as well documented in Brendan Lindsay’s groundbreaking Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846–1873 (Nebraska, 2012), the Americans who swept into California with the gold rush saw Natives as nothing but obstacles in the way of extracting the state’s mining, logging, ranching, and farming riches.
California’s first civilian governor, Peter Burnett, voiced that popular sentiment in his state-of-the-state message on January 7, 1851. Asserting that Natives and Euro-Americans were incompatible and “must remain ever at enmity,” Burnett maintained there was only one way out: “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected.”
The legislature had already passed laws—including, ironically, “An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians”—that denied Natives the vote as well as redress to the legal system, prohibited court testimony against whites, permitted convict-leasing as part of a system to prevent Indian “vagrancy,” allowed the effective enslavement of Native children, and blessed corporal punishment of Indians.
So it was no great leap for the legislature to put the state’s money where Burnett’s genocidal mouth was. Over the next few years, California raised $1.5 million in bonds—close to $40 million in today’s dollars—to fund extermination. The money went to pay locally-organized citizens’ militias that hunted Natives down, destroyed villages, and captured children and young women for the slave market and sex trade.
The whole effort was brutally successful. In 1846, the year the United States wrested California from Mexico, Indigenous people numbered some 150,000, the largest Native population in any American state or territory. By 1870 it had collapsed to 30,000. It would plummet even farther, to only a little over 15,000 in 1900.
Yet, even in the face of intentional destruction, California’s Natives have proved remarkably resilient. Today there are 109 federally-recognized tribes in the state, and another 78 are in the process of winning or regaining recognition. And, as of the 2010 census, more than 723,000 residents identified as Native, once again giving California the largest Indigenous population of any American state or territory.
And California’s Natives are making their presence felt in a rising cultural wave. There’s There There, the acclaimed first novel by Tommy Orange (Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma) about Oakland’s urban Indians, which won the 2019 $25,000 PEN/Hemingway award for breakthrough debut. Tommy Pico (Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians) earned a $50,000 Whiting Award for emerging writers last year with his iconoclastic book-length Nature Poem. Also a poet, Natalie Diaz (Gila River Indian Community) addresses the ongoing oppression of Native Americans in When My Brother Was an Aztec, which won its author a $650,000 MacArthur Foundation genius grant. How a Mountain Was Made, the most recent book from tribal chair, novelist, and professor Greg Sarris (Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria), reshapes Coastal Miwok and Southern Pomo creation tales into stories that contemplate how we humans can all come home again.
In the months after The Modoc War was published, I did a number of readings with Greg Sarris. Whenever he was asked about reckoning with the genocide, Sarris emphasized that Euro-American guilt isn’t the point. Rather, a just future and next step turns on knowing and telling the tough truth of the state’s past, no matter how disturbing that admission feels. With Gov. Newsom’s apology and the state’s commitment to truth and healing, the process has begun.