For millennia a diverse population of Native American tribes thrived on the abundant lands of California. Before European settlers arrived, an estimated 300,000 native people lived in small villages throughout the area. Contact with the new settlers brought about serious disruptions to the native way of life. The gold rush of 1848 brought still more devastation. Violence, disease and loss overwhelmed the tribes. By 1870, an estimated 30,000 native people remained in the state of California, most on reservations without access to their homelands. Two native descendants of these tribes, April Moore and Professor Frank LaPena, and historian James Rawls tell us about what happened to Native Americans in the period of the Gold Rush.
The native tribes of California lived by hunting and gathering the abundant resources of the land. Their culture and religion place them in the role of stewards not owners of the land, preserving its abundance for the future. The hundreds of thousands of white settlers who arrived in California seeking a better future brought a different view of the land.
April Moore, Nisenan Maidu, educator
My great-grandmother was Lizzie Enos, a very, very knowledgeable woman. So with her having that knowledge and carrying it on for so long, she was able to pass it on to us. Especially as a little girl, myself, my cousin, and my brother, we would spend many, many hours with my great-grandmother, where she would tell us stories about coyotes and bears and different animals. But she also took us out and showed us all the different food sources that were available to us: the grasses, the mushrooms, the berries, what kind of seeds to gather, the right kind of acorns, and what kind of herbs were outside our living area that could be gathered for our health.
The area which my people, the Nisenan Maidu, came from ...[was] not so much a territorial boundary but an area for which we would fish, but also travel along the river banks, you know, to gather various food sources. Then to the north in our territory was Honey Lake. And we went eastward almost to the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
My family had resided in these geographical areas way before there were any European people, even way before the Gold Rush.
It just so happens it was the area where they found the gold at Sutter's Mill along the American River. And this gold strike brought thousands of people from every place known to man into our traditional territory. And because it was such a environmentally productive area, in the beginning they didn't have a problem with eating, but because there were so many people, they overused the area and created drought and created starvation for themselves, and along with them for the indigenous peoples.
The Nisenan Maidu just happened to be right in the middle of this whole chaotic event. And the end product was that they were almost obliterated as a group of people.
Frank LaPena, professor, Native American studies
When two different people look at something so fundamental as the land, what we find out is, there is a very major gap in how we look at the land. To the indigenous people, the land is sacred. It provides a livelihood. It gives you an understanding of the place that you belong. It has allowed you over all these generations to know how to live with the land, how to gather things, how to use it so it is not depleted. And you have a sacred bond with the land. Essentially, the European idea of land is that you have to use the land, you have to make the most out of it, and you better use it in the best way.
James Rawls, historian
Most people are not aware that California was the most diversely populated region within native North America. Nowhere else was there a greater number or variety of cultures as there was here in native California before the Spanish and certainly before the coming of the Gold Rush. People in native California were living in sparsely settled villages throughout the entire region of California. Every mountain, every river, every valley had a name. It was areas of favored hunting and gathering grounds.
There was a religious significance to all of California in the religious world-view of the native people of California. They were living, I would say, an abundant life. California was rich in resources, and the people were able to manage those resources very respectfully, very creatively, and to sustain their lives in an amazing degree of peace and harmony. There was warfare, of course, in native California, but compared to other parts of native North America, relatively rare.