The American and Sacramento Rivers converge at a wooded bank on the outskirts of California’s state capital. There, on a chilly morning in the spring of 2022, elders, leaders, and members of Native tribes from across California assembled for the first in-person gathering (after months of proceedings online due to Covid-19) of the California Truth and Healing Council. The CTHC has been tasked by Governor Gavin Newsom with collecting testimony, producing a definitive narrative of the Californian Indians—their history, near obliteration, resistance, and survival—and submitting proposals for visibility, recognition, recompense, and restorative justice.
The genocide of Native Americans was nowhere more methodically savage than in California. Nowhere was there such an explicit intention to “exterminate”—the word is used over and over again in state records—the inhabitants of a land supposedly “discovered.” Meanwhile, a brutal slave market for Indians flourished in California just as slavery was about to be abolished in the South.1
The CTHC is the first initiative of its kind at the state level to officially confront these horrors and return the narrative to those who fought, escaped, survived, and persisted. Newsom announced it in June 2019, at this confluence of rivers—a site designated for a future California Indian Heritage Center:
California must reckon with our dark history. California Native American peoples suffered violence, discrimination and exploitation sanctioned by state government throughout its history…. It’s called genocide. That’s what it was, a genocide. No other way to describe it. And that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books. We can never undo the wrongs inflicted on the peoples who have lived on this land that we now call California since time immemorial, but we can work together to build bridges, tell the truth about our past and begin to heal deep wounds.
At the center of the process launched by Newsom is Christina Snider, charged with convening the CTHC and collating its final report in January 2025. Snider is a lawyer from the Dry Creek Rancheria band of Pomo Indians—though she grew up in Los Angeles—who in 2018 was appointed the governor’s tribal adviser by Jerry Brown, Newsom’s predecessor, and last July became California’s first tribal affairs secretary, at the head of the new Governor’s Office of Tribal Affairs.
The CTHC came about “for a combination of reasons,” Snider recalls. “Governor Newsom came into office wanting to do ‘firsts,’ and specifically something for the tribal community.” She cites a defense spending bill passed by the Obama administration in 2009 that contained an apology for “the past ill-conceived policies by the US government toward the Native peoples of this land.” “But it was hidden in a budget bill,” says Snider, and “there was no public exposure. Governor Newsom wanted to do the opposite of the Obama apology, and say it out loud.” But, she cautions,
an apology without remedial action isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. We need to look at all the different things that could spin out of this thing: mechanisms for effective partnership with tribes, restorative justice, and actions in state policy and budget.
“California,” says Snider, “is the most complicated place to do this work. Indians here are not as visible, and there’s so little tribal land.” “Invisibility” is a word that recurs often in discussions of Native Americans, but those in California are even less visible than many other tribes and have names—Chumash, Miwok, Pomo—that are less familiar than Apache, Navajo, or Lakota. There are more Native Americans in California than in any other state—more than 630,000 according to the 2020 census—“yet the majority are Navajo, Lakota or Cherokee, not California tribes,” says Snider, most having arrived during forced relocations after World War II. “So that if we can achieve something here, it’ll be easier for anyone else. We are setting a precedent.”
But Snider had warned previous meetings online that confrontation with such a past will be inevitably “traumatic.” At the gathering by the rivers, CTHC member Frankie Myers, of the Yurok tribe, said, “I look forward to accessing an uncomfortable space. I think the discussion needs to be uncomfortable for any good to come out of it.”
The California State Parks service has pledged to cooperate with the CTHC and to change attractions that glorify a received narrative of “pioneers” settling a largely empty “Wild West.” When council members visited Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento—where Indians were held as slaves—on the eve of their gathering, the superintendent for the parks’ Capital District, John Fraser, told them that it would be reconfigured to become “a place where Native peoples are welcome, and feel empowered to tell their stories.”
