Op-Ed: Los Angeles owes Native Americans an apology

Known to some as "Indian Alley," the former site of a Native American rehab center is now covered with murals commemorating part of Los Angeles' forgotten history.
Known to some as “Indian Alley,” the former site of a Native American rehab center is now covered with murals commemorating part of Los Angeles’ forgotten history.
(Doriane Raiman / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom took an important and historic step this week when he apologized for California’s role in the killing, enslavement and violence against Native Americans. He called their treatment genocide.

Now it’s Los Angeles’ turn to offer an apology. No other city in the state went further in the 1850s to strip away the rights of Indians, make their labor available to whites, and hasten the devastation of the Native American community in the city.

California became a state in 1850 after the U.S. won a war against Mexico and claimed the territory. The very first law passed by the new California Legislature on April 19, 1850, targeted Native Americans. It was nicknamed the “Indian Indenture Act,” and it was adopted to address the worker shortage caused by the Gold Rush.


The law allowed any white man to identify a Native American as vagrant, lazy or drunk, which would permit a marshal or sheriff to arrest and fine him. Since most Native Americans could not pay the fines (their culture had been decimated by the Spanish missionaries), a week’s worth of their labor would be auctioned off to the highest bidder, who would then pay the fines.

Los Angeles wasted little time in adopting its own, stricter version of the ‘Indian Indenture Act.’

Los Angeles wasted little time in adopting its own, stricter version of this law. On Aug. 16, 1850, the Los Angeles Common Council passed a bill allowing the city’s marshal and his deputies to arrest “vagrants” and conscript them to serve on what were essentially Indian chain gangs to work on municipal projects. If the city didn’t need any work done, the marshal could sell the native’s labor to the highest bidder.

This law had a built-in incentive for the marshal: He received $1 for every eight Native Americans he rounded up. It was common on Sunday nights for the marshal and his deputies to go to the infamous Calle de los Negros, a downtown street lined with bars, gambling dens and places of prostitution, to collect inebriated Indians who had spent the weekend there.

The marshal would load the men into wagons and take them to a corral to sleep off the alcohol. Then he would conduct a public auction and sell the men’s labor for $3 a week, pocketing part of the take.

“Sometimes of a Monday morning we have seen the Marshal marching in a procession with 20 or 25 of these poor people,” reported the Los Angeles Star on Dec. 3, 1853.


In theory, Indians could have escaped their detention by paying a fine, but few had the means.

“It was impossible for them to buy their freedom,” wrote historian Richard Stevens Street in “Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913.” “Indeed, there is no record of a single man doing so.”

The practice horrified some Angelenos, who saw the sale of Native American labor as akin to the slavery of the Deep South.

“Los Angeles has a slave mart as well as New Orleans and Constantinople — only the slave at Los Angeles was sold 52 times a year as long as he lived, which generally did not exceed one, two or three years under the new dispensation,” Horace Bell, a newspaper publisher, wrote in his memoir “Reminiscences of a Ranger.” “Those thousands of honest useful people were absolutely destroyed in this way.”

Winemakers in Los Angeles benefited the most from this form of indentured slavery. Los Angeles was the center of the state’s wine trade at the time, and Native Americans — and their cheap labor — had long been central to making wine.

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By the early 1850s, there were about 100 vineyards in and around Los Angeles, which was also nicknamed the “City of Vines.” Modern-day reminders of that era include streets named for early winemakers. There is Vignes Street, named after the pioneering winemaker Jean Louis Vignes — whose 35-acre vineyard is now Union Station — Bauchet Street, Wolfskill Street, Kohler Street and Requena Street.

“Much of the work connected with the grape industry was done by Indians,” wrote Harris Newmark, a Prussian Jew who immigrated to Los Angeles in 1853, in his memoir “Sixty Years in Southern California.” “Stripped to the skin, and wearing only loincloths, they tramped with ceaseless tread from morn until night, pressing from the luscious fruit of the vineyard the juice so soon to ferment into wine.”

After the winemakers used the Native Americans’ labor for a week, they would often pay them in aguardiente, a fortified wine. The Indians would drink it, get drunk and get rearrested that Sunday, continuing the vicious cycle.

There were many other cruelties in the 1850s that led to the genocide to which Gov. Newsom referred, including mass killings and abductions of Indian children. On April 27, 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, four months after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the California Legislature repealed the Indian Indenture Act. But together with poverty and disease, the Act had done its damage. While there were approximately 100,000 Native Americans when California joined the United States in 1850, by 1870 there were only about 30,000. And just 219, according to historians, remained in Los Angeles.

Frances Dinkelspiel is the co-founder of Berkeleyside and author of “Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California.”