Driving down international boulevard, East Oakland’s main inner-city thoroughfare, it’s hard to miss the Intertribal Friendship House. With its mural-rimmed courtyard featuring larger-than-life portraits of Natives, both famous and unknown, the community center, which some call the “urban rez,” stands apart from its surroundings in Oakland’s Little Saigon. And like pretty much everything involving Indigenous Americans, it’s been here a while.
Founded in 1955, the Intertribal Friendship House is one of the oldest urban Indigenous community organizations in the United States. You’d think that in a city and region that gave birth to the Black Panther Party, the Free Speech Movement, and the United Farmworkers, people would know about institutions like this. The Oakland-born Cheyenne and Arapaho writer Tommy Orange, after all, set a whole chapter of his novel There There, which was excerpted in The New Yorker, at an Indian center no doubt inspired by Intertribal. But I can’t tell you how many Oaklanders I’ve met who are shocked to learn that their city has one of the oldest and most significant urban Indian populations in the United States, that there’s a whole Native community center just a few blocks from the city’s downtown, and that the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz, which began in 1969—more or less the Indigenous rights movement’s equivalent of the Montgomery bus boycott—was organized in Oakland and the Bay Area.
After visiting her childhood home in the East Bay, which she found so completely transformed that it was unrecognizable to her, Gertrude Stein famously wrote that “there is no there there.” That turn of phrase is so overused that its origin sometimes get lost. But what Stein was commenting on in 1933—the transformation of one’s home place until it’s gone—is an apt description of how settler colonialism uprooted and remade Indigenous lands throughout North America and, in particular, California. I’m not a “California Indian”—the imperfect term for Indigenous peoples from what is now called the Golden State—but I grew up in a very Indian California, and it was under almost constant siege by a society habituated to extraction, displacement, and dispossession. I remember running around the Intertribal Friendship House with a bunch of other snot-nosed Native kids back when the nonprofit was borderline insolvent and the community garden was little more than a sandbox and jungle gym waiting to give you tetanus. The Native Bay Area and California that raised me was pocked with these invisible enclaves of Indian community: filled with love and holding on by a thread. When we moved to Oakland, my dad, an artist, used to show his work at a friend’s contemporary Native art gallery in San Francisco. (It closed decades ago.) In the spring and summer, I spent most weekends at powwows: intertribal celebrations of song and dance, held across the state in high school gymnasiums and blingy Vegas-size casinos. In the fall, there were Big Times, California Indian ceremonies held in semi-subterranean roundhouses that went on all night, celebrating the harvest, the change of seasons, and the persistence of once-outlawed cultures on tiny reservations and rancherias, like that of our Miwok friends in the Sierra Nevada foothills of Tuolumne. In the winter, we would drive back up to Tuolumne and hit the slopes with those same Miwoks at a family ski hill in the Stanislaus National Forest, a low-budget alt–Lake Tahoe called Dodge Ridge. A good fraction of the ski patrol and ski team there was Miwok.
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The Nixonian “New York Times” Stonewalls on a Discredited Article About Hamas and Rape
The Nixonian “New York Times” Stonewalls on a Discredited Article About Hamas and Rape
The struggles that protected, threatened, and animated these enclaves were almost always apparent. At the Intertribal Friendship House, gray-haired elders swapped stories about the days of their radical youth spent fighting for our rights on Alcatraz Island. After drum and dance practice on Thursday nights, we would gather around the All Nations drum and sing the American Indian Movement’s song (“Way-ha-way-hi-ya-ho-way-oh-way-ya-hey-oh…”). Homeless Natives, whom we all knew by name and by relation as aunties, uncles, grandmothers, and grandfathers—in an Indian way more often than a biological one—were always welcome, greeted with a handshake or a hug, a pot of coffee, a warm meal, and some walking-around money. At local powwows we started with gourd society protocols from Oklahoma, Aztec dances from south of the border, victory songs from when the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho kicked Custer’s ass at the Little Bighorn, and prayers in languages that the government and church tried to yank from our grandparents’ tongues. At Tuolomne, there were uncles haunted by nightmares of Vietnamese jungles and Gold Rush massacres who still carried on the old arts and ways. Long before the historians became revisionists and liberal politicians took an interest in social justice, we honored and carried forward what had come before—what “California” was designed to dislodge from our minds and the land. There may not have been a there there. But we were still here.