But the parks service’s collection of Native artifacts remains an unavoidably “uncomfortable space” and proved to be an awkward location for the council to begin its work last spring. The collection is held in a storage hangar at an industrial zone outside Sacramento, where council members went for a tour of their own past, which had been looted and “collected” during and after colonization. There was a welcome from one of the curators. Elder Carmen Lucas of the Kwaaymii tribe in Southern California spoke up: “Are you some kind of archaeologist?” The curator said that he was a historian. Lucas was dissatisfied: “There is something about your presence that reminds me of that God-awful colonial mindset. [The collection] is not yours—it’s ours. Forgive me for speaking my mind.” There was a leaden hush, diplomatically broken by Snider: “We are now in a state where the governor’s office is in a position to give all this a big push, and get things done.” “I didn’t realize I’d react so emotionally,” replied Lucas, “but every Indian who walks through that door has the blood of their ancestors running through their veins.”
The so-called Necro-Program—in which excavated and exhumed human remains are held—is kept “behind an extra key,” explained its curator, Patrick Riordan. “How did the collection come into existence, into the hands of the Parks Department?” asked council member Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga tribe around Temecula. Riordan explained that a “collector” named Hathaway, “a grave-robber, basically…gave his collection to the State of California.”
“Have you separated the skeletons from associated funerary items?” asked Macarro.
“What was the rationale for separating them?”
“I’m sorry but I don’t believe you,” retorted Macarro. “I think it was resistance from the scientific community, separating items from funerary remains. It adds insult to injury.”
Before “contact” with non-Natives—first Spanish and Mexican, then Russian, then Anglo-American—the territory now called California was among the most diverse places on earth, with perhaps 300,000 people belonging to some one hundred connected tribes and speaking as many languages and dialects, 70 percent of which may have been mutually unintelligible. The US victory in the Mexican-American War in 1848 and Californian statehood in 1850 ended the brief period of Mexican rule, which had been preceded by the Spanish colonial mission system. Both regimes imposed bloodthirsty peonage on Native Americans. Ecosystems that people had coexisted with and nurtured for millennia were disrupted, then decimated.
There is a literature on California Indians that stands in contrast to the received narrative of “gold rush,” “forty-niners,” “pioneers,” and “settlers” arriving to “discover,” ranch, mine, and generally “civilize” the West. An early text supporting Indian rights was Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona (1884), which challenged white seizure of land, albeit with a nostalgia for the missions. Reports by John Collier, the US commissioner of Indian affairs from 1933 to 1945, tried to draw government attention to the “swift depopulation” of Indians in California: “They were totally deprived of land rights. They were…treated as wild animals, shot on sight…enslaved and worked to death…. Their life was outlawed and their whole existence was condemned.”
Robert F. Heizer collated sources from the mid-nineteenth century into a shocking volume entitled The Destruction of California Indians.2 Heizer cited the first law passed by the California state legislature in 1850, the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which authorized “apprenticeship” of any Indian minor brought by “parents or friends” before a justice of the peace. Likewise, any Indian found “loitering about” or leading an “immoral” life (as whites viewed the way they had lived for millennia) could be arrested upon complaint and brought before a justice of the peace for “hire” to the “highest bidder.” Meanwhile, “in no case [could] a white man be convicted on any offence upon the testimony of an Indian.” In 1860 legislation enabled any person wishing to obtain Indian children to do so by appearing before a county or district judge and proving the consent of “persons having the care of charge of any such child or children,” which could be anyone. Lest there remain any doubt: anyone could obtain Indians of any age who lacked what the invading culture regarded as “settled habitation or means of livelihood.”
If subjugation and effective enslavement were state policy, so was destruction. Heizer quoted soldiers and militiamen reporting to their superiors on a litany of killings, usually of unarmed Indian civilians. Captain Nathaniel Lyon described the massacre of up to 150 Pomo Indians, mainly women and children, at Clear Lake in March 1850 as “a perfect slaughter pen.” In 1859 citizens of Marysville were “hired to hunt [Indians]” and “recompensed by receiving so much for each scalp…. The money has been made up by subscription.” On May 9, 1861, the Shasta Herald reported that “a meeting of citizens was held…and measures taken to raise a fund to be disbursed in payment of Indian scalps for which a bounty was offered.”
