“Lay Aside Your Protective Prejudices That Obscure the Truth”: The Indians of California in “The Commonwealth,” 8 June 1926, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The Commonwealth Club of California is nearing its 120th year of working “to investigate and discuss problems affecting the welfare of the Commonwealth [of the Golden State] and to aid in their solution” as well as to “maintain itself in an impartial position as an open forum for the discussion of disputed questions.” While it is preeminently a Bay Area organization, headquartered in San Francisco, the questions it has addressed are of broader import.

The highlighted object from the Museum’s collection for this post is the 8 June 1926 edition of the Club’s official journal, The Commonwealth, and we’ll examine its focus on “Indians in California” over multiple parts because of the remarkable content at a time of dramatic federal and state policies concerning Native Americans, which can be compared with current conditions nearly a century later.

It was first noted that “conditions surrounding the Indian population of this State have long excited public sympathy,” though apathy and hostility could also be found in ample amounts. It was added that the Club discussed indigenous issues in publications, meetings and presentations in 1909, 1916 and 1924, with the last involving a talk “on the attempt of the [federal] Indian Bureau to suppress the religious ceremonies of certain Indian tribes.” This led members to request an investigation with 27 men issuing their report, shared in this issue of the publication.

Charles de Young Elkus, the chair of the committee (called the “Section on Indian Affairs”), opened his remarks with a question about whether it was known that there were 18,000 Indians in the state and that “some of them are still living in wickiups as they did before the white men came, [and] that some of them are compelled to live on acorns and fish as their chief food supply.” These 18,000 persons were what was left of approximately 200,000 natives who were in the state when the Gold Rush erupted in 1849, but “the California Indians suffered a more rapid extermination than those of any other state in the Union.”

Elkus noted that there were nearly twenty treaties between the federal government and California tribes, but added “we have their lands but the Senate never ratified these treaties and the Indians never received the benefits promised.” Not only that, but “the Indians of California have received and are receiving less proportionately from the United States Government than those of almost any other state” while the feds were looking to move responsibility to the state. He observed, though: “let me add that our state and county government have not been entirely without blame.”

Moreover, Elkus stated that as charges of the federal government, Indians were completely under its control, including with legal matters, so that “an Indian cannot question in court the acts of his guardian, the Indian Bureau, in the handling of the Indians’ property” and lacked all means of recourse. Yet, he continued, whatever the variances were with regard to conceptions of property, economics and community, “the Indian when he has had reasonable opportunity and education has adjusted himself to his new environment and made good even according to our standard.”

He averred that the problem was “economic maladjustment” and that “we are failing to meet his particular needs” with education and health, the later being “shamefully neglected.” The aim of the section report was to detail the issues and suggest solutions, but Elkus asserted:

We have taken his lands, his means of livelihood by hunting and fishing, and made or him out of his own country a foreign and unfriendly environment . . . we ask that you the descendants often even of the first or second generation of the conquerors lay aside your protective prejudices that obscure the truth and view the facts concerning this conquered race as they are.

The section then appointed a pair of members to look into the legal rights of the indigenous people and Chauncey S. Goodrich delivered an address on “The California Indian’s Legal Status.” It began with the observation that “every Indian in California is a citizen, even as you and I” with the passage of a 1924 bill by Congress that granted this to all natives residing on reservations, while before that, “the scattered bands of Indians” not on these were recognized as citizens.

It was added that the California Supreme Court, a decade prior to the publication, ruled that Indian citizens were to be permitted to vote and “to attend the district school,” while those that left reservations retained these rights. Goodrich, however, noted that “the idealistic attitude of the Supreme Court can hardly be accepted and put into immediate operation by those retarded [he meant backwards-thinking and acting] mountain and desert counties where the majority of Indians lives.”