In recent years, Californians have begun to reexamine the history of the Golden State and, in particular, the plight of California Indians. In 2015, during his visit to the United States, Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra, the Franciscan friar who hobbled into Alta California with an ulcerated leg and asthmatic lungs in 1769, founding nine missions between San Diego and San Francisco. Serra’s sainthood sparked controversy. Some California Indians descended from Indigenous peoples evangelized at Serra’s missions met with the pope and played roles in his canonization mass. Others effaced, decapitated, and toppled statues of the missionary who, in their eyes, engineered the enslavement, genocide, and assimilation of the state’s First Peoples. Amid the racial justice uprisings that swept the nation in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Serra statues fell in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento.
Scholars and schools are shedding new light on some of the darkest and most easily forgotten parts of California’s colonial past. In 2016, Benjamin Madley, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, published An American Genocide, which showed that California’s treatment of Indigenous peoples in the first few decades of US rule constituted an attempted final solution to settler colonialism’s pesky wild Indian problem. The book won multiple awards, pushing a long-simmering debate in California and American history toward a conclusion that had always been maintained by California Indians but was eschewed by the academy. In 2017, the California Department of Education removed from its curriculum the requirement for all fourth graders to build a model mission. (When they had me do mine, I made a not-so-subtle statement by building the crosses in the graveyard taller than the church.) In 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an official apology to Native people for the state’s history of wrongdoing and established a Truth and Healing Council that aims to reconcile the state with its tribes. “It’s called a genocide,” Newsom said at a ceremony to consecrate the council. “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. I’m sorry on behalf of the State of California. I’m sorry that we’ve had generations—your kids and grandkids, your ancestors—that had to suffer through the indignities, lack of capacity and empathy and understanding, their lives lost, their lives diminished, and the incapacity of the rest of us to fully grasp the magnitude of what we in the state did to your ancestors.” In some parts of California, local people, organizations, and governments have tried to make things right by returning land, with parts of Big Sur, Inyo County, and Eureka going back to the tribes from whom they were taken.
We Are the Land, a new history of California by Damon Akins and William Bauer Jr., aims to continue this project of decolonization, self-determination, and repair, chronicling the centuries-long efforts of Indigenous peoples to hold on to the places their Creators made and their forebears toiled and fought to protect against waves of Spanish, Russian, Mexican, and American colonization that crested in genocide. Across 10 chronological chapters, Akins and Bauer narrate the Indigenous history of the state through various contested spaces: sites of creation, shores and waterways where California Indians discovered European explorers, Catholic missions where they worked and were baptized, the extractive frontiers of competing imperial powers, the blood-drenched goldfields, the casinos that transformed some of these communities into power players in state politics, and the hardscrabble reservations, rancherias, allotments, ghettos, universities, and bars where California Indians and relocated American Indian activists forged the modern Native rights movement. Each chapter is separated by a short place study, interpreting locations like San Diego, Sacramento, Ukiah, the Ishi Wilderness, Los Angeles, the East Bay, as well as Yuma, Ariz., and Rome, Italy, through the histories of the Indigenous. But ultimately the stories Akins and Bauer gather in this survey are about the Natives themselves, offering a compassionate reading of a people who have, even in some of the best revisionist studies, remained the “other” on the periphery. The details and voices of California Indians’ lives that the authors amplify from oral histories, primary documents, and secondary sources draw out the drama and recast the history of the 31st state from the perspectives of its First Peoples.
