Monday, September 26, 2011
Memorial at South market St. in South Redding was erected after the brutal police shooting of Pit River Tribal Member Kenny Wilson on August 4, 2011
A long history of loss for Pit River Tribe
Indian experts, local historians and members of the Pit River Tribe say to understand the mistrust some might have toward authorities in the wake of a fatal police shooting of a tribe member last month, one must first look at the tribe's tragic and bloody history.
The federally recognized tribe is made up of 11 bands, whose ancestors were seminomadic hunters, gatherers and fishermen. They lived primarily near Mt. Lassen and the Pit River watershed in eastern Shasta County as well as in parts of Siskiyou, Lassen and Modoc counties.
In Shasta County, the two main groups were the Ajumawi, who lived in and around the Fall River Valley, and the Atsuegewi, who lived primarily in the Hat Creek area.
Historians say the name "pit" may have derived from the way early European settlers saw the bands digging traps to catch game.
Before Europeans came to colonize the area, the tribes often were victims of slaving raids from the fierce Klamath and Modoc tribes from the north. Like many Indians, they were devastated by diseases early Spanish and American explorers inadvertently carried with them, according to historians.
By the time of the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, when thousands of gold-hungry settlers moved east to California, diseases already had decimated the tribe. That didn't stop some from fighting back, often with devastating consequences.
"Whenever the Indians did something, the whites came after them fivefold," said Dottie Smith, a Shasta County historian. "In the very beginning, they never had a chance."
Smith described one such attack in the Fall River Valley in a column published this summer in the Record Searchlight. In 1855, a group of settlers moved to the valley. The following year, they attempted to build a ferry crossing on the Pit River. The tribe's warriors attacked, killing two men, dismembering and mutilating their bodies.
The whites responded by gathering dozens for an armed militia.
"The massacre started as soon as they arrived in the valley," Smith wrote, citing historical documents. "Every village they found was attacked. At one village, over 100 Indian people were killed by rifle, pistols and knives. They were left lying heaped together about their lodges."
In later raids, whites bragged about taking scalps and cutting off tribe members' ears as trophies, Smith wrote. Later, whites used strychnine to poison flour left out for starving Indians to eat.
Whites also stole Indian children and gave them to white families, Smith said. Most of tribe members who were left were forced onto reservations.
Historians like Smith estimate there were some 3,000 Ajumawi alone in 1800. By 1936, there were just 500.
It was similar elsewhere on Pit River lands, said Cindy La Marr, director of the Sacramento-based Capitol Area Indian Resources, Inc. La Marr is a Pit River Indian from the Susanville area who shares Paiute ancestry.
She said a UC Berkeley anthropologist traveled to Pit River lands in the early 1920s and stayed with her grandfather's family.
The anthropologist wrote of tribe members describing white people heading to church on Sunday and then going out to kill Indians.
"Pit Rivers brought in $5 a head," La Marr said. "That was quite a bit back then."
La Marr said the men who weren't killed lost what self-value they had, and they had to rely on the federal government for rations to keep their families alive.
She said languages and traditions were outlawed or beaten out of children.
"My grandmother recalled that as a child she saw the first white people come into the area," La Marr said. "They were fearful because they knew it meant death. This is not ancient history."
The lingering animosity between the tribe and the whites boiled over in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during a national movement in which Indians across the country tried to reclaim their ancestral lands.
The most famous of the national protests began on Nov. 20, 1969, when a group of Indians occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco for nearly two years.
In an effort to reclaim 3.4 million acres of ancestral land, the Pit River tribe members followed suit and began holding occupations of their own, including on Pacific Gas and Electric property near Big Bend and on U.S. Forest Service land near Burney.
In 1970, about 100 Indians, including men, women and children, occupied a piece of forest land near the "four-corners" intersection of highways 299 and 89, five miles east of Burney.
Although the Indians claimed the land was theirs, the U.S. Forest Service held legal ownership of the site.
The Indians built a Quonset hut on site and told authorities, they'd "have to be killed" if authorities went to tear it down, according to news reports from the time.
On Oct. 27, 1970, 52 armed officers, including federal agents, state troopers and sheriff's deputies, converged on the site with more than 50 Forest Service personnel, many of whom carried crowbars.
The authorities claimed they were there to arrest people on warrants charging them with illegal timber cutting and to demand the Indians tear down the hut, but he Indians said later in trial testimony the force was sent with one mission: to "break the back" of the tribe's effort to reclaim their lands.
News reports describe an all-out melee when authorities began tearing down the hut and wrestling with the Indians who tried to stop them.
Indians, both men and women, fought with bare fists, tree limbs and planks of lumber. Officers and sheriff's deputies swung billy clubs and sprayed mace.
In the end, more than two dozen Indians were arrested, but only one, who pleaded guilty to a lesser assault charge, actually served any sort of a sentence for the alleged assaults on officers.
The rest had their charges dismissed or were acquitted after a nearly two-month federal trial.
"At Four Corners, the Indian people felt they gained a little bit of ground," said Beverly Benner Ogle, a 70-year-old Indian historian from Paynes Creek, who traces part of her lineage to the Atsugewi.
There were other, less-violent occupations, confrontations and arrests in the few years that followed.
"It was a statement to the federal government that Pit River people had never agreed to the taking of ancestral lands," La Marr said. "This was a big statement and caught the eyes of the nation. This was a tribe who stood up for what it believed in and could not be bought."
The tribe's lawyers also fought in court in failed bids to sue to reclaim their ancestral lands.
The tribe lingered largely in poverty over the following decades.
Then, in the mid-1990s, the tribe followed the lead of dozens of other California Indian groups and built a small casino outside Burney.
Construction started in 1996.
Before the groundbreaking, the casino was billed by tribal leaders as a way to bring much-needed revenue to the Indians and to the Burney area.
The tribe's official website has just one item on it under the "history" section, an online video news clip from 1970 showing a tribal lawyer describing to a reporter why the tribe decided to take over PG&E property.
"It has always been their land," he says.