So, there was the idea versus the real and, as Elkus noted, the Indian was a ward of the federal government, both as to person and property, while Congress failed to appropriate reasonable funds for the indigenous population. In Sacramento, meanwhile, state government “differentiates absolutely between the Indians who live on a reservation and those who live off the reservation. Goodrich made a distinction between the executive branch and its acknowledgment of some obligations to native people with respect to land, financial assistance and military protection and what was done (or not done) by the legislative branch.

Because of the lack of federally ratified treaties for California’s Indians, any land, water or other aspects granted to them were “a matter of grace rather than that of right” while any responsibility of the Department of the Interior was exercised by its “own caprice.” This was especially the case as “red tape, and lack of funds, tie the hands of the best Indian agent” while reservations “are generally of such poor land, or so waterless, that most of the Indians have to earn their living in the white world outside,” allowing the Interior department to absolve itself of even the modicum of actions for them.

For the “scattered Indians,” the feds felt no obligation to them because it asserted “the reservation Indian has a preferential claim to the insufficient funds provided by Congress,” so the former was the problem of the state. The only hope was some form of cooperation between Washington and Sacramento

to contribute to some extent the money which it [the federal government] is using now, and the state agencies, which are actually on the spot, which are familiar with the conditions, and which are becoming alive to the necessity of lifting these citizens to a par approaching that of others to spend the money.

William J. Drew addressed “Educational Provisions for California Indians” and began with a dissection of the nearly $2.5 million, a paltry sum, expended on California’s indigenous people between 1920 and 1924. Of this, a third went to salaries and wages for bureau employees, and about 21% to irrigation projects on reservation land. Other larger amounts were miscellaneous expense, building construction and repair, subsistence [presumable emergency foodstuffs and the like], and equipment and material.

When it came to office and school supplies and medical supplies, however, only a little more than $25,000, a miniscule amount was appropriated. A federal bureau document as quoted concerning the need for “in some way [t] come to understand Indian psychology” and that officials had to “consider the Indian as an Indian” and not “a diluted specimen of the American pioneer white man.” Knowing the native’s “mental and social equipment” was critical “for developing in him qualities which will make of him a citizen in whom the ownership and control of his own property may be safely vested.”

Attempts by state officials to determine this matter were thwarted by complaints by “school patrons” while trustees and superintendents of districts wanted guidance on legal issues and how to receive financial aid. With assistance by the Club, the state superintendent of public instruction reported in early 1923 on the need to determine how many Indian children were in California and it was found that this was problematic. Examining the 1920 federal census and Bureau of Vital Statistics records, a 1922 estimate was that, of some 17,000 Indians in the state, about 8,000 were under 21 years of age, with an exact number of of 4,564 purportedly of school age children.

During a survey, “visits were made to Indian schools, to public schools receiving Indian children, and to various reservations and rancherias” along with meetings with Indian Bureau officials, school superintendents and teaches, among others. What was found was “that the Indian Bureau maintains three types of schools—the non-reservation boarding school, the reservation boarding school and the so-called day school.” The curriculum was adjudged to be consistent so that “quantity not quality should vary.”

The only example of the former in the Golden State was the Sherman Institute near Riverside, now the Sherman Indian High School in Perris, which was “taking its pupils from anywhere in the West” through tenth grade, with “preference . . . given to those showing ability to profit by its superior advantages.” The school had 775 students in 1920, twenty-five above capacity, but only some 40% were from California, but enrollment jumped to around 1,000 by 1925.

As to reservation schools, there were three, at Fort Bidwell in the northeastern corner of the state, Hoopa Valley, in the northwestern corner, and Fort Yuma in the southeastern corner. A total of 525 students attended the trio, while 371 were in sixteen day schools, covering through fifth grade. Some children were in public or mission schools and about 500 were said to not be attending any school at all.

After noting that that “Indian will develop if given [a] square deal” and quoting the head of the Indian Defense Association, who lambasted the claim that native children could only learn through about the fourth grade as “a libel against the Indian,” Drew added that “of the Indian schools visited, Sherman Institute was by far the best in equipment and grade of teacher, though he added that “like all the other Indian schools, it . . . proceeds consistently upon the conception that the Indian is inferior to the white man” despite federal pronouncements otherwise. Moreover, “every Indian girl is viewed as a potential house servant and every boy as a farm hand.”

