An excerpt from the first chapter of An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, by Benjamin Madley.
CALIFORNIA INDIANS BEFORE 1846
Within a few days, eleven little babies of this mission, one after the other, took their flight to heaven.
-Fray Junipero Serra, 1774
We were always trembling with fear of the lash.
– Lorenzo Asisara (Costanoan), 1890
In the centuries before Europeans arrived, California Indians inhabited a world different from the California we know today. Rivers ran undammed to the Pacific, man-made lakes like the Salton Sea and Lake Shasta had yet to be imagined, and vast wetlands bordered many rivers and bays. Other bodies of water were far larger than they are today. Eastern California’s now mostly dry Owens Lake covered more than 100 square miles, San Francisco Bay was almost a third larger, and the San Joaquin Valley’s now vanished Tulare Lake was the largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi.
The flora and fauna, in their variety and sheer abundance, would also be un recognizable to twenty-first-century Californians. Antelope, deer, and elk surged through the vast grasslands of the Central Valley in large herds. Mountain lion and grizzly bears — the latter now extinct in the golden state — searched for food. Forests — far larger than today’s and filled with huge, old-growth trees — teemed with animals while oak groves proliferated. Shellfish thronged tidal estuaries. Vast schools of fish navigated rivers and bays. Great flocks of gulls, pelicans, and seagull wheeled overhead. In the open ocean, fish, whales, seals, and sea otters swam by the thousands along the coast. There were no megacities, freeways, or factory farms. Yet ancient civilizations marked the land.
From a plank house on the redwood coast came the dawn cries of a newborn Wiyot infant. Near the Sacramento River, Wintu people spoke quietly around the morning fire in their subterranean lodge. As the sun climbed, the yells of a Northern Paiute family drove rabbits into a corral of rocks and branches. At noon, the skis of a Washoe man hissed over dazzling snow high above Lake Tahoe, and in the parched Mojave, precious liquid trickled over a young Kawaiisu as she passed into womanhood by “bathing in a wild chrysanthemum solution.” On Santa Rosa Island, off the southern coast, a Chumash man and woman bound themselves in marriage by eating from the same dish even as, to the east, conversations rose from the desert as Cahuilla potters fashioned carefully painted delicately incised earthenware. Up and down California women gathered, as their mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers had before them, to weave baskets bearing intricate designs, each particular to their community. As night fell, people gathered to celebrate, pray, and give thanks in the sacred songs and dances of their many traditions.
California on the eve of contact with Europeans was an exuberant clamor of Native American economies, languages, tribes, and individuals. Indigenous people had worshiped, loved, traded, and fought in California for at least 12,000 years — some believe since time immemorial. A number of Southern California Indian peoples, such as the Quechans, farmed — mainly corn, beans, and squash — along the Colorado River. Yet most California Indians depended on carefully managing, harvesting, and processing nature’s bounty. Almost everywhere, they modified and maintained their environments in order to maximize hunting and gathering yields. Ethnoecologist M. Kat Anderson has called these practices “tending the wild.” California Indians consciously created anthropogenic environments — forests, groves, grasslands, and meadows — fashioned and managed over centuries through techniques that included pruning, tilling, sowing, selective harvesting, and, most important, burning.
Game provided vital components of many precontact California Indian diets and material cultures. Instead of domesticating animals, California Indians frequently modified their environments to increase antelope, bear, bird, deer, elk, rabbit, and other game populations. By selectively and repeatedly burning portions of their land to clear unwanted undergrowth and promote forage for herbivores, California Indians increased the number of herbivores as well as the population of carnivores who ate them, maximizing local game populations and thus their total game supply. These practices bore striking similarities to the ways in which some other Native Americans, elsewhere in North America, shaped and managed their local environments to suit their own needs.
