In summary

We can’t erase history, but we can correct omissions in school books about atrocities and genocide committed against Native Americans in California.

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By James C. Ramos, Special to CalMatters

Assemblymember James C. Ramos is a Democrat who represents the 40th Assembly District  in San Bernardino County and is the first California Native American elected to the Legislature,

In June we marked the one-year anniversary of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s formal apology to California’s Native American people for official atrocities and genocide committed against them by the state. 

California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, called for “extermination of the Indian race” at the beginning of his term in 1857. The Legislature obliged Burnett by paying to raise militias and fund bounties for killing Indian people. What followed was more than a century of violence, slavery and attempts to wipe out the Native American people and culture. None of that was acknowledged until California’s 40th governor stood under a canopy of trees in West Sacramento and apologized.

Much has happened since last June. COVID-19 dramatically changed our world. So did the killing of George Floyd, exposing vast fault lines of racism and inequality, and sparking frustration among minority communities. Symbols of past wrongs – such as Confederate monuments – are coming down. California legislative leaders from both houses decided to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus from the state Capitol rotunda. Statues of Junipero Serra are also being removed around the state and country.

The fateful events of 2020 have opened up wounds that for so many never truly healed. “You can’t erase history” is a common refrain from those opposed to removing statutes of long-ago oppressors that still cause pain for people of color. Alternatively, why don’t we ask who created the history that we all grew up learning in school? We can’t erase history, but surely we can and must correct omissions that created the fairy tales and myths in schoolbooks.

Honoring Confederate generals and politicians is honoring traitors who took up arms against the United States and caused the slaughter of hundreds of thousands during the Civil War, all to preserve human bondage. The argument for secession and “states’ rights” meant the right to keep human beings as slaves.

Today we are witnessing the resentment of people of color – now joined, polls show, by a solid majority of the American people – who are no longer content to remain silent. Neither am I.

Celebrating many Spanish, Mexican and California rulers idealizes their attempts to annihilate generations of Indian people in this state. For too long, Californians have been silent over the killing of Native American people, the destruction of their way of life and treating them as though they were invisible or less than human. 

Statues of Serra remind me and other California Native Americans of the annihilation of so many of our people. Serra was instrumental in creating the mission system – a system of forced assimilation and servitude that eroded our language and culture. As Californians, we must tell a factual history that includes the experiences of those who suffered grievous wrongs perpetrated by men who were rewarded by being glorified in history and glamorized in marble.

One step toward healing and a new attitude about Native Americans would be the long awaited repatriation to the state’s tribes of Indigenous remains and artifacts by the University of California system. Of a total inventory of 601,200 remains and artifacts held by UC, only 153,100 have been returned over a period of decades. 

A recent report from California’s auditor outlined delays and careless custody, despite UC’s legal duty to send back the remains to Native people. The delays and absence of care are only reminders of the lack of respect and invisibility endured by Native Americans here and across the country. Those remains deserve to be returned to their people and buried with respect.

It is time for this state to engage in meaningful discussions so the real history of California can be recorded and taught. Only then can the long process of genuine healing occur.


James C. Ramos is a lifelong resident of the San Manuel Indian Reservation, member of the Serrano/Cahuilla tribes. He has written about the significance of Gov. Newsom’s apology.

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