In 1984 James J. Rawls published Indians of California, which made two major contributions.3 First, Rawls affirmed that “although forced recruitment and Indian peonage were part of life at the missions and ranchos, the actual buying and selling of California Indians was an American innovation” He compared post–Civil War “Black Codes” with California “Indian Codes” and found that “the parallels between California and the South are particularly striking.”
Rawls detailed how “a common feature of the trade was the seizure of Indian girls and women who were held by their captors as sexual partners.” The Marysville Appeal in December 1851 noted that “while kidnapped Indian children were seized as servants, the young women were made to serve both the ‘purposes of labor and of lust.’” The language is repulsive: Isaac Cox in his Annals of Trinity County (1858) described “the purchase by ‘Kentuck’” of an Indian girl eight or nine years old, “either for his seraglio, to be educated the queen of his heart, or the handmaid of its gentle emanations.”
Rawls also examined white dehumanization of Indians. They were “an impediment…in the path of American progress,” he wrote; they would disappear as the result of “an inevitable process and progress” of “advancing white civilization.” The discovery of gold in 1848 gave such views an urgent material imperative. In 1857 the San Francisco Bulletin contrasted Californian Indians to others further east:
Instead of being brave and expert in the use of weapons and cunning in trapping game, they are timid and idiotic, feeding on roots, snakes and insects, and grasses of the fields like beasts.
The relative darkness of California Natives’ skin encouraged a grotesque calibration of color, to bring them closer to enslaved African Americans: one forty-niner questioned in 1849 whether the term “Redskin” should apply, since “their true color is close to a chocolate-brown.” “Their growth is short and stunted,” wrote the author Ida Pfeiffer—well known for her travelogues—of the Maidu tribe.
They have short, thick necks and clumsy heads; the forehead is low, the nose flat with broad nostrils, the eyes very narrow and showing no intelligence, the cheek bones prominent, and the mouth large.
In 1999 Clifford E. Trafzer of the Wyandot tribe published, with Joel R. Hyer, Exterminate Them: Written Accounts of the Murder, Rape and Enslavement of Native Americans During the California Gold Rush,4 a horrific collection of documents that emphasized that for Natives, “raiding white Americans during the Gold Rush was a significant and successful form of resistance.” Hyer also wrote We Are Not Savages, about the forced transfer of Cupeño, Luiseño, and Kumeyaay from a well-managed settlement around the hot springs at Kupa (now Agua Caliente) to the Pala Reservation up to 1920.5
In 2012 Brendan C. Lindsay published Murder State, which posited, crucially, that the slaughter was democratically done, the will of the people:
Thousands of white men certainly went so far as to participate directly in the genocide…. But perhaps the more important story to share is that of the hundreds of thousands of white citizens who, through apathy, inaction, or tacit support, allowed the extermination to proceed directly by violence or indirectly through genocidal policies of cultural extermination and planned neglect.6
The Eel River Rangers militia massacred Yuki Indians in 1859 and “quickly won approval from the community,” Lindsay wrote. “This was not surprising, as they were doing what their fellow citizens wanted: killing Native Americans.”
In 2016 Benjamin Madley published An American Genocide, in which he demonstrated how “between 1846 and 1873, perhaps 80 per cent of all California Indians died, and many massacres left no survivors or only small children.”7 The early massacre of Wintu Indians on the Sacramento River in 1846 was led by Captain John Frémont, after whom the East Bay city is named. A member of the expedition reported that “bucks, squaws and paposes were shot down like sheep and those men never stopped as long as they could find one alive.” Kit Carson complimented Frémont on “a perfect butchery.” Once the CTHC completes its report, can Fremont still be called Fremont? Likewise innumerable other towns and sites.