As in other regions of North America, the results of such fire-based indigenous game-management programs deeply impressed early European visitors. These newcomers frequently expressed astonishment at the variety and sheer numbers of game animals in California before colonization. For example, in 1579, the Englishman Sir Francis Drake described how, at one point on the California coast, “infinite was the company of very large and fat Deere, which there we sawe by thousands, as we supposed, in a heard.” In 1602, the Spaniard Juan Sebastián Vizcaíno wrote that in the Monterey area, “there is much wild game, such as harts, like young bulls, deer, buffalo, very large bears, rabbits, hares, and many other animals and many game birds, such as geese, partridges, quail, crane, ducks, vultures, and many other kinds of birds.” Abundant animal populations formed a cornerstone of life for many indigenous Californians well into the second half of the nineteenth century.
California Indian hunters, usually men, developed a wide repertoire of local techniques and technologies to take game. For example, in the forested Klamath River region near the Oregon border, Karuks used dogs to drive elk into ravines. To the southeast, Atsugewis used deer-head disguises to closely approach, surprise, and take deer. In the mountains around Lake Tahoe, groups of Washoe men on snowshoes hunted deer and mountain sheep. Patwins in the southwestern Sacramento Valley deployed goose-skin-stuffed decoys while duck hunting, and Nisenan people, east of the Sacramento River, constructed net fences into which they drove and entangled rabbits before clubbing them. Farther south, San Joaquin Valley Southern Yokuts set underwater snares to capture geese, ducks, and other waterfowl, and, near what is now San Diego, Luiseños used a “curved throwing stick,” or wakut, to hunt rabbits. California Indians prepared and preserved the edible portions of the game that they killed in many ways, often using inedible portions for other purposes.
Cooks frequently roasted meat simply, but some employed more elaborate preparations. The Konkow wrapped game in maple leaves before baking, Miwoks baked or steamed fresh meat, and Lake Miwoks cooked a mixture of pulverized rabbit bones and deer blood between leaves in the coals. California Indian people also preserved meat for future use with salt, sun, smoke, or some combination of the three. Particular tribes also ground dried meat and bone into meal. Beyond nourishment, game animals also provided a variety of materials important to traditional life, including buckskin and pelts for clothing, sinews for bows and bowstrings, feathers for regalia, and bones, horns, and hoofs for fashioning tools and making medicine.
Gathering, generally done by women, added to the richness and variety of California Indian diets. As with game, Californian Indians carefully managed their environments to maximize yields. They also employed multiple technologies to process harvests. Some California Indians constructed substantial earthen ovens to roast soaproot bulbs and cooked other foods by placing rocks into baskets so tightly woven that they held boiling water. Many California Indian peoples also removed the tannic acid from acorns (generally by grinding them into a powder, then soaking them before cooking) to create that staple of so many indigenous California diets: the acorn meal that could be used to make porridge, bake bread, and thicken soups. Gathering also provided additional important sources of protein and carbohydrates. Some California Indian peoples harvested energy-dense pine nuts from the foothills and mountains. In the meadows and valleys, people often gathered grass seeds, and, according to a Lassik/Wailaki woman, Lucy Young, “Grasshoppers were considered quite a delicacy” with their “sweet, buttery, nutty flavor.” A wide variety of berries added nutrients and sweetness to California Indian diets. Some peoples crushed manzanita berries, placed them in a sieve, and poured cool water over them to make a sweet, amber cider. Others brewed and drank fragrant Sierra mint tea. California Indians also saved gathered foods for future use or trade and some times stored them in granaries.
California’s freshwater ecosystems provided another major source of nutrition in many diets, and California Indians used a wide range of methods to reap this bounty. The Hupa, Chilulua, and Whilkut peoples of northwestern California built weirs, during low water in the fall, to capture river fish. Others, like the Yanas east of the northern Sacramento River, speared fish in streams and pools. Wailakis in the Coast Range deployed nets “made from wild iris fibre,” Modocs in the northeast fished from dugout pine shovel-nosed canoes, and the Tubatulabals of south central California built stone and willow-branch fish corrals and held communal fish drives.
To harvest marine species, some California Indians deployed other technologies. Tolowas near the Oregon border harpooned sea lions from ocean-going redwood canoes. Coast Miwoks north of San Francisco set fish traps, and Southern California’s Chumash people constructed wooden plank boats — sometimes more than thirty feet long – from which they hunted seals, sea otters, and porpoises. Many California Indian peoples also harvested clams, mussels, and oysters along the coast and in tidal estuaries. They dried, smoked, or sometimes salted fish and seafood, wasting little. For example, the members of some tribes saved salmon bones and ground them into a nutritious powder that could be added to soups and stews. Preserved fish and seafood provided food in lean times also valuable trading commodities.