In Akins and Bauer’s retelling, California was an abundant, diverse, and even magical place before it was invaded. There were hundreds of thousands of Natives, perhaps even more than a million, speaking more than 100 languages, making the region one of the most populous and diverse north of the Rio Grande. The stories Indigenous peoples told narrated the creation of their world and rooted them in their homelands. The Luiseño in what is now Southern California, for example, maintain that an ancestor named Nahachish roamed the land poor and hungry, bestowing names on the places he visited: Picha Awanga (“whitish stomach”) for the place where he was fed whitish mush, a reservation now known as Pechanga; Páala (“water”) for the canyon where he quenched his thirst, now a reservation known as Pala. The Maidu in the northeastern part of the state say that after raising the sun and the moon and naming the stars, Earth Maker created a tree on which 12 kinds of acorns grew. Many, like the Esselen on the central coast, told stories about the trickster Coyote, who gave the people nets, bows, and arrows and taught them how to live off the fat of the land and sea: the seaweed, abalone, mussels, rabbits, deer, elk, and, of course, acorns (there are 15 species that grow in the state, and the nut was a staple for many tribes). The Pohonichi Miwok and many others also honor Coyote, who in their narration stole fire from Turtle and gave it to humanity.
Many of these stories, bridging spiritual and physical worlds, were accompanied by song, dance, and ceremony. In what is now the southeastern part of the state, Chemehuevis walked the 1,000-mile-long Salt Song Trail, measuring its distance, recounting their history, and marking their ties to the Mojave Desert through rhythm and lyric. In the Siskiyou Mountains in the northwest, Yuroks, Karuks, and Tolowas danced as part of their various World Renewal ceremonies every year. And when they fought, they sang and told stories about that, too. The Kumeyaay, from the area that is now San Diego, sang “bad” songs about their enemies, naming their dead, mocking their looks, and generally talking shit about their hunting, gathering, and fishing game. (North America’s first rap beefs may have actually been West Coast.)
When Indigenous peoples discovered European sojourners like the Spaniard Hernando de Alarcón and the English pirate Sir Francis Drake on their shores in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, their encounters were often sporadic and awkward. In 1540, for example, Alarcón foolishly decided to ascend the Colorado River from its mouth in the Gulf of California. The Colorado, which rushed red with sediment, was almost impassable for his little worm-infested ships. As the Spanish fought the current upriver, they came upon Cocopah villages. Each meeting offered an opportunity for the Indigenous and the interlopers to apprehend—and misapprehend—each other. At the first village, the Cocopah and the Spanish exchanged gifts. A Cocopah shapai axany (or leader) gave Alarcón a staff adorned with shells, which Alarcón reciprocated with “beads and other things,” according to his log. At the second encounter, Alarcón gave the Cocopah “some trifles” and fired off his harquebus, a primitive gun, startling his hosts and leading to his swift dismissal. Further upriver, Cocopahs prepared ceremonial arbors for Alarcón’s arrival, which the Spaniard misinterpreted as traps set for an ambush. While some of these greetings ended in misunderstanding, others included moments of genuine exchange. The Cocopah greeted Alarcón with blessings of cornmeal, cornbread, and corn cakes—sacred foods and gifts—and he in turn gave them Christian crosses, some made from sticks and paper so that the Cocopah could wear them around their necks. At one village, Alarcón built a big crucifix from timber, which the local Cocopah planted at the center of their town. Alarcón continued as far upriver as the Cocopahs would guide him until his broken ships forced him to turn around. A few months later, Alarcón’s countryman Capt. Melchior Diaz marched into Cocopah lands with about 80 men, a herd of sheep, and an itchy trigger finger. When a dog chased after his herd, Diaz went after the animal on horseback with a lance. He chucked his weapon, missed the pooch, failed to rein in his horse, and wound up impaling himself in the groin, dying a few days later.
Although the Europeans’ first acts in the Indigenous world were often impotent, their return in the 18th century stirred up big trouble. Beginning with the establishment of Mission San Diego de Alcalá in Kumeyaay territory in 1769, European settlements—and especially Spanish missions—disrupted the balance of power between various tribes and empires as well as between the human and other-than-human world in California. This rupture began at the missions and rippled out across entire regions. In 1776, for example, Fathers Francisco Palou and Pedro Benito Cambón led a group of Indigenous peoples, a herd of cattle, and a train of mules onto the peninsula homelands of the Yelamu to build a chapel and shelter that became Mission San Francisco de Asís. Their presence, which offered new military allies and trading partners for the Yelamu, threatened more distant Ohlone speakers like the Esselen to the south. The Esselen promptly raided Yelamu villages, forcing the first San Franciscans to flee across the Golden Gate in tule rafts. Once established, missions became focal points of Spanish colonization and, in particular, the policy of reducción, whereby Indigenous peoples were separated from their communities and families and coerced through what the historian James Sandos has described as “spiritual debt peonage” into various forms of dirty, hard, and unfree labor.
