The Life of Native Americans through Years

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Native Americans who lived in California were dispersed around the state and spoke at least 100 languages (Cherney 6). There were as many as 300,000 diverse people that belonged to many different tribes and before the first European settlement (Cherney 6). In the beginning, the Native Americans voluntarily lived in small clusters of groups (Cherney 6). As their numbers grew, lineages and more permanent groups of family were created. They believed that they were prohibited to intermarry due to having the same ancestor. After lineages, clans began to form that combined different biologically related lineages (Cherney 6). Aside from clans, towns were eventually created as well (Cherney 6).

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There were two types of government that the Native Californian tribes created. The first type of government was based on a biologically related batch of individuals that shared the same ancestors, while the second type of government was a band of people who did not share the same ancestry. The lineage-based governments had an established practice for making political decisions that included a council and a council head (Cherny 8). In the band-based government, the headman and council settled problems when problems emerged (Cherney 8). Before any prior contact, all the forms of Native American government did not have a separation between religion and secular activities.

With the problem of the depletion of larger wild animals due to a growing population, Native Americans grew dependent on living off the land and, as a result, expanded their knowledge on how to maximize their food supply through planting, cultivating and producing (Cherney 10). They learned how to trade, which revolved around food demand. They never developed maize agriculture unlike their counterparts from Colorado River and central Mexico (Cherney 12). Areas near the coast had plentiful lush flora and fauna so there was no need to farm (Cherney 12). Although, Native Americans developed ecological practices that were beneficial to their surroundings that helped conserve nature.

Many different tribes worshipped different gods but all of them mention a spiritual figure named coyote, who was either venerated as a hero or warded off as a trickster (Cherney 15). As the Native Americans had their beliefs and practices, newcomers will come to their land and will destroy the peaceful lives and the bountiful land they worked to maintain.

The first group of Europeans who were able to colonize the New World was the Spaniards (Chenery 34). They explored and began to expand their settlements in American continents in the 1500s (Cherney 34-5). They had their eyes on Califonia as one of their last frontiers, resulting from the growing threat of other big players in Europe (Cherney 35). The Spanish crown started to fund more of its settlements that were in remote areas like Texas and Alta California (Cherney 36). The Spanish Catholic church aspired to extend their efforts to spread Christianity as far as they can (Cherney 37). In the late 1700s, the Spaniards had already colonized Baja California in order to spread their missions, created presidios (military outposts), and started to settle in the northern frontier (Cherney 37-9).

Although not a written policy, the Spanish developed a caste system that separated people racially and economically (Cherney 41). Those who were lighter in color were considered more superior compared to those who had darker colored skin. Those who had lighter colored skin would have Spanish blood in them, while those who had darker skin color were more Native American. Fair-skinned conquistadors had more authority and wealth, while those who were Native Americans did not have much freedom or money (Cherney 41). There was also a division between gente de razon, those with reason, and sin razon, those without reason (Cherney 41). The gente de razon were people who were Catholic while the sin razon were the native people who weren’t converted to Christianity (Cherney 41).

The Missions were institutions established by the Spaniards in order to convert the natives to Christianity and to teach them the Spanish language and parts of their culture (Cherney 42). According to the Law of the Indies, after 10 years, all the missions were to be dissolved and the natives would be allowed to organize towns as loyal individuals to the Spanish crown (Cherney 42). However, after the 10 years passed, the Spanish fathers still saw the natives as unfit to make that transition and postponed their freedom (Cherney 42).

But, how was life like for the newly converted neophytes in their new home at the Missions? “Mission Indians” or neophytes “were crowded into barracks” (The West: The People). “Indian overseers with whips drove them from task to task, even to and from Mass” (The West: The People). Neophytes would always try to escape, but the Spanish soldiers continued to “hunt them down” (The West: The People). A lot of them were forced to convert to a new religion, and to stay on the Missions in order to do hard labor such as toil in the fields.

