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Early California Laws and Policies Relating to California Indians

Kimberly Johnston-Dodds | September 1st, 2002

Did the State of California enact laws that prohibited California Indians from practicing their religion, speaking their languages or practicing traditional ceremonies and customs?  Senator John L. Burton requested that the California Research Bureau research this question.

The initial investigation and research contained in this report led to a focus on four examples of early State of California laws and policies that significantly impacted the California Indians’ way of life:

·  The 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians and related amendments;
·  California militia policies and “Expeditions against the Indians” during 1851 to 1859;
·  The State of California’s official response to federal treaties negotiated with California Indians during 1851 to 1852; and
·  Early and current state fish protection laws that exempt California Indians from related prohibitions.

The 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians facilitated removing California Indians from their traditional lands, separating at least a generation of children and adults from their families, languages, and cultures (1850 to 1865). This California law provided for “apprenticing” or indenturing Indian children and adults to Whites, and also punished “vagrant” Indians by “hiring” them out to the highest bidder at a public auction if the Indian could not provide sufficient bond or bail.

The California Legislature created the laws that controlled California Indians’ land, lives and livelihoods, while enforcement and implementation occurred at the county and local township levels. Some examples include:

·  County-level Courts of Sessions and local township Justices of the Peace determined which Indians and Indian children were “apprenticed” or  indentured pursuant to the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians.
·  Under the same act, Justices of the Peace, mayors or recorders of incorporated towns or cities, decided the status and punishment of “vagrant” Indians.
·  Under the California Constitution and state militia laws, California governors ordered local sheriffs to organize the men to conduct the “Expeditions against the Indians.”

From 1851 to 1859, the California Legislature passed twenty-seven laws that the State Comptroller relied upon in determining the total expenditures related to the Expeditions against the Indians. The total amount of claims submitted to the State of California Comptroller for these Expeditions against the Indians was $1,293,179.20.

The California Legislature was involved in influencing the U.S. Senate’s ratification process of the 18 treaties negotiated with California Indians during 1851 to 1852. These treaties were never ratified, and kept secret from 1852 until 1905. Prior to the President submitting the treaties to the Senate, the California Legislature conducted considerable debate, made reports, drafted and passed resolutions that mostly opposed ratification of
the treaties.

The California Legislature also enacted laws during the first fifteen years of statehood that accommodated Indian tribes’ traditional fishing practices. California laws exist today that continue to protect fish and exempt California Indians from related prohibitions.


history, tribal water issues, water rights