Between 1769 and 1800, these missions played a leading role in cutting the Indigenous population on California’s coast in half. In 1806, for example, a measles outbreak infected some 800 Indigenous people in San Francisco, killing 337. With such high death rates at the missions, the Spanish raided inland Indigenous communities to sustain the workforce and population of their settlements. Missionaries in San Francisco, for example, looked across the Bay, attacking and kidnapping members of the Huchiun villages in what is now Berkeley, Oakland, and Pleasanton. While the missions were deadly, brutal, and authoritarian places, they also offered new forms of work and faith for the Natives. At Mission San Francisco, some women expressed interest in becoming monjas (nuns). And as in other Spanish Catholic colonial institutions, the missions did not wholly stamp out Indigenous practices. In 1816, the German Russian artist Louis Choris visited San Francisco and painted scenes of Ohlone people—some in Spanish dress, others in traditional regalia, and still others in a mix of the two—participating in Indigenous gambling games and dances in courtyards shaded by crosses and mission walls. Across the Golden Gate, the Indigenous combined Pomo, Miwok, and Catholic rituals near a shoreline shell mound that, in the 1880s, would be occupied by Chinese shrimp fishermen from Canton. (It’s now a state park called China Camp.) What they could not procure from the missions via trade, Native populations sometimes took by force. South and east of what became China Camp, Miwoks and Yokuts raided Spanish settlements for horses and other livestock, which they used as mounts, food sources, and trade goods. As Spanish power waned and the Mexican period began in the early 1800s, Indigenous horse thieves, cattle rustlers, and fugitives took advantage of provincial, poorly funded, and weakly guarded settlements. Akins and Bauer share the tale of one Esselen outlaw, a man named Gonzalo, who ran away from Mission Soledad and was eventually captured and sentenced to die. Shackled and waiting for execution, he cut off his own heels without even a whimper and fled inland, where he joined a group of Indigenous insurgents led by the Coast Miwok warrior Lupugeyun. At the height of their spree, Lupugeyun, Gonzalo, and their crew could have given Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang a run for their money. They stuck up Bay Area missionaries and rancheros for five years until fate and the Mexican authorities caught up with them in 1824.
Americans typically date the beginning of their reign in California to January 24, 1848, when John Sutter struck gold on the American River. But this story of migration and sudden fortune, like so many other tales of the United States’ pioneering origins, directs attention away from the actions that actually yoked the Golden State to the Union, namely an expansionary war against Mexico and a genocide of Indigenous peoples.
Akins and Bauer put the Indigenous side of this history back at the center of these events. After his discovery, Sutter claimed to have legally leased several miles of goldfields from a group of Nisenan. As it turned out, the Nisenan with whom Sutter made a contract didn’t actually live in the immediate area of the find, and in any event, the lease was illegal because according to the Supreme Court’s 1823 ruling in Johnson v. M’Intosh, only the federal government—not private citizens—could acquire land from Native Americans. Nonetheless, when miners first descended on Sutter’s find along the American River in 1848, about half were Indigenous. And many were women, who repurposed their traditional baskets to pan for gold. (The coil and weave of the fibers were apparently well suited for snagging gold flakes.) Others, like the Yokuts ruffian José Jesús, abandoned lives as horse thieves for more lucrative extractive vocations.
Indigenous miners—and especially the women—were vulnerable to the violence, exploitation, outright enslavement, and bitter racism of the goldfields. In primary documents, Akins and Bauer come across American settlers bragging about the ways they took advantage of Indians: trading cheap goods like handkerchiefs for tin cups full of gold, exchanging various goods for gold of equal weight, using lead slugs called “digger’s ounces” to cheat Native miners when they went to cash in on their work. (The term “digger” was a racial slur that referred to Indigenous root-digging practices and intentionally rhymed with another epithet.)
