UpFront

Fred Glass on California Labour History

On today’s show, we talk to Fred Glass, Instructor of Labor and Community Studies at City College of San Francisco and author of From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement.

  • Jonas LaMattery-Brownell

    The 7am show this Labor Day featured a good topic to question and explore: how is California so progressive compared to the rest of the U.S.? (One might also add, “And is it, really?” but in important ways I’d certainly agree with the question’s premise.)
    But then, in starting with the Gold Rush, the show fell into the same huge blind spot–or, we might say, white supremacist history–with regard to Indigenous peoples of California. This is what I heard the guest say in regard to Native Americans when speaking of the Gold Rush period:
    –first, that the Gold Rush period was “far worse” that the previous period for Indigenous populations (but there was no follow-up explanation of what this “far worse” really meant, that the “far worse” might actually mean genocide);
    –second, that many Native Americans were “workers” in gold panning and mining, with the guest explaining that “worker” is a not “what we might mean today by this term” as there were no wages paid, but compensation came strictly in the form of food and clothing (yet the guest implied there was consent to do this by the Native Americans, a very important, and I would say questionable assumption);
    –thirdly, and this was the one strong image I took away (and I am guessing the one image most listeners took away) from the guest’s entire of mention of Native Americans and the Gold Rush, he stated that, according to Sutter, the Native American “workers” were not very good ones, for they were all too often spending any money they could acquire on drinking and getting drunk.

    There you have it: the full history of Native Americans in connection with the California Gold Rush (at least on UpFront just this one morning, I fully concede)!

    This picture painted by KPFA on this show this morning is so disturbing to me that it’s hard for me to know exactly how to proceed next.
    Here’s my point: WHEN WILL WE BEGIN TO TAKE HISTORIANS LIKE ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ (who has wonderfully been on KPFA, but then whose core arguments seem to be lost on Tiekert when he interviews this labor historian and gives him a pass on addressing the California Gold Rush genocide of Native Americans), AND BRIAN LINDSAY AND NATIVE AMERICAN COMMUNITIES SERIOUSLY IN TELLING THE HISTORY OF CALIFORNIA, INCLUDING THE FOUNDATIONAL GENOCIDE AT THE CORE OF THIS STATE’S BEING–not just some days on KPFA, or just some shows, but every day, whenever the topic is relevant and necessary to say out loud, especially on the most-heard shows?

    When a guest comes on KPFA and begins to paint a picture of Indigenous peoples in California during the Gold Rush as mostly going around getting drunk to wash away their woes, without explaining anything about what those genocidal woes might have been, nor telling something of the actual tale of survival, resistance, and perseverance in the face of genocide, or at the very least mentioning this history in such brief words as these, this is not okay. We should not fail to say that genocide is foundational to California history–and that means it is foundational to understanding California labor history, California agricultural history, California environmental history, California political history, California social history (and, of course, these topics are complexly interrelated), and just about every way we want to look at California history. The state is founded in genocide.

    Can we begin to grapple with this?

    Probably not until we can face the history of this genocide. KPFA has wonderfully had Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz on to talk about her masterful “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” (2015), but there are other historians also worthy of our society’s ears on this topic, including ones who zero in on California’s foundational genocide, such as Brian Lindsay, who wrote the award-winning and extensively and disturbingly documented “Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide: 1846-1873” (2012), which argues that the genocide was not directed top-down by the state, but was initiated, driven, enabled, and condoned “democratically” by the white population who perpetrated, supported, and popularly condoned the murdering and killing.

    Consider this: Quite often during the early days, years, and decades of California, if a white rancher in northern California, anywhere, say, from Sonoma to the Sierras to Eureka, found one of his cows dead of unknown cause, or dead with an arrow sticking out of it, or just missing, he would decide to take “revenge” on Native Americans, assumed in each case to have been the perpetrator of a taking of his property, by calling up a posse of his compatriots (who could well later be reimbursed by the state for their expenses and even labor) riding into the nearest Indigenous village in early dawn, and opening fire to massacre a dozen to a score of Indigenous people, grandmothers and grandfathers, children, fathers, mothers. This happened again and again, over and over. (By the way, if the cow HAD been killed in anger or taken for food by an Indigenous person, why was that? With livestock grazing and unsustainable hunting by whites, the landscape was changing drastically, with many Indigenous communities’ traditional foods and sources for sustenance and health being destroyed; starvation drove some to try to obtain food from any available source.)

    In Southern California, the prime means of genocide of Indigenous peoples came in the form of being worked to death on vineyards and ranchos (life expectancy for enslaved Native Americans was an average of just 3 more years after enslavement), being shot as perceived or claimed threats to property or life, and starvation when unemployed.

    Throughout the state, the genocide continued into the period of relocation to desolate, disease-ridden reservations. Passing beyond the early-20th-Century nadir for Indigenous peoples in California, Native Americans in the state, despite losing unimaginably much, resisted, lived and passed forward wisdom understanding for life and culture, growing to reclaim full being in this world. (For those who protest this term genocide, please see either Dunbar-Ortiz or Lindsay’s introductions, both grounded in the U.N. definition, our most widely-accepted standard.) (All I know regarding California’s Native American genocide comes from Brian Lindsay’s “Murder State,” and contextually to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,” and from an interview with Frank Lapena on a mostly-terrible (with the exception of Lapena’s interview) PBS show on the California Gold Rush.)

    I am a supporter of KPFA, in spirit and in silver. KPFA is a community treasure, one that must be protected and strengthened. I cry out here about just this one show this morning, which I couldn’t even listen to beyond the first 10 minutes, after it moved on to later history having left the hurtful impression that Gold Rush Native Americans mostly just drank themselves into nothingness, because I think it may make a difference.

    I have learned so, so, so, so much that is so precious from KPFA, so I speak here also from love, not to dismiss the excellent work and efforts of everyone I hear on air, plus those who make things work behind the scenes, and all the contributing listeners. Maybe, too, in regard to California’s Native American genocide, we with KPFA can be part of the transition in consciousness and understanding that is so direly needed now in how we see ourselves, our history, our country, and our world.

    We must begin to fully–and consistently, compassionately, and carefully–tell and ponder the truths of the origins of California–not just on some KPFA shows and on the most widely-heard shows just some of the time, but consistently whenever this history comes up for discussion. We have the opportunity to recognize that perhaps those genocidal beginnings are more related to our current state than we think, that California animal agriculture, land use policy, racism and white supremacy, and much more are in fact connected to foundational genocide. In learning this horrendous foundational history, we may be more collectively ready to create a new history.

    Love, Jonas LaMattery-Brownell

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