After the Clear Lake massacre, the state built “a California militia system [that] would create a state-sponsored killing machine,” wrote Madley. Joining the militias was financially rewarding, and besides, the violence was, among other things, recreational. The historian L.L. Palmer recalled that “it was no uncommon thing for them to shoot an Indian just for the fun of seeing him jump.” Indian boys whose feet had been impaled then rubbed with salt “rolled and twisted for about two hours” in pain while “all the soldiers came and stood around them laughing.”
Madley and Rawls furnished morbid detail on the prices of Indian slaves. Madley observed that in the South, availability of slaves “came almost exclusively from biological reproduction” after the US banned the slave trade from Africa in 1808. So the price rose: “Antebellum slave owners…in the 1850s often paid hundreds of dollars for an African-American slave, and sometimes more than $1,500.” But there was a plentiful supply of California Indians, and the prices were, accordingly—sickeningly—lower. Rawls found them to “depend on age or sex”: traders would pay sixty dollars for a boy, noted the Marysville Appeal, but were willing to part with a hundred dollars for “a likely young girl.” An employee of the US Mail noted: “Indians aged seven or eight years old are worth $100. It is a d—n poor Indian that’s not worth $50.”
Then came We Are the Land: A History of Native California by Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr.8 Bauer is a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes and the author of California Through Native Eyes: Reclaiming History,9 which began to do just that, using oral accounts commissioned by the State Emergency Relief Administration during the Great Depression. We Are the Land describes a sense of agency and a shift from victimhood to resistance, as reflected in discussion during early CTHC meetings. “The word victim is an issue,” CTHC member Angela Elliott-Santos, chairwoman of the Manzanita Band of Kumeyaay, said in November 2021; “it dehumanizes.” Carmen Lucas affirmed this: “I don’t look at myself as a victim.”
There was resistance, most famously the Modoc War of 1872–1873, in which fifty-two warriors led by California’s most celebrated Indian legend, Kintpuash, aka Captain Jack, refused to be corralled in their designated reservation and quartered with some 150 civilians among lava beds astride the California–Oregon line. They defended the stockade for several months against incomparably better armed US forces.
During many years hiking around the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Los Coyotes Indian Reservation, I’ve become fascinated by the pan-tribal uprising instigated by the Cupeño leader Antonio Garra, the first Indian to declare the intention of ridding California of Anglo-Americans. “If we lose this war, all will be lost—the world,” he urged the rebels in the winter of 1851. The uprising was suppressed, but only after a Cupeño and Cahuilla attack on a staging post, Warner’s Ranch, expelled Americans from the entire San José Valley. Leaders of the uprising were executed at an (as yet unmarked) site in what is now Coyote Canyon in the Anza-Borrego Park on Christmas Day 1851, and Garra in San Diego in January 1852.
After their meeting by the river junction in March 2022, the council members visited the California State Library, where much of the above documentation is held, including a record of the officially sanctioned “war of extermination” in leatherbound volumes. Something wonderful happened: accompanying council member Carmen Lucas was her friend Courtney Coyle, an attorney who has represented California tribes seeking to protect their sacred places and burial grounds. Leafing through the card index, Coyle unearthed a book, Indian Legends of the Cuyamaca Mountains (1914) by Mary Elizabeth Johnson, based on interviews with Carmen Lucas’s grandmother Maria Alto, an expert in basketry and pottery, and a picture of whom is featured on the title page. “You never know where this journey is going to lead you,” said Lucas, turning the pages. “I’m humbled by what we’ve found here. This is my grandmother in 1914, allowing these legends to be recorded.”
Some months later Lucas stood on Laguna Mountain in Southern California, surveying the expanse of desert vanishing into the heat haze below. She pointed to a barely visible track cutting through the scrub:
That’s an aboriginal route. The first time I went along that trail was with my dad; my grandmother used to gather mesquite down there. The old folks were part of their environment. They moved with the rhythms of nature, with intuitive intelligence.
