Stereotypes of Native People in San Joaquin County, Part 1

”I encourage students to pursue an idea far enough so they can see what the…stereotypes are. Only then do they begin to hit pay dirt.” (Robert Morgan)

I began my career as a seasonal worker at Caswell Memorial State Park, in southern San Joaquin County. Preparing for campfire programs, I soon realized that what I had been taught—and what I had heard—about California Indians was more stereotype than fact. I went on to study anthropology and to admire increasingly the Native peoples of this region. I’m still seeking pay dirt.

The Museum has been awarded a grant for exhibits with which to address some of those stereotypes, which include the following:

  • California Indians were all pretty much alike.

California climate was/is highly variable and the topography, geology, soils, plants, and animals were/are extremely diverse. It makes little sense that a Native nation in northwest California would live like a group here in California’s Central Valley, or in the desert of southern California. In fact, Native cultures were/are extremely varied.

Native California had/has more language diversity than any comparable area on Earth—there were more than three hundred dialects of about one hundred separate languages. Our region of California was probably populated by several waves of Native immigrants through the last thirteen thousand years. When Europeans arrived a couple hundred years ago, this area was the most densely populated in North America north of central Mexico. But it was divided into hundreds of small, sovereign Native nations.

Even today, California has the largest number of federally recognized Indian entities of any state—about 150 organized tribes, about two-thirds of them recognized by the U.S. government. So much for being all alike.…

  • California Indians were lazy and primitive compared to the Indian farmers and potters of the Southwest and East because the climate here was so mild and there was an abundance of acorns, fish, and game.

In fact, the climate of California is characterized by extreme fluctuations from year to year—just ask any farmer today. California Indians developed ways to use controlled burns, pruning, and many other methods to “tend the wild” and enhance the productivity of the five hundred species of wild plants and animals upon which they depended. This sustainable approach to manage the landscape is what supported such high populations in this region. The small, sovereign nations each intensely managed a range of local habitats within their territory, such as marsh, riparian, oak woodland, savannah, and grasslands.

Native people knew how to plant, but they chose to maximize the diversity of the wild plants and animals of their homelands so as to provide harvest choices in spite of climate fluctuations. This was a more sustainable approach over many centuries than focusing on one or two staples that were likely to fail every few years. (The closest thing to a staple Native food was acorns, but even oak trees cycle through high and low acorn-producing years.)

Native people knew about pottery—they traded with potters to the south, and here in the Central Valley they made baked clay cooking “balls” to substitute for cooking stones because cobbles were hard to come by. Instead of making pots, California Indians were master basket makers—among the most accomplished in the world. Baskets were lighter, tougher, and could be made in more shapes than pots. That’s anything but lazy and primitive.…

In another installment I’ll comment on the stereotype that California Indians were passive and did not defend their homelands, that the Native peoples from this region were nothing special, and that Native California cultures have died out.

I look forward to your comments on these topics.

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

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