There were two perspectives that the natives had when the Spanish were colonizing their land. One perspective saw the Spaniards as strangers who kept them hostage and forced them to do work. Janitin, a Kamia Indian, stated that he was taken from his homeland, lassoed, and dragged across branches that wounded him (Janitin 59). Janitin was forced to become a Christian, a religion which he was not familiar with, eat food strange food, and driven to work in the fields (Janitin 60). When he tried to escape, he hunted down “like a fox”, “fastened to a stake”, and reprimanded severely as they whipped him countless times (Janitin 60).

The other perspective that was mentioned earlier highlighted how the Spaniards improved their life of savagery and “living among the woods”, into a new age (Freedom 61). According to Pablo Tac, a Luiseno Indian, the Spanish interaction was peaceful since they gave gifts to their chief leader and developed a friendship. His villagers also worked in fields, but as they are whipped, Pablo describes that they were being punished for their laziness (Freedom 63). As opposed to Janitin’s experience, where he was treated like an animal, Pablo’s encounter was pleasant since he talks about how the villagers were given days when they worked hard all day and other days when they worked until noon and ate posole (Freedom 63).

Before the Mexican policies that affected the natives are discussed, the definition of Californios will be explored. That leaves the question: who were the Californios? After Mexican independence from Spain, the Europeans developed a regional identity and called themselves as the Californios (Cherney 68). Due to the first liberal constitution of Spain written, Californios discovered democracy and other similar ideas that were prohibited before 1812 (Cherney 69).

In 1821 when Mexico gained independence from Spain, Mexico started to question the “power of institutions” and had “liberal ideas about governance and about equality” (Foreigners in Their Own Land). “The government of the Republic of Mexico challenged the power of the Catholic Church” (Foreigners in Their Own Land). When they secularized the Missions, the land was divided up through land grants and given to Californio families (Foreigners in Their Own Land). This land was intended for the Native Americans but they were not given this right. In other words, the intention of the Mexican government was to convert the California mission properties into Indian pueblos (Cherney 73). This policy intended to free the settlements, but it was undermined by the Californios, who deemed the natives unfit to self-govern themselves and own land (Cherney 73). Even though the natives were not granted these things, the missions were secularized and the neophytes emancipated during this new political order (Cherney 73).

At first, not enough families wanted to accept freedom, so there were very few people available in order to make a pueblo. Eventually, more and more neophytes did and thus came about the pueblo of San Dieguito, and others established near the missions. The natives who moved into pueblos had the opportunity to elect the first autonomous government in San Diego and were essentially permitted to use lands to live and to farm on (Cherney 73).

Many of the Native Americans rejected Mexican authority as they did not like the idea of living as free farmers and left to their former lives (Cherney 73). The majority of them kept in contact with other relatives and extended families who lived outside the mission and left to go home (Cherney 73). Some became homeless and left unprotected because their villages were destroyed due to war or disease (Cherney 73). Because the rancheros gained control of the lands that that were long-established by the natives, many of the Christianized natives were homeless and struggled.

Innumerable amounts of former neophytes in servitude in order to pay their debts for liquor, food, and goods (Cherney 86). Native Americans lived in poverty, so they resorted to whatever means to keep them afloat, such as working as a hired hand, prostitute and occasionally putting their children up for sale (Cherney 86). Those who were fortunate got jobs as vaqueros, farmers, and servants. But, they were segregated from the Californios due to their race. For example, the town hall in Los Angeles formulated laws to make certain that the natives didn’t live in the immediate vicinity of their pueblos (Cherney 86).

As the Native Americans were fleeing back into their tribes and into their land, they noticed huge changes that came about due to the new Mexican era arriving (Cherney 86). Their families and tribes were stricken with diseases, which destroyed a large number of their population. Because of the introduction of new plants and animals, it changed the ecology of their surroundings (Cherney 86). They were growing hungry and their numbers were decreasing, so they attacked nearby ranches for food. Retribution followed the natives thereafter.

