“The California Indians . . . Have Very Little Chance to Show What They Can Do”: The Indians of California in “The Commonwealth,” 8 June 1926, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we continue with our look into The Commonwealth Club of California’s June 1926 examination, through its publication, The Commonwealth, into the “Indians in California,” the discussion moved from education to land and economics.  United States Forest Service official Louis A. Barrett began an essay by citing an 1870s report by Stephen Powers, in which it was said that “it has been the melancholy fate of the California Indians to be more vilified and less understood than any other of the American aborigines.  They were once probably the most contented and happy race on the continent . . . and they have been more miserably corrupted and destroyed than any other tribes within the Union . . . and they were swept away with the most swift and cruel extermination.”

Barrett placed the pre-Gold Rush population of the native people at between 150-400,000, though there a wide variance in estimates, but, he added, “all authorities agree that California had the largest Indian population of any part of the Union, and that this population was largely ruthlessly destroyed within the first twenty years after the gold was discovered.”  He suggested that conditions, though, were better for Indians in the 1920s than when Powers wrote his description a half-century prior, as virtually nothing was done for them by federal or state governments.

As for the causes of the dire decline of the native populace, Barrett identified three:  “the white man’s bad whiskey,” “the white man’s diseases,” and “the white man’s relentless invasion of the Indian’s home life and land.”  With regard to the latter, a table was included that showed there were 40 reservations, originally comprising over a half million acres, of which, however, only 7% was irrigable and just 2% actually was in that condition.  The current acreage, though, fell by over 15% to about 437,000 by 1926.  With respect to homesteads and land grants outside reservations, they totaled not quite 2,500, most under a federal act passed in 1887, though just 40 were actual homesteads.

Concerning the current population, a 1906 report stated a round number of 17,000, while the 1920s census reported just below that at 16,241.  The federal Indian Bureau provided an estimate in 1925 of 18,812, with more than half of around 10,500 within the reservation system.  A separate bureau report from 1920 involving above 13,200 natives recorded that there were 200 who had milk cows, just over 2,800 who had permanent houses, mostly on ranches of employers, not quite 400 residing in tents or “tepees” and above 1,800 residing in dwellings that had “wooden floors of some character.” 

With respect to the stated value of tribal and personal property of the Golden State’s indigenous people, this was pegged at about $12 million, though most of which was judged to be involved in land and timber resources, with most personal property represented in stock animals and farm tools and equipment.  It was added, moreover, that “compared to the Indians in most of the other states, the funds in banks, etc.,  . . . was very small.”

When it came to reservations, Barrett’s experience as a USFS official was that “the land set aside for most of these Reservations is of very poor quality” and “much of it is practically worthless even for grazing purposes.”  Some were in better shape, with Pala in northern San Diego County noted as “a shining example of what the Indians can do when provided with some good land and a sufficient irrigation supply” with natives generally having under 2 acres but still doing decently economically.

The allotments under the 1887 were usually for quarter sections of 160 acres and mostly in central and northers parts of the state, with most of “little if any agricultural value, being chiefly valuable for grazing or timber” while “many have little value for any purpose.”  Even when good timber was included, the properties lacked sufficiency for farming or houses being “in extremely isolated places” while many owners were not even aware of where the locations precisely were situated. 

Barrett noted that, in 90 cases in Modoc County, in the northeast corner of California, there was not one resided on by the native owner.  In Plumas and Lassen counties to the southwest of Modoc, not even a quarter were lived upon by owners.  In many instances, timber lands were already handed over to lumber companies. He went on to observe that “from an agricultural standpoint, most of [the allotments] are worthless” and even the best farmers “could not possibly eke out an existence” on them, especially when many lacked the access to irrigation that was essential to any success.

With respect to homesteads, of which, again, there were only forty, he noted that some had some decent value of several thousands of dollars and that “when an Indian has good land he generally makes a go of it.” These few parcels, moreover, were “better for agriculture than those allotted to the Indians” by the 1887 law and, some 80% were occupied by native people who were either the original recipients or inherited or otherwise acquired the parcels from family members who were.

