California History: A Topical Approach

By Gordon Morris Bakken | Go to book overview

River, and Yana Indians opened the Win-River Casino in Redding, California, in 1993. Attracting patrons from northern California and southern Oregon, along with travelers of the Interstate 5 corridor, the casino boasts plush surroundings and twenty-four hour gambling. Video slots, video poker, blackjack, and high-stakes bingo entice all those willing to part with a roll of quarters, or considerably more money, for an opportunity to hit the jackpot. Glitzy commercials advertising Win-River feature pictures of smiling winners and their loot set against a striking graphic backdrop of an eagle circling—what else?—Mount Shasta.

Mount Shasta's two different faces represent more than the intersection of the sacred and the commercially profane; they offer a hint of the complicated history of California Indian peoples. Scores of California tribes in the last decade have themselves gambled on the construction and opening of bingo halls and casinos as a means of achieving tribal prosperity. And thanks to gaming profits, many of these communities have been able to raise their members' living standards, provide health care, promote education, support the revival of traditional culture, and expand tribal land bases. Indeed, these monies have helped put California tribal communities on the local, state, and national political “map,” in some cases for the first time in history. It is inescapably ironic that this Indian-authored “gold rush” has largely coincided with observations of the sesquicentennial of the 1848 Gold Rush and subsequent statehood.

In the century and a half since James Marshall first saw the glitter of gold in the millrace at Coloma, Indian tribes in California have experienced dramatic, often devastating, transformation as well as dynamic resurgence. Yet their contacts with outsiders began long before gravel from the icy waters of the American River changed history. Just as surely as spring floods, summer fires, and winter snows affected the daily lives of most Native communities, so too did the arrival of Spanish explorers and missionaries, Russian fur traders, Mexican settlers, and American expatriates. Bringing with them an insatiable demand for resources and lands, alien religious systems, oppressive legal codes, and an overweening ethnocentrism, these foreigners irrevocably changed California and the lives of its Indian inhabitants.

To tell the story of California Indian endurance and survival, it is important to start at the very beginning, in the oral traditions of communities who knew and cherished the world as a familiar cultural landscape. For the Konkow Maidu of the northeastern Sacramento Valley, Earth Initiate and Turtle help bring the world into being. Among the Cahuilla in the south, Mukat and his brother Tamaioit become the creative forces that shape life. And the Pomo peoples of the north central California coast know that the hands of Marumda and Kuksu gave their land its distinct features.1 Each Native nation had, and still has, its own unique understanding of the origins and life cycle of the physical and metaphysical space that was, and remains, home.

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