Assimilation, Relocation, Genocide
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California Genocide

Genocide is a strong word denoting a planned extermination of a racial, political or cultural group. It should not be used lightly. But what happened to the indigenous tribes of California qualifies as genocide, and that history is explored in A Seat at the Drum.

For thousands of years, the southern and central Pacific coast region was one of the most densely populated areas north of Mexico. Population estimates range as high as 300,000 American Indians speaking 80 distinct languages. Because of the bounty of the sea, the pastures and hills, the Indians didn't have to farm to survive. They fished, hunted and gathered an enormous variety of wild food. Acorns ground up and cooked into a soup, mush or bread was the staple for many groups.

In California, the genocide of Native tribes was done in the name of the church.

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At that time, the Chumash tribe was the largest group with around 20,000 members. Despite the diversity of tribes in the region, archeological evidence doesn't indicate a lot of inter-tribal warfare.

Then in 1769, a Franciscan missionary named Father Junipero Serra led a Spanish army up from Mexico and reached present-day San Diego. It was he who built the first of 21 missions that would extend up north to San Francisco. When he encountered the Chumash, Fr. Serra failed to recognize a centuries-old religious tradition. "Believe me," he wrote, "when I saw their general behavior, their pleasing ways and engaging manners, my heart was broken to think that they were still deprived of the light of the Holy Gospel." He promptly set out to convert all the Indians he encountered to Christianity.

He also set out to make the native populations slaves to the farms supporting the missions. Spanish soldiers kidnapped Indians by the thousands. They were given Spanish names, dressed in blue uniforms and became farm workers — something they had never done. They also were forced to care for livestock, tanned hides, and produced candles, bricks, tiles, shoes, saddles, soap and other necessities.

If they misbehaved, they were whipped, branded, mutilated or even executed. Hundreds and thousands of Indians — both in the missions and in surrounding areas — died of malaria, smallpox or other new diseases imported by the Spanish for which there was no native immunity.

Beginning in 1775, many of the mission Indians began to revolt. Some 800 Ipai and Tipai Indians burned down the San Diego mission that year. The revolt was brutally put down by the Spanish soldiers, as were all of the revolts.

The years of warfare and mistreatment took their toll. At the Santa Barbara mission alone, more than 4,600 Chumash names fill the burial registry. Indians were put in mass graves near the church, and were denied either traditional or Christian burials.

See how the California tribes were decimated on our Interactive Map.

After 65 years, the mission period ended in 1834 after Mexico won its independence from Spain and secularized the missions. Only then were the mission Indians free to leave, but by then they had no villages to return to.

In 1848, the United States acquired California from Mexico just in time for the Gold Rush of 1849. Now, the mountain tribes encountered European miners who saw Indian women as concubines and Indian men as slaves or even as shooting targets for sport. The newspapers of the time were filled with headlines about Indians being killed:

"Good Haul of Diggers" [a slang term for Indian slave laborers in the gold fields]

"Thirty-eight Bucks Killed"

"Forty Squaws and Children Taken"

"Indiscriminate Massacre of Indians — Women and Children Butchered"
This last headline told of 188 peaceful Indian men, women and children killed in Humboldt Bay. The story was just a little too sympathetic to the Indians, so the editor was run out of town.

From a high population of 300,000 before contact, Indians in California reached a low of 16,000 in 1900. According to Alvin M. Josephy in his book 500 Nations, the history of the California tribes "was as close to genocide as any tribal people had faced, or would face, on the North American continent."

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