Capitol Alert

No more ‘cowboys and Indians’: Newsom wants Californians to learn Native American history

Gov. Gavin Newsom at an annual celebration of Native American culture said he wanted greater “truth telling” of California’s indigenous history and a stronger acknowledgment of the state’s genocide of native people.

The governor opened his remarks at the 52nd annual Native American Day in Sacramento by describing California’s first governor, Peter Hardeman Burnett, authorizing a “war of extermination” against the state’s indigenous population. Newsom said that history largely goes untold.

The first governor of California launched a genocidal mission in the 1850s to remove indigenous tribes from their lands and spent more than $1 million in military campaigns to do so, according to the governor’s office.

That’s the shameful past here in the state of California,” Newsom said to a large crowd of tribe representatives. “That past is not necessarily a big part of what is recognized today. It’s not in our textbooks. The textbooks I read were about the heroism of Spanish explorers.”

“We can continue to manipulate the truth, or omit it,” Newsom continued. “Or we can tell the truth.”

Newsom said he’s had several meetings with Native California leaders to begin a process of aggregating historical indigenous facts that could then be presented as a teaching tool.

He did not expand on whether the collection of history would be incorporated in textbooks or whether he’s pushing legislation to reevaluate how students are taught the Native American history.

The state is simultaneously building an ethnic studies model curriculum that’s been under fire from certain minority groups who argued its first draft omitted their experiences. Native Americans are included in the curriculum.

California educators have been rethinking how they teach Native American history. The State Board of Education in 2017 recommended a transition away from a fourth-grade mission projects. Students would build miniature replicas — using Popsicle sticks, glue and sugar cubes — of the Spanish missions.

The board said the mission projects were insensitive to the violent history against the native peoples displaced and harmed by the settlements.

It was a tradition Newsom said he was all too familiar with.

I will never forget going on the tours of all the Spanish missions and building the actual forts,” he said. “I remember the cowboys and Indians. Nobody taught me empathy, sensitivity or understanding as it relates to what really happened. This was the original genocide. It was about white supremacy.”

Newsom issued a formal apology to California Native Americans in June through an executive order that recognized the “dark history” of genocide against indigenous tribes.

He also announced plans to build a Truth and Healing Council that his office said will create an avenue of correcting the telling of Native American history.

That announcement led to general praise from the Native community, though some leaders from tribes that are not federally recognized said they’d like to see the governor do more to include their members who are too often left out of the healing conversation.

Representatives for the forum with Newsom on Friday said that they did not “want to put the cart before the horse” in saying whether a non-federally recognized member would be part of the discussions, but that they wanted to make the group as representative as possible.

Tribes without federal recognition do not have the same land rights or receive the same public benefits than the tribes with the status, Angela Mooney D’Arcy of the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation formerly told The Sacramento Bee.

“Newsom suggested the formation of a commission or committee to grapple with the history of genocide,” Mooney D’Arcy said. “If the governor intends to exclude non-federally recognized tribes in that conversation, he’s in fact perpetuating the genocidal call of the first governor, not erasing it.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.