Lucas, who will turn eighty-eight this year, was born here, on what was the Laguna reservation established in 1893, but which her father Tom bought for the family in 1949. Tom Lucas was one of the last speakers of the Kwaaymii language and the other seven Kumeyaay dialects; Carmen served twenty years in the Marine Corps, based for a time in Japan, before returning here in 1976. As we walked, she reflected:
We are part of a cultural landscape. The archaeologists find an artifact or remain, draw a circle around it and say, “That’s the important site.” But what’s important is the whole landscape around that site—the animals, the plants, the rocks. You can’t look at a landscape and not consider its story, who lived there, how was it used. It’s an idea they are going to have to understand if they want to restore something to us.
We arrived at a campground on the edge of Laguna Meadows—until the mid-nineteenth century a lake, around which a Kumeyaay village was built. Young campers snacked and sheltered in the shade of their tents. One—to Lucas’s outraged bewilderment—wore headphones, and the tinny music was audible. “People get so overexcited,” she said. “If we can get the general public to just pause, listen to the quiet, and feel where they are. Let’s envisage what it must have been like 150 years ago.” It’s not hard: there is a gouged cavity in the rock for grinding acorns and other preparations. “Oh, there’s hundreds of those,” laughed Lucas. She picked up a seashell: “This shows that someone came to lunch and stayed for dinner.”
The next morning, we were at the former reservation, now Lucas’s land. Hikers might call this the middle of nowhere, but the populous Kumeyaay homeland was at our feet, literally: at every other step there were fragments of pottery. Coyle stooped to recover a sharp arrowhead, made of obsidian likely brought on a hundred-mile journey from Obsidian Butte in Imperial County. “The more intense, and the longer the occupation, the more signs of it,” said Lucas. “We’re talking lifestyle, not scientific specimens.”
“These are the burial grounds,” she announced quietly.
A very sensitive area. The worst violation would be for someone to rape it, dig it up, as happened so many times. There’s an understanding that bad things happen to people who mess with Indian burial grounds. We want the Old Ones to know they have not been forgotten, to ask for their blessing.
In a corner was a white stone. “When my father passed, we had a ceremony and a wake, a mixture of Catholic and the old ways.”
“It’s taken me a time to understand what colonialism means,” continued Lucas, “but I think I understand it now. It’s when the dominant culture is everywhere.” She pointed to a meadow once full of deer until “trespassing hunters with their stupid military costumes and awful crossbow things wiped out most of the deer.” We reached a spring of cold, clear water: “One of the sacred elements, but society just gobbles it up, like everything else. This is where the medicine people came to prepare their healing preparations, and animals to drink.” A month after my visit, looters trespassed onto Lucas’s land, poisoned her puppy—named Muttikwaa, after the Kwaaymii words for Earth Warrior—lest she bark an alarm, and stole some of the relics from the burial ground we had admired.
The stone walls of Lucas’s cabin have not changed since the photo of her grandmother Maria Alto in the book at the state library was taken. “No electricity, no running water. I wish I had an electric reading light,” Lucas confessed. Inside was a wonderland: cabinets of things found on the land or created by the deft hands of Lucas’s ancestors. Thick-soled sandals of yucca fiber, “made by my grandmother in 1906, when my Dad was born.” There were baskets and ollas, one of them minuscule, so delicate was its making. “It’s the intangible essence of all this history that is the greatest joy of my life,” said Lucas. “However, we must go forward. We are in the times we are in, and I am a product of my time.” She gestured to the cabinets: “But I’m also a product of all this.”
At the conclusion of one of the CTHC sessions in Sacramento, council member Frankie Myers made an offer: “C’mon up and see us in Yurok country. We got our own microbrewery now—just done a partnership with the San Francisco Giants!”