Even as the best of its kind, “the training given at Sherman fits neither the boy nor the girl to return to Reservation life as it is now in California,” especially as the latter involved poor land, limited water, few jobs “and the primitive domestic life does not include the electric iron” while an open fire could not substitute for “the big hotel-size kitchen range.” Fort Bidwell’s school “was a disgrace,” with one teacher only recently graduated from high school and not having a teaching certificate.

As for the day schools, they might have looked good on paper, but “in actuality they were found to be pitiful makeshifts” even though only five were visited, though found to be so similar as to be representative of the whole. Basically, the federal policy toward these was viewed as “an expense-reducing expedient” and “as a waystation to enrollment in public school.” Again, there was not much to criticize about the concept, but “we cannot hope for, nor do we get, ‘competent teachers’ not efficient service” for the outlay of funds provided, while health staff were virtually non-existent, with a field matron covering an immense area using a horse-and-buggy and having no nursing training.

In some cases, Drew reported, “children enrolled in public schools from Indian day schools have been found to be greatly retarded [again, meaning behind],” while some were defined as “a social outcast” and others considered to be “an ordinary human being . . . holding his own in class.” Not surprisingly, public attitudes were wide-ranging “from a cruel exploitation to friendliness and honesty,” with some believing native children to be “dirty, diseased and dull.” Even if some of these instances were true, he continued,

it would seem to be a condition brought about in the local community by the white man’s neglect, rather than by inherent and ineradicable traits peculiar to Indians. The half-breed child is not wanted in the school attended by his white half-brothers or sisters, nor in the community where complications over inherited property rights might arise.

Also problematic was the lack of documentation on how federal funds were used for education and it was noted that “when the Indian child comes from a decent home, there is little or no objection to his attending the white child’s school.” The issue was more about “the aversion to the natural results of continued poverty and ill-treatment for which the white man is responsible.” But, with the shift of the responsibility moving from the federal government to the state, the problems were exacerbated.

Drew again noted that “of all the Indian schools today, Sherman alone shows signs of life and a prospect of development,” though he added that a day school on the Tule River Reservation, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains southeast of Visalia, did have land, animals, decent housing and a young trained teacher, so that “this is a school happy and vigorous” where students asked questions. Yet, all too often, Indian children were “often made [to be] outcast[s] in schools” when they were paupers, with examples given of sick and dirty children who attended class infrequently.

To sum up, Drew noted that Sherman lacked “after-school follow-up work that would make that Institution truly effective;” that day schools were being phased out in the push to transfer Indian children to public schools; that these schools and their districts were being advanced tuition for accepting students; but having poor indigenous children was a major problem; while tuition money went to a teacher’s salary, school buildings and equipment and not to “needy Indians;” and that educating native children could not be left to teachers who were too young, too old or too inexperienced.

There were eight recommendations, including creating a state Indian welfare program to improve finances, health and education; a conference of state and federal officials to better outline the state’s authority and duty to new Indian citizens; that education of Indians also include “de-pauperizing him and building up his self respect;” that Sherman have a field agent trained in social work and assist graduated in guiding their social and occupational opportunities; that boarding schools have the same standards for general juvenile custodial care as established by the boards of charities and corrections; that day schools either have public school standards or be shut down, with equipment given to the county school officials for use of child and adult Indian education; that Indian children school tuition go from the feds to counties, not school districts and match per capita education costs in the state; and that centers be set up in the north and south “for fostering the Indian Community Life” with health, as well as education, being central.

We’ll continue tomorrow with the second part of this fascinating publication, so please come back and read more about it, but the educational discussion here is particularly timely with the news of the terrible past treatment of young Indian children who died while in boarding schools, but whose situations have brought so many wrenching questions about what happened to them.

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