Dehumanization wrought mass violence almost immediately. In 1849, a group of prospectors from Oregon arrived at the site of Sutter’s gold strike and tried to rape some Nisenan women. After the Nisenan exacted retribution by murdering seven Oregonians, the miners went on a killing spree, slaughtering more than 100 Nisenans in around a month. Other California Indians soon began to fear the goldfields and fight back against their exploitation. When, in 1850, American ranchers Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone threatened to ship a group of Eastern Pomo slaves off to Sutter’s Mill, the workers turned on and killed their captors. The US military responded swiftly. Brevet Maj. Gen. Persifor F. Smith ordered 75 soldiers to, in the words of Capt. John B. Frisbie, “exterminate if possible” the rebels. When, at a place now known as Bloody Island on Clear Lake, the Pomo leader Ge-Wi-Lih attempted to negotiate peace, the soldiers opened fire. The Pomos who survived the first hail of bullets jumped in the lake and attempted to swim to safety. Ashore, another group of soldiers shot everyone they could. In what remains the largest massacre in US history, the Army killed as many as 800 Indians.
California lawmakers soon formalized these acts of ethnic cleansing into what the historian Benjamin Madley has described as a “killing machine.” In 1850, the California Legislature passed the Indian Act, which effectively legalized Indigenous slavery by allowing settlers to take Indigenous vagrants, fugitives, and debtors captive. In the first decade of US rule, Californians subjugated as many as 20,000 Indians, including 4,000 children, as farm hands, domestic servants, and sex slaves. State-sponsored militias received more than $1 million from the state in the 1850s and ’60s, and between 1846 and 1873, they murdered 9,492 to 16,094 Indigenous peoples, according to Madley. Elected officials praised these murders as a “pedagogic killing” that taught the Natives a lesson. In one such slaughter in 1853, between 450 and 500 Tolowas were murdered in cold blood in the middle of the night at a Smith River village called Yontocket, which means “Center of the World” in the Tolowa language. The Tolowa had gathered there to celebrate their biannual World Renewal ceremony. Two Tolowa men escaped by jumping into a slough and swimming to safety. The next day, I imagine, they would have seen or at least smelled the Americans burning the bodies of their kin. Between 1848 and 1860, the California Indian population collapsed, falling from an estimated 150,000 to just 30,000.
While the state of California set in motion policies to extirpate the Natives, the US Senate dispatched Oliver Wozencraft, George Barbour, and Redick McKee to negotiate treaties with tribes primarily residing along mining frontiers from northwestern California through the Cascades and Sierra Nevada. (Coastal tribes, whose territories were claimed via land grants from Spanish and Mexican rancherias, were largely ignored.) Negotiations loosely followed Indigenous protocols not unlike the Big Time celebrations still held by many California Indians today: Feasts were prepared, gifts exchanged, speeches made, songs and dances performed, and sovereign parties to the treaties were often addressed as though they were entering into kin-based relationships. When the political theater didn’t meet cultural expectations, tribes sometimes called off the meetings. Upon learning that the Americans had brought jackets only for their chiefs and no clothes or blankets for anyone else, the Maidu picked up and left on the spot. With violent militias preying on Indigenous communities, many tribes and leaders were reluctant even to meet with the treaty party. Some, like the Miwok leader Cipriano, served as go-betweens, connecting skeptical and fearful Miwoks with US officials, translating between Miwok and English, and selecting safe meeting places where Miwok leaders faced minimal risk of ambush or capture.
Cipriano and other Miwok leaders met with federal representatives at Horr’s Ferry on the Tuolumne River on February 14, 1851. “After much persuasion and promises of reward,” according to the source Akins and Bauer cite, Cipriano spent the better part of the next month persuading Miwok holdouts to meet with Wozencraft, Barbour, and McKee to negotiate a treaty. Indigenous figures like Cipriano played pivotal roles in the negotiation of 18 treaties that would have reserved 7.5 million acres of land for interior tribes. But in a secret session in 1852, the US Senate rejected the treaties, buried the documents in legislative archives, and prohibited their publication. In a new plan modeled on the mission system, the United States attempted to round up and confine all California Indians to just five reservations. During the Civil War, this number was cut to three. After the war, it became four.