Months later, the thirty-six miles from my remote rented cabin not far from Orick, near Redwood National Park, to the Yurok tribal office at Weitchpec take two hours to drive, along rough roads and mountain switchbacks. When the forest clears, the landscape beneath is breathtaking: a sprinkling of low cloud settles in the valleys and the treeline defines the coast, beyond which the ocean cuts the horizon. After the road zigzags down toward the village, it crosses the Klamath River, and at the point where its current turns into the valley, there’s sunrise into a redwood morning.
The Yurok tribe has undergone a remarkable revival. Last year it secured the removal—the largest of its kind in US history—of four dams on the Klamath after low, warm waters caused incalculable damage to salmon spawning grounds. Since 1974 the Yurok have had their own court, applying tribal law alongside federal and state jurisdiction. The tribe led a program to reintroduce the Californian condor, which had gone extinct in the wild, sending North America’s largest land bird back into the skies.
Myers and I sat by the river. “We’re like salmon,” he said. “You have to get back to where you come from. You fight your way home. That’s what’s driving us: to create a viable place for people to return.”
Myers placed himself at a unique generational juncture: “My life has known the last generation who lived the old ways, to grow up with the first generation reclaiming them back. My grandmother knew her own language, but when she was born, it was illegal for her to speak it. My dad couldn’t practice his beliefs until 1978 [when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act lifted prohibitions on Native faiths]. The Yurok reservation is one eighth of our ancestral lands,” but “we now have more land outside the reservation than on it.”
Myers’s father returned to the reservation from San Diego, so Frankie was born and raised here. In 1986, he said, “there was no infrastructure, no electricity. Most of our lands were owned by private individuals, or in trust. We’d seen the complete disbanding of our way of life and wanted to get it back.”
In 1993 the Yurok ratified a new tribal constitution,
which emphasized protecting culture, lands, and sacred sites. We bought as much land as possible, acquired it any way we could: federal grants, state grants, NGOs, philanthropists, negotiations with individuals. Just the other day, an individual approached us, non-Native guy. He said: “I know what happened here,” and gave us 140 acres.
The constitution, explained Myers, “forbids the sale of Yurok land; once it’s back, it’s back.” Meanwhile, he continued,
we started building infrastructure, based on natural resources, so that one day we can take over those resources and become truly sovereign. Our tribal law is very clear: there are water rights; the river has rights. The next thing was to create jobs, often managing these resources. If there are no jobs to come back to, there’s no home to come home to. So we’re doing that—and our people are coming back.
En route I’d stopped off at the brewery, a convivial space decorated with an arrowhead and salmon tail motif, families tucking into fare from a burrito truck. “We can let that ‘drunken Indian’ stereotype go,” says Myers. Just the spot for a prudent Steelhead Extra Pale Ale, and Slammin’ Salmon Double IPA for the cabin at Orick.
Most Native Americans now live in cities. Nationally, the figure is estimated at 70 percent; in California it is 90 percent, of which the majority are not indigenous California tribes.
The Mission District in San Francisco changes with the city, yet doesn’t. It maintains connections to Mexico and points south, via the Spanish cadences, package dispatch stores, and murals that give the area its iridescence: the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl, hummingbirds, Carlos Santana. But there’s a new mural, announcing the American Indian Cultural District. It shows a Native woman with a traditional basket and the Golden Gate Bridge. The surrounding designs—turtles, paw prints—proclaim: “Welcome to Ramaytush Ohlone Land.”
Up a side street is an extraordinary institution, founded half a century ago: the Friendship House Association of American Indians, an inpatient substance abuse treatment center run by and for Natives, in the belief that “culture is medicine.” For twenty-five of those fifty years, Peter Bratt has been part of its staff or served on the board—since, he told me, “I got clean and sober myself.”
Native Americans started arriving in the Mission District in 1953, explained Bratt, under a federal policy “designed to turn Indians into white people by relocating them to American cities.” “Instead,” he said, “the opposite happened: urban Natives found each other, formed resilient intertribal communities, and organized for sovereignty and self-determination.”
