‘We Missed the Truth’: California Parks Reinterpret John Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento to Include Indigenous Experiences


John Sutter’s name is carved all over today’s Sacramento and much of Northern California. Mountains, municipalities, medical centers and more are named after the colonizer.

But Native American tribal leader Rhonda Pope Flores says it boils down to naming everything after Charles Manson.

“Many women have been raped and enslaved, and families have been torn apart… because of her ‘dream’,” said Pope Flores, president of the Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians, who has lived in the Amador County since before its lines were drawn. “He destroyed a lot of our culture and our history and has just taken over. “

Over the past year, Pope Flores, his team, and five other native California tribes have worked with the California Department of Parks to reinterpret Sutter’s narrative and legacy to more accurately represent the legacy. Sutter’s violent with the Amerindians.

They are not the only historical site to reckon with the past. Parks all over California and nationally undergo a similar process of renaming or reinterpreting to be more precise, inclusive and fair.

Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento, Friday, December 17, 2021.

“We missed the truth,” said John Fraser, Capital District Superintendent for California State Parks, of how John Sutter was portrayed until recently at Sutter’s Fort in downtown. city ​​of Sacramento, which sees tens of thousands of visitors – many young students – each year. .

As the park focused on Sutter’s role as the founder of Sacramento and pioneer of the “California Dream,” Fraser said, they “failed to talk about Sutter’s real impact… on Native Americans.”

In January, the Parks Agency will invite the public to attend meetings to continue to reinvent how Sutter’s new fort should be reinterpreted.

“Sutter ostracized, humiliated and dehumanized them”

Most visitors to Fort Sutter could leave with a “PG-13” version of Sutter, Pope Flores explains. But a movie about him would more likely be rated “R,” she said.

Indeed, historians have documented Sutter’s murder and exploitation of Indigenous peoples. The Swiss immigrant of German origin arrived in the Sacramento Valley in 1839, leaving behind his wife, five children and large unpaid debts.

After receiving a large grant of land from the Mexican government, which stretched from Sutter Buttes to present-day Sacramento, Sutter used the labor of local natives Nisenan and Miwok to build the fort and harvest the wheat fields.

“Our community members weren’t there by choice. They were there by coercion and violence, ”said Dahlton Brown, executive director of the administration of Wilton Rancheria, a tribe of Miwok descendants near Elk Grove.

Brown says it’s important that the fort’s new narrative indicates it was a prison for indigenous people who were “treated the same as cattle.”

UCLA professor Benjamin Madley’s book American Genocide provided an account of Sutter keeping “600 or 800 Indians in a state of complete slavery” and causing them to eat at drinking troughs.

“By feeding Indians like pigs, Sutter ostracized, humiliated and dehumanized them,” Madley wrote.

Another historian, Albert Hurtado, explains the settlers’ working relationship with the natives as complex: Sutter paid some workers and others worked on a voluntary basis.

By the time Sutter arrived, the people of Miwok and Nisenan were weakened by 25 years of malaria, smallpox, fur trade intruders and subjugated coastal missionaries, Hurtado wrote in John Sutter’s biography: A Life. on the North American Frontier.

In this context, says Hurtado, indigenous peoples were drawn to the trading post and the security offered by Sutter.

“The Indians had become accustomed to using European technology and were increasingly dependent on it,” Hurtado said. “They also wanted some protection from the Mexican rancheros on the coast.”

However, once you decide to work for Sutter, Hurtado says you can’t go free. “Underlying all of his dealings with Indians was the threat of violence. “

Members of our community were not there by choice. They were there by coercion and violence.

– Dahlton Brown, Executive Director of Administration at Wilton Rancheria

Sutter also trafficked Native American workers to pay off debts, punished “fugitive” workers, and whipped others.

While Hurtado wouldn’t describe Sutter as cruel or sadistic, he says the colonial entrepreneur would resort to violence to assert control or protect himself.

He had “no qualms about taking men and a cannon and then bombing a rancheria, killing people indiscriminately,” Hurtado said.

And at one point when Sutter felt his power waning, he had a Miwok man named Raphero beheaded and cocked his head over the gate of the fort, to sow fear among the local tribes.

