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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Gold Rush Legacy, Part II

Air Date: Week of

Cheryl Colopy continues her report with the impact of the Gold Rush on Native American peoples.


CURWOOD: It's Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When new settlers poured into California 150 years ago to cash in on the Gold Rush, they laid waste to a land that up until then had been largely untouched by Europeans. But it wasn't only the environment that affected. The influx all but destroyed the region's native groups as well. The killing and scattering of Native Americans wasn't new to America, but in the settlement of California it was exceptionally swift and ferocious. Cheryl Colopy continues now with the second part of her special report on the legacy of the California Gold Rush.

(Native American singing and clapper sticks)

COLOPY: In the Sierra foothills not far from the American River where gold was discovered, members of the Maidu and Miwok tribes are holding their traditional big time festival. Three Maidu singers play clapper sticks while 4 men dance in eagle feather skirts.

(Singing and clapping continue)

COLOPY: But there's a bittersweet quality to this year's festival. Though Indians once thrived in these hills, the land now belongs to the city of Auburn, and the dancers celebrate their ancient traditions on the city's fairgrounds alongside a recreation of a mining encampment which also features a demonstration of blacksmithing and even a mock stagecoach holdup.

MAN: All right! Keep that out, I want that gun! Get out of there! (Yelling)

COLOPY: It's all part of a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Gold Rush. The Gold Rush launched modern California, but it also marked the beginning of the end for thousands of years of native culture here. The Indian traditions on display here today are reminders of what was once a rich tapestry of life for native Californians. April Moore is a member of the Nisenan Maidu nation.

MOORE: We are the descendants of survivors. The survivors were the ones that were the keepers of all this information, the language, the culture, the religion, how to live. You take that survival knowledge from your forbears and put it into practice today, and that makes it so much easier for you.

COLOPY: There were once more than 300,000 native peoples in California. Diseases introduced by Spanish missionaries cut that population in half by the time gold was discovered. In the years that followed, settlers enslaved or slaughtered most of the rest. By the turn of the twentieth century only 15,000 Indians remained. The festival at the fairgrounds may suggest that Indians and settlers lived peacefully here, but that is largely a fiction.

RAWLS: It really is a dark and bloody ground that we are walking on today. Most of us are not aware of that at all.

COLOPY: Jim Rawls has written 20 books on California history. He says few Californians know about laws which allowed Indians to be sold at auction, and Indian children to be forced to work as apprentices until they were 30 years old. Mr. Rawls says he spent years in libraries sorting through accounts of white men wearing scalps of Indians sewn to their pants legs. But the brutality of such stories didn't fully hit him until one day, after a lecture he gave in the northern California town of Ukiah. There, a local rancher said his great grandfather had made more money selling Indian children than cattle.

RAWLS: And as he was explaining that to me, a couple of Pomo Indian women, also very elderly, came forward. And one of them said that her great-grandmother had told her about this practice. And this was a secret in their family that they had kept for generations, and was now sharing that with this, listening to this white rancher talking about a similar family secret from his side.

(Native American singing)

RAWLS: The Pomo woman told me that her great-grandmother remembered when some whites were chasing them across the Navarro River, trying to steal the children. The mother got away, leaving behind only her youngest in a cradle board. They circled back around after the whites left and found the smallest child, the infant, still in the cradle board. But the child had been pinned to the earth with a knife. And when she told me that story, she was crying. And this white rancher looked me in the eye, and he said to me, "You better believe her. She's telling you the truth."

(Singing continues)

COLOPY: Jim Rawls says Indians coped with the invasion of settlers in different ways. Some retreated into the hills. Others got jobs working for miners. Edward Castillo, a historian at Sonoma State University, and a Cahuila Indian from southern California, says his own ancestors by turns tried fight, flight, and accommodation.

CASTILLO: If you put yourself in the shoes of an American Indian who experienced the Gold Rush, you have to see it, that the world has simply exploded in madness around you. That mayhem and mass murder is the stuff of your daily life.

COLOPY: Mr. Castillo compares the Gold Rush to wartime. He says its chaos and brutality were the result of vagabond men arriving in California without the constraints of wives and families. Within the first 2 years of the rush, 100,000 California Indians died or disappeared.

CASTILLO: If you're a little 9-year-old girl and you become somebody's sex slave and then you die during childbirth, you disappeared. Or, if you happened to be fortunate enough to survive, you have no idea who your parents are. So you just become a brown lower-class member of nineteenth century California society, and lose your identity as an American Indian.

COLOPY: But Edward Castillo says far more natives died violently at the hands of paramilitary groups with names reminiscent of today's sports teams. The Placer Blades and the Eel River Rangers. They killed Indians under the authority of the first governor of California, who sanctioned the murder in his first message to the new state's legislature in 1850. The legislature appropriated money to pay bounty hunters, then got reimbursed from the Federal government.

MAN: Oh! Come on, get down with this, this is the rabbit dance. Oh!


COLOPY: Back in Auburn at the Big Time, Maidu dancers invite members of the audience to join in the rabbit dance.

MAN: You know, if you refuse me, it gives you bad luck. Excuse me.

COLOPY: All right. All right, I'll leave my tape recorder running.

MAN: Okay.

(Singing and clapping sticks)

COLOPY: The dancers wear headbands of woodpecker feathers that cover their eyes. April Moore says they must know their dance steps well and play their instruments blind. Ms. Moore teaches California school children about Indian history. She says the state of California has been embarrassed to acknowledge the bloody history of the Gold Rush era crusade to eradicate Indians, and that she still encounters skepticism from teachers when she visits local schools. But she says she's not interested in stirring up old animosities, or making today's Californians feel guilty. She just wants to make sure that the history of what happened to her people isn't forgotten.

MOORE: The truth is, it never really hurts anybody. It just broadens your knowledge about what happened to a group of people or a race of people. And it's not meant to hurt anybody, it's just to show the truth. Nothing you can do about it. That's then, this is now. Now is to learn and accept what did happen.

COLOPY: For Living On Earth, I'm Cheryl Colopy in California's gold country.



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