“Are Not We Native Sons of These United States?”: The Indians of California in “The Commonwealth,” 8 June 1926, Part Three

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This third part of the remarkable “Indians in California” report for 8 June 1926 issue of The Commonwealth, the journal of the Commonwealth Club of California takes into further fascinating material concerning the native people of the Golden State during a time of dramatic change in terms of government relations along with enormous societal change as California underwent continuing heavy growth during the Roaring Twenties.

The chair of the club’s “Section on Indian Affairs,” Charles de Young Elkus provided a general summary of the committee’s work and began with a pointed series of questions and observations:

You have the facts. What are we to do about it? Washington is a long way from its ward. Guardianship at such a distance is far worse than absentee landlordism. The United States spends considerable sums, but the overhead[,] not the Indians, receive the benefit. Educational and health paper programs are theorized about and planned in Washington but real work in the field is noticeably absent. Personnel is protected at the expense of the real party in interest. Red tape and bureaucracy abound.

Elkus continued that the section felt there was a better way, including two bills before Congress largely drafted by committee member Robert Searls, grandson of a former chief justice of the California Supreme Court, including one presented by Representative Florence P. Kahn and which called for fair compensation to the natives for the land taken under the 18 treaties and otherwise by the federal government.

Any such reparations, however, were not to go to individuals but be controlled by a California Indian Land Commission, with representation from the federal as well as the state government, and the goal of which was “to accomplish the economic rehabilitation of the Indians . . . [through] the acquirement or improvement and development of agricultural lands and homesites.” These were to include existing reservation lands, when possible, along with water rights, irrigation systems, livestock equipment, farm machinery, trees, seed and other items, including long-term loans. It was simply added, “it is an attempt to render tardy justice.”

The other piece of legislation, sponsored in the House by Representative Phil D. Swing and in the Senate by Hiram Johnson, former California governor was to ensure that Congressional appropriations were to be directed toward “the care and relief of the Indians of California, including health, education and relief of the aged, infirm and injured.” These funds were to be administered through the state agencies for education, health and public welfare.

Elkus went on to say that, while these bills needed to be passed during the current session of Congress, they were, it not, to be supported until they became law. The state stood ready, but it was up to Congress to get the money to it for expending via the state boards, so that “divided responsibility in administration will then cease.” If both bills passed, he concluded, it “would mean a real opportunity to the Indians and entitle us possibly to at least a modicum of his respect.”

Club vice-president E.T. Thurston then announced to the members assembled to hear the report that “we are exceedingly fortunate in having with us this evening in the person of Awaku, a Yurok Indian, who is known to his pale face brothers as Robert Spott.” After noting that Spott was a Klamath River-region farmer to present the native perspective, Thurston added that there would have been “a more touching appeal . . . had Mr. Spott [come to] appear before us in the uniform of the United States Army, showing across his breast the distinguished service ribbon which he won overseas” during the First World War. Moreover, Thurston cautioned that, if it was hard to hear the speaker, “please bear in mind that he was gassed overseas.”

Spott began his plain-spoken narrative with the simple observation “I am here to tell you that we are almost at the end of the road.” This was because the Yurok used to have places to pick berries and acorns and hunt for game and fish, but “today, when we go back to where we used to go for our berries, there is the sign ‘Keep out'” and he asked, “What are we going to do?” It was the same with the hunting areas and the fishing grounds, “taken up by white men.”

Even when there was a mile-long strip on either side of the Klamath River that was purportedly a reservation for the Yurok and which were considered good lands, Spott asked his audience, “Do you think we own it?” The answer was “it is homesteaded by white men.” In the upper Klamath, another reservation was occupied by natives, but a surveyor told them there was different land for them because the reservation was, again, homesteaded by whites.

Spott noted that “that land is no good. We want the land where we used to gather acorns and where we used to pick berries.” He continued that “you hear that Indians will not work on their homes,” but he asserted, as others did in previous reports, that this was not the case, as “they will work if the land is good.” This was because “we cannot raise anything upon rocks or in gravel,” which, as noted previously, was what most reservation land contained.

