The Historical Context

There are unique and painful realities to be told about the dominant culture’s interactions with the Native peoples of Northern California and Nevada.  As a result (as is also true of histories elsewhere in the US), it can be a very difficult history to simply read, let alone to seek to more deeply comprehend.

It is common knowledge, though perhaps not often acknowledged, that across most the history of the dominant culture’s spread across the US territories, the humanity of the people making up what were called Indian tribes was severely discounted, or even completely disregarded, in a generalized manner, with little understanding of the histories of individual Nations, or their respective cultures.   Sadly, the result of this is that deep within the dominant culture lies a tragic (and often still unexamined) legacy:  that we still don’t actively know our neighbors, and tend to see them as mostly invisible. Likewise, the unspoken history hangs in the air between the peoples, while the dominant culture’s disregard essentially teaches this lack of resolution as the norm.  Instead, it would be helpful for each community to have local school curriculum outlining the local histories and cultures of the peoples who first lived in a given area of the state.  Reaching out to local Native communities can be a sign of turning away from this lack of knowledge and a repenting of the unspoken assumption that this attitude of disregard is appropriate.

Northern California and Nevada, because of the history of Spain’s mission system, and then the Gold Rush, present unique histories of compounded tragedies that befell the people who had lived here for more than7,000 years prior.

Large and thriving populations lived throughout the state, by most estimates totaling over 350,000 people.  The missions, which extended northward as far as Sonoma, sought to redeem the Native peoples for Christ, even if they dramatically disrupted their lives and often essentially enslaved them, were causing many deaths by foreign diseases and cultural disruption. The value of Native “souls” was not a principal concern, however, for the settlers, robber-barons, and miners that followed the Spanish to California.

Perhaps there was no single, repeated pattern of white/native interaction beyond various levels of disregard or aggression.  Tragic genocidal acts are documented over many years, and in many places, arising from various circumstances and various justifications.  More common practices among many areas were raids of villages in order to take slaves for labor on ranches, or in the mines.  Because missions left much of Northern California largely untouched, unsettling patterns of native flight were mixed with intermittent histories of such slaving, outright warfare or even hunting parties, and sometimes, unstable, localized efforts at co-existence and trade. 

As the Gold Rush followed the missions, much changed, and quickly.  The tribal people of Northern California, and their lands, were no longer beyond the reach of the new settlers and miners.  Although there were various efforts by federal officials to avert some disasters, or to negotiate treaties, territorial and state officials worked against them. 

For example, an elaborate system of treaties with numerous Native groups died in Congress and at the state house after tribal leaders had been assured the negotiations with federal authorities could be relied upon. For a time state law sanctioned the taking of Natives essentially as slaves, with little or no accountability for the white ranchers who did so.  There were some clergy, military officers, and others, as we know from their writings, who were appalled at what was done to Native people. But most seemed to have been complacent, more focused on their own survival and prosperity, seemingly to see the Native people more as a tool for the dominant culture’s hopes and successes, than as human beings.

Just as native communities encountered increasing waves of white prospectors and settlers, so also did they encounter new waves of deaths due to disease.  The push for gold, and the surge of white immigration, along with the general lawlessness of the region, and the general disregard of Native life, greatly exacerbated the tragedies that befell Native peoples in our region, as compared to other areas of the country. 

Tragedy did not end with the close of the 19th Century.  The practice of forcibly placing Native children in schools, which for many in Northern California meant being sent to the St. Boniface Indian Industrial School in San Bernardino, has been documented to have involved in many cases relying on the slave labor of the children to support the school.  In addition, it was common practice at the schools to prevent children from using their Native languages.  Finally, families had to pay prohibitive costs of transportation in order to get their children back, if they could get them released.

How can we come to grips with such a history?  Perhaps we ought to first accept that we simply cannot do so in one simple act.  Committing to learning history is hard.  Learning it, and then relating honestly with local tribal peoples is a further step, and these steps cannot happen on a simple, predetermined timeline, but will occur more organically, as the various requisite elements come together over time.  Trust, like education, takes time.

Perhaps you can sense that the movement of grace calls us to seek a sincere means of apology on behalf of those of the dominant culture who came before us. Perhaps you can sense that we in the dominant culture still have negative habits that disregard an unspoken history, lurking beside our genuine appreciation, from afar, of Native culture and spirituality. We need to repent for our forbearers sometimes bloody understanding that Indian lives were of less value, and Native spirituality less holy.   We need to repent of our own culture’s need to forget what happened, and seek sincere relations with our Native neighbors.

A central part of an Act of Repentance must be to grieve that murder, domination, and inhuman disregard were often perpetrated, even overtly justified, as fulfilling God’s will.  Much harm was perpetrated under the Banner of Our Savior, in the names of Christians everywhere.  The universal Church’s reputation could hardly be said to have recovered. Despite the evidence of numerous and vibrant Native Christian groups today, many Natives, understandably, to this day strongly distrust our faith tradition.

Formal actions, or statements of apology, have been taken by a relatively small number of groups: The Canadian Anglican Church issued a formal apology in 1993 for the painful history of domination of native peoples. Apologies also came from the Prime Ministers of Canada and Australia in 2008. The papal nuncio apologized to the US Native American group called The Tekawitha Conference in 1982.  Last year Pope Francis apologized and asked forgiveness not only for Catholic church actions, “but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”[1]

The UMC General Conference made an Act of Repentance in 2012.  After a long process of dialogue with local Native nations, The Rocky Mountain Annual Conference did so in 2014.

An Act of Repentance is a start to acknowledging we have not done enough to decry the wrongs of this history, and to seek to extricate ourselves of unconscious disregard regarding the various legacies still fresh today for us all, for the many grandchildren of the grandchildren of those who were there.

[1], quoting the New York Times. Accessed on 1/17/16.



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