Ultimately, when it comes to recasting Sutter’s legacy at the fort, Hurtado said it should reflect its complexity.

While exploiting the natives, he also founded Sacramento, showed hospitality to settlers in modern California, attempted to save the Donner Party, and hired doctors to treat local natives suffering from measles.

“He’s a complicated man,” Hurtado said. “You have to show it in all its facets. “

“Things have sucked for a very long time”

Two events sparked the change of colonial history narrative at Sutter’s Fort: the murder of George Floyd by police in the summer of 2020 and the subsequent withdrawal of the Statue of John Sutter in Midtown Sacramento by Sutter Health Hospital.

The national racial calculation also spurred California State Parks’ current investigation of 70 natural or public sites to determine if they merited a name change or reinterpretation. It encompasses everything from parks, visitor centers, trails, campgrounds, as well as peaks and valleys.

Through the State “Re-examine our past” initiative, a Humboldt County park has already undergone a name change at Sue-meg State Park. This is how the local Yurok have known the land for a long time. It was previously called Patrick’s Point State Park, after a settler accused of killing Native Americans.

Victor Bjelajac, the redwood district superintendent of California State Parks’ North Coast State Parks, said the name change decision was unanimous and came after 1,000 public responses and 30 letters of support from organizations and local tribes. After the change, a few hundred people from local tribes celebrated, he said.

“It wasn’t the name change. It was the re-adoption of the original name, or recognition of the original name, ”Bjelajac said.

Several other California park sites undergo a similar process of renaming or reinterpretation, such as negro bar in the Folsom Lake State Recreation Area and in Humboldt Redwoods and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

Private recreation sites are also considering name changes.

A popular ski resort in the Tahoe area officially known as “Squaw Valley “recently changed its name to Palisades Tahoe. The company announced that the term is a hurtful and derogatory name for Indigenous women that dates back to the 1800s.

Autumn Saxton-Ross, vice president of education and director of equity for the National Recreation and Parks Association, said the overhaul of statues and names for racial justice is happening across the country.

She says efforts to create equity in public spaces aren’t just about making sure people have physical access to parks; now it’s about making sure everyone feels included and safe.

“I could have a park in front of my house, but if he’s called Robert E Lee, as a black woman, it arouses certain feelings. So maybe I’m not comfortable in this park, ”said Saxton-Ross.

In Chattanooga, Tennessee; Richmond, Virginia; and Piscataway Park, Maryland; statues, park signage and public spaces are under review, says Saxton-Ross.

“If we are to tell the story, it has to be specific,” she said. “And if we’re going to move forward particularly around racial healing… we actually have to recognize that things have been rubbish for a very long time.”

Sutter’s new fort ‘long overdue’


Pauline Bartolone



John Fraser, a California State Parks superintendent, said the agency “missed the truth” about John Sutter’s legacy involving Indigenous peoples and is now working with local tribes to correct the narrative at Sutter’s Fort.

The visitor experience at Sutter’s Fort has already changed over the past year: pre-recorded audio tours have been silenced, schoolchildren no longer reenact figures from the 1800s, and park staff do not dress in formal attire from colonial times.

“Over the years, we had heard stories of Aboriginal youth coming to this site as part of our youth programs and feeling extremely uncomfortable,” Fraser said with state parks. “Indigenous culture has either been diminished or distorted. “

In the new year, the parks service will be announcing public meetings to get more feedback on how Sutter’s legacy should be passed down to the fort.

When schoolchildren now walk past the fort and stop at the carpentry, they can learn that Sutter regarded the local oaks as a commodity, but the natives regarded them as a sacred source of food.

Fraser said the goal is to show a more complex tale of Sutter, and that the fort will feel like “a more natural place for tribes to tell their stories.”

Pope Flores de la Buena Vista Rancheria of the Me-Wuk Indians would not mind the fort being renamed as well. She says nothing should have Sutter’s name on it unless it’s a “dump”.

Brown of Wilton Rancheria said he was not sure whether it was necessary to rename a historic site such as the fort, but the name change may be more appropriate when it involves places like elementary schools.

Pope Flores says it is important for the younger generation to hear the truth.

“It’s a long time coming for this story to really get corrected,” she said.

Copyright 2021 CapRadio


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