Stereotypes of Native People in San Joaquin County, Part 3

There are two remaining stereotypes that I’d like to address. First, that the Indians from San Joaquin County area were nothing special.

It is remarkable enough that the ancestors of the Native people from what is now San Joaquin County settled this area perhaps thirteen thousand years ago and developed lifeways suited to a new and changing environment. But in my view, the Native immigrants—probably from what is now northern Nevada—who came to this area about five thousand years ago started something really special.

Kevin Gover, director of the Museum of the American Indian, displays flag of California Valley Miwok Tribe.

These people developed a rich culture (called by archaeologists the “Windmiller culture” after the ranch owner of the first site at which it was studied). The culture was based on using the rich resources of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the river habitats in this area—the Cosumnes, Mokelumne, Calaveras, San Joaquin, and the Sacramento Rivers—and it included trade relations with other regions and quality artisanship in basketry, bone, shell, and stone.

This way of life spread from here into the East Bay and South Bay Areas and up to Sacramento. It was one of the most successful and spectacular regional traditions of prehistoric California.

By a couple thousand years ago, the Native groups in this area had intensified many of the elements of the Windmiller tradition. The descendants of those original immigrants became the historic Miwok people, groups of which later spread from this original homeland into the North Bay Area and the Sierra Nevada foothills above San Joaquin County and south past Yosemite.

The historic Miwok nations that lived here when Europeans arrived had been joined by Yokuts nations in what is now the southern portion of the County. The Miwok and Yokuts groups in this area so effectively managed natural resources (see my previous blog) that they had the highest population densities of any Native groups in North American north of Central Mexico. They had higher populations than the horse cultures on the Great Plains or any of the farming cultures of the Southwest or East.

And as pointed out in the prior blog, this area was home to the noteworthy Native patriot Estanislao (and many others) and was the site of the most successful Native resistance to the Spanish/Mexican invasion of Native homelands in California. To be sure, the efforts of those gallant freedom fighters was undermined by the continued impact of European diseases and the onslaught of the Gold Rush.

Which leads to stereotype two: That the Native cultures that developed in what is now San Joaquin County have died out. Although it is true that the Native nations here on the Valley floor were almost completely wiped out by disease; removal to the Spanish missions in the Bay Area; and the murder, mayhem, and habitat destruction of the Gold Rush, there are remaining descendants.

Current Miwok and Yokuts groups with past ties to San Joaquin County include the following:

  • Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-wuk Indians (near Ione, Amador County, 1927)
  • California Valley Miwok Tribe (Stockton, formerly Sheep Ranch Rancheria, Calaveras County, 1916)
  • Chicken Ranch Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians (near Jamestown, Tuolumne County, 1908)
  • Ione Band of Miwok Indians (near Ione, Amador County)
  • Jackson Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians (near Jackson, Amador County, 1893)
  • Shingle Springs Rancheria (Verona Tract) (Northern Sierra Miwok, near Shingle Springs, El Dorado County, 1916)
  • Tule River Indian Tribe of the Tule River Reservation (Yokuts and others, near Porterville, Tulare County, 1873)
  • Tuolumne Band of the Me-Wuk Indians of the Tuolumne Rancheria (near Tuolumne, Tuolumne County, 1910)
  • Wilton Rancheria (Plains Miwok, near Wilton, Sacramento County, 1927)

Another important organization is the Northern Valley Yokuts Nototomne Cultural Preservation Group.

In 1991, the California Indian Basketweavers Association (CIBA) was founded. It continues as an important nonprofit organization with a mission of preserving and promoting traditional California Indian basketry. Part of fulfilling the CIBA mission has been efforts to preserve, tend, and properly gather native plants that provide the materials for baskets.

A number of Native language preservation efforts have mobilized in recent decades, including the Advocates of Indigenous California Language Survival. The California Valley Miwok Tribe headquartered in Stockton is among those working to continue its language heritage.

Traditional religion, dance, and foods have also continued as important elements in the lives of contemporary Native people in this area.

I’ve often lamented that most history museums treat Native cultures as “past tense,” at least implying that they are extinct and ignoring cultural continuity and the presence of contemporary Native peoples. Perhaps the Indian casinos have mitigated this stereotype, but they have created their own stereotypes, too.

I hope the San Joaquin County Historical Society will continue to educate the public about all these stereotypes of the Native peoples of this area, both in the updated exhibits supported by the Nature Education Facilities Program grant, as well as in future publications and programs.

David Stuart is the executive director and CEO of the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum.

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