California’s natural bounty, coupled with California Indians’ ingenious ability to maximize and use that abundance, supported a population of perhaps 310,000 people before the arrival of Europeans. Thus, through environmental management, hunting, gathering, fishing, farming, and food processing, Indians created a California that may have been the most densely populated region north of Mexico in the years before Christopher Columbus first visited the Hemisphere.
These hundreds of thousands of people spoke a dazzling array of languages. Precontact North America was a diverse linguistic landscape. Indigenous people between the Rio Grande River and the Arctic Ocean spoke about 300 different languages that can be classified into more than fifty different language families. In contrast, linguists classify Europe’s languages into as few as three families. Amid indigenous North America’s already varied linguistic landscape, precontact California stands out as one of the most linguistically diverse places earth. California Indians spoke perhaps 100 separate languages, classified by linguists into at least five different language families, some “as mutually unintelligible as English and Chinese.”
Speaking scores of languages, California Indians created dozens of cultural political units. Anthropologists recognize at least sixty major tribes in California that can, in turn, be divided into many more linguistic and tribal subgroups. For example, anthropologists have classified the Pomo people north of San Francisco Bay into seven different subgroups and the Yana of the Southern Cascades into five subgroups. California’s many subgroups can be divided further into about 500 individual bands, given that each village or village constellation tended to act as its own politically and economically autonomous entity. The indigenous peoples of California were thus highly independent but loosely bound to larger tribal groups by shared languages and cultures.
Systems of exchange also connected California Indian peoples to each other and helped to distribute food, raw materials, manufactured goods, and luxuries. Theirs was a mixed economy in which dentalia, or seashell currency, often facilitated transactions within and beyond California. Traded foods included acorns, beans, berries, fish, meat, nuts, roots, salt, seafood, seaweed, and seeds. Traded raw materials included furs, hides, sinew, skins, and obsidian — a volcanic lass used to make knives, arrowheads, and other tools. California Indian people also exchanged manufactured goods. These included arrowheads, baskets, bows, cradle frames, moccasins, nets and snares, redwood canoes, rope, stone mortars and pestles, stone vessels, and buckeye fire drills for starting fires. Traded luxuries included tobacco and pipes, decorative woodpecker scalps, ornamental shells, carved nuts, and pigments.
California Indians did have violent conflicts with each other before contact with Europeans, but warfare does not seem to have dominated their lives. As early as 1875, ethnographer Stephen Powers remarked that California Indians “were not a martial race, but rather peaceable.” More recently, anthropologists Robert Heizer and Albert Elsasser observed that “except for the Colorado River tribes, who placed a value on warfare, the California Indians were peaceable and unaggressive.”
California before European contact was a thriving, staggeringly diverse place. Peoples speaking scores of different languages organized themselves into hundreds of political entities and connected themselves to each other via dense webs of local and regional cultural exchange while maintaining trading connections with peoples farther away. Their lifeways changed over the course of millennia, but the arrival of Europeans brought rapid, and for many tribes, catastrophic transformations.
In March 1543, Spaniards anchored in the blue waters of San Diego Bay, completing the first European exploration of California’s coast. Before leaving, they “took two Ipai boys to carry to New Spain to learn to be interpreters.” This first European kidnapping of California Indians foreshadowed a dark new chapter in California history…
. . .
…Madley goes on to describe how California’s once-thriving and “peaceable” Indian population was relentlessly slaughtered and marked-out for wholesale extermination in what is now described, and internationally accepted, as State-sponsored genocide. By 1873, the Indian population in California had plunged from 310,000, pre-Franciscan missions, to a mere 30,000. Madley’s book, though heartbreaking and infuriating, is nonetheless a must-read.
Benjamin Madley is associate professor of history, at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he focuses on Native America, the United States, and genocide in world history. He lives in Los Angeles.