California Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday formally apologized and pushed the state to reckon with its dark history of violence, mistreatment and neglect of Native Americans, saying that it amounted to genocide.
The Democratic governor met with tribal leaders at the future site of the California Indian Heritage Center, where he also announced the creation of a council to examine the state’s role in campaigns of extermination and exploitation.
Throughout history, the California government was key to efforts to remove and kill Native Americans who lived on land that would become part of what is now the world’s fifth-largest economy.
“Genocide. No other way to describe it, and that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books,” Newsom said.
Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, said the apology is significant.
“To hear an apology like that today from the head of this state sets a new tone. It does for me, on a personal level,” Macarro said.
Newsom did not propose any specific changes in policy toward Native American communities, though tribal leaders raised concerns about issues such as managing natural resources, preventing wildfires and addressing the historical trauma of the government’s campaigns to wipe out indigenous California residents as well as their culture.
“It was a step into healing,” said Joseph James, chairman of the Yurok Tribe, which has territory near the Northern California coast.
James said that he hopes the governor maintains a close relationship with tribes, adding: “Actions speak louder than words.”
Newsom pointed to California’s efforts to remove Native Americans as people flooded the state searching for gold in the mid-19th century.
California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, declared to legislators in 1851 “that a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected.”
The state legislature subsequently approved US$1.29 million to subsidize militia campaigns against Native Americans, Newsom’s office said.
The state’s objections to several federal treaties with tribes left most Native Americans in California landless, said Albert Hurtado, professor emeritus at the University of Oklahoma.
“The actions of the state 150 years ago have ongoing ramifications even today,” he said.
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