Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo
Tribal leaders in California, and Governor Gavin Newsom (fourth from left), meet at the future site of the California Indian Heritage Center on June 18, 2019.

Enslavement. Exploitation. Discrimination. Violence. Forced removal. Genocide.

Despite inhabiting California for thousands of years, Native Americans faced all of this and more at the hands of California’s white settlers and the state’s government itself. On June 18, 2019, California made a first-of-its-kind apology to the state’s Native peoples.

“It’s called a genocide. That’s what it was. A genocide. [There’s] no other way to describe it and that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books,” California Governor Newsom said at a blessing ceremony for a Native American heritage center. “And so I’m here to say the following: I’m sorry on behalf of the state of California.”

Up to 16,000 Native Californians died in the genocide, which took place from the 1840s through the 1870s. Most of the deaths occurred during hundreds of massacres during which state and local militias encircled and murdered Native peoples. The genocide was facilitated by discriminatory California laws and the outright support of state officials and federal authorities who condoned and supported the attacks.

Illustration depicting Sutter's Mill, where New Jersey prospector James Marshall discovered gold in 1848, sparking the California Gold Rush. (Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Illustration depicting Sutter’s Mill, where New Jersey prospector James Marshall discovered gold in 1848, sparking the California Gold Rush.

The apology comes in the wake of centuries of mistreatment of Native Californians. Before white settlement, at least 80 languages were spoken by a variety of Native peoples in what is now California. Animosity toward Native Californians predates the state; during California’s tenure as a Mexican province from 1804 to 1848, Spanish missionaries seized Native lands and pressured them into living in and laboring for missions. Epidemics wiped out tens of thousands.

Once California was handed over to the United States at the end of the Mexican American War, things became even worse for the new state’s Native population. The man who discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill was led to the precious metal by Native people under the control of John Sutter. But despite making the Gold Rush possible, the state’s Native peoples were enslaved, displaced and discriminated against.

Indeed, the very foundation of the state was built on a foundation of hatred against Native Americans. At his second State of the State Address, the state’s first governor, Peter Hardenman Burnett, referred to “the Indian foe” and called Native people robbers and savages. “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected,” he said.

Burnett was not the only new Californian who viewed Native Americans with hostility and suspicion. The state’s first legislative session gave white settlers the ability to take custody of Native children, arrest Native peoples at will and enslave them for petty “crimes.” Bolstered by bounties and weapons provided by the U.S. Army, state and local militias began massacring Native Americans outright. About 16,000 Native Californians died in the genocide. Meanwhile, the state’s Native population, which had already fallen dramatically during Spanish colonization, dwindled to just 30,000 from around 150,000 before statehood.

Discrimination persisted long past state-sponsored genocide. Tens of thousands of other Native Californians were affected by discriminatory laws and policies. Native Californian children were forced to assimilate into white culture and attend “Indian assimilation schools” like the Sherman Indian School in Riverside. There, they were forbidden to speak their languages or take part in tribal ceremonies. And though Native peoples resisted discrimination and fought for civil rights, federal recognition and the right to have gaming operations on their reservations through the 21st century, poverty, health disparities and limited opportunities were, and still are, common.

Today, California has the most people with Native American heritage in the nation; 109 federally recognized tribes call the state home, and another 78 tribes are petitioning for recognition. Despite the state’s legacy of discrimination and hatred, “California Native Americans resisted, survived and carried on cultural and linguistic traditions defying all odds,” the governor’s office notes in a press release.

Newsom is not the first official to apologize for a government’s mistreatment of Native Americans. In 2009, the United States apologized to Native peoples for “violence, maltreatment and neglect.” But the apology did not include an admission of liability, and then-President Barack Obama did not publicly acknowledge it.

The executive order includes similar language to the United States’ apology. But it goes one step further: Newsom also established a “truth and healing council” to provide Native perspectives on the historical record. The council will include tribal representatives and others and issue a report on the historical relationships between Native Californians and the state of California.

HISTORY Vault: Native American History

From Comanche warriors to Navajo code talkers, learn more about Indigenous history.