The Yurok then turned to his wartime service:

Are not we native sons of these United States? I did make up my mind in the war that I am American and I went across overseas to fight for this country. Then the officers came to me while I was overseas and they told me, “You are all right. You fought for your country.” I just gave them a smile and I thought to myself,” Where is my country when I get home?” (Applause)

He mentioned his people lacking fish and acorns and who were, therefore, starving, and who also did not have decent clothing, while many children died of disease, mostly from tuberculosis (as noted before in this post). The nearest doctor was in Crescent City, nearly 25 miles away, but the fees were $25, so he asked “where are the poor Indians to get this money from to get a doctor for their children?” Spott’s concern was that “inside of four or five years more there will be hardly any Indians left upon the Klamath River.”

Continuing that “I came here to notify you that something has to be done” to improve the health and education of his people, Spott added that “my father was an Indian chief, and we used to own everything there” along the river, but the allotment, under the aforementioned Act of 1887, was only for ten acres comprising “a little farm of land which is mostly gravel and rock, with little scrubby trees and redwood.” Even when promised animals, a plow “and everything so that you can improve your land,” none of this was delivered, so that his father died at 90 and Spott noted “I am waiting for it right now.”

As for federal officials, Spott stated that they gave short shrift to the indigenous people, while, if a white man came to him “he will stop in front of the white man and whisper to him.” If a native person asked for assistance, the agent merely stated that he would write to Washington and get an answer in two months. Again, however, “just the minute the Indians are waiting in front of the Government building there will be two or three white men in there talking with him.”

Spott, who later became the Yurok’s chief, then came to the conclusion of his remarks:

I would like to know today if we ever will get our country back. I hope that you, my friends here, will help me to win my country back, because I am not looking out for myself only. I am looking out for the rest of the tribe, and I want these Indian children to be put in good physical condition. I am looking out for four or five years hence, and I want the rest of the tribe and the little children to grow up to be men, so that if there is any war declared I want my Indians to step out, as I did, to have good sound lungs, and pass an examination so they can fight for this country.

Following was Colonel Lafayette A. Dorrington, the superintendent of the Sacramento Indian Agency and who was, in the introduction by Thurston,” noted as “in charge of all Indian affairs north of the Tehachapi in this state,” this being an incredibly vast area for one person to oversee, but that exemplified the problem of federal administration, such as it was.

In fact, Dorrington defensively began his remarks by telling the Club, “I feel that I am the defendant before the court tonight,” and that, while he was told by someone next to him “that I was to be the star of the evening,” he glumly asserted, “I feel more like a bird that has been plucked.” He went on to say that much that had been said about the Bureau of Indian Affairs could be challenged and that not all the facts were understood.

As for education, he stated that the BIA was working with some 4,000 native children, 60% of them in public schools and provided $100,000 a year to the state for tuition along with transportation in some cases. While he acknowledged hostility by white adults about having indigenous children in public schools, Dorrington stated that “the children themselves, white and Indians, get along very well indeed and if let alone there would be little or no trouble.”

While he allowed that Louis A. Barrett’s report on Indian land was thorough and “fairly accurate,” he countered that “there are some good Indian allotments in every locality” and claimed that natives who received allotments chose their own land, though what choices they really had is the question. Dorrington professed that there was far more to comment on but he demurred, though he did question the claims of diminution of native numbers in California, though he cited national figures showing an increase of 27,000 persons to almost 350,000, but the growth compared to the general population was quite small. He cited growth in school children populations nationally, as well.

The superintended brought a report by two federal officials who were ordered by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to survey and report on the status of California’s native people and, while he praised their qualifications and work over several months of work, all he would say about it was that “much of this report does not agree with what has been stated here tonight, and therefore will not be offered or referred to for the purpose of contradicting what has ben said.” Dorrington did, though, add that he would quote from it by reference to any country requested by those at the gathering.