Bratt, whose mother is indigenous Peruvian, explained that
today most of our clients are from California tribes; many staff are Californian tribal members, and many of those are graduates of the program. Some come to put themselves and their families back together—by getting back in touch with their Indian identity and ceremonial ways—the very thing that the government tried to eradicate.
Why is this important to the CTHC? “Today, with more Natives dying from opioid overdose than any other group,” Bratt said,
it’s critical to make the connection between state and federal policies of the past and the social dislocation impacting Indian communities right now. I don’t think America has come to the realization of what it did to indigenous people—and the historical trauma Native families and communities are still dealing with as a result of it….
It’s not lost on me that we’re having this conversation in a recovery program where people come for healing. In fact, it’s a metaphor. Because to regain balance and well-being means you have to do an honest inventory of yourself. And that can be a difficult and painful process. In the same way a substance abuse counselor or medicine person helps someone through his or her personal trauma, the CTHC can help guide us to a collective healing.
Across San Francisco Bay, the parking lot next to Berkeley’s Amtrak station doesn’t look like anything special. The restaurant it once served, Spenger’s Fish Grotto, has closed, but along Fourth Street, in faded paint, are the words “SACRED SITE.” Beneath the pavement is the West Berkeley Shellmound: a settlement of the Chochenyo Ohlone Indians, the earliest known habitation around the bay.
In 2000 the Berkeley City Council listed the site as a historic landmark, but in 2018 its owners, Ruegg & Ellsworth, filed suit to build a 260-unit apartment complex on the site. The plan was rejected by Alameda County Superior Court, and in 2020 the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the shellmound “one of the 11 most endangered historic places in the United States.” But in 2021 the apartment proposal was upheld on appeal by the California Supreme Court, and the site has become ground zero in the battle over Native heritage in California.
On a bright Sunday morning in May 2021, peopled converged with paint cans and brushes. By midday, along Center Street in downtown Berkeley, huge red letters read: “OHLONE TERRITORY.” In between was the logo of the campaign to save the shellmound, showing a seabird, fish, and setting sun over the bay, and at each end brilliant yellow California poppies.
Corrina Gould, effectively the leader of Native East Bay, took a microphone. “This says more than just ‘Ohlone Territory,’” she declared. “It’s about who we are and our presence here.” After the crowd dispersed, Gould told me:
Native Americans are in an urban situation where the word “Native” doesn’t really exist. We have to make it exist. Kids grow up exposed to all kinds of influences; you don’t really think in terms of Native in Oakland or the East Bay. They were being disappeared through the process of assimilation, as a matter of policy.
One of the first urban Native centers in America, Intertribal Friendship House, was established in Oakland in 1955, and by the turn of the millennium, says Gould, “the Bay Area was the second-biggest concentration of Native Americans in the country, after the Navajo Nation.” Native confidence grew with the nineteen-month occupation of Alcatraz Island by Indians from tribes across the country in 1969–1971, but even so, “most other Natives from bigger tribes didn’t know the Ohlone existed, didn’t even know what ‘California Native’ meant.” That changed in the late 1990s, with the halting of development at another shellmound site on Carquinez Strait. “I was finally able to tell our story, and talk about this as Ohlone land,” recalls Gould. “Other Natives and non-Natives started to listen. People were saying, ‘Wow! We didn’t know you were here!’”
The problem remains, though, that
there’s no Native neighborhood. Most of us are in Oakland, but where? We had to create our neighbors. We did walks to connect the village sites and reconnect with our ancestors. If you do that for a week, eighteen miles a day, you start to feel, even through the asphalt, what’s beneath, and your relationship to this land.
Gould would like to see the CTHC consider “how a city can give back land. What does that look like?” A land trust she founded is already talking to Oakland about “giving us Sequoia Park above Highway 13” on the outskirts of the city: “If we can get this right, people can go to other cities and say, Here’s the blueprint.”
