The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1980, Volume 26, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Richard H. Peterson, Editor

Federal Concern about Conditions of California Indians 1853 to 1913: Eight Documents. Edited by Robert F. Heizer. Socorro, New Mexico: Ballena Press, 1979. 152 pages. $7.95.

The California Indians vs The United States of America (HR 4497). Edited by Robert F. Heizer. Socorro, New Mexico: Ballena Press, 1978. 130 pages. $5.95.

Reviewed by John A. Turcheneske, a recent graduate of the doctoral history program at the University of New Mexico and the author of a number of articles on Indian-white relations in the West.

One of the more sordid themes which prevails throughout the history of Native American-federal government relations concerns the expedient and oftentimes fraudulent means employed to extinguish title to Indian held lands. As scholars of the American Indian know all too well, such transactions were fraught with innumerable adverse consequences for the tribal entities so affected. In this regard, the situation which confronted the California Indians was far more perverse. As shown in Robert F. Heizer’s edited volume, Federal Concern about Conditions of California Indians 1853 to 1913: Eight Documents, California’s Indians were not even granted the opportunity to participate in the title extinguishing process whereby they might possibly have been provided with at least some small semblance of their former birthright.

In this vein, perhaps the primary value of Heizer’s volume is that, regarding the matter of Indian land title and the methods utilized to extinguish such, the government’s perfidious dealings are revealed in their most blatant form. Despite the pleas that California Indians be accorded justice (some of which were voiced by several conscientious agents and other interested parties who knew better), higher government echelons turned a deaf ear and insisted that, due to Spanish efforts to evangelize and civilize them, California’s various tribal entities had lost their Indian character. In the process, the government claimed, they no longer had any definable tribal territory. Elaborating on this theory, the government then argued that provisions in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo concerning the protection of Indian land rights in California were perforce unenforceable.

Taking this twisted logic one tortured step further, the government then concluded that no extinguishing of title was necessary since California’s tribal entities possessed no lands. Of course, such a nefarious miscarriage of justice was merely a ruse utilized to rationalize the government’s capitulation to the current political and economic exigencies. Once the mining and agricultural interests became entrenched, and the remaining valuable lands appropriated by white settlement and the speculator, no amount of pricking of the social conscience would permit even a small portion of this domain to revert to its original occupants. Those California Indians who received a relatively few sparse acres which were passed off as a reservation soon discovered that this only allowed them less than a spartan existence. Even here admonitions and other efforts by nineteenth-century reformers to improve the lot of California tribes failed to move the government to ameliorate these people’s difficulties.

Yet, contrary to the government’s propaganda which held that, for the most part, California’s tribal entities had become extinct, the Indians of California continue to survive. Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, they and their non-Indian supporters have repeatedly fought the government’s contention that no extinguishing of title and attendant compensation was necessary because, as of 1850, as well as in previous decades, such tribes had no definable territory. Heizer illustrates this particular struggle for at least a modicum of justice in his edited volume, The California Indians vs The United States of America (HR 4497). In this instance, the confrontation with the government is joined before the Indian Claims Commission. Here, the chief value of Heizer’s volume is an account of the types of anthropological research tools and data utilized to demolish the government’s position.

Unfortunately, there are a number of difficulties with these edited works. Heizer should have more clearly defined his purpose in producing the volumes. His introduction is sadly lacking in historical background and, as such, needs to be expanded. His attempt to let the documents stand by themselves fails. What is needed at the very least is an introductory paragraph to each document. Also, there should be transitional essays between the documents to provide both clarity and historical perspective, thereby placing each document in its proper historical context. Maps and other illustrative materials are desperately needed. While there is a short list of references, there is no major bibliography in either volume. Readers would be well advised to consult the works listed as references for a more comprehensive understanding of California’s Indians and their past and current difficulties.