As California Indians were displaced and dispossessed in the late 1800s and early 1900s—the decades roughly coinciding with Gertrude Stein’s life—settlers and industrialists transformed their homelands. Dams erected in mountains and foothills altered the flow of rivers; irrigation networks drained deltas and wetlands. In 1858, armed citizens relocated Yokuts from Tulare Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Great Lakes, on which the tribe had relied for water and food for more than 10,000 years. By the 1870s agriculture had turned the lake putrid and salty. It was gone—wiped off the map entirely aside from a few small wetlands and occasional flooding—by 1900. That year, the California Indian population would reach its nadir, numbering fewer than 16,000 in the US Census.
In a political, cultural, and even environmental sense, California was perhaps the most hostile state in the union for Indigenous peoples. And yet at many turns in the 20th century, colonial systems unwittingly laid the groundwork for their own undoing. In the early years of the 1900s, Charles Kelsey, a San Jose attorney hired by the Northern California Indian Association, found references to the secret treaties signed by California Indians. During Theodore Roosevelt’s 1903 visit to San Jose, the NCIA presented the president with these documents and pressed him on the issue of California Indian land rights. Working with California Senator Thomas Bard, the NCIA and the Indian Rights Association found the treaties in the Senate archives and introduced a motion to print them. Kelsey was appointed to investigate. Across the state, Indians organized themselves. It took them more than two decades to get their day in court, but in 1928 Congress passed an act enabling the “Indians of California”—a new legal term defined as all Indigenous peoples residing in the state in 1852—to sue the federal government for lost treaty lands.
In 1928, California Indians won their case. But the government did not give these lands back, nor did it significantly compensate tribes for their losses. After the deduction of “offsets” for government expenditures incurred in the provision of services for tribes, the total awarded in the case was just slightly more than $5 million. A new lawsuit that focused on dispossessed Indigenous lands not covered by the treaties was launched in 1946. California Indians eventually won that case as well, and in 1972 California Indians received a paltry $700 each for their losses.
By the time that case was settled, California Indians had new in-state Indigenous allies: Native Americans who had relocated from reservations across the country to cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland. In 1969, a diverse coalition of urban Indians, Native student activists, and Indians who came from outside the state occupied the former federal prison of Alcatraz Island, bringing national attention to Native treaty rights and pressuring the federal government to embrace a new era of Indian policy based on self-determination rather than termination. Since Ronald Reagan signed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, California Indians have been among the biggest winners of this sea change. (Here, Akins and Bauer miss a notable irony: The Alcatraz occupation began, in part, because a developer wanted to build a casino on the island.) Today, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians employ more than 50,000 people in Southern California. In 2006, each Pechanga citizen received $40,000 in gaming revenue every month. Some California Indians—a small minority of the state’s Indigenous population, to be sure—are getting the better end of the bargain in this new gold rush.
Akins and Bauer end their survey in 2019, when the City of Eureka returned just over 200 acres on Indian Island to the Wiyot Tribe, the third in a series of repatriations that have brought 95 percent of the island back into tribal ownership, marking a remarkable turnaround for the Wiyot and the city. In 1860, settlers murdered hundreds of Wiyots, mostly women and children, with hatchets, axes, and clubs at Indian Island. After the massacre, Wiyots on the mainland came to the island to search for survivors. They found an old woman stuck in the mud singing her mourning song and an infant crying in his dead mother’s arms. The baby, Jerry James, survived. His people were moved onto the Round Valley Reservation in Mendocino County. In 1961, the federal government terminated the legal existence of the tribe. The year after that, the last fluent Wiyot speaker, a woman named Della Prince, died. Even though their sovereign legal status and language were gone, the Wiyot were not. In 1970, Jerry James’s grandson Albert James started pushing for the tribe to reclaim Indian Island. The movement resulted in the renaming of the island from Gunther Island—a name that honored the settler who claimed the place after the massacre—to Indian Island. The effort helped the tribe regain federal recognition in a 1981 Supreme Court case. It also likely marked the first time in US history that a municipality returned land to a tribe without being prompted to do so by a lawsuit and was yet another example of the California Indian comeback, a resurgence that is, in turn, transforming the state.