When Stephen Knight asked about Mendocino County, Dorrington retorted, “that is the worse county in the State” and then added, “you have made a good selection, son,” prompting Elkus to note that Knight was from that county, specifically Ukiah. Dorrington then read portions of the report dealing with that area, including statements that natives “take no interest in improving their homes and small tracts, though they are surrounded with progressive white ranchers.” Younger people were said to lack “any ambition to accumulate and get ahead,” while elders were neglected and needed help, particularly in winter. Dorrington then praised the Hopland Indian school as “a credit to any community” and worth a visit.

Thurston then introduced Knight as a member of the Pomo tribe and its Ukiah branch and who offered a few remarks, first praising Barrett and his comments on the land and economic conditions of natives, including those who lived in “Wickiyups.” Knight then asked “who is responsible for that condition?” and noted that the 18 federal treaties drafted in 1851-1852 were because it was “believed at that time that every stream and every valley in California had great quantities of gold” and officials “did not want the Indian to be put in possession of land for fear that some of the gold might fall into the hands of the Indians and they [whites] would lose it.”

He reiterated it was not the native people who were to blame but “you here tonight are as much responsible,” though he quickly noted “your grandfathers and ancestors, I mean . . . because I am sure you would not sanction those things now, under different conditions.” Knight opined that, if those treaties had actually been ratified by the Senate “the California Indians would be very much like the Sioux and the Cherokee Indians, who have their own land and homes, and are quite prosperous.”

He then told the assemblage:

I think they way to cure that condition is this: I am a great believer in Indian education. I think that if the Indians had been educated forty years ago there would be no Indian problem today. It is not correct to say that the Indian is inferior to the white man mentally. (Applause) If they were, how do you account for Charles C. Curtis, the present floor leader of the United States [and vice-president with Herbert Hoover from 1929-1933], who is part Indian?

Knight added that the Cherokees were better educated than most indigenous Americans and added that he was schooled at a federal government institution and was grateful for that, though “I have always felt as though the Government had never treated the Indians fairly in California.”

As for Dorrington, Knight accounted him “a very fine man” and “a very good official of the Government,” while “perhaps he is the exception.” He added that his tribe worked hard to get a day school for Pomo children, but found these were “no place to educate your children,” so they lobbied for a conversion of the school into a public one under county authority, though that took legal action to pursue and achieve.

Pointedly, Knight asked “if the members of this audience, or the majority of them, will continue their interest in the Indian cause, or if it just a temporary matter, and they will forget it all after while,” because “that has been the history of all organizations that tried to do something for the Indians.” He felt the BIA absorbed other groups, such as the Indian Rights Association and the North American Society of American Indians to break them up and added that “the Indian Bureau has done more harm for the Indians in California than good,” aside from the remission of tuition fees to counties.

Louise Clark, superintendent of Sonoma County schools remarked on the tribulations of natives in her area since she arrived three years prior, noting the terrible conditions which included the few children only attending school very sporadically. She worked with the indigenous people to build a little school house, but started instruction outdoors with children sitting on rough half-sawn logs, and she said the Indian school “is the most interesting school that I have out of my 155 schools” and that “the pupils are just as awake as they can be.”

Clark also praised Dorrington for his important help in the project and added they were sports teams, a garden and orchard and a program to care for the redwoods. After she noted the dire living conditions for natives in her area, she asked “Are these people worth while?” and “Are they law abiding?” and was emphatic in stating they were, citing an indigenous shaman who, when a deer was spotted at a reservation, despite much hunger in the community, told his fellows that it was unlawful to kill deer at that time of the year.

Dr. Allen F. Gillihan, who worked on a health survey mentioned earlier, noted that “the speakers only told one-tenth of the truth,” not to criticize them, but to point out how widespread the problems were among the Golden State’s indigenous population. He also told the audience about “the minority report, written by Colonel [J.J.] Warner in 1852,” in which the longtime Los Angeles resident and owner of a San Diego County ranch with a large native community, wrote of the situation that “is even truer today as to the condition of the Indians than it was when he wrote it seventy years ago. he knew. He saw. he was right. Read it!”