After California was under the Mexican government, the United States’ government took over. The United States acquired California in the year 1847 and the discovery of gold in California occurred shortly after about a year later. The Gold Rush had tremendously negative effects on Native Americans. Native Americans from the Great Plains did not have enough food to eat and starved to death. Cholera killed half of the Northern Cheyennes. “Competition for the dwindling game intensified rivalries between tribes that has been going on for generations” (The Speck of the Future). There was warfare everywhere and it was a “period of incredible chaos in the Plains” (The Speck of the Future). The U.S. government’s plan to keep this chaos under control backfired and made everything worse. In 1851, the government wanted to meet with all the tribes in the Plains at Fort Laramie to convince them to stop fighting one another and endangering the whites headed through their lands on the way to California (The Speck of the Future). The Native American tribes were promised $2.5 million to be balanced and given out over the span of 50 years if they would not harass the wagon trains, allow the army to build forts, and to stay within their territories (The Speck of the Future). The main problem was that there were no distinct territories and the white man telling the natives to conform to the line he draws proved to be unsuccessful (The Speck of the Future).

When the United States took over California, they wanted to modernize their economy at the cost of the native peoples, because they were perceived as savages and an obstruction to settlement. (Cherney 123). During the mid-1800s, mass murders took place when the natives would once in a while kill a white person (Cherney 123). They did not kill them out of impulse but in outrage of the wrongdoings that the whites have done against the natives.

From the 1850s-1860s, an estimated number of 150,000 natives in California dwindled down to 31,000 (Cherney 136). Native Americans were an important group to the workforce during the Gold Rush. At first, they were hired to help, but Americans coming from the east expected that part of conquering this region was to expel the Indians (Cherney 137). The American settlers did not want the native labor to challenge their opportunities for work and saw them as people who are a threat (Cherney 137). It was normal to see people like miners killing Native Americans and destroying their villages (Cherney 137). Many historians did not hesitate to call this genocide towards the Native Americans. In the attempt of the federal government to regulate relations between the Native Americans and the whites, they negotiated with Indians to surrender their land and in return gave them small tracts of land or reservations (Cherney 137-8). The Act for the Government and Protection of the Indians was passed in 1850 that allowed them to stay in the land that they had been occupying (Cherney 138). It also allowed indentured servitude of Native American children, which bounded them to labor for the whites without pay (Cherney 138). Whites were required by law to give wages to adult Native Americans, but the natives were not allowed to testify against the whites in the court of law (Cherney 138).

To sum things up, Spanish policies intended to subjugate Native Americans by spreading the word of Christianity. The natives were taken from their homes and forced to do work they did not want to do and to accept a religion they did not understand. Although some natives saw the Spanish as saviors, the Spanish still beat them, sometimes until unconsciousness, for being “lazy”. Mexican policies tried to reject the Spanish policies that were set before them and tried to free the natives from the Missions the Spanish held them in. Instances of Native Americans being killed happened as a result of stealing from Californios due to the lack of food. However, deaths of Native Americans under the United States’ government was unprecedented just because of the whites’ prejudiced ideas that the natives were violent and barbaric. Laws were passed through the government that allowed Native American children and adults to serve white people for no pay. For example, the California Act for the Government and Protection of Indians stated that any person “obtaining a minor Indian” can have “custody, control, and earnings of such minor” until they “obtain the age of majority” (Act for the Government and Protection of Indians). The nature of the writing shows how Native Americans were not treated like humans since the law refers to them as “it” not him or her. The most destructive government policies were from the United States while the least destructive is Mexico’s. Under Mexico’s government, Native Americans were free to go where they wanted, back to their old land or create pueblo’s in the nearby Mission lands. As described in Cherney’s “Competing Visions”, it did not seem that the natives were forced to renounce their faith or to build pueblos unlike under the Spanish government. The only time Californios attacked the natives was in retaliation for stealing food. Even though they were poor and hungry, they had the ability to choose how to survive.

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The Life of Native Americans through Years. (2019, Dec 30). Retrieved November 30, 2022 , from

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