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Skeletons in California’s Closet

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Happy birthday, California! On September 9 you turned 151 years old. I joined the party close to your 100th birthday. This past half a century has been a blast. California birthed phenomena as varied as the happy-go-lucky music of the Beach Boys making everyone want to go Surfing USA, the Free Speech Movement, the Summer of Love, and human rights groups galore.

But, rummaging in the back of our collective closet we find skeletons that many of us do not even know are there. It turns out that we have a lot of history to make amends for.

Just after its birth, California followed in Mexico’s footsteps of encouraging anyone to murder Indians. The government of California payed a bounty for scalps of local indigenous people.

To hide this hideous part of our history, Hollywood later supported the myth of cowboys and gold miners as good guys and Indians as bad guys. The Indians were depicted in movies as carrying tomahawks and scalping the “innocent” white settlers/invaders, but historical documents show us that it was the “cowboys” (US citizens) scalping the Indians.

Is this what psychologists call “projection”?

In 1848, just before the Gold Rush and statehood, California’s native population was about 150,000. About 20 years later, only 31,000 indigenous people were still alive. How can we imagine about 120,000 dead over two decades?

Let’s say you were born in Concord, California (I chose Concord because Wikipedia says it has a population of approximately 120,000 people). As you grew up, mass murderers would shoot or bludgeon or whatever to kill your family and your neighbors, one by one. Children that started kindergarten with you didn’t finish. Their scalps were sold to the California government. Middle school was pretty sparse, what with the teachers being killed off. And it was hard to focus on your homework anyways, because your parents had been killed and scalped. You yourself attempted to bury their rotting bodies in the backyard, for there was no more funeral homes – the morticians had been killed off. By the time you reached 20 years old, you were the only one left in Concord, California.

This is somewhat like the fate of Ishi, the Last Wild Indian in North America, who “stumbled into the twentieth century on the morning of August 29, 1911, when, desperate with hunger and with terror of the white murderers of his family, he was found in the corral of a slaughterhouse near Oroville, California.”

Native historian, Jack Forbes, wrote, “The bulk of California’s Indians were conquered, and died, in innumerable little episodes rather than in large campaigns. it serves to indict not a group of cruel leaders, or a few squads of rough soldiers, but in effect, an entire people; for …the conquest of the Native Californian was above all else a popular, mass, enterprise.”

Some of my grandmothers.

As a second-generation “white” Californian and also a descendent of a tribe whose name is lost in the “melting pot,” I believe it is important that this part of our history be remembered, so we can create a more just and peaceful future for everyone, everywhere.


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About Lynette Yetter

Lynette Yetter is the author of the books "72 Money Saving Tips for the 99%" and "Lucy Plays Panpipes for Peace, a novel." Lynette is a permanent resident of Bolivia and a graduate student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Reed College.
  • Thank you for posting a bit of your powerful history, “All is fair in love and war”. I hope to hear more from you.

  • All is fair in love and war

    I’m actually a descenedent of Ishi’s tribe, the Yahi, our story of survival dates back to our intergration into the neighboring Wintu, and my great great great grandfather’s adoption by a white man. This thread is probably dead anyway, but I’d like to say, thank you california, your only founded upon the blood of so many natives like my own ancestors.

  • Thank you Ruvy, John and zingzing for reading this article and taking the time to post your thoughtful comments.

    Zingzing, I am glad to hear that the history books you were given in school include more of the truth.

  • zingzing

    it’s not like the genocide of the native americans is pushed under the rug anymore. it’s in the history books i was given in middle and high school.

    my ex-girlfriend went to school in amherst, ma. i was killing some time one day while visiting her and went into the lord jeffrey amherst inn, obviously named after lord jeffrey amherst. it kinda served as a visitors’ bureau, and had a little “history” of the town. turns out amherst was the one who approved of the idea of giving infected blankets to the local natives (in another part of the country). his colonel, henry bouquet, is the one that came up with the idea. of course, this was in 1763, and they were british.

    but still, the genocide went on for another hundred years after that, and although the treatment of native americans has been “better” in the years since, it’s still rather shitty. what was promised and what was delivered were two different things.

  • Ruvy


    In a war, one has to have different standards than in “peacetime”, which presumably is what Lynette is talking about here.

    But admitting to these things cleanses the soul to a degree. Lynette’s article dealt specifically with the genocide of her ancestors, Native Americans who lived in California.

    But to cut through all the crap, you did admit to genocide by Americans. And you surprised me – quite pleasantly. While my ancestors didn’t commit genocide in the States (they were in Poland), we all appear to have benefited from the genocide committed by whites who “cleared the land” of Native Americans on the east coast several centuries ago.

    The benefit is that we are willing to admit to that. The next step is seeking forgiveness, where it can be gotten. That is the good the admitting does. It gets you ready for the step of seeking forgiveness.

  • John Wilson

    I’m an american and I admit genocide by americans.

    It’s not just that I’ve read extensively from the literature of american history, real autobiographies of real americans, indian and white, who few have heard about. Famous peoples biographies are always self-justifying lies.

    I admit that my brother committed genocidal atrocities in the south pacific by incinerating everyone who came before his flame thrower, whether japanese soldier or civilian. Of course it killed him too, though it took 50 years for him to finally lay down and be buried.

    I suppose there are men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan who will come to admit the genocidal atrocities of americans against those peoples.

    What good does it all do? Either the genocide or the admitting?

  • Ruvy

    You don’t seriously expect Americans to admit to genocide, do you Lynettte?