California’s ‘Secret’ Past Beginning to Be Told


For decades, the state landmark declaring that the majestic Round Valley was discovered by white settlers in 1854 was like salt on a wound to valley tribes.

Native Americans, after all, had lived in the region for eons before settlers arrived. Also missing from the plaque was any reference to the tide of Indian deaths and cultural destruction unleashed by the “discovery.”

This year, state officials installed a revised plaque acknowledging the valley’s original inhabitants and explaining what happened to them.


To some, it was a victory in a long-running campaign to set the record straight on California’s still largely secret history--the forces, accidental and deliberate, that swept away all but a handful of the state’s native inhabitants.

“The way I feel is the way the East Berliners felt when the wall started getting knocked down,” said Round Valley tribal council member Ernie Merrifield. “It’s a sense of new freedom and the key word is ‘truth.’ ”

The truth about Indians in California isn’t pleasant. Driven from the land that sustained them, decimated by unfamiliar diseases, they were hunted nearly to extinction during the Gold Rush. Once estimated at 300,000, only 15,000 remained by the 1900 census. Almost 95% of the original population had vanished.

“Californians are unaware, generally, that our forbears committed themselves to the literal extermination of the California Indian people,” says James J. Rawls of Diablo Valley College, who has written several books about California history.

But confronting that past isn’t easy.

Elsewhere in the West, the question of historical perspective has been tackled. In Montana, the 1876 battle where the 7th Cavalry was defeated was characterized as Custer’s Last Stand and portrayed for decades as the site of a tragic U.S. loss rather than a resounding Indian victory.

The battlefield was named for Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, and the only memorial was to the men who fought and died with him. But after years of effort by American Indians, the site was renamed the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, and construction has begun on an Indian memorial.

It took Round Valley tribes four decades to get the wording on their plaque changed. Clashes over historic symbols elsewhere have also led to protracted battles.

A statue of early San Jose Mayor Thomas Fallon has been stowed in an Oakland warehouse for more than a decade after protests from Mexican Americans that it represented U.S. imperialism.

The Fallon statue is expected to be installed downtown this summer, now that other new monuments are in place, recognizing the area’s Latino, Spanish and Indian leaders.

In San Francisco, statues of Juan Bautista de Anza, who led the first group of settlers from Mexico to San Francisco, and King Carlos III, who supported the United States during the Revolutionary War, sit in a warehouse, banished from public display because of controversy over their association with colonialism.

A compromise was reached on a third San Francisco statue, the Pioneer Monument, which stands near the main library.

The century-old statue raised hackles in the 1990s because it portrays an Indian in a subservient position to a Spanish missionary and a cowboy.

The Roman Catholic Church and the Spanish consul objected to initial efforts to write a plaque explaining the history of American Indians, complaining that it unfairly singled them out as responsible for the Indians’ demise. The plaque was eventually reworded to detail other factors as well.

The compromise didn’t satisfy everyone; some American Indians wanted the statue mothballed.

Rawls, who worked on the plaque wording, thinks old symbols should be put in accurate context, but not swept away entirely. “We all know if we’re ignorant of the past, we’re condemned to repeat it. We Homo sapiens need to be reminded of our capacity for evil just as we need to be reminded of our capacity for good.”

In Round Valley, a breathtaking bowl of fir-lined mountains about 150 miles north of San Francisco, reservation residents hated the plaque from the day it went up in 1959.

People threw paint on it, wrote the word “LIES” across it and even shot at it.

But until recently, no one expected to change it.

“It’s just like the attitude was, ‘You can’t fight City Hall,’ ” Merrifield said.

Two years ago, the state Office of Historic Preservation began holding community meetings and reviewing proposals for new language for the plaque.

Descendants of the original settlers liked the plaque the way it was. Indians and other whites, including some with family histories of being run out of the valley by some of the original pioneers, wanted it changed.

There were some state-brokered compromises. Indians wanted “genocide,” to reflect how their numbers were ravaged by disease, malnutrition and attacks. “The state mellowed that out and toned it down to ‘conflict,’ ” Merrifield said.

The final wording acknowledges the Yuki Indians as the original inhabitants of the valley and points out that, after conflict with European settlers in the 1850s, the region was declared a reservation and other tribes were forced onto the land. In 1864, the government reduced reservation land by four-fifths.

One sunny afternoon last spring, about 200 people gathered on Inspiration Point under a bright blue sky to dedicate the new marker.

“Forgiving is not forgetting,” Round Valley tribe member Cora Lee Simmons said. “It’s just letting go of the hurt.”