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 The Indians were depicted in movies as carrying tomahawks and scalping the “innocent” white settlers/invaders, but historical documents show us that it was the “cowboys” (US citizens) scalping the Indians.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.