1924 census data in thirteen central and northern California counties enumerate 171 farms of just north of 19,000 acres and a combined value of not quite $600,00, with the average size 112 acres and valued at about $3,400, though “compared with the schedules for the white farms . . the value of the farm buildings was small.” Beyond this, “only a small portion of the Indians . . . have land that was considered cultivable. Another problem was “the traffic among hem by bootleggers [this was the era of Prohibition] and vendors of narcotics” which affected the productivity of native workers on the ranches and farms of whites

Males doing this labor typically were irrigating, working with hay, handling animals and the like, while women mainly did housework, especially laundry, including younger natives, and Barrett recorded that “many Indians prefer this kind of an existence to living on an allotment, since the allotment as a rule is poor land and requires more work in order to make a living. In some cases, so-called “ranch Indians” paid for the products of the farm that they used or consumed or were for their own animals.

To sum up, he observed that “it is evident that about 80,000 acres in California have been set aside for the Indians,” with half in allotments to individuals, though, again, a good amount “covers the poorest land” with perhaps 10% cultivable, including dry (non-irrigated) farming. While there might be some decent timber land, about a third of the entire amount “is absolutely worthless, even for limited grazing.”

Furthermore, even with the acreage and the population averaging 50 acres per indigenous person, “as a matter of fact many of the Indians have no right in, or title to any land.” Put another way, only 10% of native land could be cultivated, but only half was irrigable for the average of 5 acres per individual, although even where there was water enough for irrigation “it is a constant fight to maintain their water rights against the aggression of the white man.”

Barrett finished up by reporting on a survey conducted with “a representative list of people . . . who are familiar with the Indian situation” and which concerned “just what use the Indians of California have made of such good agricultural land as they may have acquired.” The consensus was that natives “make excellent use of such good agricultural land as has been furnished them” but these opportunities were far too rare.

As for conclusions, it was noted that most land given the indigenous people was worthless for farming and, in some cases, for anything at all; that there was a lack of ready access of water for irrigation; that something needed to be done to provide decent farmland, with Pala being a good model; that small usable tracts were far better than large parcels of poor land; and that, with no available land at hand, any distribution to natives had to “be though purchase and subdivision of private holdings.”

Recommendations were two-fold. First, that “good agricultural land should be furnished the Indians, that it be placed under irrigation when necessary, and that the purchase, allotment and management of the land be placed in the hands of a commission of experts who are familiar with California conditions,” per a bill introduced a few months earlier in the House of Representatives by Representative Florence P. Kahn. The other that was that “it would be a mistake to settle the Government’s obligations to the California Indians by a cash payment” as some suggested, “since the money would soon be dissipated and the average Indian would again be left without a means of support.” Kahn’s bill, it was concluded, would provide “the right method of attack,” which was a poor way of expressing it.

Dr. Edward F. Glaser of the State Board of Health then presented a report on “Health Conditions Among the Indians of California, in which he advocated that:

To make a proper advance to restore the Indian’s confidence and belief in the white man, no avenue compares with that of rendering him adequate medical, surgical and sanitary service.

Not only this, but Dr. Glaser reported that “in the annals of sanitaria . . . for indigent tuberculous patients , , , the only one who ever returned and offered to compensate for previous [free] treatment was an Indian.” Even with incomplete data, there was no doubt the poor health wracked the indigenous community, as noted by health officials, including nurses and others who worked with them, along with reports and writings of experts.

In 1921, the district health officer of the health board, Dr. Allen F. Gillihan, was appointed to complete a health survey of the Indians of the northeast corner of the Golden State and “his findings of the deplorable health conditions . . . were substantiated by his finding” three years later of “practically similar conditions among the Indians in the Southern counties.” Given the fact that “they lead a peculiarly hand-to-mouth existence, improperly housed, inadequately fed and generally living on poor land without sufficient water to ordinary living purposes,” it was small wonder that the environment was so poor.

Gillihan was struck, for example, by how few children and elderly persons, the ones most susceptible to disease, were in reservations he visited and it was confirmed in speaking with a doctor at an Indian hospital that the problem was not fertility but the high infant and child mortality rate. There were enough children born “but ignorance of and lack of proper feeding” causing “intestinal derangements” were the most common cause of infantile death and a lack of water for food for cows, of course, “meant no milk for babies.” Yet again, Pala was cited as an example of where this condition could be averted.

