California Genocide

Genocide is a strong word denoting a planned extermination of a racial, political or cultural group. It should not be used lightly. But what happened to the indigenous tribes of California qualifies as genocide, and that history is explored in A Seat at the Drum.

For thousands of years, the southern and central Pacific coast region was one of the most densely populated areas north of Mexico. Population estimates range as high as 300,000 American Indians speaking 80 distinct languages. Because of the bounty of the sea, the pastures and hills, the Indians didn’t have to farm to survive. They fished, hunted and gathered an enormous variety of wild food. Acorns ground up and cooked into a soup, mush or bread was the staple for many groups.

In California, the genocide of Native tribes was done in the name of the church.

At that time, the Chumash tribe was the largest group with around 20,000 members. Despite the diversity of tribes in the region, archeological evidence doesn’t indicate a lot of inter-tribal warfare.

Then in 1769, a Franciscan missionary named Father Junipero Serra led a Spanish army up from Mexico and reached present-day San Diego. It was he who built the first of 21 missions that would extend up north to San Francisco. When he encountered the Chumash, Fr. Serra failed to recognize a centuries-old religious tradition. “Believe me,” he wrote, “when I saw their general behavior, their pleasing ways and engaging manners, my heart was broken to think that they were still deprived of the light of the Holy Gospel.” He promptly set out to convert all the Indians he encountered to Christianity.

He also set out to make the native populations slaves to the farms supporting the missions. Spanish soldiers kidnapped Indians by the thousands. They were given Spanish names, dressed in blue uniforms and became farm workers — something they had never done. They also were forced to care for livestock, tanned hides, and produced candles, bricks, tiles, shoes, saddles, soap and other necessities.

If they misbehaved, they were whipped, branded, mutilated or even executed. Hundreds and thousands of Indians — both in the missions and in surrounding areas — died of malaria, smallpox or other new diseases imported by the Spanish for which there was no native immunity.

Beginning in 1775, many of the mission Indians began to revolt. Some 800 Ipai and Tipai Indians burned down the San Diego mission that year. The revolt was brutally put down by the Spanish soldiers, as were all of the revolts.

The years of warfare and mistreatment took their toll. At the Santa Barbara mission alone, more than 4,600 Chumash names fill the burial registry. Indians were put in mass graves near the church, and were denied either traditional or Christian burials.

Acknowledgement: Country Diaries

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