• Vevila Hussey, MSW

The Origins of California Native American Policy

Updated: Feb 7, 2020

California, while arguably one of the most progressive states in the nation, originally used its legislative power to destroy Native American people and their ways of life

In 1850, for example, the first session of the State Legislature enacted the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. Unfortunately, this set the stage for the enslavement of Native Americans.

Provisions included:

  • · Landowners would allow Native Americans who were peaceably living on “their” land to continue to do so.

  • · The Justice of the Peace would have jurisdiction over all complaints between Indians and Whites, “but in no case shall a white man be convicted of any offense upon the testimony of an Indian or Indian.”

  • · Selling or administering alcohol to Native Americans was banned.

  • · Should any Native American be convicted of a crime, any White person could come before the Court and contract for the Native American’s services, provided they paid the Native American’s fine.

  • ·Whites would be able to obtain control of Native American children.

  • · Native Americans who were convicted of stealing any valuable could receive lashes, (under 25 total), and fined (no more than $200). Please note that the fine for punishing Natives in excess of the legal limit included no more than a $10 fine.

  • ·Any Native American found loitering where alcohol was sold, begging, strolling, or “leading a profligate course of life” would be subject to arrest. Within 24 hours, the Native American’s services could be sold to the highest bidder for up to four months.

  • This policy would set the tone for the relations with Native Americans to come.

In 1851 and 1852, the California Legislature authorized payments for the “suppression of Indian hostilities.” These payments led to volunteers attempting to eliminate the existence of Native American lives in California.

In 1860, the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians was amended to state that Native American vagrant and nonvagrant children could be “put under the custody of Whites,” for the purposes of employment and training. Their services could be retained until 35 (in the case of women) and 40 (for men). This continued the enslavement of Native American children.

In Southern California, city officials would pick up Native Americans as vagrants and would give them to ranchers and others who required laborers, under the provision of the 1850 policy. When released from service, it was not uncommon for the vagrants to be dropped off at a place where alcohol was served, which would get them picked up and forced into labor again.

The federal government, meanwhile, was moving forward with the engagement of Tribes. While the State of California was enslaving and aiding the elimination of California Natives, the federal government had appointed commissioners to negotiate treaties with California Tribes. Eighteen treaties were negotiated with 139 tribes that set aside 7,488,000 acres of land for Native American use. Funds were allocated to enable the tribes to become self-sufficient.

On January 16 and February 11, 1852, the California State Senate declared that the treaties “committed an error in assigning large portions of the richest mineral and agricultural lands of the Indians, who did not appreciate the land’s value. The treaties were sent to the United States Senate for ratification. After a secret session to discuss the treaties, the Senate failed to ratify the treaties and they were placed in secret files. The United States Congress declared that it would no longer negotiate treaties with American Indians in 1871. (It should be noted that in 1905, the hidden treaties were found by senate clerks and land claims began).

In 1852, a series of corrupt superintendents began their management of Native American affairs in California, appointed by Congress. The first starved 61,000 Native Americans. When he was removed from his post, he was allowed to keep reservation land as his own. The second superintendent continued to establish reservations and moved the Natives there; however, he allowed his business partners and relatives to squat on the lands, destroying crops and consuming the scarce water that was available for their survival.

The federal government turned over operations of reservations to the Quaker Church in 1870. Traditional beliefs and ways of being were not allowed and brutal treatment continued, although the general social welfare of Native Americans had improved.

Native American rights to live free from slavery were legally restored with the enactment of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Slowly and inconsistently, public opinion of Native Americans and what some would consider kinder policies towards Natives, began to emerge.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What value does this truth about our history hold for us today?

  2. How does acknowledging historical truths build better relationships with communities?

  3. What have we, as a state, learned since these tragic policy fails?

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