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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


July 13, 2002 - Issue 65


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California Trip Shatters Stereotypes

by Dorreen Yellow Bird Grand Forks Herald
credits:Terri Anne Formico. Greeting the Dolphin People in California
Even though I have lived in many parts of this country, I believed that the northern Plains was the "real" Indian country after all, North Dakota is my home. And while it is true that this is Indian country, there are, and were, other areas where large groups of Native people live.

During my recent trip to the Native American Journalists Association conference in San Diego, I learned that California has many tribes.

I believed the stereotype about California and thought it was reaffirmed by the recent story about the Native American woman and her two children who were the only members of a remote California tribe and who were seeking permission to build a multimillion-dollar casino. Many of us in North Dakota believed that most of the Native people in California had been sent there through a federal relocation program that began in the 1950s.

But then, I met a woman at the conference who is from one of the California tribes. Debra Krol took me and two other friends from the conference to a summer solstice ceremony at the Barona reservation, some 25 miles east of San Diego. I was expecting to see a casino and some people who, perhaps, identified themselves as Native Americans.

As a result of that trip to Barona, I learned something about the tribes in California. What I learned, of course, is just a very small part of their history. I shouldn't have been surprised that there were many tribes in California. After all, the state is a beautiful land with the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other the land of sunshine and beaches. Certainly, tribes would find that a good place to live. But then, that probably was one of their problems. When the settlers' western migration began, California was the "hot" spot because it not only had sunshine and beaches, but it also had gold.

The gold rush incited ambushes, massacres and campaigns to exterminate the Indian people in California.

Some of the heartbreaking and awful facts I learned is that, originally, there were about 300,000 Native people living in the California area. By the 1900s, the census indicated only about 16,000 had survived the gold rush and the appalling massacres that followed.

Were those people who came to California really that awful to Native people? Here is some historic information. Judge for yourself:

The price for a Native American's severed head in Shasta, Calif., in 1855 was $5. The price for a scalp in Honey Lake, Calif., in 1863 was 25 cents. The state government's reimbursement for scalping missions in 1851 was $1,000,000.

About 4,000 Native children were sold, with boys selling for up to $60 and girls up to $200.

The cries of the masses of Native people who died during that time probably still can be heard.

Chief Tanaya of the Ah-wah-nee-chee asked American soldiers to leave them in peace: "We do not want anything from the white men. Our women are able to do our work, Go, then; let us remain in the mountains where we were born; where the ashes of our fathers have been given to the winds."

The truth is that many Native people did survive. They seemed to find refuge in anonymity. Many live in small rancherias or on tiny reservations. The federal government didn't seem to want to take up the battle on their behalf against the large populations of non-Natives who loved the land.

It is the tribal casinos, like a second wave of warriors, that came to their rescue.

On a trip to the Barona casino, I saw the result of this infusion of money. As we drove farther and farther into the hills, I watched the landscape turn rugged. Huge ochre boulders jutted out of the sides of the mountains, as Krol wove her way toward the reservation. As we neared the area, we came to a valley and, there, sitting like an oasis in the middle of this rough ground and sagebrush, was their casino.

We didn't go into the casino, but it looked luxurious. Instead, we turned north, still looking for the ceremony. We found their new museum and heritage center. From there, we were directed between the pools and past some shiny new cars, that seem to say: "Here was some payment for what we lost."

When we reached the area, a group of Native American people was seated around a table under some tall trees. You could see the rim of mountains or hills in the background. I watched as several large birds I thought might be eagles circled the top of the mountains.

The people were there to celebrate and to encourage the young people to embrace the culture to let them know who they are. They sang, using rattles rather than drums, as we do in the northern Plains. The four or five singers sang, and after awhile, several women began to dance.

We ate with them, and they gave us the usual food, with one exception acorn pudding, I called it. It is very nutritious, but a little tasteless. One of the Barona women explained how it was collected and made. I thought of our acorn trees here and wondered if we had missed something in not gathering them.

Krol pointed out their pepper trees, too, which I wanted to stop and take a look at. But since we got lost coming back, that wasn't a popular request.

This small group of Native people who are struggling to retain their culture and language shared with us, and I thank them. I also thank them for teaching me about the Native people in California our cousins.

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