Another commenter was Alfred L. Kroeber, a renowned anthropologist and authority among whites about the natives of California and who remarked that “compared with the Indians of most of the country, they have at all times been a peaceable people, not wholly without friction, but on the whole getting along with each other and getting along with the white man.”

When it came to interacting with Europeans and Americans, he added, “the Indians received them with hospitality and generally with kindness” and noted “it does seem very much as if those were the very qualities that led to their best crowded aside.” Kroeber did opine that most whites did not act on “deliberate malice” but from “simply an indifference . . . that they had nothing serious—in many cases nothing whatever—to fear from the native occupants of the soil.”

Mrs. H.C. Roberts spoke of the Yurok and others of the Klamath River region and reiterated the inaccessibility of much of the area and then stated,

I did not understand the attitude of the white people when I went there. To me it was a country of romance. He was a wonderful civilization with a few remnants of Indian families in groups that had the courage to stand off our influence . . . These people were so far superior in their moral attitude to what we are that I have often been ashamed.

Roberts added that she wrote a letter to Spott from his mother, who said, “I don’t [know] why he went. He is all right. He said he went to fight for his country, but he has no country. They tell us he is fighting on the other side of the ocean. People said that some people that you call the Germans did something to some other people. You did that to us, you white men. Nobody fought with anybody.”

The health conditions were tragic, Roberts went on, and she said that she believed in human goodness and morality and found that among the tribes there, but “you are regarded as a fanatic” by her fellow whites. The only other white person who helped the natives was a woman who came as a nurse and “has gained the confidence of the people.” She urged support for the aforementioned bills, saying “the Indians respond to kindness: even as “their civilization is destroyed, and all we have givn them in return is tuberculosis, venereal disease, and oblivion.”

Finally, there was Georgiana Carden, a California Department of Education employee who conducted a school survey among the natives and who said that federal tuition money going to public school districts were not required to be accounted for by those local officials. Sometimes, these trustees stockpiled the money or spent it where it was not needed, such as in new buildings, heat for classrooms or increasing teacher salaries unless those were applied directly to the benefit of indigenous children.

We conclude this post with the remembrance of what Knight asked as to whether those present, even those as manifestly sympathetic as many of those whose reports and comments were included in The Commonwealth, would continue to support the natives or forget about their situation. Almost a century later, reading this material is a reminder of the fact that the lessons of American and California history were not the and still have not been well enough absorbed when it comes to the indigenous people.

2 thoughts

  1. There’s one line in Robert Spott’s speech that particularly drew my attention. After he explained how badly Indian people were treated by the whites, he badly enunciated his mission — hoping to have Indian people be loved by this country as well as to love this country. Because he was a US veteran, his hope was to see his Indians would step out as he did when war was declared. In order to fight for this country, he hoped his Indians to “have good lungs” to pass the Drafting Exam. To see healthy lung being specifically named as a critical factor was a bit unexpected, but it soon made sense to me when thinking of the fact that tuberculosis was one of the deadliest diseases between mid-19th and early 20th century with scary contagion rate and death rate prior to its nationwide sharp decline shortly after he made this speech in1926. Moreover, I also think Robert Spott was using this statement in front of an audience of all whites to re-emphasize what he had blamed earlier that his Indians actually got tuberculosis through the whites. Can we say an important historic background was condensed here into just a few words? 

  2. Hi Larry, yes, Spott’s address was remarkable in several ways, but a main one was that a better-educated and healthier native population would be better obviously for them and for the country, especially if they could serve their country (for example, the importance of the Navajo code talkers during World War II, as well as soldiers in active duty and wartime service). Of course, he was also largely concerned with the survival of his people on their ancestral land, including access to the use of land for economic security.

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