Broadly, it was tuberculosis that was a major factor in death, with one native person saying that all of the children, or perhaps just one or two, out of a family of up to 14 were living because of the ravages of the highly transmissible lung disease. Another quote from an indigenous person was “He sick long time, he cough lots, he get very weak and he die.” Venereal disease also ran rampant, while the eye disease, trachoma, which led to partial or total loss of sight, “exists most extensively,” in perhaps a third of all natives.

Moreover, elders told health officials that such conditions did not exist before contact with whites “and curiously the connect the trachoma with the so-called social diseases that the white man introduced among them.” At Fort Bidwell in the northeastern county of Modoc, some 60% of children in the school had it and one reservation reportedly had all of its residents come down with the malady. While there was some medical treatment in limited circumstances, “the communicable diseases,” Glaser noted, “find the Indians easy prey, and outbreaks of smallpox and diphtheria are not uncommon,” while malnutrition was considered “universal among them.”

The doctor minced no words in asserting that

the present status of medical service for the Indians in California, is, aside from the humanitarian impulse, a reproach upon every one concerned: a reproach to the state as well as the Federal Government because the Indians are now considered the legal citizens of the state. It is a discredit to each and every one of us and a blot upon what preventive and curative medicine should be accomplishing.

There was a decent facility for all southern California natives at the reservation of the Soboba Indians of Riverside County near Hemet (Walter P. Temple was a frequent visitor to the tribe’s resort and built the Tepee, next to his La Casa Nueva, as a copy of a cottage he used there), while smaller ones were found at Riverside and on the California side of the Colorado at Yuma, Arizona. In all cases, though, they lacked enough staff and there was no operating room, so patients had to go to county hospitals for advanced services.

In the northern part of the state, there were no such facilities and, barring an exception here and there, “no adequate care given to the sick Indian.” While there were small hospitals at Round Valley and Hoopa Valley and a bed might occasionally be found for a native at a county facility, “the treatment that the Indians generally receive is not such as would encourage them to make use of these hospitals.”

The federal Indian Bureau had just four full-time and five contracted doctors and, at Fort Bidwell, 600 Indians “receive the attentions of a medical man two months every two years” while the physician “stays at Fort Bidwell and they must come to him.” Otherwise, the other twenty-two months of that period, the natives had to reply on a very busy, under-compensated county doctor.

Glaser noted that it was clear “that what we have in the health of the Indian in California an acute condition” and that it was equally the case that the best remedies were not to be found through the federal government, but via the state where, he claimed there were those “alive and sympathetic and capable of appreciating and meeting the daily changes in the demands and needs of this big problem of the health, hygiene and sanitation of the Indians.” State, county and city hospitals existed to care for ill natives if there was “some adequately equipped and financed authority” and the doctor and other committee members recommended passage of House and Senate bills to address this need.

Not surprisingly, Glaser opined that the Board of Health was the best agency suited to deal with the natives and their health, with its bureaus of tuberculosis, child hygiene and sanitary engineering along with a hygienic laboratory. “It only needs,” he added, “the necessary funds to provide the proper personnel and maintain the added overhead,” and with the infrastructure in place with the Board, “there should be produced many times better return for the money invested.”

More field nurses were also considered vital as

The public health nurse’s great value lies in the fact that she, even better than a doctor, can go into the living quarters of the Indians, work with them, teach them and nurse and bring the sick to the proper medican attention.

Glaser added that “with the State of California interested in the medical care of the Indian, all the county hospitals could be thrown open to them” and having a Indian Bureau specialist and a nurse working with “an ambulatory clinic,” a good deal could be done to aid the natives and “also serve as a preventive and protective measure for the near-by white population of California.” Emphasis needed to be placed on improving the health of children, whose rate of infant mortality was a shocking 200 per 1,000 births.

Glaser continued that “the fecundity of the Indian couple in California is only exceeded by that of the Chinese” and enhanced maternity care, including instruction on infant feeding, with surveys of school children to better understand needs, “would produce a better race of Indians to replace the present half sick depressed adult Indian.” Universal vaccination for smallpox, a terrible scourge among the indigenous, was also necessary and he concluded,

With these measures, to be augmented by others, a beginning could be made towards bringing up the health and physical standards of the Indian. This would bring to the problem a fair start and would serve as a foundation upon which to build gradually a better service to the California Indian.

The third part of the post comes tomorrow with more remarkable material from this fascinating publication, so be sure to check back in with us then.

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