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Friday, 18 July 2014 06:19

Who Is the Refugee? Native Americans and Mexicans Lived in California First

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cal(Photo: Ken Lund)

Not too long before "Independence Day," US citizens in Murrieta, California, rowdily assembled on July 1 to block buses carrying mostly children seeking refuge from violence and poverty, according to USA Today:

More than 100 people waving American flags and holding signs that opposed "new illegals" waited in the hot sun for the three charter buses to arrive at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection station in Murrieta, about an hour north of San Diego...

Tensions in the crowd increased as it grew in number. Shouting matches ensued as protesters clashed with immigration reform supporters like Lupillo Rivera, who was among those trying to launch a counter-protest.

"We are your baby-sitters, we clean your hotels, we baby-sit your kids," screamed Rivera.

Those on the buses fleeing for their lives and for food to survive were mostly youth and primarily from Central America. The protests in Murietta continued, with the support of the mayor, for days, even though the individuals in humanitarian need were just temporarily being processed in Murietta and then being moved on to other facilities.

As part of a series for Truthout that I have been working on, I have been researching the origins of anti-immigrant mania in the US and its relationship to colonization. After all, one of the egregious ironies of a fever-pitched cry to "secure the border with Mexico" to keep out non-US citizens is that the United States is composed of land seized from its original inhabitants – Native Americans. Moreover, as the US pursued its drive across the continent, its lodestar was a philosophy of "Manifest Destiny," born of a belief in the superiority of the white race.

It is ironic that a nation that annually celebrates its independence from the most expansive colonizer of the 1700's and 1800's - Britain - used its newfound nationhood to become a colonizer of North and South America (the latter through military intervention in governments that were not amenable to US interests).

Returning to Murietta, a brief history of the people who inhabited and had inhabitant rights to that particular region is in order. First, there were the Native Americans who have lived in the West for thousands upon thousands of years (for some, dating back to approximately 17000 BC, and including some 500 tribes).

Then the colonization started, or what the colonizers like to refer to as the "discovery" of this land, as the following genealogical author summarizes:

The territory of the present State of California was discovered in 1542 by a Portuguese navigator in the Spanish service, J. R. Cabrillo. In 1578 Sir Francis Drake landed at Drake’s Bay, opened communication with the natives, and took possession of the country in the name of England, calling it New Albion. It was explored by the Spaniard S. Viscayno in 1602, but no attempt was made at colonization until the Franciscan Fathers established a mission at San Diego in 1769. Within the next 50 years they founded 21 missions and gathered 20,000 Indians about them, but the number of neophytes continually fell off and the power of the missions declined with them, especially after the Mexican government had assumed control [from Spain in 1821]. Transfer of the country to the United States and the rush of immigrants following upon the discovery of gold in 1848 was still more disastrous to the Indians and this disaster extended to parts of the State which the Spaniards had not reached. From this time on the history of the Indians of this area is one long story of debauchery and extermination. Reservations were set aside for most of the tribes, but the greater part of the survivors live scattered through the country as squatters or on land purchased by themselves.

Note again the use of the term "was discovered," implying that land is only of importance if a European stands upon it. As historians such as Howard Zinn have noted, the entire notion of "discovering" a land long inhabited is a hubristic linguistic assertion of Euro-centric superiority. As for the "debauchery" mentioned in the above description, historical accounts indicate that this word could best be assigned to the participants in the California Gold Rush that began in 1848. They were infamous for estabishing camps and towns whose primary revenue was prostitution, liquor and - if found - gold.

In 1846, the US declared war on Mexico in large part to continue its drive for "Manifest Destiny" - expanding to the Pacific Ocean by conquering California. By 1848, United States military forces had largely conquered much of what is now coastal California, including Los Angeles. The Mexican government had incurred a large debt burden.

The US made Mexico an offer it couldn't refuse. Mexico would be relieved of its debt and receive $15 million dollars for California and much of what is the Southwest today (and some other areas), including the current hotbed of anti-Mexican sentiment, Arizona. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico also officially ceased contesting Texas as a US state.

Meanwhile, the US proceeded with its business of empire-building and settler colonialism: It slaughtered nearly all of the indigenous population. Some estimates reach as high as nearly 20 million Native Americans killed, but no one knows for sure because no one was taking a census as the massacres took place.

In California, one example of the genocidal policies toward Native Americans took place around the time of the Gold Rush. In a paper entitled "Patterns of Frontier Genocide" (2004), UCLA Professor Benjamin Madley details the near extirpation of the Yuki tribe, who were living on land desired by the settlers:

On February 2, 1848, the United States took possession of California from Mexico. Ten months later, news of the gold found at Sutter's Mill triggered a tidal wave of immigration into the new state. Between 1849 and 1851 alone nearly 255,000 settlers arrived (Cook, 1970, p 28). These immigrants needed food and triggered an agricultural explosion that in turn created shock waves of land grabbing. In 1851, the first white explorers visited the Yuki homeland, in northern California, and in 1854 settlers arrived to farm and ranch the area's valleys. Before whites arrived, the Yuki numbered between 5,000 and 20,000. By 1864, settlement policies and a war of genocide had reduced them to "85 male[s] and 215 female[s]" (Carranco and Beard, 1981, p. 126). Genocidal policies then continued into the twentieth century, further reducing the population.

Madley concludes his section on the near-decimation of the Yukis with this update: "Today, approximately 100 Yuki live in Mendocino County on the Round Valley Indian Reservation together with member of five other California nations. Fewer than a dozen native Yuki speakers remain."

Given just this brief glimpse into the history of who the original occupants of California are - and who are the immigrants - offers a different lens through which to see the ugly protests against refugees that occurred in Murrieta. It compels one to ask: Who are the "immigrants" in this situation?  Is Manifest Destiny still the driving force of many white US attitudes toward the land on which they live?

These historic facts challenge the conventional jingoistic narrative that the US was a colony breaking away from a demonic colonizer (the British Empire), replacing it with a morally centered democracy based on equality. To the contrary, the expansion of the US follows the pattern, with some minor and major adaptations, that the British Empire set for it: a government that felt it had the right - and even obligation - to seize its "destiny" at the expense of the lives and lands of non-whites. The US never repudiated the concept or the strategy of colonization; in fact, it quickly outpaced the United Kingdom as it acquired land, minerals and fuel within its own borders, through conquest and purchase. Furthermore, it began to develop more innovative (and more pernicious) globalized financial models that created de facto colonization of nations without having to have them occupied by large standing armies. (There are military exceptions to this, as Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan exemplify - but in general, financial servitude is now the go-to method of "conquering" non-European countries.)

To those who protest the meager humanitarian relief granted to young people running for their lives from Central America and Mexico, one can ask if the hatred would appear if the immigrants were white Anglo-Saxons? Because that is what the tectonic war over democracy in the United States has been about for nearly 50 years.

Is the United States only a "democracy" for the kind of people who founded this colonial state (descendants of anglo saxons)? Does it exclude the very people who lived on this continent before it was "discovered" by Europeans - and then seized through near-genocide and opportune purchases by the US?

Note: This is an introduction to a periodic series of articles on colonization, immigration, nationhood, war and the notion of Lebensraum (expansion of a superior "race" to achieve more living space through the destruction of "expendable" peoples) - and how these issues, when looked at historically, help to explain current social conflict in the US and abroad.

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