We Are the Land ends on this more hopeful note, telling a story of colonization followed by one of decolonization: a history of the foisting of successive and often bloody regimes imposed over and against Indigenous resistance and then the long and ongoing efforts of Indigenous peoples to reclaim their lands from outsiders. But I wonder what gets lost by viewing the recent history of California Indians as a “reoccupation” and “return,” as Akins and Bauer describe it—for, as the authors themselves show, Natives never left, and their influences shaped and continue to shape the California that many of us love. You wouldn’t have Hollywood without westerns, for example, and while you wouldn’t have westerns without John Wayne, you also wouldn’t have them without Natives on set. The Lakota leader and actor Luther Standing Bear had roles in over a dozen films, starting with Ramona in 1916. He founded the War Paint Club (later the Indian Actors Association), which pushed for more accurate portrayals of Native Americans. Around the time Standing Bear first appeared on-screen, the Indigenous sport of surfing, invented by Native Hawaiians, arrived on the sandy beaches of Southern California. And if you’ll indulge me: I even think Indians influenced California’s best NBA team—not the Los Angeles Lakers but the Golden State Warriors, who play a fast-paced game reminiscent of “rez ball”—the run-and-gun style favored on Indian reservations. After all, the Warriors’ coach, Steve Kerr, is a student of Phil Jackson, who grew up in Montana and has spoken about the influence of the nearby Fort Peck Reservation.
Indian California’s most lasting legacies, however, are political, social, and environmental, found in traditions of place-based resistance and in the proud and enduring spirit of Indigenous empowerment. These currents have not only carried First Peoples through the genocidal abyss but also continue to shape Indigenous, anti-colonial, and progressive politics. Akins and Bauer’s research reinstates many forgotten moments to the rich historical record of this intergenerational struggle. They write of Ipai defending their fisheries and exacting tribute from Spanish sailors in San Diego Bay in the 1500s and 1600s; of the coordinated Chumash and Yokuts revolt in 1824, when the Natives burned Mission Santa Inés to the ground, forced the garrison at Mission La Purisima to surrender, and captured Mission Santa Barbara; of the cunning guerrilla war waged by Kientpoos and 150 Modoc against the US military in 1872 and ‘73; of the Luiseños and Cupeños, who went on strike at Pala in 1913 to regain control of their land; of the La Jolla and Rincon Indians, who sued the Southern Sierras Power Company for trespassing in 1925; of the basket maker Mabel McKay, the last Dreamer of the Pomo people, who, when asked in 1934 by a Sacramento Union journalist what Pomos do, responded wryly, “Just live”; of the Native activists at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley who joined with other students of color in the Third World Strikes in 1968, helping found the first ethnic studies departments in the country; of the Ohlone activist Corrina Gould and the land protectors who lit a sacred fire and camped out for months in 2011 until they won protection of a burial site called Sogorea Te; and of much else. “If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you have to know that this place is full of magic,” Gould explained at a panel I organized at the San Francisco Library in 2019. “There’s movements that have come out of the Bay Area, like the takeover of Alcatraz, the American Indian Movement, Indians of All Tribes, the Brown Berets, the Black Panthers—all kinds of technology and ideas have come out of here.”
In the broadest sense, Native California has played an outsize role in the ongoing fight for a more pluralistic and egalitarian society, a role it is already reprising in the era of climate change. As record-breaking wildfires continue to ravage California and the West, more and more policy makers are considering reinstating long-outlawed Indigenous land management practices like controlled burns. Whether Californians realize it or not, they will likely embrace more, not less, of the governance systems and lifeways of Indigenous peoples in the coming years as they adapt to a rapidly warming world.
“It’s our responsibility to take care of this place in such a way,” Gould said back in 2019. “But taking care of this place is not just for us to do. There are thousands of people that live in our lands now, and so now that you live in our lands, it is also your responsibility. Because this land also takes care of you. Those prayers that our ancestors put down for thousands of years also take care of you and your family.”