Beyond that, says Gould, with the CTHC
comes the time for healing my parents could not even think of. My children and grandchildren realize there is a freedom inside them that my parents did not have. We’ve been hiding all this time, and during my lifetime, we’re able to step up and ask: “Hey, wait a minute! How can we go back, to go forward?”
But Gould separates truth from healing. Her ancestors were enslaved at a hacienda,
which owned the people who lived on the land. So I talk to the descendants, as to any other of the perpetrators who tell me, “We just want to heal.” I say, “We’ll get to that point. First we have to establish the truth. If we can’t do that, what are we healing on? We’ve been hearing your truth for two hundred years. What about our truth?”
Back in San Francisco, helping and healing is not the extent of Friendship House’s vision. On a table in Bratt’s office is a model for the most ambitious project of its kind in the history of urban Indian country: the Village SF, due for completion in 2025, will be a six-story gathering and ceremonial space, education and medical center, rooftop farm, women’s lodge, sweat lodge, and more. Last July Governor Newsom announced a state grant of $15 million to cover the remainder of construction. “We’re merely bringing an old indigenous system to the urban center,” says Bratt, “because that’s where the need is.”
The driving concept of Village SF was initially described as: “We are not rights based, we are responsibility based. These are the original instructions. Take care of the land, and the people of the land.” The words were those of Abby Abinanti, president emerita of the Friendship House board, chief judge of the Yurok Nation, and one of the most influential and respected Native Americans in the United States. Just as Bratt’s metaphor for the recovery project applies to the CTHC, so does her groundbreaking notion of restorative justice and its focus on responsibility.
Abinanti spoke at Friendship House. “It’s always good for people to realize, and own up to, what they’ve done,” she began.
Once you’ve made an error, it’s alive and out there, and you have to deal with it. If you never say what you did wrong, it remains. If you think what you did was OK, the harm grows. So how do we reckon with all the damage that’s been done? This places demands on us—we have to step up.
This is the foundation of how the Yurok court adjudicates. “It’s a modern tribal court,” she said, “dealing with contemporary issues in a tribal way—I call it modeling back.” But, more than that, restorative justice is Abinanti’s blueprint for the CTHC, and society’s reckoning with genocide and invisibility. She asked:
What does resolution look like? Well, you have to tell the truth; responsibility comes with truth. You may not know the consequences of how much harm you have done, but they do! So the question becomes: What do we do with this truth? Each institution will have to work out how to reckon with itself. We had an invasion, and now we still have the consequences of that invasion. We can’t go back to the villages, because the world is too different, but we can go back to the values of the village. You couldn’t burn the whole house down—it wasn’t contemplated. We can evoke the practices of the village, to create new practices, based on those value systems.
But the process, says Abinanti, begins with the notion that “you have to say, This has happened. You did it, it created an enduring pain, and we cannot allow that pain to go on forever.”
Months after the CTHC’s gathering by the rivers, at her office back in Sacramento, Christina Snider surveyed the discussion to date and the road ahead. Some things “will happen very quickly, others will take time,” she said.
Much of this healing is to reclaim a narrative: that it is worthy and worth it to be Indian in a place where it feels it is not. Not a day goes by when our kids and our families are not forced to process the realities of our situation as colonized peoples. Our message must be: we don’t need any more of their “fixes.” We can take care of our own people. That’s the reclamation of identity. This will be the Native story in our own words.
See Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016); and Jean Pfaelzer, California, a Slave State (Yale University Press, 2023). ↩
1974; University of Nebraska Press, 1993. ↩
Indians of California: The Changing Image (Oklahoma University Press, 1984). ↩
Michigan State University Press, 1999. ↩
We Are Not Savages: Native Americans in Southern California and the Pala Reservation, 1840–1920 (Michigan State University Press, 2001). ↩
Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846–1873 (University of Nebraska Press, 2012). ↩
An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873 (Yale University Press, 2016). ↩
University of California Press, 2022. ↩
University of Washington Press, 2016. ↩